Published on Investing in Health

Nutrition: the hardware for development

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Especially under the present constrained financial environment, the debate among development specialists often shifts toward the core requirements for development. Is it infrastructure (regular electricity, good roads, airports, and bridges)? Is macro-economic stability the top priority (good luck with that one, today!)? Or is it human development (good health, education, and social protection services)? Or is it governance linking it all together and managing the available resources well?

Few issues have come so much to the forefront of the development agenda lately as nutrition. Nowadays multisectoral nutrition programs are being developed with high-level attention from policy makers and development partners. In the World Bank, the South Asia region has made nutrition one of its key priorities to be addressed, as we heard at yesterday’s event.

But more importantly, governments in the region also have recognized nutrition as a key development challenge.

For example, in Afghanistan, after a nutrition assessment, a multi-sector action plan is now well advanced. In India, the Prime Minister’s National Nutrition Council has revamped the national nutrition strategy by reforming integrated child development and making it more flexible to respond to local situations, targeting some 200 high-burden districts and focusing on action through a few high-impact ministries: agriculture and food and public distribution, education, water and sanitation, women and social welfare, and (yes) health.

How is it possible that nutrition could elbow itself to the forefront of development priorities? Is it that we all need a new fad sometimes, and these are the five minutes of fame for nutrition? Or is it possible that some new insights have helped us to recognize better the fundamental role of nutrition for development, that nutrition in some ways ties together the priorities mentioned above. It is the latter.

Not only do we know now the negative impact of malnutrition on child mortality, but also its long-term enormous impact on the survivors. Malnutrition during the first two years of life basically causes hardware problems in the child that are impossible to overcome later-on. None of the malnourished infants will grow up to their full potential. They will not do as well in school and as the lack of human capital leads to diminished participation in the labor force, the country’s productivity, competitiveness, and GDP will suffer as a consequence. In other words: if you forget about nutrition, all other development efforts will have less of an impact.

The other reason that nutrition has come to the forefront is that we now know what to do. A relatively simple package of interventions targeted to adolescent girls, pregnant women, and children 0-2 years old can make all the difference.

Only a very stunted brain would not recognize the importance of nutrition and the great window of opportunity (“the first 1000 days of life”) to do something about it. We can simply not afford to let another generation go wasted. Some food for thought!

Especially in these troubled economic times, it seems important that countries develop future economic capital and focus on nutrition—which provides higher rates of return than any other sector.

Helpful links:

Quiz: South Asia and nutrition

Nutrition and the World Bank
Repositioning Nutrition as Central to Development
Scaling Up Nutrition: What Will It Cost?
Malnutrition in Afghanistan, Scale, Scope, Causes, and Potential Response
India Policy Notes on Nutrition


Kees Kostermans

Lead Public Health Specialist

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