Why Invest in Nutrition? It’s Smart Economics

August 11, 2015

Elisa Wilkinson, The Hunger Project

Logically, investing in nutrition should be a no-brainer. People who receive adequate nutrition not only live healthier lives, but also live more productive lives. Despite this common knowledge, the amount of development aid spent on combatting malnutrition globally is equal to only 1% or $0.25-0.3 billion annually. There is no country that does not suffer from one of the three major malnutrition problems facing the world: undernutrition, overweight/obesity, or micronutrient deficiencies. In other words, malnutrition cuts across socio-economic classes, race, religion, gender, and age groups. However, investing in nutrition is not about eradicating undernutrition, overweight/obesity, or micronutrient deficiencies. Investing in nutrition is also about smart economics.

Courtesy: © Giacomo Pirozzi.

Courtesy: © Giacomo Pirozzi.

Particular attention is paid to the first 1,000 days of a child life, because one major repercussion of malnutrition affects a child’s education. For instance, undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies during the first 1,000 days have the potential to reduce a child’s IQ by up to 10%. Undernourished children also have been shown to complete few years of schooling, which leads a 10% reduction in their lifetime earnings. For nations across the globe, this is equal a loss of national productivity that is estimated at 2-3% of a country’s GDP. In some extreme cases, the estimated loss of national productivity can be as high as 16%. On the flip side, investing in nutrition has been proven to bring significant economic gains. For instance, every dollar spent in scaling up nutrition interventions targeted towards the first 1,000 days yields a return of $16 on the initial investment. In addition, every addition centimeter of adult height due to proper nutrition has been associated with 4.5% increase in wage rates. Clearly, from a purely economic perspective investing in nutrition is a good idea.

While historically, meeting the needs of the world’s malnourished has focused solely on investments in increasing agricultural production, this approach has shown to produce meager results in reducing malnutrition. What is needed is an integrated and holistic approach that covers all sectors that are related to proper nutrition. Therefore, policies to combat nutrition need to focus on not only agriculture, but health, WASH, social protection, and education.

The Hunger Project’s Epicenter Strategy in Africa exemplifies that when policies dealing with nutrition that are focused on an integrated and holistic approaches can bring results. Two major factors in this success is the focus on women and their empowerment and community-led development. Women are critical agents of change for the nutrition of an entire family, as women are typically responsible for meeting the nutritional needs. Many epicenters offer education to women on the importance of breastfeeding exclusively during the first six months. In terms of agriculture, microloans are offered to women farmers to help them expand their crop production beyond traditional crops. What is important to note is that the issues an Epicenter focuses on are decided by the community served. Community-led development builds resiliency and self-reliance into the development process, allowing community members to build their own economic prosperity with support from the local and central governments.

The data shows that investing in nutrition is smart economics. It also shows that a focus on agricultural production is short-sighted. In order for the world to combat malnutrition, two major changes need to occur: spending needs to increase and integrated and holistic approaches will reap the most success.