Geneva event for the 2014 Global Nutrition Report

The launch of the Global Nutrition Report (GNR) in Geneva was held in the sparkling new auditorium of the Graduate Institute’s Maison de la Paix. The launch was chaired by the head of the Global Health Programme at the Institute, Professor Ilona Kickbusch.   Geneva is seen as the humanitarian centre of the UN but also has several specialised agencies including WHO of course, as well as many NGOs.  Because of its geographic location in Europe, Geneva is also the location of liaison offices of many international organisations.  Therefore the launch was able to bring the GNR to a wide range of people, and to give them the broadest possible overview of nutrition across rich and poor countries, and what needs to be done to reduce nutrition problems.

There were several interesting comments on specific aspects of the report. There was a strong point made by UNICEF that the humanitarian angle was missing, with nothing said about disaster preparedness, and this triggered a thought about the importance in the GNR of some attention to shocks, which could be caused by natural disasters such as earthquakes, flooding and famine, (and diseases such as Ebola) and man-made shocks such as currency changes, sudden collapse in export prices and the like. Both will interrupt the progress being made towards improving nutrition and push it to one side by a number of mechanisms, such as diverting key government workers, disrupting smallholder production and an impact on infrastructure.  The extent to which this happens depends on disaster preparedness and resilience of the economy.  The next question to propose is how nutrition concerns can be integrated into the recovery from the shock.  There may be some guidance on how to do this in the much-talked-about but hard-to- implement ideas on ‘integrating relief and development’.

Geneva event

Second, some interesting points were raised from the floor about the importance of nutrition as a human right.  There has been an impressive body of work on nutrition and human rights generated under the umbrella of the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition, a co-host of the launch. But of particular interest is how the GNR might address the ethical (human rights) with the economic (returns to investment) arguments on nutrition.  I have not seen a better means of expressing this since John Mellor’s comment at the MIT Nutrition Conference (Berg, Scrimshaw and Call (eds), Nutrition, National Development and Planning, MIT October 1971), on a paper on ‘Nutrition and Economic Growth’ by Benjamin Barg (for which I was the research assistant). After all these years the discussion in the launch prompted me to look it out.  Mellor said (pp. 70):

“as a justification for improved nutrition, I would give primary place to its direct contribution to national welfare through an enhanced quality of life, including improved physical and mental well-being. We should not be reluctant to provide a humanistic rationale for what is after all one of the fundamental objectives of economic development.  I would thus give little emphasis to measuring the effects of improved nutrition on economic output. That is not to say such effects may not be substantial - they are simply subordinate to the ultimate objective.  .... a key means of improving nutrition for the poor is increased participation in economic growth.  Increasing knowledge of the effects of malnutrition on human welfare will strengthen the conviction that the costs of delay in providing income and employment to the poor may be very high in the form of malnutrition and consequent physical and mental retardation. We need to change our approach to growth so as to provide full employment to the poor if we are to efficiently deal with their nutritional problems”.

This comment does not relate directly to rights as rights become the legal commitment to objectives.  Also, compared to when this was written, there are now better and more accurate means of measuring the economic benefits of nutrition.  There is another point of view saying that improving nutrition is purely a rights matter and discussions of economic returns were diversionary.  If the GNR could bring together objectives, strengthening commitments, rights and contribution to growth to reinforce each other that would be a real advance and a unifying force in this area.

Finally, a lot of the GNR is about commitment to improving nutrition and chasing up those who have made these commitments to see what has been done.  This won’t be easy: there are lots of reasons why people don’t like being put in the spotlight!


Watch the video of the event here