Two Cheers (but not three) for Sustainable Development Goal 2

This article is cross-posted from Transform Nutrition

On September 25th, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For those keenly interested in nutrition – which given the centrality of nutrition to development should mean everyone – this is cause for two cheers, but not three.

Cheer 1
The SDG predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals, included the halving of the percentage of underweight children, but not explicit measures of chronic or acute undernutrition. The SDGs rectify this. Goal 2, “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”, includes ending all forms of malnutrition, including, by 2025, the internationally agreed targets on stunting and wasting in children under 5. These targets, first mooted by the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons Report in 2013, build on a growing evidence base that demonstrates that undernutrition in the first 1000 days has life-long damaging consequences. For stunting, the target is a 40% reduction by 2025 with 2012 being the base year. If achieved, the number of children chronically undernourished will fall below 100 million.

Cheer 2
Goal 2 recognizes the importance of the nutritional needs of several key vulnerable groups, including adolescent girls and pregnant and lactating mothers. Not only are healthy mothers are intrinsically important, healthy mothers are the precursor to healthy children. And the path to healthy motherhood begins in adolescence.

But not three cheers
While there is much to be said for SDG2, there are at least three major concerns. At the top of the list is the issue of commitment and accountability. As the 2015 Global Nutrition Report (GNR) makes clear, not only is commitment to improved nutrition lacking across much of the globe, in many countries there is not even enough data to gauge commitment. When GNR 2015 asked country signatories to the 2013 Global Nutrition for Global Growth compact to report on their progress towards the commitments they had made only 18 months previously, 28 percent were unable to do so. As GNR 2015 notes, nonresponse equals unaccountability. Concerns regarding commitment are also supported by the recently released Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index (HANCI) which shows that only eight out of 45 countries have a high commitment to tackling hunger and undernutrition and commitment by one third of countries listed – including Nigeria, Pakistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – is very low.

Second, while the explicit inclusion of the nutritional status of adolescent girls and pregnant and lactating women is welcome, neither an indicator nor a numerical target is proposed for these. In an environment where what can gets measured is what gets monitored, there is a real risk that this component of SDG2 will fade away. Lastly, the goals are ambitious. They imply an average annual rate of reduction (AARR) of 3.9 percent. Only 39 countries are currently on track. Ambition can be a spur to action but too much ambition can lead to disillusion and absence of commitment. Ominously, India is not on track and with approximately 40 percent of the global population of chronically undernourished children, failure to meet the goal for stunting reduction in India will make it enormously difficult to push global numbers below 100 million.

This blog is written by John Hoddinott, Babcock Professor of Food and Nutrition Economics and Policy, Cornell university and Research Director, Transform Nutrition