Without specifically addressing malnutrition – the underlying cause of many health, development, and economic challenges – the U.S. will not reach the development gains it hopes to achieve. The U.S. must maximize the return on its investment in development assistance, and nutrition interventions generate returns among the highest of 17 potential development investments.
The benefits of improved nutrition reach far beyond global health, and for that reason, prioritizing nutrition and increasing resources would have a multiplier effect. Investments to promote women’s health, participation, and economic well-being without due consideration to their nutritional health will not yield the maximum returns possible. Investments in child health and well-being are a cornerstone for productive adulthood and robust communities and societies. Integration of nutrition as part of an agenda to improve child lives is not only key to child survival, but it is a more holistic approach that helps the next generation reach its full potential. In an increasingly digital global economy, a greater emphasis is placed on social, emotional, and cognitive skills. According to the World Bank, investments in nutrition in the critical 1,000-day window are essential in building the human capital needed for future economic growth.
Nutrition is one of the best investments the United States makes to support efforts to end extreme poverty and promote equitable economic growth. Well-nourished children earn higher wages as adults, helping to break the cycle of poverty and build national economies.
A 2016 report found that the current level of global funding for nutrition is vastly insufficient to meet four of the six global nutrition targets set forth by the World Health Assembly in 2012 and enshrined under the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. The study found that over the next 10 years, an additional $70 billion in nutrition-specific financing is needed, for a total of $109 billion from 2016-2025. Such an investment would yield tremendous returns: 3.7 million child lives saved, at least 65 million fewer stunted children, 860,000 fewer children dying from wasting, 265 million fewer women suffering from anemia, and 105 million more children exclusively breastfed as compared to the 2015 baseline.
While this level of investment is ambitious, it is not unprecedented. A subset of high-impact, high-priority interventions have been identified that would serve as a “down-payment” toward reaching the targets.
With 45% of under-5 child deaths and 20% of maternal deaths attributed to malnutrition, a significant investment in urgent, scalable nutrition actions is the smart and cost-effective thing to do. The global cost of “business as usual” is too high to ignore. Not breastfeeding is associated with economic losses of more than $300 billion annually. More than 800,000 children’s lives could be saved each year with increased breastfeeding rates, a nearly 13% reduction in all under-5 child deaths. An additional 860,000 child lives could be saved by treating wasting.
Annual GDP losses attributable to malnutrition average 12% in Africa and Asia, eclipsing the GDP losses experienced after the 2008 global financial crisis. Recent estimates suggest that if a set of 15 African countries meet the 2025 WHA target for stunting, $83 billion will be added to their national economies. However, despite a return of $16 for every $1 invested, the U.S. and its global partners invest less than 1% of ODA in nutrition-specific interventions.
We have a compelling evidence base, global targets and goals, an investment framework to reach those targets, and growing momentum. What we urgently need is the political will and leadership to coalesce efforts and catalyze greater tangible commitment and investment by all actors to reach time-bound global targets.
A high-level U.S. government investment would uphold America’s legacy of leadership, vision, and goodwill; unlock additional resources from other donors and country governments alike; and help to ignite greater progress on nutrition at a global level.