Sunday, August 19, 2012

Communicating Nutrition: From London to Maputo

One of the things that went unnoticed about the London Olympics was a great event organized by DFID and the British government, showcasing the importance of tacking global chronic malnutrition. This was part of a larger effort coordinated by the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement.

Mozambique's agriculture minister attended the event and we helped draft his remarks arguing for a better integration of agriculture and nutrition. Unfortunately, aside from some coverage by The Guardian, and other media outlets, little was mentioned about the event on the press.

Although it's getting better, this is a difficult problem those working on global nutrition continue to face: creating a sense of urgency about stunting and what to do about it. As opposed to the powerful images of wasting or starvation, stunted children appear 'normal' and their short height for their age is often attributed to cultural factors.  I would often hear that misconception while working in Nicaragua where indigenous children are thought to be shorter 'by nature.' However, I was surprise to hear the same argument it once again here in Mozambique. (The picture on the right compares Guatemalan children with the height of their counterpart raised in the US)

Currently, we're working on developing a communication strategy that addresses the issue of poor nutrition communication. The government strategy to tackle stunting -the PAMRDC- was approved two years ago and there is a sense that we're losing momentum. With the exception of one, none of the provinces have started implementing the plan. That's why it's really important to reengage politicians and policy makers about the importance of addressing chronic malnutrition with a well-defined advocacy and communication strategy.

The arsenal to do this already exists. There are robust studies that link stunting to adult labor productivity and income generation - an argument that a finance minister will likely entertain. There is also plenty of evidence about how chronic malnutrition exacerbates child illnesses and increases mortality rates. Officials at the ministry of health will definitely pay attention to that. Similarly, underfunded institution working on water and sanitation and school feeding programs will also love to hear about how their work impacts nutrition.

And then there is also the broader message about keeping a nation well feed, ensuring that everyone has access to the most basic need - adequate food. In a country that experienced food riots when the price of bread went up just two years ago, this particular message resonates well with voters and politicians. With rural poverty on the rise and early signs of a resource curse, Mozambicans are increasingly worried about the price of food and politicians are taking note.

Despite all these rock solid arguments and incentives, getting all the organizations and institutions together and have them agreed on the key messages we want to send across remains a monumental challenge. Food security in this country continues to be about increasing yields and making food more available. But just the fact Nampula - the country's bread basket - has the second highest rate of stunting should put serious question marks on this approach.

The other challenge is to grab politician's short attention span. They are interested in the silver bullets and the buzz of the day. They love to sign lofty plans and strategies but when it comes to allocating the funds to implement, they can't find the pen to sign the check. As I said on my previous post, Mozambique is filled with strategies that do not materialized and are rather the reflection of demanding donors.

So yes, by championing their own approach and coordinating little with others of their kind, donors don't make things easier either. A recent article by Joseph Hanlon explores these issues of conflicting approaches. And while I don't agree with the article's main point - that the country has to focus on small holders at the expense of neglecting international agricultural investment - his point about fleeting donor interest is well taken.

We'll continue working on this communication and advocacy strategy. In the meantime, check out the video below showing Prime Minister Cameron describing the need for focusing on global nutrition - an excellent example of an engaged leader that understand well global nutrition.