CAN CHILD MALNUTRITION IN AFRICA BE SUSTAINABLY ADDRESSED?
Written by Joyce Murerwa
November 18, 2019
Poverty, food insecurity, and poor nutrition and health are eroding quality of life and limiting economic productivity in Africa. In 2016, when the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) era started, Africa accounted for just over 60% of global poverty. Today, it is over 70%. By 2030, it could be close to 90%. It clearly seems that Africa remains the last frontier of the world’s effort to end extreme poverty by 2030.
On the other hand, child malnutrition is rampant in the region. Roughly, one in every three children aged five years and below is too short for their age (stunted). What’s more, one out of four children are too light for their age (underweight). One in 10 children are too thin for their height (wasted).
Nutrition is one of the best drivers of development. It sparks a virtuous cycle of socio-economic improvements, such as enhanced access to education and employment. Thus, improving nutrition can help increase economic growth and reduce income poverty through three routes. Stronger and healthier bodies lead to higher physical productivity. Well-nourished children are better learners in school, and more productive as adults. Well-nourished populations spend less on health care, freeing resources for investment and growth. In a nutshell, better nutrition equals less poverty.
TAPPING ON INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE TO ADDRESS CHILD MALNUTRITION
Indigenous knowledge is an important part of people’s capacity to conserve and manage beneficial health and nutrition practices. Through observations and narrations, generation to generation transfer this knowledge. What’s more, indigenous knowledge contributes to cultural traditions, identities, beliefs and world views.
“I have raised my children using the same child care and feeding practices that my mother and grandmother passed on. I am healthy and so are my children. How will your new ideas help us?” This is a question that I continue to encounter as I work with communities across Africa. It also shows that development workers need to interact closely with community members to better understand what they value. This knowledge will greatly assist their work.
Utilising the rich knowledge base has greatly helped design interventions that take into account communities’ concerns, together with female empowerment. For instance, using highly valued knowledge in Samburu and Turkana Counties has shaped participatory food preparation demonstration sessions and Complementary Feeding (CF) recipes.
Community members have easily embraced and adopted these recipes. Additionally, tapping into the same knowledge has fostered Income Generating Activities (IGAs) that are culturally acceptable for women. This move has considerably helped reduce the burden of child malnutrition and control of productive resources by women, a practice that was previously non-existent. Therefore, incorporating indigenous knowledge in the design and implementation of development projects would help us move away from top-down development strategies.
PUTTING COMMUNITIES AT THE CENTRE OF PROGRAMMING
In my day to day work, I constantly encounter children who suffer from poverty and malnutrition. There is value in ensuring that communities are an integral part of the entire project cycle towards realising tangible gains. They have solutions to their own problems, which is the reason development partners should refrain from prescribing their far-fetched ideas. In Samburu County, religious leaders and elders are highly regarded. As a result, new interventions have to piggy-back on deeply rooted traditional systems if they are to succeed. Through the ‘Kisima Declaration’, which takes place every five years, elders lead community members to support identified interventions that are key to promoting health and nutrition outcomes.
This is an important event because once the declaration has been made by the elders, there is no one who can defy it, lest they attract generational curses. I have had to use this avenue to ensure uptake of appropriate child care and feeding practices in addressing child malnutrition, and consequently poverty in the county.
THE POWER OF NUMBERS IN ADVOCACY
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. However, data is also crucial. I have facilitated several advocacy meeting sessions with key policy and decision makers across different sectors/ministries. A key take-away is that numbers are more comprehensible than technical jargon. A lack of data undermines our ability to target resources, develop policies and track accountability. Data is also key to holding governments more accountable to poor people and creating solutions to the most prominent development challenges. Through quantified advocacy sessions, nutrition issues and poverty reduction have gained recognition and increased momentum in the country in the recent past. This has also contributed to the development and implementation of policies that are pro-food and nutrition security.
RESEARCH AND INNOVATION
What gets measured gets done. While research and innovation is an important element in programming, it’s seldom prioritised. Research remains key in addressing child malnutrition and eventually poverty. This is because it stimulates the development and adoption of new and innovative strategies that can be applied in impactful prevention and treatment programs. Community members have complained “we are exhausted by evaluations that have not translated to any tangible gains in a couple of decades now.” This results from failure to consume data generated to advise programming. We face this situation because development partners focus more on the processes that contribute to our project goals/objectives rather than what will make us irrelevant.
There is need for a change in mind-sets. We need to fully embrace the key role that research and innovation can play in addressing malnutrition and poverty sustainably. Additionally, the multidisciplinary nature of nutrition research requires stakeholders with differing areas of expertise. This will help them collaborate on multifaceted approaches to establish the evidence-based nutrition guidance and policies. Consequently, it will help create research that will lead to better health and nutrition outcomes for the world’s population.
A nutritionist by profession and well versed in global public health and nutrition, Joyce Murerwa has over 10 years of progressive and overseas experience in designing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating nutrition specific and sensitive programs under emergency and development context. This also includes establishment and leadership of multi-stakeholder coordination forums, capacity building initiatives and formulation of global and national policy guidelines while working with different government structures to ensure their implementation.