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Making nutrition a national priority: we can’t let it stunt Zambia’s economic growth

This week, Zambia hosts the National Food and Nutrition Summit under the Theme, “Investing in Food and Nutrition for Accelerated National Development”. The summit is a good moment to reflect on the work that the country has undertaken on nutrition as well as identify areas where more change is needed.

In 2013, the UK hosted the Nutrition for Growth Summit in London, where it made commitments alongside other countries – including Zambia, to scale up efforts to combat the problem of undernutrition. The UK is also proudly part of the global campaign, championed by the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, to end malnutrition in all its forms, with a focus on reaching the poorest and most excluded people including women, adolescent girls and children.

Beyond the immediate threat to life, the effects of undernutrition are devastating and lasting. Poor nutrition keeps people in a cycle of poverty. Women affected by undernutrition are more likely to give birth to small babies who, in turn, are more likely to be disadvantaged throughout their lives. 4 in 10 children in Zambia are stunted in terms of their physical and intellectual development as a result of poor nutrition, a personal and national tragedy. The economic consequences of undernutrition in affected countries represent losses of national GDP of 10% year-on-year.

It is for this reason that we are working with the Government of Zambia to support interventions to tackle undernutrition and hunger – the two are distinct but interconnected. While hunger is about not having enough food to eat, undernutrition is about not having access to a diet which has sufficient nutrients to support growth and development. Undernutrition goes beyond the size or quantity of food consumed but extends to the quality of diet.

The UK, together with other donors, is providing targeted support to benefit more than one million children under the First 1000 Most Critical Days Programme in Zambia, coordinated by the National Food and Nutrition Commission under the Ministry of Health. The programme offers a range of direct and indirect nutrition services. For example, women are supported with increased access to iron and folic acid to prevent anaemia in pregnancy. The programme has invested in iron and vitamin A rich crops such as beans and orange fleshed sweet potatoes as well as small livestock (goats and chickens) and fish production. Diversification of agricultural practices, in terms of both food production and consumption, is critical to address nutrition to encourage a much greater variety of nutritious food types besides maize.

Clean water and good sanitation are also important. This aspect is particularly essential for prevention of diarrheal diseases which affect proper absorption of nutrients from food. To prevent this, communities have been assisted to rehabilitate water points for increased access to clean water as well as provided with information on good personal and environmental hygiene.

In tackling undernutrition, we know that a family’s access to nutritious food is not only the responsibility of women but the men as well. This is so because men are often the main breadwinners and have greater control over household financial resources. It is, therefore, important that both women and men are supported and sensitized to make joint decisions about the nutrition of their families or households.

We strongly commend the Government of Zambia for hosting the important Nutrition Summit this week. The Summit offers an excellent opportunity to raise visibility on nutrition. At the 2013 Nutrition for Growth Summit, the Government of Zambia committed to progressively increase government expenditure on nutrition by 20% per year to reach US$30 per child under two years. There is still a significant way to go to meet this target, and we encourage the Government to use the 2019 and future budget planning processes to make tangible progress. As the UK, we remain committed to support the Government in delivering on its Nutrition agenda. We will work with others – donors, private sector and civil society – to intensify actions to tackle undernutrition.

Mark Richardson is from DFID Zambia head office.

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