In Westminster Hall on Thursday afternoon, Conservative, SNP, and Labour MPs urged the Government to reaffirm its place as a global leader in nutrition by making strong commitments at next week’s Nutrition for Growth (N4G) Summit. The debate was led by the APPG’s vice-chair, David Mundell (Con).
Nutrition is vital if we are to achieve a multitude of development goals. Whether that be empowering women and girls, enabling students to make the most of their education, or lifting people out of poverty through a thriving economy, MPs clearly described how intertwined and complementary health interventions have been proven to be. MPs stressed that the Government must commit to continuing this life-saving work, especially in light of the devastating impact caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
In his opening remarks, David Mundell highlighted why malnutrition is such an urgent problem, as well as why nutrition is a worthwhile investment: “I will start with one very grim statistic: in 2019, more than 5 million children under five died. Malnutrition was linked to 45% of those deaths. That is a staggering number, and the reason for it is that malnutrition during critical periods of growth—for example, during pregnancy or the early years—stunts the growth of the immune system, making children more likely both to get ill and to die as a result.
“The problem does not stop there. In 2020, 149 million children worldwide suffered chronic health conditions due to stunted growth. That number is more than double the population size of the UK. In some regions, such as central Africa, stunting affects 40% of all children. Malnutrition not only has dire health consequences, but malnourished children are 13% less likely to be in the correct school year for their age. Moreover, the World Bank estimates that malnutrition costs some countries up to 11% of GDP annually through productivity losses and healthcare costs.
“Nutrition is a foundational investment in people. It prevents ill health, rather than treating it, it ensures that children learn at school rather than simply attend, and it sets children up to realise their future potential in adult life. It is for this reason that Nobel economists describe nutrition as ‘the most effective development investment that could be made, with massive benefits for a tiny price-tag.’”
Mr Mundell noted that no matter one’s position on the overseas development aid (ODA) budget, all parties could unite to ensure taxpayers’ money is used as effectively as possible. While Mr Mundell highlighted some encouraging progress, he also described how Covid-19 threatened these achievements: “Covid has closed health centres, and pushed food prices up and wages down. As a result, it is predicted that an additional 283,000 children under five will die from malnutrition between 2020 and 2022, which is a shocking equivalent to 225 more children dying every day. In the same period, it is predicted that an additional 3.6 million children will become stunted.”
Mr Mundell asked the minister to confirm that the Government would make a pledge at next week’s N4G summit and commit to reaching 50 million women, girls, and children with high-impact nutrition interventions by 2025. He further urged the minister to ensure that her Department had the requisite funding, and asked the FCDO to “increase the impact of other UK aid spending by adding nutrition objectives to £680 million of programming in other areas.”
Other MPs echoed Mr Mundell’s arguments on the necessity and efficacy of nutrition initiatives. Patrick Grady (SNP) pointed out that nutrition underpins 12 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), while Chris Law (SNP) emphasised the moral imperative to realise the “fundamental human need” of nutrition.
Virendra Sharma (Lab) reiterated Mr Mundell’s points on the high-impact nature of nutrition investments, saying that “It meets targets, and it saves lives.” As a member of the International Development Committee (IDC), Mr Sharma confirmed that he and his IDC colleagues would be attending the summit online.
Responding to the debate, Minister of State Amanda Milling did not confirm commitments to financial targets, nor did she commit to the pledge to reach 50 million people with nutrition interventions. However, she did reveal that the Government would be adopting the policy marker from the OECD Development Assistance Committee across the FCDO’s portfolio, an important way to make sure nutrition is considered in development programmes. She added that she was “delighted to be able to confirm that we are committed to doing that across the Department and are encouraging all our international partners to do likewise.” Minister Milling also stated that the Government is in the process of finalising its spending plans for nutrition. She thanked the attendees, and reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to ending the preventable deaths of mothers and children, promising to “continue to deliver on this commitment through to the Tokyo summit and beyond.”