SEATTLE, Washington — Equipped with a $16.8 billion budget and a mandate “to achieve a future in which foreign assistance is no longer needed,” the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) ranks as one of the major forces in global anti-poverty efforts. Recently, USAID’s nutrition strategy has made important breakthroughs in the area of malnutrition, a problem that has otherwise eluded solutions.
The Scope of the Problem
Malnutrition comes in three main forms: undernutrition, which accounts for nearly half of all deaths among children under five, micronutrient deficiencies and obesity. While less commonly identified with malnutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and obesity are intricately connected to undernutrition. In fact, of the 141 countries analyzed in the 2018 Global Nutrition Report, 41 were found to have high rates of all three problems.
These nutritional problems tend to arise in communities already facing difficult economic and/or political circumstances. This occurs for several reasons. Poor populations that lack access to nutrient-rich foods experience high rates of both obesity and anemia, the number one indicator of a micronutrient deficiency. Similarly, food availability in conflict-torn areas often falls dramatically, contributing to the problem of undernutrition and micronutrient deficiency.
All of this has intergenerational effects. underweight mothers, for instance, are significantly more likely to have underweight children. These children then become more likely to be obese in adulthood due to the improper development of energy storage and expenditure associated with childhood stunting.
USAID has made strides to reduce malnutrition by implementing programs with proven track records of success and by taking on new, potentially game-changing projects. For the most part, these efforts have been centered around the systematic issues that generate malnutrition. The first concrete objective is outlined in the agency’s Multi-Sectoral Nutritional Strategy for 2014-2025. It states that “Increased timely delivery of critical services before and during humanitarian crises.” As such, USAID focuses on preempting possible emergencies, pre-positioning nutritional resources, and collaborating with local governments and NGOs to devise response plans.
The agency is also working on data collection. By improving the collection capacity of national governments, USAID will help to produce data that distinguishes between various deficiencies of micronutrients, such as iron, zinc and vitamin A. This detailed data will allow governments and organizations to make policies that better address supplement intake among children and anemia among women of reproductive age. If successful, this data collection will help ensure that the vicious cycle of malnutrition ends.
The strategies outlined above greatly resemble previous nutrition efforts, but the status quo in the fight against malnutrition has proved ineffective. That is why USAID’s recent, innovative project in Rwanda has garnered so much excitement in the global nutrition community.
In collaboration with the non-profit GiveDirectly, USAID set up a nutrition intervention study among 248 Rwandan villages. It split into four groups: a control group (receiving no aid), a group participating in a USAID-funded nutrition program, a group receiving a cash transfer of $116.91 a month and a group receiving a cash transfer of $532 a month. Remarkably, both cash transfer groups outperformed the USAID-funded program group. The group receiving $532 a month experienced a 70 percent decrease in child mortality. Though this is only one study, the lesson is promising. USAID’s nutrition strategy is not completely confined to the methods of the past.
Room for Improvement
Malnutrition takes far too many lives and ravages countless communities. Luckily, USAID’s nutrition strategy seems to be finding success. To continue this positive trend of smart, innovative policy, the agency will need even greater financial support. Its requested budget for the 2020 fiscal year is $19.2 billion, 2.4 billion more than this year’s allotment. This additional funding will help affected parts of the world eliminate malnutrition in all its forms.
– James Delegal