Zambia’s economy is in a tailspin right now. The world price of copper is low and China’s economic growth –which powers so much of the investment in Zambia–is slowing down.
This has lead to the re-emergence of the age old question: how can Zambia diversify its economic base? To me, the answer is simple: invest in nutrition. Why is that? The evidence from the Global Nutrition Report is clear- every Kwacha invested in nutrition yields 17 Kwacha in return. Infants who are not malnourished go on to do better in school, earn more in the labour force and be more entrepreneurial. This rate of return, 17 to 1, is better than any stock market will bring. The return is not dependent on any one sector because these new entrepreneurs will create wealth in many sectors.
But can we wait that long for these new entrepreneurs to establish themselves, you ask? There are two answers to that. First, better nutrition will have immediate impacts for adult productivity. More energy, stronger bodies, more alert minds and less days lost to illness will be the quick return. Second, for economic growth that is sustainable and resilient to shocks, investing in human infrastructure—brains, bones, and immune systems– is the only way. Malnourished mothers give birth to malnourished babies who grow up to give birth to malnourished babies. It is the malnutrition cycle that needs to be broken if Zambia is to break the economic cycle of boom and bust.
This will be a big challenge. Although Zambia is making solid progress in reducing some indicators of malnutrition (stunting, exclusive breast-feeding and under 5 overweight), other indicators are lagging (under 5 wasting, anaemia in women and adult overweight). But, due to the fantastic work of nutrition champions within government, civil society, business, research and the international development agencies, Zambia feels, at least to this outsider, to be on the cusp of achieving something great in malnutrition reduction.
Many things are moving in the right direction. For example: the National Food and Nutrition Commission Act went to Parliament in October— this will give a real shot of energy to nutrition champions within Zambia and those outside. In addition, several Permanent Secretaries have become very active in nutrition, with the Ministry of Health’s PS taking on the role of chair of the SUN Multi-Stakeholder Platform with a public commitment to drive action on nutrition from all stakeholders. Moreover, the SUN Business Network in increasing local business interest and engagement on nutrition. Finally, many Members of Parliament have been inspired by civil society to form a caucus called the All-party Parliamentary Caucus on Food and Nutrition.
But the challenges will not be trivial. This year a poor harvest will lead to increased hunger and malnutrition. The relief agencies—domestic and international–need to work as hard as possible to ensure the poor harvest does not generate a dark lifetime legacy for those still in their first 1000 days of life. Budget constraints are biting as the economy slows and even shrinks. Money for human infrastructure (a.k.a. nutrition) must be protected, but money already allocated to nutrition must be even better spent. Some Ministries are showing more commitment to nutrition than others. But there can be no room for sitting on the sidelines in the battle against malnutrition. The forces that create malnutrition are wide-ranging and powerful and so the alliances we form to overcome it must be equally wide-ranging and powerful. All the talents in Zambia will be needed to improve this cornerstone of development. If they do, all will benefit.
Twelve years ago, Ghana’s stunting rate was similar to Zambia’s. Now it is half of Zambia’s. Malnutrition can be reduced quickly. We all know what to do. But it will require the government to lead the rest of us. They will need to be brave, stubborn and steadfast. But they can do it because other governments in similar circumstances have shown that it can be done. We all need to remember: malnutrition is not a destiny, it is the result of choices made.
This post was written by Lawrence Haddad and first appeared on Development Horizons.