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Ranking Nutrition on the Global To-Do List

The Sustainable Development Goals set 169 global targets, but offer little advice on how to prioritize them. A debate is emerging over where nutrition-focused objectives should rank.

Written by Andrew Green Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
The 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. United Nations

In September 2015, the United Nations set the world a massive task. Leaders endorsed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the set of 17 ambitious, interlinked objectives designed to end poverty, topple inequality and address climate change.

The second goal, which earned the buy-in of the nutrition community, pledges to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.

The goals are buttressed by 169 specific targets – essentially, steps countries should follow to achieve the SDGs ahead of the 2030 deadline. SDG 2, for instance, endorses a set of malnutrition-related targets to be achieved by 2025, including reducing global stunting rates by 40 percent.

However, the creators of the SDGs did not provide a roadmap for how resource-limited countries could sequence the long list of targets in order to have the best chance at achieving all of the goals – an effort bound to inspire disagreement among constituencies eager to see their goals prioritized.

When a group of independent researchers finally took on the task, it indeed raised concerns, especially among the nutrition community. Nutrition-related targets were well down the list – the first does not appear until #30 – below broader targets aimed at building systems.

While in no way conclusive, the push to determine a sequence comes at a fraught moment for efforts to improve global nutrition. Progress on the several nutrition targets has stalled or is actually going in the wrong direction. Worried their efforts to get these targets back on track might be derailed, experts are pushing back and explaining why nutrition should be prioritized within the SDGs.

Extensive and Expensive

At the adoption of the SDGs, then-U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon positioned them as, “a to-do list for people and planet, and a blueprint for success” – a blueprint that was unique in both emphasizing how interrelated the world’s problems are and presenting solutions to those problems.

It is an extensive and expensive to-do list, though. Experts have estimated they could cost $2-3 trillion per year in public and private money. And when Jeff Leitner, a Bretton Woods II fellow at New America, considered the scope and the cost, he decided it was unreasonable to think all of the SDG targets could be taken on simultaneously, regardless of how interconnected they are.

“The way the SDGs work right now is it’s just a hugely diverse collection of tasks and they’re not in any discernible order,” Leitner told News Deeply. “Nothing can be achieved that way.”

So Leitner, together with a multinational team that includes representatives from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, set out to construct a sequence for the SDG targets – the first time anyone had really done so.

They asked 85 economists, sociologists and political scientists to order the targets. Leitner said he was “shocked” by the results, which favored process-oriented initiatives that focused on building systems. The top-ranked targets included promoting the rule of law and justice and building up healthcare systems. The first nutrition-related target does not appear until #30.

While the sequence is in no way binding, it actually corresponds with the experience of experts who have been working with countries to translate the SDGs into domestic policy.

Jonathan Said, now the head of inclusive growth & private-sector development practice at the Institute for Global Change, spent three years advising the government of Liberia on issues that included SDG implementation. Government officials, he said, are facing political and financial limitations when it comes to sequencing the SDG targets and tend to prioritize those that will be sustainable or spur economic growth. The hope is they will eventually generate the resources to invest in more expensive interventions such as nutrition, education and health.

“Governments see that they’re gradually taking their country on a slow path of development and slowly putting these building blocks into place so that they can improve the livelihoods of their people and reduce poverty,” he told News Deeply.

Wrong Direction

Nutrition advocates are worried about where that leaves the targets they are most focused on – especially now, amid some troubling indicators.

After a decade of decline, world hunger actually rose to 815 million people in 2016 – 38 million more people than the year before. And while there has been progress toward SDG targets for stunting and wasting, it is not coming fast enough to reduce the number of stunted children to 100 million from the current 155 million by 2025, or childhood wasting to less than 5 percent by 2025 from its current rate of 8 percent.

Meanwhile, a set of six nutrition-related goals adopted by the World Health Organization in 2012, which overlap significantly with the SDG targets, are similarly offtrack. One – a 50 percent reduction in anemia among women of child-bearing age – is actually going in the wrong direction.

Instead of taking a backseat to other SDG targets, nutrition experts are on the offensive – explaining the necessity of achieving the nutrition-related objectives to unlock the other goals.

“Nutrition is really either having an impact on or a prerequisite to accomplishing a whole bunch of the SDGs,” Lauren Landis, the World Food Programme’s director of nutrition, told News Deeply.

The International Council for Science last year attempted to map just that, calculating the degree to which individual targets supported or, in some cases, detracted from targets under other goals. In considering how SDG 2 related to seven other goals, the researchers found overwhelming synergy – 50 instances where SDG 2 targets at least helped enable other targets, compared to 24 times where they constrained or counteracted them.

The researchers ultimately concluded, “Eradicating hunger and ensuring food security is a bottom-line requirement for achieving sustainable development and well-being.”

But is it the top priority? That debate is still very much open.

Leitner is currently at work on a second round of research that will use artificial intelligence to map the specific impact one intervention will have on the range of SDG targets. The idea is to provide donors and countries with real-time feedback on the interventions that do the most to advance them toward achieving the SDGs. He hopes to have prototypes going within the next six months.

“That’s the kind of stuff we’ve got to know,” Leitner said. “Short of knowing that, then we’re all just throwing darts.”

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