Linking nutrition to the Data Revolution

ICT Update

An interview with Lawrence Haddad, senior research fellow at IFPRI.

Why is nutrition data currently in the spotlight and what is at stake precisely?

The Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), a high-level intergovernmental meeting held in Rome in November 2014, focused global attention on addressing malnutrition in all its forms. The first-ever Global Nutrition Report of an international consortium of experts, was released on this occasion. It provides a comprehensive narrative on levels of malnutrition across the world (including 193 country profiles). We more than ever need a nutrition data revolution, because the malnutrition problem affects every country and it is not going to get resolved without concerted action. We need data to guide and stimulate intensified action.

You say we need a nutrition data “revolution”? What do you mean when you say data systems are stuck in the 20th century?

Basically, data collection in the field of nutrition today is the same as it was in the 1990s or even in the 1980s. We have nutrition surveys every five years, and micronutrients surveys even less frequently. Economic policies are based on up to date data, nutrition policies, apparently can do without this. They can’t. We need to take advantage of mobile technologies—cheap android tablets, internet, mobile phones should be used. Simple surveys could be done every year using them.

When I speak about a revolution I also think about a revolution in our mindset. We need to be more inventive. Technology can facilitate but it is not enough. We must stimulate the demand for data. Here again, technologies have a lot to do; I think about social media, which can help civil society to express itself.

The data revolution is a call for better data, but also a different way of thinking about data in terms of costs and benefits and also in terms of supporting effective actions and suspending bad actions due to
better data.

Who will implement this revolution? Who will use the data?

Willing government agencies will implement this revolution. UN agencies can also help in the field of capacity development. On the demand side, civil society has a vital role to play. I would like to give you an example. I was in Zambia recently. The Civil Society Scaling Up Nutrition Alliance, a group of CSOs (Civil Society Organisation), has just tried to see what part of the national budget was dedicated to nutrition. They managed to get the figures, even if they had to deal with the national budget document (a massive document with thousands of pages). Even though it was difficult, they could calculate that only 0.2% of the budget was spent on nutrition. They disseminated the figures on the web, and many people could see them. And many people actually reacted. So data can be used to put pressure on and help governments. I am not only thinking in terms of naming
and shaming governments, but also guiding them.

Data is expensive. How can we justify a return on investment when governments are cutting back funding for research?

Very recently, a new article by the economist Morten Jerven, published under the Copenhagen Consensus Centre banner, asked the general question: is a data revolution for the SDGs
(Sustainable Development Goals) a good investment? His answer is a resounding “no”. Jerven estimates the data collection necessary for the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) at 1 billion dollars per year (all MDGs included, for all countries, and throughout the period). If he thinks this is a lot, I tend to think it is not that much, particularly for
all countries for all MDGs. Any development project in the world allocates at least 1% of its budget to monitoring and evaluation. Why shouldn’t this be the case when it comes to data and nutrition? I think the cost side is a non-argument. Furthermore, what is the alternative—guessing?

It is vital to have more precise data. India for instance has until recently based its policies on 2006 surveys. There has not been a national survey of stunting for nearly 10 years. Nevertheless, things are changing in India and I hope we can be a lot more positive about nutrition data in the country in the near future.

What do you mean by “democratisation of nutrition data”? How can data be turned into actionable knowledge for communities?

The first part of democratisation is to get access to data. Much information is simply not in the public domain. When it is available, information is often difficult to find: specific nutrition data are often buried in big documents, they are unprocessed and fragmented. A lot of work needs to be done to make it useful and understandable.

The research community has an obligation to process this information and make it available. I think institutions that are funded by public funds (research institutes, UN agencies, governments, many NGOs) should all make available the data behind their research and make it easy to use. It is harder for the private sector to do this, obviously for legal and commercial reasons. The second part is to get data in the hands of communities. Activists need data, or governments may simply dismiss their influencing efforts. We need more innovation in communities. In Uganda, some work has been done to assess whether community feedback mechanisms improved health service delivery. They did — and very significantly so. We don’t do this in nutrition and yet we should try as we need to improve nutrition programme delivery.

You recently published an article on your blog asking where nutrition fits in the SDGs. Why is it important?

It is important because SDGs are the main accountability mechanism for the world and governments. They will guide investments in the next 15 years. Nutrition is in real danger of missing the boat. There are two indicators included at the moment, but the 6 WHA (World Health Assembly) indicators should be included as well as an indicator measuring dietary diversity for adult women. Having 2 out of 169 SDG indicators for a condition that leads to 45% of all under 5 deaths and diminishes GDP by 8-11% — there is something drastically wrong with that picture. ◀

Lawrence Haddad is Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). He is also Co-Chair of the Global Nutrition Report’s Independent Expert Group.
@l_haddad; www.ifpri.orgv

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