Images of a food desert -- where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to find -- stir the imagination in the United States. So what about an actual desert where malnutrition, poverty, chronic vulnerability and a harsh climate collide and conspire against women and children?
In the Sahel -- an arid zone next to the Sahara Desert that stretches across the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa -- seasonal rains are becoming less predictable, and droughts more frequent and more severe. The region is marked by chronic food insecurity and high malnutrition rates: 20 million people are food insecure and 5 million children are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition.
As one can imagine, the challenges are multi-faceted and complex; they are exacerbated by extreme poverty, inequality, limited access to basic services, poor education opportunities and environmental degradation.
For the past year, humanitarian, food security and health experts from across USAID worked to develop a multi-sectoral approach toward improving nutrition, advancing development and building resilience among vulnerable populations like those in the Sahel.
At a conference yesterday organized by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, National Security Advisor Susan Rice unveiled the thinking that will guide USAID's policies and programs for nutrition in both emergency and development contexts and strengthen systems and delivery platforms for nutrition services both within the health sector, and also within the agriculture, water and sanitation, and humanitarian assistance sectors.
USAID’S 2014-2025 Multi-Sectoral Nutrition Strategy is the first of its kind at the Agency and it builds on President Obama’s commitment to create a world where every child has the potential for a healthy and productive life.
In the strategy, USAID is prioritizing the prevention of malnutrition given the irreversible consequences of chronic under-nutrition early in life. The strategy establishes very clear targets for how America’s investment in nutrition will reduce stunting and recommends ways the United States can advance improved nutrition and build resilience for millions of people.
Investments in Improving Nutrition
The 1,000 days from pregnancy to a child’s second birthday is the most critical time for positive impact on a child’s cognitive, intellectual, and physical development. Good nutrition in the first 1,000 days lays the foundation for health, development, and even prosperity for the next generation.
Conversely, under-nutrition inhibits the body’s immune system from fighting disease and impedes cognitive, social-emotional, and motor development. It contributed to 3.1 million, or just under half of child deaths worldwide in 2011.
Research, including the recent Lancet Maternal and Child Nutrition series, is providing strong evidence that improving nutrition is one of the best investments we can make in development, estimating that every $1 spent has as much as a $138 return.
That is why coordinated planning and programming of effective nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive interventions across multiple sectors (agriculture, health, water and sanitation, education, environment, and economic growth, livelihoods, and social protection) and multiple platforms (public, private, and civil society) is vital.
Since 2008, the United States has doubled nutrition funding and tripled agriculture funding, targeting our investments where we can deliver the greatest results; helping children across the globe survive and thrive from the drylands of the Sahel to the refugee camps on the borders of Syria.
Due to the harsh climate in the drought-prone Sahel, the few vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables that are cultivated locally are expensive and rarely become a regular part of villagers’ diets. USAID is training extension agents to share conservation farming techniques with village cultivators, allowing them to thrive where hardship is the norm. In addition to climate-smart agriculture, the approach focuses on health and nutrition, micro-credit and savings, local governance, disaster preparation, conflict mitigation, improved access to markets, and more effective methods of irrigation.
Dr. Shah said improving nutrition and building resilience to the shocks and vulnerabilities that keep those communities teetering on the edge of extreme poverty will be critical to the goal of ending extreme poverty in the next two decades.
And if we can succeed in the Sahel, giving communities the capacity to achieve and sustain healthy, well-nourished families, odds are we can do it everywhere.
About the Author: Chris Thomas serves a Communications Advisor in USAID's Bureau for Global Health.
Editor's Note: This entry originally appeared on USAID's Impact Blog.