Leadership involves many tough choices. After hearing a number of perspectives on many issues, leaders must manage disagreements, seek compromise, and make choices about whether or not to take action.
Fortunately, support for nutrition is not one of those hard decisions. In May of this year, I was proud to stand alongside African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for the launch of the African Leaders for Nutrition, a new group of African heads of state who will commit to champion good nutrition on the continent.
This was a first step, but a big one I think, in recruiting the kind of global nutrition champions that the people of Africa and their health and prosperity deserve.
It was also a vote for the economic security of our nations.
It is easy to support nutrition because the evidence is so clear, in terms of lives saved and economic impact.
New research released in April by the World Bank, Results for Development, and 1,000 Days concluded that meeting the globally-agreed World Health Assembly targets on nutrition by 2025 would save at least 3.7 million child lives, would mean that hundreds of millions fewer women would suffer from anaemia, and at least 65 million fewer children would be stunted.
Evidence from the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition gives the economic side of the story: that between 3 and 16 per cent of African national GDPs are lost each year to malnutrition and that for 15 countries included in the economic forecast, meeting just the global goal for stunting reduction (a 40 per cent decrease worldwide), would add $83 billion to African economies.
These numbers are staggering and make it clear that we cannot afford to not invest in nutrition for our children.
But protecting the good outcomes a child gets from nutrition is about more than just the direct interventions that we know so well, including regular visits to the doctor for pregnant women, vitamin A for infants, and exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months after birth.
It is also about working smart to integrate our efforts and take a “whole child” approach to supporting the development of a young son or daughter’s body and brain, ranging from preventing and treating illness, protecting our children from violence, and supporting learning and brain development through play to ensure that they are ready for school.
Good nutrition is one important piece of the puzzle we must always be working to put together with the whole package of early childhood development.
Early childhood development — providing all the things one child needs in an integrated way, taking into account local contexts and the varying needs of every community — is an approach that needs far more attention.
Too often, our efforts at supporting young children’s healthy growth and development are divided by sector and fragmented in delivery so that resources may not be used most efficiently.
Some efforts are duplicated and many children miss out on key interventions. This must change. To get serious about ending malnutrition, we have to get serious about a “whole child” approach.
We cannot expect to work as we always have — in parallel programmes on the ground, parallel discussions in our ministry halls, and alone rather than together in our communities — and expect progress.
We must think creatively in every context about how to build on the progress we have already made and do better for our children — for all children.
In that vein, I was heartened that World Bank President Jim Yong Kim called for a global moment on early childhood development with a focus on stunting.
President Kim will gather finance ministers and other leaders in October at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund annual meetings in Washington DC to accelerate progress for children.
My hope is that these meetings will do that and more, and that we will have an increasing number of champions for a “whole child” approach, like Dr Kim, and new commitments to do more for children.
These are the easiest and most important decisions we will make for our future.
Mr Kufuor is a former president of the Republic of Ghana, founder of the John A. Kufuor Foundation, and co-chairman of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition.
Article originally published in the Daily Nation.