A pessimist looking at today’s World Health Assembly might overlook the amazing fact that there exists an annual meeting for 194 sovereign countries to agree solutions to humanity’s health issues.
Instead they might just see a bun fight.
The sense that attendees feel they must jostle for position and vie for attention may seem bad taste. But you can’t help suspecting that’s the reality for some. Think about it: the people in charge of our health meet for just one week a year. That means there’s considerable pressure on delegates to make sure their country’s priorities make it onto what is inevitably a finite agenda. The result? Intense competition over what life-saving issues get discussed.
With this in mind, I was eager to see what would happen today at the World Health Assembly’s event for nutrition commitments. Especially because it was organised by an unlikely coalition. TV chef and campaigner Jamie Oliver – supported by organisations best known for their concern over the growing burden of obesity, including NCD Alliance, World Obesity Federation, International Diabetes Federation and the World Cancer Reacher Fund – joined forces with Save the Children – supported by other organisations with proud traditions of fighting hunger and undernutrition, including Scaling-Up Nutrition Movement (SUN), Action Against Hunger, Concern, One, 1,000 Days and Water Aid.
The opportunity was immense: a chance to get 13 health ministers – collectively accountable for the nutritional health of more than 1 billion people – to make bold commitments on nutrition. That’s a big deal.
Tackling malnutrition is proven to be one of the most powerful policy options available to improve our overall health and long-term prosperity. However, the event wasn’t without risks. Nutrition isn’t the only thing of health ministers’ plates. Weaker minds, desperate to give their campaign priority ascendency, could well have let the event descend into a much more boring version of West Side Story or Romeo and Juliet. Instead of Jets and Sharks, or Montagues and Capulets, a divide in this narrative would have pitted the importance of world’s 41 million children under five who are obese and overweight against the 159 million children who have had their development stunted through undernutrition. A profoundly depressing prospect.
Thankfully, the coalition rose to the occasion. The expert moderation of Professor Corinna Hawkes and the World Health Organization’s Director -General Margaret Chan, combined with the energy of Jamie Oliver and former Prime Minister of Namibia Nahas Angula, saw obesity and undernutrition addressed together, like peas in a pod. Countries as dissimilar as Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Finland, Kenya, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, the UK, the USA and Zambia were given the impetus and opportunity to make brave commitments to address their own nutrition burdens by 2025.
By marrying together the different forms of malnutrition, the event articulated an exciting and refreshing approach. For those wondering how, here are just two of the many good reasons why this approach makes sense to me:
1 Addressing malnutrition in all its forms more accurately reflects the reality of humankind’s nutrition problems. After all, malnutrition affects nearly every country and multiple burdens are becoming the new normal. Select any of the event’s participating countries and you find this to be the case. For example, the Mexico has 1.5 million children under five whose growth has been stunted by undernutrition (14%) and 1 million who are overweight (9%). Both groups of children deserve the chance of the nutrition they need to thrive.
2 Bringing together constituencies fighting undernutrition and those preventing obesity gives rise to an even stronger vision for sustainable development. It tells us that enough food is not enough. Instead, it supports the case that duty-bearers must ensure that:
- governments and other actors take responsibility for the nutritional health of citizens
- the underlying structural causes of malnutrition—including exclusion—are addressed
- there is a reliable supply of good-quality, sustainably produced, nutritionally diverse foods available to all, especially those who are hardest to reach
- all people have enough money (or other assets) to afford good, clean and nutritionally diverse food
- families have the knowledge and the protection from inappropriate marketing practices necessary to make healthy, age-appropriate dietary decisions
- healthy environments are created for all, with safe water, adequate healthcare and nutritious foods, unfettered by factors tending to cause obesity.