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Put Food Security and Nutrition in the Middle East and North Africa at the Heart of Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals!

  |   Blogs, SUN Country Network

August 30, 2017, by Gerda Verburg, Assistant UN Secretary-General and Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement Coordinator for the Arab Food and Nutrition Security Blog. View original.

Making sure no woman, man or child goes hungry has, for decades, been one of humanity’s greatest challenges. Although many solutions have been found in various corners of the world – including across the Middle East and North Africa – hundreds of million people globally still do not receive enough energy, through their diet, to live a healthy and active life.

Although Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region may be painting a rosy picture, malnutrition still rears its ugly head. Recently, the region has seen an increase in both the number of undernourished and prevalence of undernutrition. Child stunting is a major concern, as the first 1,000 days of a girl’s or boy’s life are not only decisive for physical but also brain development. We know that such brain damage is irreversible. We also see the double burden of malnutrition appear at an alarming rate across MENA countries: high levels of stunted children combined with maternal overweight, obesity, and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes and hypertension. This will have very serious consequences if we continue, business as usual.

As someone who was born and raised on a dairy farm in the green heart of the Netherlands and has served in the government as a Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, few things interest me more than the role that sustainable food systems play in economic development, but also in providing all children, families and communities the (nutritious) future they deserve. Which means that from time to time one has to rethink and redesign, anticipate and respond to new challenges – focusing on solutions that create incentives for all actors involved. This is what the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement is all about: it is driven by 59 countries, three Indian states and thousands of organisations all committed to finding country-led and country-owned solutions to end malnutrition in all its forms for everyone, everywhere by 2030 – with governments in the driver’s seat.

What we know today that we (possibly) did not know last century is that there is no country without a nutrition challenge, and that fighting malnutrition is much more than addressing starvation – although the ‘four famines’ threaten to reverse any advances made. We now know that where access to nutritious food is lacking or hard to come by, so is stability and prosperity. The food challenge in MENA countries lies not only in scarce arable land, a dry climate and acute water shortages. Countries in the region also face challenges such as the need for inclusive economic growth that does create enough decent jobs, and social policies that do reach those who need it the most. Fragility, protracted crises and conflict further exacerbate these challenges.

‘Broken’ food systems that do not work for people and planet alike – a challenge facing the vast and diverse MENA region – require rethinking and a redesign that serves inclusive, sustainable economic growth, a prosperous future for society, while, at the same time, contributing to climate resilience.

Governments are responsible for taking the lead in making sure that food systems become more self-sufficient, and, at the same time, less fluctuant – so that the needs of all women, men and their families are met. Investments into agriculture and food production must be nutrition-sensitive and climate-smart, which can create a ‘win-win-win’ but requires a new way of thinking, and perhaps more importantly, a new way of working across all government sectors involved, and with different stakeholders in society.

This is why the interlinked nature of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offers the opportunity to put nutrition at the heart of Agenda 2030. Improved nutrition is a catalyst for a healthier life, better education, more innovation and higher productivity. People who are well-nourished can earn a 25% better income. Better nutrition can increase a country’s GDP by 10% or more.

I am excited to see how governments in the region are working towards the challenge and opportunity that this transformative agenda brings. What may just make or break our vision for 2030 is our willingness to learn from others’ successes and whether partnerships are stepped up – as different players, including civil society, business, academia and the UN need to be brought to the table to solve the nutrition puzzle. This entices business, civil society organisations and sectors to step out of their comfort zone and think in terms of collaboration focused on impact, as no government can do this alone.

Although, as the Arabic (Bedouin) proverb goes, ‘don’t say it’s wheat until you harvest it’, I am sure that if the seeds of sustainable food systems and good nutrition are sown in this way in the MENA region, the benefits will be bountiful – for everyone and for generations to come.

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