Lawrence Haddad: Do we really need a nutrition data revolution?

L_Haddad_twitter_400x400The just released Global Nutrition Report makes the case for a “nutrition data revolution.” Data collection, storage, and analysis costs money—so why do we need to invest in it?

Consider a few facts from the report:

1. Forty nine per cent of 193 countries lack the data to be able to track if they are on or off course for even four of six World Health Assembly (WHA) indicator targets. And these targets were set nearly three years ago.

2. Forty per cent of the most recent child growth surveys (anthropometry) are over five years old. Economic policymakers could not run their economies on data that were over five years old—why would nutrition policymakers think they could?

3. For the WHA indicator that shows least progress—anaemia in women of reproductive age—we have the weakest data. How can we reduce anaemia if we do not have a good sense of who is most affected, and when and where progress is greatest?

4. There is no global database on food consumption. For hunger data we rely on food supply data, heroically adjusted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), but still with severe limitations. We cannot even measure individual trends in the most immediate manifestation of malnutrition: hunger.

5. Data on nutrition intervention coverage are very sparse. For example, only 37 countries have data on all five of the nutrition interventions and practices with the most extensive coverage data. We know that increased coverage will reduce stunting and yet little attention is paid to monitoring that coverage.

6. We know how important the first 1000 days post conception is for nutrition status throughout the life course, and yet data on weight at birth are so poor, the Global Nutrition Report could not even report trends in low birth weight.

What to do? Invest in data collection and in building the demand for data collection. And while they interact, the first is easier than the second. Globally, the data priorities are reflected in the points above: food consumption, anaemia, low birth weight, and nutrition programme coverage. Nationally, the priorities will need to be set by national stakeholders.

How can we convince funders to invest in data? A 2012 independent evaluation of the Economic and Social Research Council’s UK Data Service estimated that the return on investment to the research community alone range from 2.5:1 to 10:1. If we believe that research has wider benefits, then the return on investment to wider society will be very large indeed.

How to stimulate the demand for data? We must promote accountability. The more accountable public officials are for programme coverage, spending money wisely, and reducing malnutrition, the more they will demand data and evidence.

Accountability can be strengthened by civil society working with the media, researchers, and champions within public agencies to identify, track, assess, and publicise commitments made (or not made).

So more data needs to be demanded and supplied, but do we really need a revolution? Absolutely. We need a marked change in our attitude to data. The data systems we have designed are stuck in the 20th century and don’t respond to the information demands of the mobile technology age, nor take advantage of its possibilities.

Information is power and power shapes information. Until nutrition data collection and availability are revolutionised, nutrition data cannot be democratised. And without the democratisation of nutrition data, it remains too easy to ignore malnutrition—unless you happen to be one of the two to three billion people suffering from it.

Lawrence Haddad is senior research fellow at the UK based International Food Policy Research Institute, focused on poverty, food insecurity, and malnutrition. Follow Lawrence Haddad on Twitter at  @l_haddad