Bangladesh has made tremendous progress in meeting the under-nutrition challenge. This is not a myth, it’s a fact.
Going back to the unfavourable, unfair, and biased “basket-case” label days, the prevalence of underweight (weight-for-age z-score <-2) among under-five children was more than 65% in 1989-1990, which has seen a 2% point decline per year in the case of underweight under-five children from the 1990s to 2000.
Despite this, the prevalence of under-nutrition still remains stubborn in specific demographic groups and geographic clusters; and continues to be one of the most pressing development challenges for Bangladesh, as the country makes progress towards achieving MIC status fuelled by unprecedented economic growth.
As development approaches continue to evolve and become more sophisticated in understanding the complex set of factors (most often classified as nutrition-sensitive and nutrition-specific) that are required to improve nutritional status amongst the most disadvantaged and marginalized communities across the country, roles of markets from both a supply and demand perspective, as an important agent, in ending hunger and improving nutrition, has been acquiring greater scrutiny as well as interest.
Regardless of individual or institutional interest in market-based approaches, it is important to acknowledge that creating food security requires resolving issues around how food that meets people’s dietary needs is distributed locally and globally, as well as addressing price fluctuations that put nutritious food out of reach for poor households.
Most often, well intentioned development efforts continue to focus on food security and nutrition as a “public good” and ignore the transformative power of markets and private firms, hence it is important to dispel various myths surrounding markets and its role in addressing the under-nutrition challenge.
The first myth
Nutrition is about food: A large number of studies, specifically in Bangladesh suggest that improving nutrition amongst children under five has more to do with ensuring that pregnant and lactating mothers are well taken care of in terms of their sexual and reproductive health, improving their education, and ensuring that they receive counselling services as opposed to only increasing food intake.
Breastfeeding and complementary feeding, micro-nutrients and food fortification, access to improved hygiene products and services as well as available counselling and ancillary health care services are critical to the overall “first 1,000 days” magic window where the right inputs can have remarkable outcomes for mother and child.
Eating well is more than just having enough food on your plate; it’s also about having a good mix of nutrient-dense food. Poor households struggle with both -- getting enough to eat and having enough variety to be healthy.
They also have to deal with higher rates of disease, particularly diarrhoea. It doesn’t matter how well you eat if your body doesn’t have the time and energy to extract the nutrients out of your food.
In Suchana, the team is creating these types of non-food related linkages between poor farmers, and they support the need to maintain a strong eco-system for nutrition.
Linkages like vaccinations for their chickens which provide eggs, linkages to nutritional counselling support, linkages to health care providers, and linkages to buyers for their products which in turn increase household income.
A strong ecosystem is required to ensure that nutrition sticks.
Eating well is more than just having enough food on your plate; it’s also about having a good mix of nutrient-dense food. Poor households struggle with both
The second myth
Nutrition is about children: Nutrition is as much about women as it is about children. It is often cited that the improvement in maternal education contributed significantly in reducing child under-nutrition in the late 1990s (among other contributing factors, such as reduced fertility rate, measles immunization, and rural electrification).
The ability to engage women in making smart choices for their family (especially children) by providing them with information, opportunities, and agency whilst increasing the availability of services such as immunization, supplementation and household hygiene -- all are critical to addressing the complex challenge.
In addition to that, during the 1,000 days, women’s nutritional status is often a strong predictor of the child’s vulnerability to under-nutrition. Women and children are often the most affected by malnutrition, due to social and cultural biases that prioritize providing food to men as the heads of households.
Pregnant women and their babies are particularly vulnerable, which can cause irreversible, lifelong consequences for a child’s physical and cognitive development during the critical first 1,000 days of life.
Therefore, improving women empowerment, changing social norms, and addressing inter and intra-household power dynamics in terms of how a pregnant or lactating mother is treated within the community and within her home are critical.
The third myth
Nutritious food is expensive and hard to find -- iDE creates market systems that value diversity in what farmers grow and what people eat, to respectively increase their incomes and the health of their families.
We connect farmers with the seeds necessary to diversify their crops, the knowledge about how to cultivate these new crops, and vital tools, such as drip irrigation or solar-powered water pumps, to ensure they are able to successfully bring in the new harvest.
These new fruits and vegetables increase the nutrition in their own diets, as well as the diets of the markets they serve. Nutrient-rich food not only reduces the risk of health problems, but it also provides people with more energy and the mental ability to be successful.
We’re taking a business approach to ending hunger. iDE increases the availability of nutritious food by working sustainably through a market-based approach.
By improving access to high-quality seeds and know-how, along with connecting farmers to markets, we see growth in the income, yield, and availability of safe, nutritious foods to local communities.
Deepak Dhoj Khadka is Country Director, iDE Bangladesh.