Finding nutrition in the Sustainable Development Goals

July 26, 2016

Editor’s note: This post is part of a weekly, year-long series called the Nourishing Effect. It explores how hunger affects health through the lens of the 2016 Hunger Report. The report is an annual publication of Bread for the World Institute.

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram

In late September 2015, more than 150 heads of state and governments, accompanied by thousands of senior officials, world-renowned experts, and leaders from civil society and the private sector gathered at the United Nations in New York for the largest summit in history. The summit outcome, which bears the title Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, is remarkable in many respects. It is the product of a consultative process led and owned by the member states themselves, unfolding across the globe in waves over the past three years, and actively engaging citizens as well as governments, small and large organizations, experts and non-experts from all walks of life.

The 2030 Agenda builds on the scope and ambition of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Drawing from the experience of the MDGs, member states have been unanimous in their conviction that sustainable development does not result from selecting among isolated problems and designing highly focused technical solutions. The leading insight behind the new Sustainable Development Goals is that sustainable development arises from recognizing that real world development is seldom confronted by a single problem for which there is a single solution, but rather proceeds by dealing with sets of interlinked problems for which creative, context-specific and people-centric solutions are required.

How this is all meant to work can be seen through the approach that is taken to malnutrition in the 2030 Agenda. Those who look for specific mentions of nutrition or malnutrition will almost certainly be disappointed. But they make a fundamental mistake in understanding how the new agenda conceives of the development process and how much of the new agenda is related to ending malnutrition.

How does Agenda 2030 pose the problem of malnutrition? First, and most explicitly, in Sustainable Development Goal 2: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” and in its multidimensional Target 2.3: “By 2030, end all forms of malnutrition, including achieving, by 2025, the internationally agreed targets on stunting and wasting in children under 5 years of age, and address the nutritional needs of adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women and older persons.” Target 3.4 implicitly refers to obesity-related malnutrition and its impacts: “By 2030, reduce by one third premature mortality from non-communicable diseases through prevention and treatment and promote mental health and well-being.”

And yet this is only the beginning. Much more can be added through specific targets, inter alia, on poverty eradication, women’s empowerment, improved sanitation, maternal health, access to water, and reductions of food loss and waste. As the UN Secretary-General has pointed out in his report to member states, there are at least 6 goals and 18 targets in the 2030 Agenda that are materially related to nutrition.

We cannot end malnutrition without addressing the variety of social, economic, environmental, and cultural factors that contribute to it. An updated UNICEF conceptual framework makes a critical distinction between “basic,” “underlying,” and “immediate” causes of malnutrition and premature death.

– At the basic level, poverty, inequality, discrimination against women, and the excluded voices of children, the elderly, and other social groups in decision-making processes are fundamental impediments to lasting solutions.

– At the intermediate level, the emphasis is on the institutional structures and systems— especially systems for health and food, water, and sanitation, as well as deteriorating environmental conditions—that result from the basic causes, but also institutionalize the underlying poverty and inequalities.

– Finally, at the immediate level are the proximate causes—chiefly the lack of access to adequate nutrition or dietary intake and unavailability of appropriate health care: mutually reinforcing causes of poor nutritional status for individuals, households, and disadvantaged and vulnerable social groups.

Who will pull all of this together, and how will they do it? The 2030 Agenda does not specify. That responsibility is left to the member countries and their many partners. But behind the agenda stands a new global structure for monitoring and evaluation, shared learning and capacity building, voluntary reporting and mutual accountability among partners. Embedded in this structure are all the institutions of the UN system that now not only have to meet new expectations, but are challenged to play a new role as enablers and facilitators of broad societal engagement to support government-led and owned political action to end malnutrition in all its forms.

This piece originally appeared in Chapter 3 of the 2016 Hunger Report: The Nourishing Effect. Read the full report at

Jomo Kwame Sundaram is assistant director-general and coordinator for economic and social development with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. 

We cannot end malnutrition without addressing the variety of social, economic, environmental, and cultural factors that contribute to it.

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