Fight Malnutrition in Asia With the Power of Philanthropy


Sangeetha Watson


5 min read

It is painfully clear that investment for nutrition is not comparable to the scale of the issue at hand. Interventions in nutrition in Asia receive merely an estimated 1% of public sector funding despite the fact that 45% of all child deaths occur as a direct or indirect result of malnutrition. In fact, the triple burden of undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and overnutrition at today’s levels costs the global economy up to US$3.5 trillion annually[1]. In light of this, it is not only imperative that actors in the space consolidate their efforts to achieve global standards for nutrition but also make room for more private sector engagement.

Governments and NGOs Engaging Communities

When it comes to national efforts in addressing malnutrition, Bangladesh stands out as a success story. The country has seen a steady decline in the prevalence of stunting over the last two decades. In 1997 the prevalence of stunted children in Bangladesh was 58.5% but this has declined to 36% in 2015[2]. This achievement is the result of concerted efforts by both the government as well as local nonprofits such as BRAC.

In 1997 the Government of Bangladesh announced the National Plan of Action for Nutrition (NPAN), which illustrated a commitment to improve the nutritional status of its population.  The first phase of NPAN employed a multisectoral strategy that deployed resources largely towards both nutrition sensitive interventions such as providing potable water and sanitation facilities and controlling infectious diseases. A second phase of the NPAN was announced in 2016, showing a renewed commitment to the eradication of all forms of malnutrition by 2030 as per the SDGs. The Bangladesh National Nutrition Council (BNNC), which works to coordinate nutrition activities across the 17 ministries, also observes a National Nutrition Week annually to bring nutrition education to the Bangladeshi population.

BRAC is the best known nonprofit player in this space, Its community-engagement representatives visit households and provide counselling, coaching and demonstration around healthy living practices. In addition, to prevent child malnutrition and anaemia, micro-nutrient powder sachets are distributed under maternal, infant and young child nutrition home fortification programmes. These sachets are effective in preventing anaemia of 6 months to 2 year old child by providing the required iron, vitamins and minerals.

However, BRAC cannot do this alone.  In Bangladesh, there are at least 18 other non-governmental organisations working in this space in both small ways and large ways. Every little bit counts.  The rates of malnutrition in Bangladesh are still among the highest in the world, even with all the progress that has been made. Malnutrition is not a standalone issue – it is affected by household food insecurity, limited access to quality healthcare, and unhealthy living conditions. More players and funders across a diversity of sectors need to participate in this field to support governments, development finance institutions, and other social purpose organisations.

Foundations at the Frontlines

Individual philanthropists have started to make  their mark in the nutrition space and  some stand-out examples  are emerging that have the potential to be scaled and replicated across Asia.

US-based philanthropist Spencer Kirk’s foundation,  Kirk Humanitarian is a case-in-point. It identified that expecting mothers in low-resource countries received only 2 micronutrients during prenatal care whilst mothers in developed countries received multiple micronutrient supplements (MMS) that contained 15 essential vitamins and minerals. Troubled by this discrepancy, Kirk Humanitarian funded research that proved the benefits of prenatal supplements containing 15 essential micronutrients and also developed production and distribution operations to ensure that over 3 million women were provided with over 2 billion MMS doses in 80 countries over the course of two decades.  As a result, even the World Health Organization has modified its guidelines to reflect a renewed recommendation of MMS. Kirk has also pledged a further 1 million in funding that will go towards provide 15 million cycles of MMS over three years.

Another frontrunner in filling global gaps in nutrition is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). With a long-term goal to prevent 1.8 million malnutrition related death by 2020, BMGF has been engaged in various efforts, from agricultural development to discovery and translational sciences to testing new solutions. Recently, BMGF is transforming the way iron and vitamin A are fortified in foods by developing a new nutrient delivery system that can help billions of people suffering from malnutrition. BMGF has been a catalyst in driving consolidated efforts towards nutrition across the world.

More needs to be done

To scale existing nutrition programmes, more funding is needed. Nearly USD 7 billion a year will be required to meet the global sustainable development goals  in a timely manner[3].

As we ring in the new year, we’re cognisant of the short runway (merely 10 years!) to do so.  At present, this conversation is being by led global foundations and platforms, such as the MBGF, Power of Nutrition, Nutrition 4 Growth and multinational corporates like Royal DSM and Kellogg. The hope is that more philanthropic funders recognise the need for more directed investment in maternal and child nutrition.

We are calling for existing funders to renew their commitment to the nutrition targets by encouraging more wealth-holders to join the efforts! To provide existing and interested nutrition funders more investment opportunities in the space, AVPN is conducting a study to surface philanthropic funders in maternal and child nutrition in Asia. If you know of any innovative philanthropic funding solutions in maternal and child nutrition, we would love to hear from you! Write to us at [email protected] to join the ranks of pioneers and innovators in catalysing philanthropic capital for nutrition.

[1] (FAO, 2013)
[2] https://www.orfonline.org/research/breakout-nation-the-nutrition-transformation-of-bangladesh-57408/
[3] https://milkeninstitute.org/sites/default/files/reports-pdf/NutritionSEAsiaForWEB.pdf


A. Environmental Stewardship
To protect the environment, we organize programmes like mangrove nursery and Reforestation, Coastal and River Clean-Up, Community Based Environmental Solid Waste Management, Environmental IEC Campaign and Eco-Academy

B. Food Security and Sustainable Livelihood
To ensure a sustainable livelihood for the community, eco-tourism include Buhatan River Cruise Visitor Center Buhatan River Mangrove Boardwalk are run by the community. Others include Organic Vegetable and Root crops Farming, Vegetable and Root crops Chips and by-products Processing and establishing a Zero waste store.

C. Empowered Communities
To empower the community, we provide product and Agri-Enterprise Development Training, Immersion and Learnings Exchange Program, Earth Warrior Training and Community Based Social Entrepreneurship Training


Sangeetha Watson

Sangeetha Watson builds on her research experience and sector know-how to lead the methodological design of research projects and steer the quantitative and qualitative data collection process at AVPN. She is also a contributing member of the AVPN Academy and is involved in developing content and curricula for Asia's first online learning platform for both new entrants and advanced social investors. Prior to joining AVPN she worked at the Centre for Biomedical Ethics at the National University of Singapore (NUS) doing qualitative research on matters relating to pandemic preparedness and genetic data-sharing. She hopes to empower marginalized communities and support participatory models of development through research and knowledge production. She loves learning about people, ideally over a cup of coffee or chai. Sangeetha holds a BA in Sociology from the National University of Singapore and an MA in Global Development from the University of Leeds.

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