Why Malnutrition is the Nexus of Key Social Challenges in Asia

6 min read

Nutrition is a massively underfunded global social and health issue. In contrast to the over USD 500 billion spent per year on fossil fuel subsidies, the funders spend only about USD 3.9 billion annually on efforts to reduce malnutrition. In 2016, the World Bank estimated that governments and donors needed to spend an additional USD 7 billion annually for the next 10 years over the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016–2025)[1] to meet targets set by the World Health Assembly, a goal that remains unrealised.[2] The scarcity of funding for nutrition is puzzling given its high social return on investment. Every USD 1 spent on basic nutrition gives back an estimated USD 16 to the local economy, comparable to investments in health, irrigation, and roads.[3]

On the other hand, the socio-economic costs of malnutrition, especially during childhood, are enormous. The period comprising the first 1,000 days in a child’s life, from conception till her or his second birthday, is crucial for cognitive development. Undernutrition during this period sets the stage for long-term cognitive impairment and chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes in later life. The economic cost of undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, measured as global loss in economic productivity, is estimated to be as high as three percent of global GDP or USD $2.4 trillion annually in current dollars.[4]

COVID-19 pandemic has made matters worse. Millions have lost their livelihoods owing to stringent lockdown measures, affecting their ability to provide food for their families, much less, nutritious foods. With the closure of schools, children dependent on school-feeding programmes, have lost access to nutritious meals. Disruptions in the supply of fresh vegetables, fruits, and meats have led to increased consumption of pre-packaged processed foods by households.[5] These factors have adversely affected the nutrition security of low-income people across the world and especially in developing countries.

To offer timely, scalable solutions that address the shortage of resources as well as the fragmented funding landscape for nutrition, however, is not easy. Effective solutions that tackle malnutrition are complex, as it is closely interlinked with social issues like education, health, and water, sanitation & hygiene (WaSH). Nonetheless, if funders address nutrition, they consequently help to achieve at least 12 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).[6]

Working at the nexus of multi-dimensional issues is key to tackling malnutrition

Collaboration among social investors at the intersection of these issues, therefore, is crucial to scale resources available for nutrition. Social investors working on issues impacting and impacted by nutrition should consider the nutritional dimension in their work, join forces with other actors and complement each other’s work for better nutrition outcomes for communities, each player contributing a part to the larger puzzle.

Launched in 2017, the 10to19 Dasra Adolescents Collaborative is a multi-stakeholder alliance that unites donors, governments, and NGOs to empower adolescent girls in India. Recognising the linkages between the issues of child marriage, undernourishment of mothers, and poor infant health prevalent in India, the collaborative has made nutrition a key pillar of its strategy, along with interventions in WASH, education, and skill development.[7] Through collaboration, 10to19 aims to leverage USD $50 million to benefit 5 million adolescents by 2022.[8]

Governments provide scale and depth to reach last mile communities

Improving nutritional outcomes fundamentally requires behavioural change, and thus, long-term commitment by actors are important. Aligning interventions with government initiatives can help leverage public funding, maximise impact, and ensure sustainability after the end of donor commitment. Moreover, achieving long-term results requires systemic change in policies, processes, power structures, and relationships among stakeholders, making the role of government indispensable. Building government capacity and improving public service delivery systems is perhaps the most cost-effective utilisation of scarce philanthropic capital.

To support the Indonesian government in developing targeted programmes for stunting prevention, Tanoto Foundation collaborated with SMERU Research Institute to make available granular village-level data on children’s nutrition status (as opposed to at the existing district level) in six districts.[9] As part of an Alive & Thrive[10] initiative, Tanoto Foundation has also supported research[11] to uncover local practices in maternal nutrition and early childhood development leading to malnutrition. Through this, it aims to co-create solutions to support the national government’s strategy for bringing about behavioural change in communities. Through initiatives like these under its flagship SIGAP programme, the Foundation is supporting national efforts to reduce stunting rate below 20 percent by 2024.[12]

ABS-CBN Foundation’s (ALKFI) Nutri Pan de Kapamilya programme is another example of public-private collaboration in nutrition. In partnership with the Nutrition Center of the Philippines and San Miguel Mills, ALKFI helps set up bakeries within government schools with high rates of wasted and underweight students, particularly in areas affected by natural disasters, to prepare and distribute bread fortified with vitamin A and iron to students at low cost. The programme serves three purposes: addressing malnutrition, providing practical training to senior high school students, and providing livelihood for the local community.[13] Since 2010, 29 Nutri Pan de Kapamilya Bakeries have been established in 18 calamity-stricken areas.[14]

Private businesses can play a catalytic role in scaling nutrition solutions

Leveraging private sector capital, the power of markets can unlock additional financing for nutrition. From investing in technology to make nutritious food affordable, to fortifying food at a large-scale, to educating employees about the importance of nutritious food as well as making it available to them, the private sector has an important role to play  in eradicating malnutrition.[15]

The Dutch-Bangla Chamber of Commerce and Industries (DBCCI) and SNV have partnered to host an annual business model competition in Bangladesh to recognise businesses that develop solutions in three sectors, including nutrition. Solutions based on inclusive business principles are awarded a token sum of 1 million Bangladeshi Taka (~USD 11,700) that could serve as seed funding for future innovations. The focus is on identifying and encouraging medium- to large-sized businesses, as opposed to startups, since they have a wider access to consumer networks and thus a potential to make a stronger impact on the nutrition landscape.

2020 is an important year for nutrition: How can funders take action?

Without renewed efforts, COVID-19 threatens to reverse years of hard-earned progress in improving nutrition outcomes globally. The World Food Programme has estimated that about 265 million people across the world will suffer from acute hunger by the end of 2020 because of the pandemic.[16]

At the same time, the pandemic also presents an opportunity for stakeholders to unite and collaborate through virtual convenings. The Nutrition for Growth Summit scheduled in Tokyo later this year is a historic opportunity to reflect on the impact of previous pledges and renew the global commitment to eradicate undernutrition.[17] The Summit comes at a critical time, midway through the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition, with only five years left to achieve the goals set by the World Health Assembly.[18] 2020 also marks the start of the Decade of Action to deliver the SDGs by 2030, including Goal 2: Zero Hunger.[19]

The recently concluded AVPN Virtual Conference 2020[20] was a stepping stone in the buildup towards the upcoming N4G Summit and helped catalyse collective action on various social issues including undernutrition in Asia. The session ‘Nourishing Asia: Scaling Impact at the Intersection[21] brought together experts and practitioners from the Power of Nutrition, Nutrition International, DSM, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to explore multiple dimensions of the issue including the effect of COVID-19 on nutrition, ways of integrating nutrition outcomes into existing strategies, and the role of the private sector. Look out for more nutrition-related events or collaborate with funders here.

If you are looking to embark on a journey to financing nutrition in Asia, assess the opportunities and challenges in philanthropic funding for maternal and child nutrition through AVPN’s newly-launched report. The study looks at the state of financing nutrition in Asia, notable donor initiatives, and includes deep dives into three Asian markets: Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines.


[1] “United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016–2025),” United Nations, accessed June 18, 2020, https://www.un.org/nutrition/.

[2] Meera Shekar, Jakub Kakietek, Julia Dayton Eberwein, and Dylan Walters, An Investment Framework for Nutrition: Reaching the Global Targets for Stunting, Anemia, Breastfeeding and Wasting (World Bank Group, 2017), https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/nutrition/publication/an-investment-framework-for-nutrition-reaching-the-global-targets-for-stunting-anemia-breastfeeding-wasting.

[3] 2014 Global Nutrition Report (International Food Policy Research Institute, 2014), https://globalnutritionreport.org/reports/2014-global-nutrition-report/.

[4] The State of Food and Agriculture (FAO, 2013), http://www.fao.org/publications/sofa/2013/en/.

[5] Joint statement on nutrition in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic in Asia and the Pacific, Asia United Nations Network on Nutrition, April 17, 2020, https://www.unicef.org/eap/joint-statement-nutrition-context-covid-19-pandemic-asia-and-pacific.

[6] “Nutrition and the Sustainable Development Goals,” Scaling Up Nutrition, 2015, accessed May 20, 2020, https://scalingupnutrition.org/nutrition/nutrition-and-the-sustainable-development-goals/.

[7] Collaborative Force: Empowering 10 to 19 (Dasra, March 2017), https://www.dasra.org/resource/collaborative-force-empowering-10-to-19.

[8] “Adolescents,” Dasra, accessed June 24, 2020, https://www.dasra.org/adolescents.

[9] “Tanoto Foundation and SMERU Collaborate to Develop Nutritional Status Map,” Tanoto Foundation, January 22, 2020, https://tanotofoundation.org/en/news/tanoto-foundation-and-smeru-collaborate-to-develop-nutritional-status-map/.

[10] “About Us,” Alive & Thrive, accessed May 29, 2019, https://www.aliveandthrive.org/about-us/.

[11] Exploring Maternal, Infant, and Young Child Nutrition & Early Childhood Development Practices in Indonesia (Tanoto Foundation, 2020), https://tanotofoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/MIYCN-ECD-Practice-Research_Alive-Thrive.pdf.

[12] “SIGAP,” Tanoto Foundation, accessed June 18, 2020, https://www.tanotofoundation.org/en/learning-environments/eced/sigap/.

[13] Althea Cahayag, “Sagip Kapamilya Officially Opens a Nutri Pan de Kapamilya Bakery in Capas,” ABS-CBN Lingkod Kapamilya, August 11, 2016, https://corporate.abs-cbn.com/lingkodkapamilya/rehabilitation-projects/article/pid-1473068948305/cid-1469162714827/sagip-kapamilya-officially-opens-a-nutri-pan-de-kapamilya-bakery-in-capas/.

[14] Althea Cahayag, “Bakeries to Augment School Budget and Support Feeding Programs,” ABS-CBN Lingkod Kapamilya, November 30, 2018, https://corporate.abs-cbn.com/lingkodkapamilya/rehabilitation-projects/article/pid-1545213613650/cid-1469162714827/bakeries-to-augment-school-budget-and-support-feeding-programs.

[15] “Private sector role in improving nutrition at the Asian congress of nutrition,” SUN Business Network, September 2, 2019, https://sunbusinessnetwork.org/private-sector-role-in-improving-nutrition-at-the-asian-congress-of-nutrition/.

[16] Paul Anthem, “Risk of hunger pandemic as COVID-19 set to almost double acute hunger by end of 2020,” World Food Programme Insight, April 16, 2020, https://insight.wfp.org/covid-19-will-almost-double-people-in-acute-hunger-by-end-of-2020-59df0c4a8072.

[17] Martin Short, “2020 – the year to accelerate towards the elimination of stunting,” The Power of Nutrition, January 13, 2020, https://www.powerofnutrition.org/blogs/2020-the-year-to-accelerate-towards-the-elimination-of-stunting/.

[18] “Tokyo Nutrition for Growth Summit 2020,” Nutrition for Growth, accessed June 18, 2020, https://nutritionforgrowth.org/.

[19] “Decade of Action,” United Nations Sustainable Development, accessed June 18, 2020, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/decade-of-action/.

[20] AVPN Annual Conference 2020, accessed June 18, 2020, https://conference.avpn.asia/2020hub/.

[21] “Nourishing Asia: Scaling Impact at the Intersection,” AVPN Annual Conference 2020, accessed June 18, 2020, https://conference.avpn.asia/2020-session/nourishing-asia-scaling-impact-at-the-intersection/.


About Author
Gandhar Desai
Gandhar Desai Intern, Knowledge Centre AVPN

Gandhar is a passionate development professional with experience in building multi-stakeholder partnerships for sustainable development.

Gandhar interned with AVPN's Knowledge Centre and previously worked with UNDP and Government of Maharashtra, India on issues of skills & livelihoods development and women's empowerment. He is pursuing his Master in Public Policy (MPP) from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore and holds a bachelor's degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from BITS Pilani, India.