It may seem like a no-brainer to say that we need data to guide efforts to end malnutrition. Would you run an economy without a regular stream of credible data? You’d be flying blind if you did, and we know what happens if you try to do that. And yet this is precisely the situation that those trying to end malnutrition in India find themselves in, says IANS.
Until the Rapid Survey on Children (RSOC) data from 2013-14, seven years had elapsed since the last nationally representative nutrition survey, the third National Family Health Survey (NFHS 3). We hear that NFHS 4, the next big government survey, is in the field and we very much hope it will be out by 2018. If it is, that will be a gap of five years since the RSOC.
Why is data important? As the 2016 Global Nutrition Report reminds us, it is important because it tells us which types of malnutrition are being reduced and how fast that is happening. If we know this we can adjust efforts and reallocate resources before it is too late. It is also important for accountability: We need to know how resources have been allocated and the effect they are having if we are to assess the performance of key stakeholders, whether from the government, civil society, the development agencies or businesses.
What type of data is critical? There are at least five. First, we need to know the extent of malnutrition: Where it is and how fast it is (hopefully) decreasing. In India, based on the RSOC data and the Global Nutrition Report, the speed of decline in stunting rates has improved as has the speed of improvement in exclusive breastfeeding rates and this is great news. Data tells us where to apply the accelerator, where to try to apply the brakes and when to turn to different priorities.
Second, we need to know whether high-impact nutrition interventions are reaching the people they are supposed to reach. Interventions cannot work if they do not reach families at risk of malnutrition.
Third, we need to know more about how well certain sectors are doing in supporting nutrition improvement. Public distribution systems that use micronutrient-rich foods are more nutrition-sensitive than ones that do not. The challenge is to increase the overall percentage allocated to nutrition. To meet that challenge, we need data.
Fourth, we need the first three types of data at the state and sub-state levels. As the India Health Report clearly shows, different states and different districts have different nutrition problems, have different capacities to address them and show different levels of political commitment and leadership.
Fifth, we need to know what works. If we don’t know whether a nutrition programme actually works, where it works, for whom it works, why it works and how it works, then we are, again, flying blind, wasting resources and acting irresponsibly.