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A blog by Meaza Getachew, Global Policy and Advocacy Manager at 1,000 Days and Miski Abdi, Nutrition Policy and Advocacy Advisor at Save the Children UK. 

We are at the final leg of the race to the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth Summit on the 7th and 8th of December. The next four months present a critical window of opportunity to shape the future of global nutrition. As Civil Society actors, we must ensure that Governments reach the finishing line and pledge ambitiously to end malnutrition once and for all.

2021 is a year brimming full of opportunities to catalyse progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with its array of global gatherings propelling nutrition to the forefront, notably the UN Food Systems Summit in September and the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth (N4G) Summit in December, the latter being hosted by the Government of Japan. Recognising this potential, last year, the Governments of Canada and Bangladesh held a virtual event to kick-start the Nutrition Year of Action, a year-long roadmap to the Tokyo N4G Summit. The virtual event raised more than US $3 billion in early N4G commitments from six countries, alongside multilateral agencies and NGOs, providing us with a glimpse of the possibilities that lie ahead in the road towards ending malnutrition in all its forms by 2030.

Imagine what the impact would be if all 195 countries in the world put forward scaled-up financial and policy pledges towards N4G. It would be nothing short of transformational for the most vulnerable groups, the exact type of leadership needed to end malnutrition and deliver breakthrough progress. Thanks to research and evidence, not only do we know the interventions that work, leading economists consistently rank nutrition interventions as among the most cost-effective ways to save and improve lives around the world. Investments that promote, support, and protect breastfeeding and complementary feeding are one of the smartest investments a country can make for its future – every $1 invested in breastfeeding returns $35 to local economies.

Breastfeeding a Game-Changer Solution

Every child deserves to have the best possible start to life, and exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and continued breastfeeding for up to two years has the power to do just that, while also helping national economies to grow through lower healthcare costs and smarter workforces. The benefits of breastfeeding are most closely felt at the individual level, but they also accrue at the societal level. Research has shown that employers and health providers have the potential to amass annual savings in healthcare expenditures when more babies are breastfed, which is due to reduced absenteeism and fewer prescriptions. Despite all these proven benefits, it has been estimated that over 820,000 children under-five and 20,000 women die every year as a result of not breastfeeding and suboptimal feeding practices. The cost of inaction is not only tragic but also completely preventable.

Breastfeeding is a game-changer solution in ending malnutrition and building healthier, more sustainable, and equitable food systems. Breastfeeding is considered a “double duty” action for nutrition – the protection and promotion of exclusive breastfeeding has the power to simultaneously reduce the risks and burdens of both undernutrition (stunting, wasting, and micronutrient deficiencies) and overweight, obesity, and other diet-related non-communicable diseases. However, we lack the political leadership and financial resources to drive this game-changer to its full potential.

Some progress has been achieved globally, with 44 percent of infants worldwide exclusively breastfed, but we must urgently double down on efforts to safeguard recent wins against COVID-19 and accelerate progress in achieving the 2030 SDG target. Inequities in access to breastfeeding exist across all economic contexts despite how critical the first hours and days of an infant’s life are. This is when infants are most vulnerable and prone to infections. Colostrum, the fluid a mother produces, is a child’s first vaccine, a highly nutritious substance full of vital antibodies that strengthen a baby’s immune system. Early initiation, exclusive breastfeeding and complementary feeding are essential to child survival, health, and development.

Seizing the Opportunity

This year, governments, donors, and civil society organizations can save lives by seizing the Nutrition for Growth Year of Action as an opportunity to secure country commitments on the protection, promotion, and support of breastfeeding. The Government of Japan has been explicit in its call to world leaders for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound nutrition-smart commitments at the Tokyo N4G Summit that tackle the global malnutrition crisis. While the UN Food Systems Summit has initiated global in-depth dialogues on the actions, solutions and strategies are needed to deliver progress on all 17 SDGs, each of which relies on healthier, more sustainable, and equitable food systems.

Breastfeeding must be central to both these efforts. The Global Breastfeeding Collective’s newest advocacy briefing – Nutrition for Growth Year of Action: Nine SMART Breastfeeding pledges – positions breastfeeding within the Nutrition Year of Action global moments and opportunities. As the brief highlights, “Protection, promotion and support for breastfeeding helps fulfil every child’s right to health, survival and development and the right of women to have access to appropriate services and special protection before and after childbirth, including paid leave or leave with adequate social security benefits”. The nine SMART breastfeeding policies and investment recommendations to governments outlined in the brief range from programmatic, policy, financial, operational, and monitoring, reporting and research commitments. To help put these recommendations into specific contexts, the brief also provides country case studies and implementation guidelines that underscore the practical and achievable nature of the recommendations.

Overall, 2021 has the makings of a landmark year for good nutrition and development of infants and children, but we only have four more months to make this a reality. The global stage has been set; world leaders will be convening on multiple occasions in the next four months. We must seize these opportunities and ensure nations deliver tangible actions that protect breastfeeding and the rights of mothers and babies everywhere. As we enter the final critical leg of the race to the Tokyo N4G Summit, we must unite as a sector in calling on world leaders to smartly engage in the Nutrition Year of Action and make the ambitious but achievable commitments that are urgently needed to end all forms of child malnutrition once and for all.