A view of a market area in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo on 10 October 2019. Congo is among the countries with the highest number of acutely malnourished people on a global level. Photo by JC Wenga/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

A view of a market area in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo on 10 October 2019. Congo is among the countries with the highest number of acutely malnourished people on a global level. Photo by JC Wenga/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

Many people are aware that the scourge of malnutrition affects a vast number of individuals and communities around the world. However, most tend to view it as a problem to be addressed by governments, charities or donors, rather than the corporate sector.

Certainly, when considered at a societal scale, malnutrition makes the complexities of delivering inclusive growth all the harder. It ratchets up the public health burden while restricting the potential for at-risk populations to take part in productive employment. Economies are hindered, lives are blighted and the potential for people to reach their full potential can be severely limited.

A number of upcoming summits represent a window of opportunity to address nutrition in the context of resilience, particularly in the wake of COVID-19 and the much-referenced ambition for governments to ‘build back better’. The opportunity is there to foster a true partnership between governments, third sector organizations and businesses of all sizes, sectors and geographies to work for the betterment of society and deliver benefits to all participants in such a partnership.

So what is the role of business in relation to nutrition - where does it sit on their list of priorities and why should it matter to them? A new Chatham House report represents an important contribution to the discussion about the role of business in addressing malnutrition. Through thorough research and direct engagement with businesses, it seeks to find out if malnutrition is on the corporate radar and the extent to which it is considered a material issue.

Surprisingly, whilst many large corporates recognize malnutrition as a matter for concern, this is typically defined only in the context of CSR programmes or related ambitions. These types of commitments have their limitations though; most notably the fact that the communities more severely affected by malnutrition typically sit outside of the sphere of influence of the multi-national companies with the greatest ability to mobilize resources and make an impact. Where populations are marginalized, operating within the informal economy and living in settings that are too fragile for large-scale business investment, corporate CSR programmes are unlikely to have a meaningful impact.

 

The report also asked businesses whether they considered malnutrition to have a material impact on their ability to create value, protect value and manage risk. In the majority of instances the answer was no. This may be surprising, particularly given the evidence provided by new modelling – done for this report using a purpose-built model by Vivid Economics – that illustrates the costs posed to business by malnutrition within a population. On an immediate and direct level, the impacts can be considerable due to lost or reduced productivity from the employee base. However, if even that immediate impact is addressed, the externalities associated with malnutrition can come back and have a negative effect on businesses and investors alike.

When reflecting on externalities and the landscape of risk within which business operates, it is worth considering climate change by way of comparison. Climate change is well embedded in the risk profiling of most progressive and well-managed corporates – although in some instances meaningful action may be well overdue. That said, it is recognized that the direct and indirect impacts have the potential to conspire and permanently reduce shareholder, stakeholder and societal value.

Similarly, if left unchecked, the externalities associated with malnutrition will undoubtedly contribute to an increased level of risk in terms of both operating and investment environments. This is both an issue of social equity and enlightened self-interest given that good nutrition is key to the success of many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and is essential to driving sustainable economic growth. One of the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is the manner in which widespread malnutrition can significantly reduce the resilience of populations to external risks, including the outbreaks of infectious disease. We need only to look at the impact of climate stress and related events to understand how closely linked malnutrition is – or may become – to the incidence of social unrest and armed conflict in low-income countries.

Progressive companies and investors have already identified the ability to drive inclusive and sustainable growth as a compelling imperative for investment. In this context, the potential for improved nutrition – both in the workforce and amongst the communities upon which the firms depend – should be a true priority. As fund managers seek increasingly meaningful insight into the way that companies within their portfolio(s) create value, protect value and manage risk, the scope of environmental and social governance is expanding. Many recognize the link between delivering on the SDG agenda and protecting or enhancing shareholder value into the longer term. This is a powerful lever for change, particularly when considering that good nutrition is integral to the success of the ambitions laid out by the various SDGs. Successfully delivering against nutrition-focused targets could unlock growth in developing markets and create an enabling environment for achieving the broader SDG agenda. This may in turn help companies to deliver enduring shareholder value in a way that does not undermine their corporate sustainability commitments.

So, given the insights provided by this report, what can businesses do that have the potential to make a practical and effective impact? There are three main action points around which the private sector can galvanize its efforts and work in partnership to deliver a meaningful impact.

The first action point is a basic requirement to be proactive and make supportive interventions with existing and future workforces, ensuring that staff are well fed and have appropriate facilities for breastfeeding and childcare. Beyond that foundational commitment, the second action point is to work to build impactful and well-governed partnerships to work within local communities and deliver outcomes at an appropriate scale. The third and final action point sets out the importance of reporting. Businesses should thoroughly assess the impacts of their operations, investments and influence. They should be transparent about those impacts and report both on the current situation and the commitments made to deliver on measurable targets.

Malnutrition is a scourge; it negatively impacts individuals, families, societies and economies. Now is the time to align corporate, government and third sector efforts to consign it to the past. We just need leaders to be bold enough to seize the opportunity.