Linking WASH, Nutrition and Agriculture: Indicators to Measure Progress Across SDGs

IMG_1425Many development actors and United Nations Member States have suggested – where possible – that indicators for the SDGs measure progress towards more than one target, or be “multi-purpose.” On March 27th, the International Coalition on Advocating for Nutrition (ICAN) hosted a discussion at the UN titled Indicators with Impact: how to measure nutrition in the post-2015 development agenda. CONCERN Worldwide, Action Against Hunger, The Hunger Project, Farming First, WaterAid and WASH Advocates co-organized a follow-up discussion on Thursday, April 23rd about inherent linkages between nutrition and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and agriculture during a week of negotiations about Financing for Development and Means of Implementation. Attendees and panelists discussed how indicators for these three sectors can meaningfully measure progress to ensure a sustainable and comprehensive Post 2015 framework.

With only 15 years to meet this agenda, efforts will require broad scale-up of effective partnerships, the realization of national ownership and efficient methodologies.

In her opening remarks, moderator Åsa Skogström-Feldt, CEO of The Hunger Project, stated that the development community knows that “nutrition-sensitive agricultural interventions address both hunger and nutrition, and failure to address WASH issues can undermine both nutrition and food security…These issues are inextricably linked.” Åsa challenged attendees to ensure that solutions – and the way in which we measure progress towards them – acknowledge interlinkages and address the root causes underlying the manifestations of hunger and poverty in all of their forms.

Susan Carlson, Chair of the Women’s Committee of the World Farmer’s Organization set the context for discussion as a female farmer herself and representative of rural, farmers’ voices from the Global South. She urged that agricultural initiatives seek to shift subsistence farming toward sustainable livelihoods through an increase in funding and investments from a variety of actors to ensure adequate commitments.

Indicators in the UN Statistical Commission’s preliminary list for target 2.2 for nutrition do not reference lactating mothers and two indicators on target 2.4 address climate change mitigation but omit adaptation, resilience, and the vital topic of soil quality referenced in the target. Improving these indicators to more holistically measure progress will not only uphold the targets and their goals, but also offer a significant avenue of opportunity for partnerships between actors focused on value-add for nutrition and WASH.

Expounding on gaps in the current draft of the SDG indicator framework, Dr. Andrew Trevett, UNICEF’s Senior Adviser for WASH, stated that a crucial and clearer global indicator for water security – as it affects food production and the linkage to time poverty – is missing. Improved water supplies and access yields increased productivity of small farmers and opportunity for economic empowerment of women [in rural areas.] Current WASH priorities in the SDGs include elimination of open defecation, universal access to basic water and sanitation, raising service levels to deliver safely managed water and sanitation services and progressive elimination of inequalities. WASH access – as it reduces exposure to fecal pollution – is critical for improved nutrition outcomes, especially stunting in children and pregnant women’s retention of nutrients.

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These points brought the discussion full-circle to the driving topic of this event: nutrition. Hien Tran of Global Policy and Advocacy at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation returned after speaking on the previous event’s panel about specific nutrition indicators that can be broadly and feasibly applied across sectors at both the global and national levels.

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On this panel, Hien focused on the conceptual approaches to selecting the best indicators for the Post 2015 framework, noting that they must be sensitive to differing national capacities: “We can see how the integration of these sectors paves the way for partnership opportunities, thus improving [our] shared capacity to strengthen the implementation of the Post-2015 Agenda.” Looking at nutrition in its simplest form – with respect to agriculture – Hien highlighted a “feedback loop,” wherein nutrition-sensitive agriculture can provide an accessible supply of diverse, nutritious foods, and improved nutrition leads to better health which can help improve productivity on the farm. The glue in this “feedback loop” is the inclusion of WASH, reinforcing Dr. Trevett’s point that without safe water and adequate sanitation, any possible gain in improved nutrition will be undermined by water-borne diseases and unclean conditions.

So, what implications do the inherent linkages between WASH, nutrition and agriculture have in determining [the best] indicators for the post-2015 framework? Hien noted that considering policy implications across sectors is particularly important because it has been emphasized that developing indicators is a technical process, and rightfully so. However, the technical process must be informed by a very strong, complete, and nuanced understanding of linkages and policy implications across sectors.” The baseline criteria for indicators is that they be methodologically sound, outcome-focused and allow for global comparisons. But, the value of an indicator is not only in its effectiveness in measuring progress for a particular target, but also how policy implications from the interventions underlying a particular indicator apply to progress toward other targets.

Hien used the example of an indicator for the prevalence of stunting in children under 5, which will solidly measure progress towards ending all forms of malnutrition (target 2.2). This indicator captures a non-income dimension of poverty as stunting reflects cumulative effects of inadequate food intake and poor health conditions that result from exposure to unsanitary environment common in communities living in endemic poverty. The implications from initiatives to address stunting have implications for eradicating poverty in all its forms as well as measuring progress toward target 1.2 to reduce – at least by half – the proportion of all persons living in poverty in all its dimensions (according to national definitions).

Those living in poverty – the people at the heart of what the SDGs are intended to address – face multiple burdens, thus programmatic interventions cannot ignore these overlapping challenges. The selection of indicators must reflect and take this into account.

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