A few of our investors and volunteers had the chance to spend an ‘evening at the pub’ with Dr John Coonrod, Executive Vice-President of The Hunger Project (THP) during his short visit to London on 2 December.
John was able to come to spend some time with us in London as part of a European Tour to participate in international conferences and symposiums including ICN2, The Second International Conference on Nutrition.
John starts his discussions on how 2015 marks the transition from the Millennium Development Goals, which have been largely successful, to the bolder and more long-term aims of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDG’s are a more comprehensive, crowd-sourced set of goals over topics such as local governance. They are to be officially signed and agreed upon in September and, while scientifically achievable, John and THP still have a long year ahead to make sure everyone gets on board and recognises their importance.
One of the most well-known and characteristic facets of The Hunger Project is its belief in tackling poverty through an integrated approach, where issues of international development are not treated as independent and so should not be treated as such. Despite the evidence of its effectiveness, this philosophy is not always an easy one to grasp in terms of its benefits and just how it can work. John gave us some succinct examples of where it really makes a difference:
- Women’s lives. Learning to read gives a woman massive potential, but she can do nothing if she has no time to learn or use this literacy to empower herself. Clean and close water supplies, health centres and day-cares for the children, and more effective labour systems as well as many other factors must be out in place in order for literacy to benefit.
- Nutrition. School feeding programmes do ensure reduced stunting but efforts are diluted if you simultaneously can’t prevent girls from being married and getting pregnant at fourteen years old.
- Climate change resilience. In order for communities to survive the looming impact of global climate change, communities need education, good governance at all levels, and to become mobilised and organised in a way that would allow small farmers to tailor their crop choice and management to better suit the new climates.
Following with an elaboration of the issue of nutrition, and how an integrated approach is necessary, John discussed how important nutrition is in THP’s work and the difficulties facing it. In particular he talked about South Asia where problems such as child marriage and more generally women’s right are still prevalent. In fact it is possible to view the problem as a cycle that can only be broken by an attack from all sides.
One problem with tackling widespread malnutrition is its inherent invisibility; it is often ignored as it is not immediately obvious to those that need it that they are lacking it. Given that THP works from the ground up, addressing what the communities want to be addressed, this lack of causal transparency can be a problem. This further shows the importance of education in place in order for positive decisions by local government bodies.
John recounted the story of a study Guatemala (Hoddinott et al, 2008) where the effects of malnutrition, though near impossible to spot in infancy, have profound impact on health and later income as a result of underdeveloped cognitive skills.
We know that changes in this field are very possible and that THP has already made great strides in this area, especially with the Thousand Days project. John told us the story of a Bangladeshi THP volunteer who gives two-day workshops in the households of young families, using lesson kits to teach them all about breastfeeding and toddler nutrition and the later economic and health benefits. Thankfully, she has been a real hit and can’t keep up with the demand for her lessons!
Though there are some social and cultural blockades, change does happen: in Bangladesh, a country where two-thirds of all marriages happen under the age of eighteen, in the last two years not one has occurred in a village where THP works. This just demonstrates that above all other beliefs and customs people want what is best for themselves and their children and are willing to fight for it when they are mobilised into action.
We are excited, therefore, about the SDGs and the impact they will have in helping people have sustainable control over all aspects of their lives, understanding what is rightfully theirs and how they can make the most of it.
Dr John Coonrod: Based in Washington. Johns oversees The Hunger Project’s major research and advocacy projects including the 2014 State of Participatory Democracy report.
John joined The Hunger Project as a volunteer in 1977 and joined their staff in 1985 after working as a physicist. As such he has built up a unique understanding on the subject of global development and how it has changed over time.
He has shared his extensive knowledge in lectures at universities such as Columbia and Princeton as well as at the United Nations and various global conferences. John has been interviewed by BBC, CNN and NBC and has written articles for Huffington Post.