The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan under the chapter ‘Principles of Policy’ includes ‘wellbeing’ and ‘security’ as a constitutional commitment.
Despite this reference, the basis of wellbeing, which is health, nutrition and food, is missing from the manifestoes of almost all political parties. A manifesto is a succinct documentation of a political party’s ideology, prioritised goals and the theory of change. The document shows how a political party sees various pressing national issues and concerns, and how serious it is in addressing those issues. Furthermore, a manifesto reflects how a party plans to mobilise capital, taskforce and policymakers and other influential personnel for attaining the desired results. Hence, the absence of this particular issue, especially nutrition, in the manifestos reflects the priority of parties in addressing this problem.
There is a need at all platforms to understand that without a healthy nation, there can neither be economic advancement, nor growth. It is evident that with a high ratio of malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies in a country, the growth of a healthy population is not possible. The Global Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index (HANCI), based on 22 indicators related to government’s spending on different sectors and other socio-economic indicators, has classified Pakistan among countries with very high stunting levels, ‘serious’ status on the Global Hunger Index (GHI), and showing low political commitment. Even countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam are placed better on this scale than Pakistan.
Recent surveys and research show that Pakistan is persistently faced with high, rather worsening, burden of malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, particularly among women and children. The National Nutrition Survey reflected that one-fourth of the population is under-nourished; two out of every five children are malnourished and the national stunting prevalence rate is 43.7 percent. The findings indicate that next to India, Pakistan has the highest number of severely wasted children. According to the most recent estimates by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 37.5 million people in Pakistan are not receiving proper nourishment. Micronutrient deficiencies paint a similar dismal picture.
On the other hand, one of the studies conducted by a research centre revealed that only 10 percent of the health budget is spent on nutrition, of which 10 percent is allocated by the government and 90 percent is contributed by Pakistan’s development partners. In order to address this grave and alarming situation, a number of interventions are proposed under various sectors, out of which food fortification is the most cost-effective and easy way. Literature evidence suggests that the process of fortification has proved to be quite successful in combating malnutrition in various countries. In the context of Pakistan, there is a need to explore more opportunities in this sector in the form of different types of food that can be fortified and can be easily made available to marginalised communities.
This trend of malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies in the country identifies the urgent need for politicians and policymakers to prioritise the issue and take immediate interventions to improve the situation. Malnutrition can be noxious for the economic growth of a country as it is directly linked with many socio-economic indicators like poverty, illiteracy, unemployment etc. Considering the seriousness of the issue, political parties should make it a high-priority agenda and visibly mention it in their manifestos. Their documents should clearly depict the party’s future targets and financial commitments with budgetary allocations for activities concerning the issue – the most important is ensuring an enabling environment for provision of fortified food.
Evidence from countries such as Chile, Mexico, China, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam show that through political will and commitment, adoption of new laws and regulations is possible to reform health and nutrition schemes and upgrade their indicators.
Elections are fast approaching and a countdown has already begun. Political parties will publish their manifestos and make numerous promises to pull in votes. All the parties will commit to bringing change in the lives of people. But there is a desperate need for them to emphasise and prioritise on core issues like nutrition, with the simplest intervention of food fortification, in their manifestos. There is no doubt that ‘nutrition for all’ as part of any political party’s manifesto can make a profound impact on the nutrition status of the entire population. This would result in a healthy generation and consequently a healthy economy.
It is evident from the literature that enhanced political will and commitment among political actors and policymakers is one of the most important factors in achieving national and international goals and putting the country on a sensible course of development and growth.
The writer is a public health consultant.