Nutrition for Growth Summit 2021 – what growth, and for whom?

By guest author Helene Schmutzler

The Nutrition for Growth Summit 2021 was a continuation of business-as-usual: the neoliberal capture of high-level political events to promote Western-led and finance-focused pseudo-solutions. 

The Nutrition for Growth (N4G) Summit took place on December 7-8, 2021, as the culminating event of the #NutritionYearofAction. The N4G Summit is an international, multi-stakeholder conference that promotes nutrition-related issues. The Summit takes place every few years; the first was held in London in 2013, the second in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, and the third in Tokyo this year, after being postponed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the Summit offered mostly meaningless and empty political rhetoric, from expressions like “leave no-one behind and “we must act now”, to endless self-praising about how bold the actions and commitments from the Summit attendees were, arguably representing “unprecedented political will.” Of those commitments that were made, one aspect stood out: they align with the N4G Summit’s highly finance-focused agenda. The neoliberal, Western-supremacist notion of “development” and financial fixes has struck once again in high-level politics. 

The situation is dire

The N4G Summit comes at a crucial time, as we are halfway through the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition, with merely 4 years remaining to achieve the World Health Assembly nutrition targets, and just 9 years to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) that are part of the UN’s Agenda 2030–including SDG 2, which aims for “zero hunger.” According to the World Health Organisation, over 3 million children die from malnutrition every year, and the N4G Summit organisers have warned that the current number of one in three people suffering from malnutrition might even worsen to one in two over the next few years. Malnutrition is a human tragedy and has detrimental long-term social effects for affected individuals’ life expectancy, life quality, education, and employability. 

The motto of this year’s N4G Summit was “Food, Health, & Prosperity for All.” The Summit’s main objectives were, first, to set the global political agenda to implement measures to improve malnutrition in developed and developing countries, and second, to compile commitments from politicians and the finance sector. To this end, the two-day conference was based on securing pledges. The different sessions were always accompanied by extensive time allocated for commitment-making rounds for countries and other stakeholders. So what came out of these commitment moments?

The short answer is very little. But those pledges that were made followed a classic, finance-focused approach to tackling nutrition issues. 

N4G’s empty and finance-focused commitments

The pledges made by stakeholders were overwhelmingly devoid of real content or concrete policy objectives. Although some governmental representatives mentioned relevant causes of malnutrition, including inadequate access to clean water and stable food sources, these were not followed up on with commitments to social protection regulations or policy directions. Instead, speakers vaguely mentioned trying to change health, education, and agricultural systems, with the support of technical and financial guidance from donor countries. For example, while Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo, president of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chairperson of the African Union, offered specific targets (e.g. reduce the national malnutrition rate from 42% to 33% by 2030), he did not specify how his government would actually achieve these goals. Without delineating a policy pathway, numbers are meaningless and illusory; this should never be the case when we talk about people’s quite literal livelihoods and survival. Most other speakers–governmental and non-governmental actors, and from both donor and receiving countries–made similar speeches lacking in content. 

Another trend that became apparent during the Summit was the insistence on finance and investments as the predominant means to tackle the problem of malnutrition. Finance and monetary support were at the heart of the nutrition vision and commitment-making of this Summit. The Summit organizers stated that “not enough is being invested and the need could not be more urgent.” Throughout the Summit, various financial tools were presented, such as the World Bank’s Sustainable Development Bonds

Pledges that promised monetary investments were praised especially highly by the Summit’s organisers. After the first day of the Summit, the moderator explicitly saluted the EU, Canada, Ireland, the USA, Australia, and Germany as donor countries that have made financial pledges and interpreted these as signs of willingness to tackle malnutrition, confirming that these countries, in particular, don’t want to “leave anyone behind.” This logic operates under the false premise that pumping money into an inadequate system will somehow solve the very system that has caused the current situation. This does not help with finding meaningful solutions to the problem, and, in fact, it may actually contribute to exacerbating this unsustainable system, harming people and the planet.

Tackling malnutrition as an economic opportunity? 

Throughout the Summit, speakers emphasised the economic losses through malnutrition on the one hand, and economic gains through “investments into people” on the other hand. For instance, the prime minister of Timor Leste, Taur Matan Ruak, said that “malnutrition is not only bad for human health but also economic systems.” Further, adequate nutrition would “improve human capital.” Sheikh Hassina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, stressed that “investment into nutrition can generate high social and economic returns.” And David Malpass, President of the World Bank Group, stated that “nutrition can boost shared prosperity” and that “investments in nutrition during the early childhood stages prevents the erosion of human capital.” This rhetoric positions the millions of people currently affected by hunger, food insecurity, and nutrition-related health issues as individuals that are not (yet) contributing their part to the capitalistic system — as an economic conundrum that needs to be resolved. 

Further, the thematic session on Finance and Accountability set the role of money and investments even more on the political agenda. Dr. Meera Shekar, co-chair of N4G financing thematic working group and a representative of the World Bank Group, insisted that financing for nutrition has been consistently inadequate and that we need togenerate more money for nutrition, and deliver more nutrition for the money.” Why? Because childrens’ lives and national economies depend on it. The supposed economic gains from a well-nourished society can be huge–according to her calculations, up to 5.7 trillion US dollars by 2030. Moreover, she presented various options to mobilise such financial resources for nutrition, such as repurposing current funds that go into agricultural development. As a best practice example, she mentioned Japanese life insurance companies that invest in the World Bank nutrition funds. 

It seems as if governments and private businesses are only interested in solving the malnutrition crisis if there are profits involved. The Summit’s organisers seemed to be aware of that, and hence purposely encouraged the explicit connections made by speakers between investments into nutrition and economic gains for national economies.

Summit twins – the connection between UNFSS and N4G 

The N4G Summit also dovetails with the controversial 2021 UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS). In the run-up to the UNFSS in September and the N4G Summit in December, organisers held joint workshops and meetings, and there was significant overlap between the invited speakers (for example, Christine Campeau, a Global Advocacy Director and chair of the UNFSS Action Track 4: Advance Equitable Livelihoods). The two Summits even delivered a joint public statement that stresses the importance of addressing all forms of malnutrition and published a document that delineates the interlinkages between the Summits. The N4G Summit attendees even repeatedly expressed their gratitude to the UNFSS for creating the relevant momentum for nutrition issues to surface and be addressed. 

The close and purposeful alliance between the two Summits is highly problematic, especially since the N4G Summit stresses that the major aspect that the two events have in common is the involvement of a wide range of stakeholders – the very thing that the UNFSSS was criticised for. UNFSS was co-created by the World Economic Forum, a worldwide private capital interests group, and encouraged the participation of big industrial groups such as Nestlé, Tyson, and Bayer–a seemingly inclusive “multistakeholder” approach that actually privileges those actors that have created food crises in the first place. The N4G Summit organisers claimed that they were inspired by the wide range of multi-actor collaboration during the UNFSS. In theory, the N4G Summit also invited a broad range of stakeholders to the table, from national governments, international organisations, academic institutions and think tanks, to civil society, philanthropists, and private businesses. Yet, like UNFSS, the N4G Summit gave much more weight to the private sector than to other civil society actors. 

Obvious biases in the speakers’ list – Private business, development banks, and philanthropists as the “teacher’s pets”

Those who paid close attention to the invited speakers, speaker sequence, and allocated speaking times would immediately notice a concerning fact in regard to who speaks for civil society. Spearheading the civil society section of the programme, Bill Gates, on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, opened with 4 minutes of speaking time, followed by David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme, and Michiel Bakker, Vice President of the Global Workforce Program of Google, with 2 minutes speaking time each. Similarly, private and public development banks were given several minutes each to present their commitments and views. This was followed by a compilation of short video clips from 13 humanitarian, civil society organisations, ranging from 12 to 30 seconds each. 

This obvious imbalance reflects and reproduces the broader pattern of overlooking the voices of civil society collectives and instead paying disproportionate attention to private businesses and development banks in global development politics. The N4G’s proud commitment to “multistakeholderism” was thus nothing more than a desperate ruse to superficially meet societal demands for high-level political inclusivity. 

Concluding remarks and outlook

Essentially, the outcomes of this Summit mean that for the next few years, we can expect various relevant stakeholders to continue pumping money into a system that we know does not work–the literal embodiment of blindly throwing money at a problem. What we see is a blatant continuation of high-level events that promote Western-led and finance-focused pseudo-solutions. In order to avoid ending on a disheartening note, though, I want to invite us to transform our frustrations about this into positive, political action. Faced with the bitter after-taste of this Summit, we must make renewed political demands against a system that privileges economic interest over people’s needs, and we must continue to promote an alternative vision of our food and nutrition system. 

Let us speak out and demand: People and Planet over Profit!


Additional readings

For an overview of political developments and key moments in the nutrition and health sector since 2010, please click here

A brief article about the N4G Summit: link here.

For a very uncritical contribution by UNICEF, WHO, and WFP: link here.


Author bio: After finishing her degree in International Relations and Organisations, Helene is currently studying for a M.Sc. in Sustainable Development at the KU Leuven. Specialising in the intersection between geography, ecology, and society, her studies focus on environmental justice issues and land contestations. Helene’s own research is about land grabbing in capital-intensive regions in Europe. On the side, Helene works in an NGO in Brussels that does advocacy work on organic and regenerative farming, agroecology, and sustainable food systems. In her spare time, Helene is part of an urban gardening group as well as a food saving network that collaborates with various stores in Leuven to collect and distribute otherwise wasted food. She feels most at ease in the midst of a joyful, vibrant street protest, but also enjoys relaxing jam sessions in the park with her friends. 

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