February 16, 2017 | By Alesha Black

Keep Your Eyes on the Ball

The world lost a tremendous storyteller last week when Hans Rosling, famed data scientist from Sweden, passed away. Hans did more to illuminate the true condition of the human race and our story than almost anyone I am aware of, and he often did it with his famous brightly colored “balls” moving in a hopeful direction along the X or Y axis. He showed that contrary to our frequent fear that the world is heading downhill, the arc of history is bending in the direction of improved conditions for most of us and the hope of an even better life for our children.

Hans’ powerful messages about improvements in child health and reductions in hunger and poverty are not only heartening, they give strong footholds to people looking to devote their lives to actions that would better our world. Hans also helped direct our attention to the tools most responsible for these grand improvements, such as vaccines and clean water. In a world confronting innumerable problems and armed with a seemingly endless list of possible solutions pleading for support, his work was wonderfully clarifying, and it put wind in the sails of those working hard to keep moving forward. Two of his greatest students, Bill and Melinda Gates, have followed Hans’ lead this week by telling the bigger story using many disparate datasets and a few personalized data points: families and individuals intimately affected by the conditions of poverty—or their fortunate escape from it. You’ll find this in their Annual Letter, released on Tuesday, which grants a glimpse into the way Bill and Melinda think about their mission: complete with Hans’ famous ‘balls’ and even a few personalized notes in the margin.

As someone who worked at the Gates Foundation for much of the last decade and is now working at the Council, which receives support for some of our work from Gates, I’m invested in seeing an accelerated pace of positive global change. And changes are visible. More than 120 million children’s lives were saved since 1990 thanks to a whole host of coordinated efforts across the globe. But the reality of hunger, maternal and child deaths, and other indicators show us that unacceptable conditions persist and we have to keep probing the data for the best and fastest ways to remedy them.

Chief among Bill and Melinda’s takeaways was this important realization: improving nutrition for the vulnerable leads to one of the best returns on investment for those who seek to change the world—but this intervention has not received the attention it deserves. Malnutrition is a contributing factor in nearly 47 percent of the deaths of children under 5 around the world. Even in 2017! 

Here at the Council we are persistently reminding policymakers and other food security actors of the importance of investing in agricultural development and support for small-scale producers around the world. That is because agriculture has a disproportionately positive effect on reducing poverty compared to other sectors—it's a high-return investment. And over the years, the Council has added a nutrition focus to this core message because success is more than ensuring enough calories. Our senior fellow Roger Thurow started to explore this issue in 2013 after research for his book on small-scale agriculture revealed the concerns and struggles of mothers in rural areas trying to provide the best start for their children. He dove into the interconnected web of issues that lead to a well-nourished child, from nutritious diets to breastfeeding practices to clean water and money for an unexpected trip to the medical clinic. This work coincided with a growing avalanche of global evidence showing the astounding impact of poor nutrition on the crucial developmental window from early pregnancy to two years of age. Roger and the Council were glad to join the ever louder choir calling for more and larger action to improve the nutritional status of our most vulnerable populations. In an effort that might make Hans proud, the release of Roger’s newest book, The First 1,000 Days, attached stories and names to what are often all-too-anonymous data points.

Perhaps as a global community, we have failed to scale up nutrition security efforts in the past because many of us did not understand the cumulative impact of small actions early in life on that individual’s whole life, future generations, and even the economic development of their home country. In fact, child stunting (which has serious, irrevocable physical and mental development consequences) has cost some countries up to 11 percent of their GDP based on lost productivity and economic activity. And because success in nutrition depends on the actions and commitment of those involved in agriculture, health, water, and sanitation, it has challenged the global community to work together in new ways. It requires coordination and commitment, and it definitely requires bold action and leadership from those in public policy.

In 2013, the Nutrition for Growth Pledge showed that governments around the world are waking up to this critical issue, and many advocates are calling for groups such as the G7 to increase attention to food and nutrition security again at its 2017 summit. This important focus was also affirmed by the inclusion of a goal around stunting in Sustainable Development Goal 2. We see movement by those in the global agriculture and food space to do their part to realize a nutrition-secure future, but we know there is a long way to go still with nearly a quarter of children still finding themselves victims of the irrevocable effects of stunting.

We also know this: data must inform policy priorities and stories must animate the data to move hearts and minds. The powerful combination of the two help us keep our eyes on the ball so that it might keep moving in the right direction. As the Council’s Global Food Security Symposium 2017 nears, we are preparing data for our annual report, curating great conversations to advance policy, and deploying our resident storyteller Roger Thurow to illuminate the human impact underpinning it all.

We hope you will be part of our story this year, through following or participating in our blog series, tweeting your reactions, and of course, joining us online or in-person at the Symposium on March 29th and 30th. We look forward to seeing you there.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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