Systems Thinking and Action for Nutrition: A Working Paper

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Date Published:
May 5, 2015
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Today the world faces a double burden of malnutrition, in which almost three billion people suffer from either undernutrition or overweight and obesity (FAO 2013). No country is untouched. Hunger and inadequate nutrition contribute to high rates of maternal, infant, and child mortality, as well as impaired physical and brain development in the young. This is often irreversible and can, in turn, lead to poor educational attainment and health into adulthood, which affects not only individual wellbeing but also the social and economic development of nations (Black et al. 2013). At the same time, growing rates of overweight and obesity worldwide are linked to a rise in chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

The United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Multi-Sectoral Nutrition Strategy (2014-2025) recognizes the “multi-factorial causation” of malnutrition (USAID 2014a), calling for multisectoral approaches. Such approaches can generate a wider range of benefits than single sector approaches (World Bank 2013). Evidence increasingly suggests that solving malnutrition can benefit from a systems approach (WHO 2009; Hammond and Dubé 2012).

Russell and colleagues stress, “System[s] thinking requires a change in mindset: recognizing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and contrasting with a traditional, reductionist approach.” This allows for a different way of approaching, interlinking, analyzing, and solving challenges that moves away from traditional problem-solving—the idea of isolating a system into smaller, digestible parts” (Russel et al. 2014). It is seeing the many components of a complex network of mutual influences. Systems thinking helps to ensure that efforts promote synergies and that they “do no harm” by anticipating positive and negative consequences. Furthermore, applying systems thinking should result in shifts in culture, policies, resources, and services across sectors, all of which are needed for increased sustainable impact at scale (D’Agostino et al. 2014).

By applying systems thinking, the agriculture sector might expand its focus to consider food security1 and women’s empowerment at the same time as the health sector might shift from a curative approach to a preventive one, collaborating with education and water to build a well-nourished society. This is a systems approach to multi-sectoral collaboration in that it engages multiple sectors in strengthening whole systems – systems thinking and action.