Friday, 30 March 2012

Why should politicians care about child undernutrition?

By Andrés Mejía Acosta

There is a consensus that sustained government action is needed to ensure the provision of public goods and promote development goals. But what exactly is behind “political will”?  What makes local politicians willing to deliver public services? And to whom?

IDS researchers have been trying to understand political commitment to tackling child undernutrition. Many countries are formally committed to reducing child undernutrition. So why have some made rapid progress towards this goal while others have not?

Analysing Nutrition Governance

Our work on Analysing Nutrition Governance explores the institutions, frameworks, funding sources, motivations and coalitions that make stakeholders willing to cooperate with one another in the quest to end child malnutrition.

We tested whether ownership by local political elites is key to making nutrition policies sustainable, responsive and effective. We conducted more than 150 interviews with elected and non elected government officials, NGOs, media, academics and donors across six countries: Brazil, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Peru, and Zambia. 

What incentives push local politicians to respond to citizens? During one of our interviews, the mayor of Ayacucho, in the Peruvian highlands explained: "In the past, it was never a priority to work for children because they do not vote, but now we realize their mothers do" (Ayacucho, November 2010). 

Elections, political parties and legislatures

The comparative evidence shows how political institutions shape whom politicians are accountable to. Electoral rules, party organisations or decentralised structures determined the motivations for improved accountability.

  • In Ethiopia, local authorities were found to be directly responsive to the central structure of the country’s single ruling party (the EPRDF). Local authorities depended on the party for funding, candidate nomination and political survival.
  • In Bangladesh local authorities were focused on cultivating good relationships with Members of Parliament in Dhaka from whom they could obtain funds to deliver some public services and cultivate voter loyalties.
  • In India, local linkages with party leaders at the state (provincial) level usually trump linkages with national leaders in Delhi. The electoral connection with voters is also very important for local authorities. In both cases, caste-based representation is key to explaining political allegiances.
  • Only in Brazil did we find mayors willing to respond to the needs of their citizens for the provision of social services. This is not surprising given the success of Brazil’s flagship social programme Bolsa Família. But why were mayors from different parties willing to endorse a programme set up by the Workers' Party (PT)? The politicians we spoke with agreed that the electoral benefits outweighed political differences.

Nutrition governance and the role of political organisations

Unexpectedly, we found that organised political parties with strong voter linkages can provide quality public services. Organised parties can mobilise the necessary resources, incentivise career politicians and protect their loyal constituencies over the long run.

In Peru, the government was able to make very rapid progress in reducing undernutrition, but did so by delivering nutrition services without the participation of political organisations. Ironically, Peru is the only Latin American country in recent experience where an incumbent government or its political party did not reap the electoral benefits of having delivered a successful social programme to the population.


A forthcoming report will outline what we can learn from the six countries that we studied. Networks such as the Scaling Up Nutrition movement can learn from nutrition governance how they can better support and sustain government efforts to tackle nutrition.
And what happened to the mayor of Ayacucho? He was re-elected by a narrow margin in 2010, one of the small number of mayors in Peru who held on to their posts.

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