Spreading The Word On Malnutrition: How The ‘Ecosystem Approach’ Can Help In Making It A National Issue 

Spreading The Word On Malnutrition: How The ‘Ecosystem Approach’ Can Help In Making It A National Issue 

by Banuchandar Nagarajan - Saturday, February 15, 2020 06:41 PM IST
Spreading The Word On Malnutrition: How The ‘Ecosystem Approach’ Can Help In Making It A National Issue Mid-day meals being served at a government school near Bengaluru.
  • One of the cardinal mistakes stakeholders make in communicating about malnutrition is highlighting the problem alone, hoping that it will spur action.

    A more pragmatic approach would be to develop solution-based messaging, keeping political and administrative nuances in mind.

Malnutrition is a complex problem that has deep philosophical, psychological, economic, sociological and political dimensions.

More than one-third of our children under the age of five are malnourished. India ranks 102 among 117 countries in the Global Hunger Index of 2019 (though a controversial number, it nevertheless points to the fact that things aren’t rosy).

For communication purposes, these numbers should be taken as just crutches for the deep injustice that they represent. The transition from the rational to emotional is important to shift narratives.

Ecosystem Approach

There are a number of stakeholders involved in finding a lasting solution to the scourge. They include governments at the Centre, State and local levels, actors within the governments such as ministers and bureaucrats, political organizations, multi-lateral agencies, non-profits, other philanthropies and allied actors such as think tanks, academia and the media.

This is apart from the human agency of the people that are affected.

In such a scenario, it is important to take an “ecosystem approach”. Stakeholders at every level should be involved to trigger a virtuous communication cycle. For each player, there should be an understanding of motivations and synergies.

Tailored messages delivered through appropriate communication channels are important. Every organization should play its part.


One of the cardinal mistakes one makes in communicating about malnutrition is highlighting the problem alone, hoping that it will spur action. For reasons explained in part 1 of the series, it doesn’t cut the ice.

A more pragmatic approach would be to develop solution-based messages: The situation is “x” and there is evidence to improve it to “y” through the intervention of “a”.

The intervention and the imagined future, rather than the problem, should be the story. It may sound simplistic to many, but it is a pervasive flaw in communication with respect to health and education.

Take two examples:

· Universal early initiation (within 1 hour of birth) and exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life is a huge preventive factor of childhood malnutrition

· Keeping girls in school till they are 18 works magic on many fronts — female literacy, prevention of child marriage, prevention of children with anemia, maternal health of the girl among others.

Focussing on solutions can act as calls for action. They communicate hope instead of despair.

Know thy biases

One of the oft-repeated exasperations of non-profits working in the development sector is the — “what will the right-wing government feel about it” phrase. There is a sense among the NGO community that the government is against the whole sector, which is patently not the case.

For example, the flagship Swachh Bharat has partnerships with many NGOs.

Many times, the biases of practitioners in non-profits that make them second-guess political leaders leads to sub-optimal communication strategies.

As far as political communication is concerned, it will be a fallacy to link issues with ideologies of political parties every time. Issues such as malnutrition or child trafficking cut-across party lines.

What are the risks?

Risks and perceptions of risks are two different things and are subjective in nature. As far as an issue like malnutrition is concerned, there are no real risks in narratives. One has to be mindful of not stepping in to political-wars or come across as pushing a negative agenda against the government and the country.

The objective should be on making incremental positive gains. Socio-religious mores should not be offended by interventions such as prescription of meat. Wading in to debates on Ayurveda/Unani interventions too should be sidestepped. A perception that the work specifically targets particular communities/religious groups should be avoided at best. Also, the perception that foreign ideas are imported should be taken care of.

As the non-profit engages with the policymakers, they would get a sense of where the real pushback is. They should present themselves as solution-centric and be seen as authentic partners in collective search of a solution to the deep problem.

The key is to not be too dogmatic and as Bruce Lee says, “flow like water”.


The political leaders should be made aware of the urgency of the malnutrition problem that is hindering India’s strategic, social and economic progress.

The public goodwill that the ministers will earn, their electoral prospects, their standing in the political community etc. should be tactfully pointed out during meetings.

Human capital improvement and consequent productivity gains, especially of women, will be the lynchpins of India closing on a $10 trillion economy by 2030.

As much as possible, the non-profit’s agenda should be dovetailed with government’s programmes and the leaders’ prerogatives. For the bureaucrats, the solutions should be presented in a more technical manner. A keen understanding of the existing schemes that they are in charge of is vital.

The value-add that the non-profit brings in should be presented clearly without ambiguity.

Usually, negotiations on policy and programmes involve a basket of issues. Much would depend on the options one provides and flexibility that one exhibits. The motto should be to never let the best be the enemy of the good.

Political leaders

Political leaders of all parties should be approached with conviction in ideas and solutions.

Efforts should be made to place malnutrition an important part of election manifestos and speeches of leaders.

Showing results in strategic constituencies, such as Varanasi or Nagpur, under the present regime increases the chances of institutional support. Interventions with the use of technology are also much highly sought after in this government.

In the recent budget speech, the Finance Minister referred to the monitoring of the POSHAN Abhiyan in 6 lakh anganwadis.


The media can help in correcting many wrong narratives. For instance, deaths due to malnutrition are usually reported as deaths due to attendant diseases. Orientation of journalists towards using precise words can make a lot of difference.

Non-profits should repeatedly communicate success-stories through the media. It may be in the form of op-eds, quote plugs of the leadership team, panel discussions etc. done periodically.

The news cycle should be keenly watched to look for opportunities to plug in malnutrition as a debating point.

Also, separate independent campaigns through TV, FM radio, newspapers, hoardings, celebrity endorsements etc., could be planned.

A well thought out social media plan is very vital. Needless to say, leaders from all walks – political, private and the media – actively follow updates on social media. It becomes the first point of contact with any organization.

Highlighting success stories becomes important.

Non-profit ecosystem

Within the ecosystem, a clear mapping of all multi-lateral organizations, NGOs and philanthropies is important. Talks, conferences and events of such nature have to be mapped and an active engagement should be initiated.

Purposeful engagement with academicians, economists and researchers in think tanks not only for sharing of ideas but also for communication purposes needs to be explored.

Experts are usually called to speak to the media and in various fora. It would help to liaise with leaders in media organizations that set the news agenda as well.

Field communication

Field workers should be constantly updated through messages and periodic workshops.

To communicate to the last mile with the actual target audience, contact, roaming vans, radio addresses etc. could be explored.

The youth in the locality with access to smart phones can be targeted through small videos through mediums such as TikTok that are shareable on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.

Nuanced messaging for shift narratives

A nuanced understanding of perceptions is required for successful messaging. For example, there might be a view that India’s fast growth and poverty reduction over the last two decades would automatically solve the malnutrition problem.

Though not entirely untrue, the fact that economic growth will have to be coupled with special attention to children in vulnerable sections has to be placed forward.

More detailed analyses on “perception landscape” and a “policy landscape” needs to be conducted for precise communication.


We would have wondered many times why do socially important issues such as health and education not evoke the same emotive response that is in display on relatively trivial issues like sports and entertainment.

Instead of brooding too much on eccentricities of the human mind, it is imperative to focus diligently on creating a dent in the current narrative.

It is achievable only through a collective effort of the ecosystem.

We started the three part series with Rashtrakavi Subramanya Bharathi, and we will end with him as well. He sings thus from the depths of his heart on wasted potential, which might as well be the echo of a poor child’s cry:

நல்லதோர் வீணை செய்தே - அதை
நலங்கெடப் புழுதியில் எறிவதுண்டோ?!

சொல்லடி சிவசக்தி - எனைச்
சுடர்மிகும் அறிவுடன் படைத்துவிட்டாய்

வல்லமை தாராயோ - இந்த
மாநிலம் பயனுற வாழ்வதற்கே

சொல்லடி சிவசக்தி - நிலச்
சுமையென வாழ்ந்திடப் புரிகுவையோ

Will a beautiful veena be made -

Only to be tossed to rot in the dust?

Tell me O Sivasakthi -

You created me with blazing intellect

Give me strength -

To live to be of use to this society

Tell me O Sivasakthi -

Will you make me live as a burden to earth?

Banuchandar Nagarajan is a public policy adviser. An alumnus of Harvard University, he has worked in the World Bank, PwC and the UN. Follow him @Banuall.

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