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I remember the first time I heard the term “grey-matter infrastructure” — a phrase coined by African Development Bank (AfDB) President Dr. Akinwumi A. Adesina to illustrate the bank’s increasing focus on human capital investments using language aligned with its traditional investment portfolio. Though the expression is open to interpretation, I appreciated it as an effort to frame investments in people as essential for the development of modern nations. I also understood it as a nod toward the interdependence of individuals and their overall welfare in constructing the “grey-matter” of an entire nation. It is not sufficient for some to thrive while others falter. For a nation to succeed, its collective well-being must be built and protected.

The creation of roads, railways and power generation capabilities are all essential elements of modern state building, but equally important are a nation’s people. Their invaluable contributions span the spectrum — paid and unpaid, formal and informal, young and old, rural and urban, and across all genders. These contributions form the bedrock of social cohesion, propelling the transition from merely surviving to thriving.

In my role as part of a global nutrition organization, I’ve seen the profound impact of investments, or a lack thereof, in “grey-matter infrastructure.” Through our nutrition interventions for women and girls, I’ve witnessed the transformative power that well-supported pregnancies have in shaping the trajectories of mothers and their babies, offering the promise of a fully realized life. Conversely, I’ve also seen how malnourished children or adolescent girls often face recurring obstacles and setbacks throughout their formative years, trapped in an unyielding cycle. These individuals, and millions of others like them, contribute to the robust social fabric that can either propel communities and nations to success or hold them back.

It’s undeniable that even the most sophisticated rail system, road network, energy generation program or military installation cannot compensate for poor grey-matter infrastructure. Moreover, the sustainability and domestic capacity for expanding such physical assets is wholly dependent on a thriving population. And a thriving population requires thriving women.

The fact that women’s and girls’ health and nutrition have been largely neglected within the global development agenda is not a new insight. It’s a terribly old one, repeated annually in the face of stubborn lack of progress.  We must remain hopeful, however, that a tipping point is on the horizon. While we have not yet reached that pivotal juncture, signs of growing momentum are emerging. Here are just five of the promising signals of traction I see developing that have the potential to advance women’s and girls’ nutrition:

1. Earlier this summer, a global coalition of nutrition leaders launched Closing the Gender Nutrition Gap: An Action Agenda for Women and Girls. Beyond presenting a technically sound agenda for women’s and girls’ nutrition that aligns with the priorities of the countries we seek to serve, it also represents the coming together of several actors across the development community. The framework aims to guide coordinated actions aimed at tackling the complex interplay of cultural norms, social roles, economic disparities and discriminatory practices that amplify gender related malnutrition. Nutrition International actively contributed to shaping the agenda by lending our technical expertise and input at the national, regional and global level. Our continuing advocacy efforts strive to paint a clear picture of the real and urgent nutritional needs of women and children, seamlessly translating the principles of the Action Agenda into tangible outcomes across our programs and partnerships.

2. The African Union is continuing to make significant strides in providing leadership on women’s and girls’ nutrition by spearheading initiatives, supported by organizations like Nutrition International and the World Health Organization (WHO) among others, aimed at accelerating progress on anaemia and adolescent nutrition — two areas that are among the furthest behind.

3. Maternal nutrition is experiencing revitalized interest and commitment, as normative guidelines have expanded to enable the widespread implementation of multiple micronutrient supplementation to improve pregnancy and birth outcomes. Nutrition International is seeing meaningful progress in several countries, including Nigeria and Pakistan, where we serve as an ally to national governments, supporting them in facilitating the pathway to scale.

4. The AfDB continues to prioritize ensuring that its investments are “nutrition smart.” The Bank actively supports countries to not only secure multisectoral nutrition financing, but to also apply a nutrition lens to proposals in its pipeline. Nutrition International is partnering with the Bank to build staff capacity to design and review “nutrition smart” lending packages. This strategic collaboration will bolster the Bank’s overall nutrition smart lending portfolio to over $2B in assets under management.

5. Nutrition is poised to take center stage at this year’s United Nations General Assembly meeting, slated to take place this September in New York City. From the introduction of accelerated action plans for maternal nutrition, the rollout of new campaigns aimed at addressing hunger and nutrition, all the way to the seamless integration of nutrition within discourse surrounding universal healthcare – the event will serve to solidify nutrition’s pivotal role in global health and well-being dialogues. Nutrition International will join the WHO, Scaling Up Nutrition movement and other nutrition leaders in calling for increased focus on nutrition within Universal Health Coverage frameworks, including nutrition for women and girls.

We find ourselves in very challenging economic times as countries around the world navigate the ongoing process of COVID-19 recovery, address raging inflation, grapple with unprecedented debt ceilings and confront multiple, urgent challenges that demand the attention of world leaders. However, amidst this landscape, we must remember that the choice to not invest in women’s and girls’ nutrition, rather than producing “savings,” is generating significant additional costs. These costs manifest as lost human potential, lost earnings and increased health care costs that the world will bear for decades to come.

When we invest in people, we invest in ourselves and in our nations. We make a downpayment on the world we want, for ourselves and for future generations. At a fundamental level, investing in people means investing in the nutrition that underpins social wellbeing. What investment, what infrastructure, could be more important than that?