Just over a year ago President Bidya Bhandari of Nepal launched a new group, Baliyo (strong or mighty) Nepal, created to tackle the persistent malnutrition in the country that stubbornly refuses to be beaten.
Almost immediately a backlash hit. Local media reported that the group was a creation of the Chaudhary Group, one of whose companies makes Wai Wai instant noodles, a type of junk food that can be found in virtually every village of the country. One paper quoted a Chaudhary official saying that Baliyo Nepal would ‘improve’ Wai Wai to feed it to malnourished kids.
Advisor Aruna Uprety, a well-known local nutritionist who champions a revival of healthy local foods, quit. More media coverage alleged that the money to create Baliyo Nepal came from The Gates Foundation to the Chaudhary Group without undergoing required scrutiny from the Nepal Government.
Soon after, the story faded from the media. Then, in recent months I read that Baliyo Nepal was running its pilot project in Lumbini Province, in southern Nepal, and I invited CEO Atul Upadhyay on the Nepal Now podcast to discuss the initiative. You can listen to the episode here.
If you listen I think you’ll realise that I am suspicious of getting the private sector involved in tackling malnutrition. To me, the profit motive too often trumps the public good when hard choices have to be made.
I also think that our conversation reveals a number of issues that need to be further examined. These include:
- Introducing 6-month-old children to processed foods. (The tradition in Nepal is to feed a baby its first taste of rice at 6 months.).
- Following up to ensure that the ‘Baliyo basket’ of healthy foods includes a sizeable portion of natural foods
- Ensuring that processed foods in the basket do indeed have at least a 3-star rating from Australia’s Health Star Rating
- In general, checking that as much emphasis is put on eating natural foods as opposed to the processed ones that companies partnering with Baliyo Nepal would be inclined to push.
To be fair, Atul Upadhyay frankly discussed the possible risks working with the private sector. He emphasised that Baliyo Nepal’s work in Lumbini Province is a pilot, which could one day be declared a failure and end.
What I’m wondering is: who will be watching to make sure that the needs of the malnourished children are always the first priority?