Global Policy and Programme Guidance on Maternal Nutrition: What Exists, the Mechanisms for Providing It, and How to Improve Them?


  • Roger Shrimpton

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Global Community Health and Behavioral Sciences, School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA, USA
      Roger Shrimpton, PhD, Urbanização Zona Alta, Lote 1, Apt 3D, 8700-270 Olhão, Portugal. E-mail:
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Roger Shrimpton, PhD, Urbanização Zona Alta, Lote 1, Apt 3D, 8700-270 Olhão, Portugal. E-mail:


Undernutrition in one form or another affects the majority of women of reproductive age in most developing countries. However, there are few or no effective programmes trying to solve maternal undernutrition problems. The purpose of the paper is to examine global policy and programme guidance mechanisms for nutrition, what their content is with regard to maternal nutrition in particular, as well as how these might be improved. Almost all countries have committed themselves politically to ensuring the right of pregnant and lactating women to good nutrition through the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Despite this, the World Health Organization (WHO) has not endorsed any policy commitments with regard to maternal nutrition. The only policy guidance coming from the various technical departments of WHO relates to the control of maternal anaemia. There is no policy or programme guidance concerning issues of maternal thinness, weight gain during pregnancy and/or low birthweight prevention. Few if any countries have maternal nutrition programmes beyond those for maternal anaemia, and most of those are not effective. The lack of importance given to maternal nutrition is related in part to a weakness of evidence, related to the difficulty of getting ethical clearance, as well as a generalised tendency to downplay the importance of those interventions found to be efficacious. No priority has been given to implementing existing policy and programme guidance for the control of maternal anaemia largely because of a lack of any dedicated funding, linked to a lack of Millennium Development Goals indicator status. This is partly due to the poor evidence base, as well as to the common belief that maternal anaemia programmes were not effective, even if efficacious. The process of providing evidence-based policy and programme guidance to member states is currently being revamped and strengthened by the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development of WHO through the Nutrition Guidance Expert Advisory Group processes. How and if programme guidance, as well as policy commitment for improved maternal nutrition, will be strengthened through the Nutrition Guidance Expert Advisory Group process is as yet unclear. The global movement to increase investment in programmes aimed at maternal and child undernutrition called Scaling Up Nutrition offers an opportunity to build developing country experience with efforts to improve nutrition during pregnancy and lactation. All member states are being encouraged by the World Health Assembly to scale-up efforts to improve maternal infant and young child nutrition. Hopefully Ministries of Health in countries most affected by maternal and child undernutrition will take leadership in the development of such plans, and ensure that the control of anaemia during pregnancy is given a great priority among these actions, as well as building programme experience with improved nutrition during pregnancy and lactation. For this to happen it is essential that donor support is assured, even if only to spearhead a few flagship countries.