No single solution nor single source of the problem

There’s a recent TED Talk soundbite that goes like this:

“…In a world as complex and interconnected as the one we live in, the idea that one person has the answer is ludicrous. It’s not only ineffective, it’s dangerous because it leads us to believe that it’s been solved by that hero, and we have no role. We don’t need heroes. We need radical interdependence, which is just another way of saying we need each other.” 

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

It’s a similar lesson Kimberly Seals Allers spoke to during a Milkshake Mondays Facebook Live session where she comments on the New York Times piece Climate Change Tied to Pregnancy Risks, Affecting Black Mothers Most and a laboratory creation intended to replicate human milk which just raised $3.5 million from Bill Gates’ investment firm.

In reference to the despicable maternal child health outcomes for birthing and lactating Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), Seals Allers implores us to stop having “this very individualized conversation about what is happening to Black women.”

“There is so much involved,” she says. “There is no single solution, and there never was a single source of the problem.” 

The ideas of interconnectedness and multi-dimensional challenges apply perfectly to this year’s World Breastfeeding Week’s (WBW) theme Support Breastfeeding for a Healthier Planet. Environmental and human health are intricately intertwined.  

It’s a tangle that calls for more than reduction, reusing and recycling.

Through an equity lens, Seals Allers uses Bruce Bekkar’s, MD, et al research to ask questions like “Why are there factories mostly in Black and Brown neighborhoods? Why were Black and Brown people driven to heavily populated urban areas?”

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

The association between air pollution and heat exposure with preterm birth, low birth weight, and stillbirth in the U.S., demonstrated in Bekkar’s research, is heavily influenced by systemic racism.

“Compounding the added risks from warming and pollution, Dr. Basu said, research has shown that minority communities tend to have less access to medical help and that minority patients tend not to receive equal levels of treatment,” Christopher Flavelle writes in the NYT piece. 

Flavelle goes on, “Adrienne Hollis, senior climate justice and health scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the problems could not be tackled in isolation.  ‘We need to look at policies that provide equitable opportunities for communities of color,’ Dr. Hollis said. ‘If you address structural racism, I think you’re going to start getting at some of these issues.’”

Seals Allers echoes: “Stop problematizing Black women; look at the systemic solutions.” 

Unsurprisingly, the “solutions” we tend to generate include pouring millions of dollars into synthetic milk instead of investing in breastfeeding and lactating people themselves. 

“It’s very disturbing,” Seals Allers comments in her Facebook stream. “The solution is not around empowering women, it’s not about getting women breastfeeding, it’s about finding synthetic solutions. [There’s ] such a disconnect.” 

Equally concerning in this case, is that the investment into a proposed solution for poor health outcomes related to not breastfeeding, comes from a climate change investment fund. Human milk is arguably the most sustainable food on our planet; why are sub-optimal, artificial substitutes getting so much funding instead of promoting policies and programs that support direct breastfeeding or pasteurized donor human milk

 Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee.

The conundrum goes beyond the years of milk feeding onto complementary foods which offer corporations new opportunities to target families with Ultraprocessed Foods (UPF). Like artificial milk substitutes,  UPFs pose environmental threats: processing takes natural resources and generates waste. Moreover, UPFs are often heavily marketed in underserved communities, so poor health outcomes continue to be compounded.   

Healthy Children Project’s Cindy Turner Maffei recently attended a webinar sponsored by the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India  (BPNI) and the Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPI) on UPFs and their relation to obesity, diabetes, and other health dangers. 

“Presenters from India, Brazil, and Australia shared insights on the health impacts of UPFs, about the market and social forces at play, and also what we can do to advocate reduction in use of these engineered foods,” Turner-Maffei reports. “Brazil in specific has incorporated decreasing UPFs into their dietary guidelines and restricted use of government funds to purchase these foods for school food programs.” 

BPNI and NAPI offer their document on UPFs here

BPNI has also created a WBW action folder.  The document contains information on the carbon footprint of breastmilk substitutes and offers interventions required to support breastfeeding at four levels: policy makers, civil society and breastfeeding advocates, hospitals and doctors and parents. 

Nothing is relevant if we don’t have a hospitable planet. Breastfeeding and appropriate, unprocessed complementary feeding are the roots of a healthy ecosystem that all humans benefit from. 

For more on interconnectedness read Breastfeeding and parallel advocacy. Explore more on infant feeding and our environment here and here.

How to support world’s coordinating authority in setting global health norms

I have a friend who describes her experience wading through the pandemic as paralyzing. 

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

In the first few weeks of the social distancing orders, she says she found herself just standing there at times, staring off into the distance with an utter sense of loss. 

It’s a familiar feeling. Even with so much to be grateful for, there’s static that surrounds us– a heaviness that lingers around the edges, as my friend puts it. 

“It’s a pretty big presence to try to push away with positivity right now,” she counseled me. 

Amidst the stillness, what sometimes feels like paralyzation, there are actions taken, decisions made– like President Trump’s decision to halt funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) during a global pandemic— with sweeping consequences. 

Trump’s plan to defund WHO has been met with mobilization by the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) and partner civil society organizations who are  joining forces to support WHO. You can read IBFAN’s full statement of support to WHO from April 11 here

Patti Rundall is the Policy Director Baby Milk Action, Global Advocacy IBFAN.  

“We have been one of the most outspoken NGOs, calling for WHO to adopt a sound conflict of interest policy to safeguard its independence and resist the unjustified influence of powerful interests, be they commercial or political,” she writes in an email to Our Milky Way.  “…All our criticisms are focused on supporting WHO in its unique role as the world’s coordinating authority in setting global health norms.” 

Specifically, WHO “is absolutely critical to the world’s efforts to win the war against COVID-19,” as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres declares in a UN News story

Guterres goes on to say in that piece that it is “not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the World Health Organization or any other humanitarian organization in the fight against the virus.”

Bill Gates on Twitter writes: “Halting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds. Their work is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and if that work is stopped no other organization can replace them. The world needs @WHO now more than ever.” The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s voluntary contribution to WHO is second to the U.S.’s assessed and voluntary contributions. [More here.] 

Rundall adds: “WHO is needed to guide not only country responses to COVID-19 but also the host of other global threats that we face – not least global heating, new viruses, antimicrobial resistance and non-communicable diseases.” 

Rundall explains that “the U.S. is not the only nation to lobby against the much needed increases of Member States assessed contributions, but it is one of the most powerful.”

“For goodness sake, WHO’s total annual budget of $2.5bn is about the same as the budget of a large US hospital,” she puts the money into perspective.  

Even without defunding, WHO is already underfunded

Even as many of us are feeling debilitated to some degree, Rundall offers suggestions on how to take action for good. 

“We hope that US citizens– and especially anyone working in infant and young child health– will remember the critically important role that WHO has had in child survival,” she begins. “and do everything they can: write to politicians, media, social media, friends  and distance themselves from President Trump’s statements about health.”  [Link added.] 

Rundall directs us to the Society for International Development’s stance on Trump’s move which reiterates the G2H2 statement as well as an open letter of support to WHO and Dr. Tedros Adhanom Gebrheyesus in BMJ

Visit Rundall’s frequently updated policy blog here