Young Scholar Profile: Anastasia Marshak

Anastasia is working to better understand why many children in Africa’s drylands[1] suffer from acute malnutrition (when children are too skinny for their height). Anastasia’s background is primarily in quantitative methods, survey design, and analysis; however, during several years of research in the Sahel on child malnutrition she found that many of the assumptions that were implicit in the design and approach to studying acute malnutrition were not apparent in the data. Furthermore, there was little evidence of improvement in national levels of acute malnutrition despite significant investment in both humanitarian and development support. This led her to question some of the d highly prevalent assumptions in the field of nutrition in Africa’s drylands:

  • Most literature is based on a frequently untested hypothesis that the peak of acute malnutrition corresponds to a time generally referred to as the hunger gap, which occurs right before the harvest when food stores are low. However, the primary cross-sectional and longitudinal qualitative and quantitative data Anastasia collected in Chad over the last six years and 20 years of secondary nutrition data across Chad, Sudan, and South Sudan paint a very different picture. These data show that the peak of acute malnutrition actually precedes the hunger gap, which has implications for the drivers of acute malnutrition that programs should address, and equally importantly, the timing of those programs.
  • Typically, nutrition programs target households based on indicators of poverty, characteristics of the household head (i.e. female headed), having a malnourished child, etc. and ignore the characteristics of the community in which the families live, which relate more closely to water access, community history, livelihood specializations, etc. Anastasia’s research is showing that preventing malnutrition likely requires changes across entire communities, not just families, because causes of malnutrition are found both at the community and at the household level. The much sought after ‘one-size-fits-all’ model likely cannot effectively prevent malnutrition and might actually undermine the impact of nutrition interventions. Anastasia’s studies of livelihood-based and community-focused approaches are showing that the drivers of acute malnutrition vary throughout a year in the same community and between communities, even when located close together. This means that interventions need to be developed for specific seasons and communities. One approach alone cannot end acute malnutrition in drylands.

If these assumptions are incorrect, it may explain why the humanitarian and development communities have failed to reduce malnutrition rates below emergency levels in many drylands countries.

Anastasia is determined to understand what is driving these high levels of malnutrition to help save children’s lives. Her research shows that access to water, quality of water, how households use water, and management practices of livestock in close proximity to water sources are potential causes of malnutrition and might be driving the pre-hunger gap peak in acute malnutrition. While previous research has identified and considered these drivers, Anastasia’s focus on dryland environments is unique because she applies quantitative longitudinal data collection and analysis along-side qualitative inquiry and secondary remote sensing data (such as rainfall, temperature, and vegetation). This approach allows her to explore how and why these drivers might be different in locations that are relatively close to each other and at different times of the year in the same locations.

Anastasia’s work also has important methodological implications. It demonstrates the need for longitudinal (following the same households or children over time) quantitative and qualitative data collection coupled with available secondary data. It further shows that the current standard of cross-sectional surveys (a snap shot in time) might misinterpret the way drivers change during different seasons and in places.

Given that the drivers of acute malnutrition require an understanding of multiple disciplines (including agriculture, microbiology, nutrition, environment, and livelihoods), methodologies, and contexts, it is fruitless for one individual to undertake this work on their own. Anastasia has always partnered with experts from different sectors and fields to help her think through theoretical frameworks, consider hypotheses she might have missed, and apply different methodological angles. Working at the Feinstein International Center, and Tufts more broadly, Anastasia works side by side with these experts so she can learn from and build on their work and ensure that her work with vulnerable populations is considerate, useful, and ethical. Anastasia’s research on the seasonality of acute malnutrition and its drivers aims to improve the evidence upon which nutrition programming is based to hopefully increase its effectiveness.

The Feinstein International Center is seeking support for young scholars like Anastasia who have unique skillsets to pursue their own hypotheses on critical global issues. With support, these young scholars can push the humanitarian field forward by promoting the use of contextually rooted and tested evidence rather than assumptions in operational and policy responses to crises.

[1] African drylands include Sahelian and east African countries where climate variability is extreme, rainfall is erratic, and seasonal temperatures are always above 70°F and regularly go above 120°F.

Anastasia is one of Feinstein’s Young Scholars that we are seeking funding to support. Learn more about Anastasia and her research here.