01/31/2011 03:59 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

This Generation's Sputnik Moment

Around the world, food prices are surging, with protests breaking out across Northern Africa and the Middle East. Against this backdrop, the scourge of malnutrition continues to ravage more than one billion people globally, contributing to more than three million deaths in children under the age of five each year -- a number equal to the entire population of Chicago.

Adding up these deaths and the preceding incapacity, malnutrition costs the world billions in lost GDP and productivity each year. For a young child, the impact is more personal. Without adequate nutrition in the first 1000 days of life -- from conception to age two -- she will lose over 10 percent of her lifetime earnings.

During President Obama, State of the Union address this week, he called for recognition of this generation's "Sputnik moment," recalling a time when Americans focused their minds and economic resources on creating unrivaled technological breakthroughs in the latter half of the 20th century. And, as much as we need these technological breakthroughs to generate economic opportunity and mitigate the waste of a diminishing supply of natural resources, we must not lose focus on bringing to scale cost-effective solutions available today to mitigate some of the world's greatest challenges.

In my own experience at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, I have found the greater challenge is building effective multi-stakeholder platforms that bring together public and private sector actors around a common cause. Developing the skills to work in these diverse, multi-cultural, and often decentralized partnerships takes years of experience and experimentation, but are well worth the effort. For when these multi-stakeholder initiatives work, they transform nations and communities where no single actor has the capabilities to accomplish the goal alone.

For example, in less than a decade, through the power of public-private partnerships, GAIN has been able to scale our operations by investing in and working alongside more than 600 companies. In total, this includes 36 large-scale collaborations in 27 countries, reaching almost 400 million people with nutritionally enhanced food products. These investments are not only improving lives, they are returning profits for our private-sector partners, demonstrating the sustainability and cost-effectiveness of our market-based investments.

These partnerships cut across geographies and types of organizations. They include pacts with large multinationals, like Cargill India, which currently reaches 25 million people each month with fortified vegetable oil. Meanwhile, fortified Baladi bread in Egypt ensures that 45 million individuals are getting the micronutrients they need to thrive. GAIN also works with regional manufacturers, such as Britannia in India, where more than 600 million people are now being reached with their fortified biscuits and bread products. Finally, our direct investments in both local medium-size enterprises and social mobilization activities have increased both access and demand for these products.

In short, global organizations interested in impact should focus less on "whom" and more on "how." Effective partnerships can involve global partners, local ones, and sometimes both. It's about determining how to most efficiently accomplish your goal and then dividing responsibility along the lines of who is most capable and can ensure the impact is sustainable.

I've spent this past week in Davos, Switzerland, where each year, thousands of the world's leaders in businesses, philanthropy, media, government, and academia, gather for the World Economic Forum to share ideas and makes plans to address the largest opportunities and challenges facing the planet. On this big stage, leaders shared successes ranging from sustainable green technology in remote regions of the world to simple micronutrient solutions to improve the health and well-being of generations. For the newest generation in the developing world, these opportunities are the start of their "sputnik." We must take these proven and tested cost-effective solutions and scale them to reach every vulnerable woman and child in every corner of the world.