12 March 2015

Standing Tall for Nutrition in the Netherlands

The Dutch Global Nutrition Report roundtable on March 10 was a blast.  

Over 100 people, were convened by the Netherlands Working Group on Food and Nutrition (a multistakeholder group), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Food and Business Knowledge Platform and Unilever (the event was hosted at the home of its R and D centre, where I learned they have 300 scientists!). I also learned that the Dutch are the tallest people in the world (not verified by the GNR!). 

I gave a presentation of the GNR with some added slides for the Netherlands (see here).  Then Reina Buijs, the Deputy DDG of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (in picture) presented the outlines of the new Dutch vision for Food and Nutrition policy.  We were chaired well by Paulus Verschuren as the Master of Ceremonies. 

My Dutch slides were on their financial performance (large increases between 2010-12 on commitments, less so on disbursements), N4G commitments (none on policy) and data gaps (the Netherlands is missing about 25% of the data we could expect high income countries to have on nutrition). 

I also made a quick excursion to the English language version of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website (only 27 mentions of nutrition and on closer inspection only 2 of these strictly relating to nutrition—SUN and ICN2).  

And I noted that while the Dutch were one of few donor countries to make statements at ICN2, the statement contained no SMART (specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and timebound) commitments.   I urged the Dutch to lobby harder on getting nutrition into the SDGs.  

I think the Deputy DG (a respected nutrition professional herself) took the messages on board.

I highlighted the need for food systems to be central to the 21st century’s “triple threat” of hunger and undernutrition, obesity and NCDs, and sustainable resource use and climate change.  The outlines of the emerging Dutch food and nutrition policy reflects the first and last of these threats, but, somewhat uncomfortably is silent on obesity and NCDs.  Because these issues affect domestic as well as international citizens, the question of institutional lead will be contested—here and in all high income countries.

The real star of the roundtable, however, was the “House of Commons Debate”. All of us moved to a narrow area where two long rows of chairs were placed facing each other, with a narrow aisle in between.  We were shown a series of propositions (e.g. “the first 1000 Days is the only priority for nutrition intervention”, “the Dutch government should prioritise food fortification”, ATNI should be used for naming and shaming companies that do poorly" and “the Dutch government should triple its nutrition spending”) and we had to sit on one side (agree) or the other (disagree).  

People were encouraged to stand up and explain their positions and, if so moved by the arguments they heard, to move across the aisle.  It was facilitated very skillfully by the chair of the Dutch Debating Association (who did a great job of not letting any of us steal his microphone) and it was great fun.  The questions were well framed, forcing us to choose, even though we wanted to hedge our bets (at least I did) and the format really forced people to speak, listen, and not take entrenched positions.  Wise people are known to change their minds based on solid evidence and logic, we were told by the facilitator. Come to think of it, this was much better than the real House of Commons!

Even though the questions were deliberately divisive, the atmosphere was not.  At the end I reflected that if this debate had taken 10 years ago, it would have been less civil, with less aisle crossing and some people may not have been talking to each other the next day.  I was really impressed by the passion, knowledge and sophistication of the Dutch nutrition community and I learned quite a few things from the evening’s discussions. 

We have come a long way in the nutrition community in the past decade—there is much more that unites us than divides us.   Now we have to engage with influential decision makers who do not think much about nutrition.  That is the biggest behavior change communication challenge of all.  We look to the Dutch to stand tall for nutrition. 

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