25 September 2017

Gaga for UNGA?

This past week I have been at the annual UN General Assembly (UNGA) meetings in New York.  This is when more than 100 Heads of State and Government come to the UN HQ, setting off a scramble to meet senior leaders from governments, development agencies, NGOs and businesses.  It has been described by the New York Times as “speed dating from hell” and “the world’s most tedious cocktail party”.
I found it neither of these things.  The speed dating bit is true, but if you organise it well enough (thanks to Laure Walsh in my office!), it is speed dating with who you really want to meet rather than with people you have to put up with.  Hell can be avoided.  And the need to connect on a human level, explore an alliance, or close a deal within 15-20 minutes is quite exhilarating.
And as for cocktail parties, for a boundary introvert/extrovert like me they were easy to avoid.
All in all I had “bilateral” meetings with about 30 people and went to 6-7 events. I even bumped into a member of Nigerian royalty in an elevator in my very modest midtown hotel.
So what were the takeaway points for me?  As usual these are my views, not GAIN’s, and they are partial based on who I talked to, and are coloured by my own experiences and biases.
  1. Hunger, Hidden. Five UN agencies had just released the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (by the way, kudos to FAOWFP and IFAD for welcoming UNICEF and WHO to join the report writing, and congratulations to those two for embracing food issues more strongly than ever before). Despite the report showing an increase in the numbers of “undernourished people” (the hunger numbers which are based on food balance sheets, shaped by income distribution data)–the first such rise since 2007-8, there was really very little mention of this in any meetings or events. Is the rise real? What is causing it? What do we need to do about it? I found the lack of urgency on this to be alarming. Perhaps I went to the wrong meetings, but even in my bilateral meetings few people mentioned it. Greater leadership is needed. I know the Secretary General has a lot to deal with, but what is more profound than not having enough to eat?
  2. Communicating non-communicable diseases. Prior to UNGA week there had been an announcement of the Bloomberg, Zuckerman, Gates USD 225 million initiative, Resolve, to address the leading risk factors (e.g. poor diet) linked to non communicable diseases (NCDs) such as coronary heath disease, diabetes and strokes. Perhaps this led to a buzz, perhaps the consciousness around obesity is reaching a tipping point, but there was a lot more talk about these issues than I expected.
  3. Business is no longer a dirty word in nutrition circles. Everywhere I went (and even in the most unlikely places) I heard about the need to engage critically with business if we want to make a serious dent in malnutrition in all its forms.  The world has moved on a lot in the last 10-15 years on this issue. Now there is an increased recognition by those in the public sector that business is deeply involved in nutrition through food markets and the wider economy. Conclusion: if we want them to do better things for nutrition and stop doing bad things, the best thing is to engage. And you don’t change someone’s head unless they are in the room, as the African saying goes. But big food businesses are also reeling from, and sometimes driving, the rapidity with which consumer food tastes are changing, in most of North America and Europe and increasingly worldwide.  Poor diet is one of the main  causes of poor health. And they don’t want to be seen as the next Big Tobacco.  We should engage, inform, and find alignment of interests. And if there are none, let’s be clear about it and not engage until there is.
  4. Islands in the stream. In light of a recent blog on the need to build on past commitments, I was disappointed not to hear more about the Decade of Action for NutritionNutrition for Growth, the Global Nutrition Report or the ICN2 Framework for Action.  Call me old fashioned, but if the stepping stones are laid down, we should make sure they are close together and actually lead to where we want to get to.  At the moment they are simply islands in the stream. And this gets back to first point in this blog.  We need more and stronger leadership in nutrition to build on a decade of remarkable progress.  But from where?  I have my views, but that is for another blog!
So am I gaga for UNGA? I found it helpful, and that was because GAIN colleagues, more organised than me, created a large and excellent set of bilateral meetings, interspersed with a few interesting events—not the other way around.
And the member of Nigerian royalty? She gave me her business card and said see you next year. Let’s see.
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04 September 2017

Connecting the Dots to Set Up a Decade of Impact for Nutrition

BLawrence Haddad, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and Francesco Branca, World Health Organization (WHO)

The Challenge and the Opportunity
In its first year, the Decade of Action for Nutrition has helped to generate a series of glorious opportunities for stakeholders from all walks of life to expand and deepen their commitments to advancing nutrition status.  These opportunities will play out across the world in the eight months between September 2017 and April 2018.

Citizens of all countries would benefit from this intensification of intent and action. As the Global Nutrition Report (GNR) 2016 notes, three billion people are suffering from malnutrition in at least one of its forms. Put simply, undernutrition is not declining fast enough while other manifestations of malnutrition such as obesity and diabetes are rising rapidly.

Each of the opportunities crystallises around an event designed to make it more impossible than ever to ignore the challenge of malnutrition and more possible than ever to meet it.  The events are listed below. Each of these events will no doubt be inspiring and illuminating. But will they amount to less or more than the sum of their parts?

Stepping Stone to A Decade of Impact for Nutrition
Key audience
Interest in nutrition
United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) NY, September
UN Member Governments (mainly Foreign ministries; some Health & Development ministries), UN agencies
CFS Rome, October
UN Member Governments (mainly Agricultural ministries)
IUNS Buenos Aires, October
G7 Milan, November
G7 Donors, WB, EU (head of government level)
SUN GG Abidjan, November
SUN governments & networks
World Economic Forum (WEF) Davos, January 2018
Businesses & media & government (some heads of government)
World Bank Spring Meetings DC, April 2018
IFIs, ministries of Finance
EAT Forum Stockholm, June 2018
G20 Summit; Buenos Aires; June or July 2018
Heads of Government
Probably Direct
UN High Level Political Forum; July 2018
Foreign, Development, some other ministries
Not clear

These opportunities have to compound the gains that each one makes along the way. There needs to be a steady and deliberate gathering of momentum for meaningful action. The need to reduce the suffering of billions of people demands it.

What To Do?

The question is, how to create stepping-stones out of these islands of engagement so that the Decade of Action for Nutrition becomes a Decade of Maximum Impact for Nutrition?
The meetings are too well defined to accommodate changes in themes at this stage, even if there was a willingness to do so.
So what can be done to maximise the impacts for nutrition? Imagine if the organisers of the meetings could agree to do the following:

  • Build momentum for action in three-four key topics by picking up where the previous event left off on a given topic. Candidates for topics? The G7 meeting will focus on food systems, women’s empowerment and cities, and the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) gathering will have a focus on complex emergencies. These issues will no doubt be raised at other fora—let’s link the debates.
  • Work with stakeholders across these fora to make commitments to act in these and other areas, guided by the 60 or so action areas in the Decade of Action’s Framework for Action. The commitments need not be the SMARTest at first, these can be honed later on—they key is to get public statements of intent on the table, to see what there is energy for and what is missing.  These commitments could kick start the Decade for Action, with pledges to act.
This building of momentum for action and the making of commitments for action would provide a template for each year in the Decade of Action.  Not every year will have 2017’s alignment of events – the Nutrition for Growth (N4G) and International Union of Nutritional Sciences (IUNS) events only happen once every three-four years-, but they will have a set that can be built on at the global level.  While the imperative is to convert energy at the global level into national and subnational action, it is also important to maintain the global energy. One way of feeding that energy is to provide many examples of where actions are taking place on the ground and the effects they are having.

How To Do It?

Who should do this? There is no overarching lead group for nutrition—this is sometimes a strength as it allows nutrition actions not to get stuck in top-down bureaucracy, but in this case it is a weakness as no one group is worried about weaving together all these golden strands of energy into a dazzling fabric that can support and catapult nutrition efforts upwards.

A two track process could be followed: (1) the organisers of each of these events could, this year and every year, get together and coordinate some elements of their meetings and (2) a light touch task force for the Decade of Action could be established under the leadership of, say, the UN Deputy Secretary General to provide a focal point for the efforts of all 193 UN members and to stimulate greater coordination across major events within a year and also across years to build dialogue and action to ensure the Decade of Action for Nutrition delivers a Decade of Impact.  Three billion people are owed that much—and more.

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Published 4 September 2017