13 November 2017

Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) – the 2017 Global Gathering: Inspiration, Connection, Progress and Love

I just returned from the 2017 SUN Global Gathering (GG) in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. This three day meeting brought together teams from all of the 60 SUN member states, the four Networks (civil society, UN, donors, business—including a few GAIN colleagues), the SUN Movement Secretariat, the SUN Movement Executive Committee (which I am a member of) and the Lead Group (the highest level officials and champions, chaired by UNICEF’s Executive Director, Tony Lake).
This was the first GG since 2015 and the first held in a SUN member country. Its objectives include to energise and inspire, to reconnect and network, and to learn and reflect. The GG did brilliantly on the first two, but we could, in my opinion, improve on the “learn and reflect”.
On the energise and inspire front, the GG was remarkable. For instance, we had the Vice President of Cote D’Ivoire, the former President of Tanzania, many ministers from Africa and many other senior government officials from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Tony Lake was also present for the full three days, testimony to his dedication. These senior politicians and officials (such as Akin Adesina, the President of the African Development Bank) talked with great passion, authenticity and fluency. They knew the core facts: malnutrition affects one in three people, is responsible for nearly half of all under five deaths, leads to losses in GDP of at least 11 percent and investing in preventing it yields benefit cost ratios of 16:1. They weren’t speaking from scripts they were speaking from the heart and from a place of pragmatism (malnutrition is holding our economies back). This was mightily impressive and it is too bad that the top officials from donor agencies were not present to witness it.
But inspiration was not just restricted to these folks: for example, we had a junior Parliamentarian, 15 year old, Spectacular Gumbira from Zimbabwe (a well named, amazing and powerful speaker, completely unfazed by an audience of 900 people), Myriam Sidibe a powerhouse behaviour change advocate from Unilever and Catarina de Albuquerque, Executive Chair of Sanitation and Water For Allmaking connections into the WASH sector.  In addition, a range of inspirational nutrition leaders were honoured by Sight and Life and by SUN, including Ellen Piwoz from the Gates Foundation who won two prizes, both richly deserved.
On the reconnect and network front, the GG did a great job. There were the marketplaces that were set up by all 60-country members, the long breaks in-between sessions, the network meetings and the well-chosen venue with plenty of meeting spaces. Having the meeting in a SUN member country also gave the proceedings a feeling of balance. People like me from European and North American organisations were not able to dominate the proceedings—this was a country first meeting, where egos and logos were checked at the door. The feeling was one of solidarity not hierarchy; one of ideas, not protocol. There was, as David Nabarro (Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General on Agenda 2030 and former SUN coordinator) put it, a lot of love. And I would add solidarity, too.
On the learning and reflection front there was a good session on nutrition in fragile contexts and how SUN could be more relevant, there was some progress on getting civil society and business networks talking to resolve issues around due diligence and accountability of businesses, and there was a short plenary on the new Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning (MEAL) resources for guiding us along the SUN theory of change. Despite this, and this is solely my own view, we could have done better on the learning and reflecting front. This really matters greatly, as we know more about the damage malnutrition does, than what works to combat it.
For example, there are some big questions looming which we did not really take on:
  • SUN is scaling well and thinking more about impact, but what about its sustainability beyond 2020, which marks the end of the current funding cycle? Can we really call ourselves a movement if we are so reliant on donor funding? Shouldn’t some of the direct funding for SUN infrastructure come from members (to be fair, I know much of the indirect funding does already come from members)?
  • The double burden of malnutrition is rapidly increasing—the latest Global Nutrition Report (2017) counts 60 percent of countries facing significant burdens of undernutrition (under five growth faltering or adult micronutrient deficiency) as well as overweight/obesity. That percent is likely to grow before it diminishes, so what is the SUN movement’s response? What will we do differently? Can we shy away from the difficult but inevitable discussions which surround curbing some of the unhealthy dietary trends driving this?
  • Urbanisation is growing rapidly in Africa as elsewhere—this presents both an opportunity and a challenge to nutrition—what does the SUN movement need to do adapt? For example, SUN already has Indian States as members, should it also invite cities to be members?
All in all the GG was a great success. The SUN Coordinator, Gerda Verburg, deserves a great deal of credit for her energy and her “telling it like it is” style.  Her team did a superb job of making all the thousands of moving parts mesh together well.
I leave you with one positive and I believe insightful reflection someone shared with me at the end. It was that at the first GG, country members looked a bit bewildered—what is this SUN Movement and what does it mean for me? Country representatives knew what they needed, but were less sure of how to articulate it and to negotiate for it. In Abidjan, they said, it felt as if the country members were in control of the movement: there was a clarity from them about what was needed from others, a confidence on the articulation of those needs and an abundance of know-how on what to do to secure the needed support.
And this country driven approach is essential to Scaling UNutrition. SUN’s ultimate success will be measured in terms of whether it contributed – at the country level – to mobilising additional domestic and external resources to nutrition advancement, whether it contributed to existing resources being spent more effectively and whether it contributed to nutrition being increasingly seen as a core driver of the SDGs. We must never forget that SUN is a global movement.  That means movement the world over as well as movement in more “global” circles. The movement marches on!

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