UNICEF and Nutrition: What Do We Want From It?

UNICEF What we doI was invited to the annual meeting of UNICEF nutrition leaders from around the world.  It was a bit like an episode of Marvel’s “Avengers Assembled”  — I had met so many of these great professionals at various stages in my own working journey. It was great to see them assembled in one place.

I had been asked by Werner Schultink, UNICEF Nutrition Chief, to speak to the topic of “What does the global community expect of UNICEF? How should it respond?  My powerpoints are here.

What do I expect of UNICEF on nutrition?

1. Leadership.  Nutrition is flavor of the month right now, but leadership is speaking up for nutrition when no-one else is doing so and UNICEF has been very good at doing that pre-2008.  Keep doing it, even if everyone else is. More importantly, help us keep our feet on the ground.

2. Innovation.  As Michael Anderson said at the IFPRI Forman Lecture last year, one can get carried away with innovation.  Many times we just want people to do their job.  But UNICEF has been a pioneer in so many areas: from the conceptual framework, to rights based programming, to using mobile phones and to being involved with the Power of Nutrition and UNIT LIFE financing facilities for nutrition.  Keep asking yourselves and the rest of us: “what’s next?” in nutrition.

3. Measurement.  While I don’t believe what gets measured always matters, we need to measure what does matter, and UNICEF is a fantastic fundraiser for surveys: from the regular MICS to one-off surveys in Maharashtra and the Indian nationwide Rapid Survey on Children.  The GNR tells us that 40% of countries have anthropometry data that is at least 5 years old.  Imagine what that statistic would look like without UNICEF.

4. Documenting stories.  In an era when research fashions have sliced and diced the change landscape, we need organisations like UNICEF to commission comprehensive stories of change or stasis.  If Kenya has just generated impressive declines in stunting, what has generated them?  There will be a self serving element here–the commissioned work can tell UNICEF about their role (and if good, provide some promotional material) but the wider service to the field is to describe, analyse, inform and inspire everyone else.  More please.

5. Support to countries.  I have seen the invaluable long term support UNICEF has provided to Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Ethiopia.  They do it in a way that respects country leadership.  Changing nutrition outcomes does not take as long as we sometimes think, but it does require 7-10 years of constant support–and this is an eternity for some governments and donors.  UNICEF is patient.

6.  OK before you wonder if I have been paid by UNICEF to write this blog (nope), what could they do better?

* work across sectors better.  UNICEF is in a privileged position–they are not constrained by sector . So can they make the most of this liberty?  Some of the UNICEF staff were very open–they could do better, but this would require support from UNICEF Res. Reps.  Hey, if UNICEF cannot do it within their organization, how can the rest of us do it across organizations?

* help us all chart a pathway through the double burden terrain.  More and more countries are struggling with the realities of the coexistence of under and overnutrition.  What should they do?  Be blind to it or blinded by it? Neither.  We need a clear eyed vision, and UNICEF with their focus on health systems and schools can help.

* help us navigate another rocky terrain–business involvement in nutrition.  When to stick or twist?  And how to minimize the risks with doing either?  Because much of the controversy surrounds the role of business in marketing products to infants and young children, UNICEF has to speak up and help develop some norms of behavior. Get more involved in the private sector debate.

* help us lock in the current high commitment to nutrition.  This means making more noise about the lack of nutrition in the SDGs.  UNICEF is a stone’s throw (literally) from those haggling over the SDGs.  Sharpen those elbows.

* help us make SMARTER commitments on nutrition.  There is a big pledging moment coming up in Rio in August 2016.  With a few exceptions, the nutrition community is not brilliant at making pledges that we can be held accountable for, so UNICEF maker your own commitments water tight and then help the rest of us to.

In many ways UNICEF is our moral compass on nutrition.  Its influence and size are increasing: nearly $0.5 billion of spending on nutrition, 500 nutrition professionals world wide.  These are numbers that we could only have dreamed of 10 years ago.  But with power comes responsibility.  In 3-5 years UNICEF will need to show what is has accomplished with this strong wind at its back.  The time to start measuring is now.  I have no doubt that the organization will rise to the challenge.


This post was written by Lawrence Haddad and first appeared on Development Horizons

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