Every person suffering from hunger is one too many – in conversation with Gerda Verburg

Every person suffering from hunger is one too many – in conversation with Gerda Verburg

Former Dutch politician Gerda Verburg recently took up the position of Coordinator of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement. We recently spoke to her to learn about her work at SUN: a movement that inspires a new way of working collaboratively to end malnutrition, in all its forms.

In recent decades the global community has made significant progress to eliminate hunger and malnutrition. Yet why is an unacceptably high number of almost 800 million people still without sufficient food?

I agree this is truly unacceptable; every person suffering from hunger is one too many. There is a number of key issues to take into consideration in this regard.

First of all, the growing population. In 2050 there will be over 9 billion people populating this earth.

Secondly, an overwhelming majority of people without sufficient food are small subsistence farmers in rural areas where supplies are insufficient and climate change hits hardest. Meanwhile services focus more on cities.

Just recently we begin to really understand how malnutrition hampers growth. Malnutrition impacts brain development, health and brings down labour productivity.  Especially the devastating impact of malnutrition in the first 1000 days from conception, both physically and mentally, is becoming clear. Governments start acknowledging this and take ownership, breaking down departmental silos to develop coordinated plans to tackle malnutrition. In this way they may realize four to five percent increase of GDP.

Lastly there has been insufficient attention to organising food chains. Africa suffers 30 percent to 40 percent food losses, predominantly from small farmers. We need to reduce these post-harvest losses by investing in processing and storage close to the farms. That will bring employment, food and development. A clear win-win.

The SUN Movement rapidly expanded since its start in 2010. Fifty-seven countries are now committed to scale up nutrition and work collectively. What has been key?  And which challenges has SUN faced up until now?

We are making good progress. To increase traction, it is crucial that the process is transparent. We need to monitor, create and disseminate facts and evidence between countries to make sure everyone can learn from and be inspired by others. The realisation that nutrition is strongly related to economic growth provokes acknowledgement of the necessity to act. Overwhelming evidence shows that economic progress depends on the talents and capacities of the population. Nurture, love and food fuel these capacities. Just the other day I heard an African finance minister say, “I need the tax money from the people in my country, so they should be productive and thus healthy.” This involvement of not just the health department, but also agriculture, finance and others is a breakthrough.

Do not underestimate the importance of nutrition for the other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is a no-regret investment, a connecting theme that fuels the other SDGs.

What is the key strategy of SUN 2.0.? How can you achieve impact, replication and scale?

SUN 1.0 brought together the actors within the countries such as government, private sector, UN organisations, research and civil society organisations. Together we created platforms and broke down silos. The evaluation on this has been very positive. The next step is getting measurable and scalable results at country level.

It is important to realise the aim of SUN 2.0 is a high level of ownership of results. We bring sectors together. Coordination preferably takes place at the office of the president or prime minister. Together the actors make an integrated plan for nutrition across various ministries. For example by targeting early childhood, emphasising the importance to allow nursing mothers to eat first instead of last, as is often the custom. We assess which stakeholders are needed in the communities. Furthermore, we engage the private sector media, academics and civil society organisations. And last but not least countries need enough financial means in their designated budgets.

An independent report commissioned by the SUN Movement stated “There continues to be a plethora of overlapping and insufficiently coordinated and coherent international initiatives on nutrition” and “There has been only slow progress in addressing issues of coherence and coordination among UN bodies concerned with nutrition.” Can you comment on that?

Every UN organisation has its own mandate and contacts with national governments. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) have the Ministry of Agriculture as their main entry point; the World Health Organisation (WHO) communicates with the Ministry of Health. In this field we also need to bring parties together to promote collaboration between UNICEF, WFP, WHO, FAO and IFAD. There is lot of ground to cover in joint planning, monitoring and supporting the inter-sectoral ambitions of national governments ensuring their local ownership.

How do you manage the risk of increasing complexity due to extra coordination, when bringing down the barriers?

There are no guarantees for that. This is new for people and it is always frightening to leave one’s comfort zone. However, it is enormously stimulating to make focused plans and achieve results. We will celebrate successes through naming and faming.  It is rewarding for everyone to read a report on global nutrition stating how you are improving nutrition while at the same time your country’s GDP is growing. I will be first in line to compliment people. If you leave your comfort zone but notice someone else is not, then your trust evaporates. Therefore, you need to be transparent in the cooperation. You need to show the results you achieve.

What can the global community do to support the production and consumption of balanced nutritious food?

It is twofold. For one, in developing countries you have to make sure to get the food chains organized. Nowadays with hunger prevailing in rural areas, people migrate to the city only to find out their chances in life are still limited, leaving rural areas depopulated. Therefore we have to support the development of communication infrastructure, education and childcare and hard infrastructure ensuring smallholder farmers can access markets. They are entrepreneurs. Therefore, look at them as such and not as beneficiaries. Women need education and – among other things - access to land, this can reduce hunger for 50 to 150 million people.

And then there are the developed countries who need to reduce food waste and address obesity. Obesity rates are growing rapidly and it is all about attitude in life. We are grazing all day long, while hanging in front of the TV. Our food consumption has no linkage whatsoever to our activity level. These things have enormous impacts on our health and economy. However, most western countries are not reacting to this properly. Awareness is necessary, it needs to be thought through and they should share their experiences with middle- and low-income countries. They struggle with both hunger and obesity nowadays. A growing number of inhabitants who were stunted as a child, become obese at the age of thirty.

We have talked about hunger and obesity, how about food safety, especially in cities?

In my view, vibrant rural areas are the best guarantee for the food supply to cities. Urban agriculture attracts a lot of attention at the moment, but it is not a key factor.

Food safety is extremely important. It is targeted by FAO and WHO and they are establishing international safety standards. We need awareness and dialogue, combined with enforcement of rules and regulations.

Here I see a role for private companies. When you provide farmers with the right materials, they will produce in a more resilient way which will prevent a lot of problems. My first action therefore would be to get the bosses around the table and start a constructive dialogue.  I want to push back on talks that export standards are just meant to protect western agriculture because the world needs international standards improving internal markets as well. To call this protectionism is lazy advocacy and avoiding the dialogue and responsibility. It will bring us no further. We need to be prepared to develop new pathways and to engage in constructive dialogues with governments, the private sector and civil society.

SNV’s Sustainable Nutrition 4 All approach aims to improve nutrition through behavioural change, sustainable agro-biodiversity, women’s empowerment, and multi-sectoral policy development. What is your advice as to how SNV can contribute to balanced and nutritious diets?

SNV’s approach is extraordinarily comprehensive. Too many initiatives are going on behind the backs of governments. SNV connects all in-country parties involved. Added to that, SNV has a good reputation, ending their intervention only after continuity is secured.

What is also challenging at this moment is ensuring alignment of different donors with government plans. Donors often still have their own priorities and need encouragement to align. SNV and other implementing NGO’s can align amongst these donors.

In addition, the ability to measure results in a coordinated manner is crucial. What we need is an inclusive and integrated approach to data collection without overburdening local communities.

The SDGs contain a lot of indicators.  My urgent plea is to make sure data collection will be inclusive and transparent. By bringing all stakeholders together, not just the ministry of statistics, you start a debate and create a common understanding as to how results are measured using clear indicators. We must avoid endless debates in hindsight in order to share and learn lessons.

What are your personal plans for the coming years as coordinator of the SUN Movement?

It is time to roll up our sleeves. Things are always too slow for me. Enough talk, let’s move on and create scalable results with sustainable and durable impact for people at the community level.

I will focus on country results. My role is to support, encourage, name and fame, ask critical questions, pour some oil in the machine and make parties work together, to make hunger and malnutrition history.