The Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement, which has been instrumental in rallying national efforts to end malnutrition, is now pushing for greater international support and funding to shore up those domestic plans.
Gerda Verburg, the coordinator of the SUN Movement, said the focus of her first two years in the position was building up multi-sectoral alliances at a national level to tackle the problem of malnutrition. As she enters her third year in the position, she says the goal is to broaden those alliances to include more international donors who can help bring country-level ambitions to scale.
She also highlighted the need to build bridges with the private sector – a position that is not popular with some nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups. But working with the private sector could tap into additional resources and encourage systemic reforms of policies that undermine global nutrition goals, she said.
Verburg spoke to Malnutrition Deeply on the sidelines of the EAT Forum in Stockholm.
Malnutrition Deeply: You’ve just been reappointed as coordinator of the SUN Movement for another term. How would you reflect upon your last term and what are you looking to accomplish next?
Gerda Verburg: I entered the movement in August 2016, and what I found was encouraging, which means that the nutrition agenda is driven by the countries themselves. The government[s] and I think the 60 SUN Movement countries have the strongest ownership of nutrition but also of the Sustainable Development Goals, and that’s encouraging because the whole idea is that countries drive their own future.
But having said this, I notice that bringing the right people together is something, making them work together is a different piece and doing the right things is the next step. Having done this with the government in different sectors – health, education, agriculture, social protection, economic development, planning – you need to also bring the stakeholders. If you don’t bring society on board, you will not manage to implement it at the right level, in order to make it a systemic approach instead of the projects and programs that have been implemented so far.
I think in many countries, we have the systems in place and now it’s a matter of investing from the domestic budget, making sure that the other donors and investors are aligning investment with the government, and then focus on impact, and scaling up, making good examples of applicable, scalable, but also measurable impact. And that’s where we are right now.
Malnutrition Deeply: So it’s fair to say that your agenda is really about better coordinated action?
Verburg: Coordinated action, collaboration, meanwhile building trust, not first investing years in building trust, but identifying a joint agenda, create a common results framework and then move on.
Malnutrition Deeply: What have been the biggest challenges to coordinated action?
Verburg: It is still a challenge, and it is to get the right demands. What do we expect from the private sector? We want the big companies to produce better food and to do more healthy marketing. But if they come to us and say, “We want to become part of the solution,” do we create the right demand and say, “OK, this is our step-by-step approach”?
We don’t want to only enforce food companies, we want to enforce the whole private sector, because if you get nutrition right, you are also on your way to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. So, now we are asking all our companies to make sure that [they] are championing workforce nutrition, meaning having a nutritious package, and support for their workforce, but also their families, have decent maternity leave, and have decent breastfeeding room space.
Malnutrition Deeply: Many of those who are more on the NGO and activist side of the issue are still quite skeptical of the private sector, especially food companies, especially around the marketing of breast milk substitutes. Have you seen the private sector improving? And what’s your response to that skepticism?
Verburg: Not yet, but they are not challenged enough right now.
And to the NGOs, I would say, I can understand you, but I don’t agree with your strategy, because, of course, many companies are part of the problem. But if you look at the challenge of the future, you have to realize that without the private sector companies, making private sector companies part of the solution, we will not get there. They are very powerful.
So NGOs, they need to step out of their comfort zone, just like the private sector, and we have to be very ambitious with them, in order to become part of the solution. My dream is that, right now, private sector companies would be the ones who do good under the pull for social responsibility, but within 10 years, all of them need to have moved doing good [as] proper social responsibility to the core business philosophies.
Meaning that they have to rethink their key business pace, and not only serving their investment and shareholders, but serving their workforce, their consumers, society and the planet.
Malnutrition Deeply: The whole arena is looking for new ways, better ways, to measure nutrition outcomes for specific interventions. Is there anything you’ve learned or observed that you think holds promise?
Verburg: I am strong advocate of bringing the indicators and the data system together. Because you create confusion by developing a data system here and [another] data system separately. My strong feeling and what I see at country level is the need to bring all people together, and to agree to one data system, and one baseline.
Malnutrition Deeply: What do you think it should measure?
Verburg: It should measure stunting, wasting, anemia, investments, food systems, agricultural production, education. We have developed actually such a system, and it has a nice name: It is called MEAL. It is: monetary, evaluation, accountability and learning, when it comes to nutrition. And it has a lot of public indicators.
This is the baseline, then you can start to focus on doing better, and the MEAL system gives immediately a picture of the country. There is a dashboard per country, so you can see where do we have to move and how can we do better.
Malnutrition Deeply: Some countries like India are still apprehensive about joining SUN. How are you convincing them to be part of the movement?
Verburg: The point is, we do not reach out to countries to convince them; it’s the other way around. I think it’s regrettable that we have very vocal NGOs in India that think that with the SUN Movement you bring in the private sector. It’s just not the case. If you become a member of the SUN Movement, as a government, you commit to work on nutrition in a multi-sectoral way, involving the different stakeholders. But if you, for reasons that are your own responsibility, don’t work with the private sector, [then you] don’t work with the private sector.
I think there will be a moment that they want to work with the private sector, but we don’t impose anything on them. The only thing we want is ownership at the government level, and our experiences that you need to bring the different sectors together.