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Advancing good nutrition

Advancing good nutrition

With the vision of ending micronutrient deficiencies and following a World Summit on Children in Ottawa, Canada established the Micronutrient Initiative, since named Nutrition International in 1992.  Since then, the group has opened up shop in many countries including in Ethiopia helping fulfill its vision. In Ethiopia, the president of the group, Joel Spicer, recently visited a number of its projects and reflected with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on a slew of issue, including on the role of aid, on NI’s unique approach and on Canada’s new Feminist International Assistance Policy. Excerpts:

The Reporter: You were recently in Ethiopia, visiting the projects of Nutrition International. Share with me the highlights?

Joel Spicer: The moment that stands out most for me was meeting the people in the communities where we work. It was incredible to see the energy of the people there, and I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from them about what’s working and what needs to be improved.

I spoke with a group of adolescent girls about the challenges they face in their daily lives and the difference that nutrition can make.  It always inspires me that they are willing to share some of their struggles, but also their dreams for what they want to become.  I am grateful to witness their enthusiasm and hope and it reminds me why I took this job in the first place – to fight for people like them so they have a better chance of becoming what they were meant to be and to be able to contribute fully to building a better country.

There are many aid organizations within Ethiopia. Tell me about the history of NI as well as how it delivers aid in the country?

Nutrition International started off as a three-staff Secretariat in 1992, with the goal to address micronutrient malnutrition and with a focus on vitamin A. 25 years later, we’ve grown into a global nutrition organization with 10 country offices in Africa and Asia, and activities in 60 countries around the world with over 400 full time staff and consultants..

Through our expansion, we have been able to reach hundreds of millions of people each year for example by providing 75 percent of the world’s vitamin A supply, by being a major contributor to salt iodization and food fortification programs, and by scaling up zinc and ORS and Iron and Folic Acid supplementation. We have also expanded our programs to include capacity building and to offer technical assistance to countries wanting to have new or stronger nutrition policies and programs.

Over that period we have fundamentally changed the way we approach development. We are breaking down silos by working with like-minded organizations across many different sectors to ultimately increase our reach and maximize impact. In Ethiopia, for instance, we have worked with the Federal Ministries of Health and Education to reach thousands of adolescent girls, both in- and out-of-school, with Weekly Iron and Folic Acid Supplementation (WIFAS) and nutrition education.  This year, we’ll be working with government to scale up these programs to reach 1 million adolescent girls.

We also put an emphasis on knowledge sharing. We have an in-house team of researchers and scientists who contribute to advancing the sector by sharing with the technical and global development communities their lessons and findings. We do the most good for the people we serve by working very closely with beneficiaries and community leaders and influencers. For example, we just recently launched our global campaign, With Good Nutrition, She’ll Grow Into It, which has allowed us to engage in very meaningful conversations with adolescent girls and gain invaluable information about their reality, challenges and what they truly need to thrive.

Canada is attempting to brand itself as one that believes in gender parity and you highlighted that reality when you spoke at the Hilton. How is NI putting that in practice?

Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy works to level the playing field for women and girls everywhere. Nutrition International is working in lock-step with this policy to ensure we are working towards equality and empowerment.

One billion women and girls around the world are malnourished. Women and girls are tremendously disadvantaged when it comes to nutrition. Too often, they eat last and least and for societal and physiological reasons the impacts of malnutrition fall heaviest on them. We have introduced a gender strategy to ensure that our programs address the unique challenges that women and girls face in their daily lives. Our Right Start program, which was launched in 2015 with CAD 75 million anchor funding from the Government of Canada, aims to build on that and mobilize additional partners to reach 100 million women and girls with improved nutrition by 2020.

Last October, on the International Day of the Girl, we launched our “With Good Nutrition She’ll Grow Into It” campaign, which seeks not only to raise awareness about the critical link between good nutrition and women and girls’ empowerment, but to challenge stereotypes about traditional roles for women and girls.

Within generous donors like Canada, there is a widespread donor fatigue. How are you ensuring that money spent through your organization is not ultimately money wasted?

Canadians – decision-makers, politicians and citizens alike – see the value in contributing to global development. The interest is there and is real. Canada has been a global leader in the nutrition space for more than 25 years because it knows that nutrition interventions are cost-effective; for every dollar invested in nutrition there is a CAD 16 return.
At Nutrition International we deliver evidence-based, low-cost, high-impact interventions that work. Our programs are designed in close consultations with communities, as well as with their governments, ensuring that we respond to the actual needs of the people that we serve. We invest where it matters most and monitor our programs to make sure they deliver impact. We also work with governments to support their efforts to increase their own investments in nutrition and health.

NI recently moved its regional office from Senegal to Kenya. Why was the latest move made?

Nutrition International has offices in five countries in Africa – Senegal, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. We’ve had a country office in Kenya since 2006, but we moved our Regional Office from Senegal to Kenya in 2017 to be closer the bulk of our programming which is currently in east Africa.

The new narrative in Ethiopia is that foreign investment is better than aid. Do you still think Canadian aid still has an impact, in a nation that has transformed itself not from aid but foreign investment?

Canada has always played an important role in the global development ecosystem, it’s a part of our culture to share and to help each other and to see ourselves as part of an interconnected global community. Nutrition International, being very much representative of these values, is committed to working in partnership with the people we serve to do the greatest good possible.  We believe that all lives have equal value and every person has the right to their full potential.  For us, that full potential starts with nutrition.

Our programs are designed to empower people by making them more knowledgeable, capable, resilient and healthy. Nutrition investments create a virtuous circle linking nutrition to health, to education, to economic empowerment, to equality, to peace and to stability.

Africa is on the rise, there are rapid economic development, urbanization, innovation, technology, and a wave of young people that could power the continent to an entirely new level. One of the significant risks however is that in many of these countries – malnutrition is imposing a horrific tax of the potential of the upcoming generation.  With stunting rates of 30-40 percent in some places that is millions of children whose cognitive development is compromised, whose learning outcomes will suffer, and whose job prospects will be bleak in a digital economy.  At present, Africa is the only part of the world where stunting cases among children are actually increasing; it’s now close to 60 million children by latest WHO/UNICEF/World Bank estimates.  Imagine the incredible risk associated with having that many children who grow up to be young people that are challenged to compete, to be included, and to get ahead in a changing world.  Not only is this a massive injustice, it is dangerous to social stability because inequity will increase.

What’s exciting is that this is preventable for relatively low cost compared with the massive losses that will occur due to lost potential productivity, mortality, and morbidity. With many governments having much stronger economies than 20 years ago – tackling malnutrition is within view; what is missing is the know-how, trouble-shooting, and support that a specialized technical agency like Nutrition International can work on with governments, shoulder-to-shoulder as an expert ally.  

So – we need to get beyond terms like ‘aid’ and ‘beneficiary’ to ‘investment in human capital’ and ‘partnership’.  That’s part of the change we’re seeing and pushing for because countries need to drive the fight against malnutrition if it’s going to work.