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A UN Decade of Action on Nutrition for the years 2016–25 would serve at least two vital purposes. (1) It would help to provide a unified, crossSDG focus on nutrition-related goals and targets within the new post-2015 development framework. This is needed to ensure the salience of nutrition as a key SDG objective in what is admittedly a crowded field but one that has enormous potential for broad, concerted action if there can be a mechanism Governance 105 to establish the necessary linkages among complementary actions. (2) A UNGA declaration of such a decade would also ensure that the UN Secretariat receives the necessary directions to ensure adequate coordination of reporting, and to demonstrate credible commitment to harmonized or coordinated support at the global, regional, and country levels.
The costs of organizing and supporting a Decade of Action on Nutrition need not be great, given that the essential requirements are not for new institutions or resources for UN system coordination and support, but rather for adapting and better use of existing UN system supports. Three main mechanisms support the UN system action on nutrition: the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN), an inter-agency coordination mechanism established in 1977; the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Task Force on Global Food Security and Nutrition (HLTF), which was formed in response to the food crises of 2008 and after; and the SUN movement.
Established as a follow-up action to the 1974 World Food Conference to “provide initiative in the development and harmonization of concepts, policies and strategies and programmes in the United Nations system in response to the nutritional needs of countries”,¹³ the SCN has long been a critical support to inter-agency policy coordination, and for many years provided one of the few sustained multistakeholder platforms for nutrition (Longhurst, 2010). In recent years, it has been sharply criticized for not being able to adapt to changing circumstances and constitute itself as a mechanism for enabling sustained action at the country level; its multistakeholder platform, which featured non-governmental and civil society organizations but excluded private sector representatives, was also criticized as not conducive to the broader alliance that some organizations and several donors believe is critical to its success. The validity of such criticisms is disputed within the nutrition community, particularly in light of the current concerns about the need to establish robust firewalls around policy processes related to nutrition. Yet it is also clear that the SCN filled an important vacuum in enabling policy coordination among UN organizations and helped to sustain a nutrition focus across the UN system.
It has a long-standing reporting relationship to the UN Economic and Social Council (EcoSoc), which had little practical significance in the recent past but which can play a vital role in the revamped SDG monitoring system that is currently being constructed by member-states.
The HLTF consists of twenty-two UN agencies, funds and programmes, as well as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). It was initially formed to support advocacy and coordination of policy guidance among participating organizations, and produced a set of papers providing agreed policy ¹³ UN EcoSoc (1977). See also UN EcoSoc (1976).
106 Ending Malnutrition and programmatic guidance, including a Comprehensive Framework for Action that was twice revised. In 2013, the principals adopted new HLTF terms of reference that called for the reorganization of activity to support the Secretary-General’s Zero Hunger Challenge (ZHC). The guiding vision of the ZHC, first declared by the Secretary-General in June 2012 at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (known as Rio+20), is organized around five elements: 100 percent access to food at all times;
zero stunting in children under 2 years of age; making all food systems sustainable; 100 percent increase in rural producers’ productivity and income; and zero food loss and waste. These five elements are understood to be interdependent, and achievement of the Zero Hunger vision will require concerted action across a wide range of sectors. To highlight the centrality of nutrition objectives, HLTF members added the words “and Nutrition” to the official name of the HLTF in March 2015. Although never officially endorsed by the UNGA, the five elements of the Zero Hunger vision have been fully incorporated with modest amendment in the SDGs, four under the targets for SDG 2 and the fifth under SDG 12. The natural role of the HLTF is to build and coordinate broad international support for the Zero Hunger elements as they have become embedded in the new SDGs.
The HLTF provides a natural bridge to a wider set of institutions with important, but limited, programmatic engagement in nutrition. The ZHC is also a convenient entry point for building alliances with broad social and political movements to end hunger, stop food loss and waste, and improve agricultural production and rural livelihoods sustainably.
During its first five years of existence, the SUN movement has demonstrated great power to build a broad alliance of international organizations committed to nutrition action. It has received strong endorsement from the nutritionist (specialist) community, and demonstrated a remarkable capacity for adaptation and innovation in its organizational structure and working procedures. The large number of country-members it has attracted is perhaps one of its most remarkable achievements. Yet, the SUN’s own commissioned, independent, comprehensive evaluation concluded that the SUN movement had not yet been able to demonstrate systematic success in achieving its objective of scaling up nutrition action at the country level (Mokoro, 2015, p. 86.). This (early) result should not be surprising, given the powerful forces at work constraining effective nutrition action. But the limited effectiveness of SUN thus far does suggest the need for putting in place supports and institutional mechanisms that can sustain a global nutrition effort in the long run. It also reminds us why the SUN, constituted as a movement, cannot stand on its own as a central mechanism of global governance on nutrition. For nutrition advocacy the SUN has no peers, but it lacks the authority, legitimacy, and capacity for collective action that only governments, acting individually and collectively, can provide. And while the SUN’s unique power comes from its distinctive character as a movement, Governance 107 it is not, as a movement, constituted to perform essential functions of governance: to prioritize choices, regulate behaviour in the public interest, allocate and commit resources, and accept accountability. The SUN is and will remain a vital pillar of a growing international architecture that supports a broad “system” of nutrition actors. But it is only one element of a growing ecosystem that depends vitally on a UN system that acts as the authoritative vehicle of collective action by nation-states.
Completing the reform The core elements of a robust international system for nutrition are now in place, but several important adjustments are required. The SCN should be reformed, streamlining its functions by transferring its role as a multistakeholder platform to the CFS, and focusing more narrowly on supporting and sustaining global nutrition policy work. Key functions should include supporting inter-agency coordination and reporting on nutrition in the new SDGs; planning, coordinating, and sustaining a ten-year global plan of action as a follow-up to ICN2; and supporting formulation of UN positions on nutrition regulation through organs such as the CFS, WHA, and HLPF. SCN participation should be broadened to include the World Bank, among other major international organizations with strong nutrition programmes. The SCN should be sustained principally by contributions from participating institutions, which may be supplemented by UN memberstates’ contributions.
The CFS, which has an existing but, until recently, underserved mandate on nutrition, is expected to significantly expand its nutrition work in the coming years. The monitoring and reporting structures for the new SDGs have not yet been finalized, but it is clear already that the CFS is likely to play an important role in the expanded new framework for monitoring, analysing, and enabling political dialogue and action toward achieving the new SDGs.
The UN Regional Commissions will also have a larger role, coordinating data collection and bottom-up monitoring and evaluation from the community, provincial, and national levels to the regional level.
Summing up, the proposed adaptation of the global architecture for nutrition governance builds on the coincidence of the launch of the new SDGs and the launch of a multi-year programme of action for nutrition to energize a broad, powerful, dynamic, and accountable member-state-owned system for enabling coordinated action at all levels. The reformed architecture also ensures compliance with intergovernmentally agreed norms and standards, including norms related to conflicts of interest, and provides for adequate and timely monitoring of outcomes and performance at all levels. It ensures a truly comprehensive and inclusive system for nutrition monitoring, and provides strong peer accountability for motivating effective action. It exEnding Malnutrition pands opportunities for meaningful participation of civil society and private sector organizations in the development of norms, standards, and policy guidance. By providing a universally relevant nutrition agenda that covers all three dimensions of malnutrition – undernourishment, micronutrient deficiencies, and obesity and other diet-related non-communicable diseases – it mainstreams nutrition concerns. Further, it secures nutrition as a principal driver for the full fifteen-year cycle of the next-generation global development agenda.
The critical test of this new, or for that matter any, institutional framework on nutrition is whether or not it contributes to overcoming the main sources of friction, fragmentation, and dissolution that have plagued nutrition actions in the past. The new nutrition architecture addresses several of these issues by ensuring that a comprehensive nutrition agenda will be constantly measured and monitored. Governments are more likely to be compelled by the pressure on their reputations that comes from constant reporting of successes and failures, than by the always limited political pressure of accountability to the poor and vulnerable who constitute the majority of those suffering most from all aspects of undernutrition. While the new architecture cannot guarantee the mobilization of adequate human and financial resources, it does ensure that commitment and support for nutrition will be prolonged and relentless. If it is fully energized by a declared decade of coordinated action, the architecture can make the UN system achieve its nutrition goals. But for that to happen, changes are required in the way the UN perceives and executes its own role in enabling an ecosystem of actors and institutions to flourish.
Recasting the UN’s role Thus far we have directed our discussion to the key role that multilateral institutions can play in establishing a milieu for sustained effective action on nutrition. This should not lead us to expect that such an enabling environment can be supplied by the UN system alone. The material, scientific, technical, organizational, educational, political, technological, and financial resources to address malnutrition are far beyond the resources of UN agencies, funds, and programmes. Still, the UN has a vital and unique role to play as an enabler of others’ actions in this field.
The UN has impressive, if not always well-utilized, capacity to facilitate others’ policy actions. For example, by enabling the development and promulgation of regulations for food safety through institutions such as the Codex Alimentarius, the international food standards body jointly supported by the FAO and WHO, the UN can influence private business practices and encourage innovation in food products and services, including food storage and handling, reductions in food loss and waste, and improveGovernance 109 ments in the nutritional quality of commercial food products. Developing and improving a food systems approach to nutrition, as advocated in the ICN2 Framework for Action, is inconceivable unless the agenda is fully accepted by the private sector as essential to its own long-term health and prosperity. The UN has an important role to play in supporting the memberstates’ efforts to develop rules and regulations for an appropriate enabling environment for the functioning of food systems for nutrition. Similarly, while the UN cannot claim to be a leading global centre for research on nutrition, it has an important role to play in bringing the best experience and research to the attention of key policymakers to whom it has privileged access under its own auspices.
Because many different kinds of social actors are required to accelerate momentum on nutrition action, it is frequently argued, erroneously in our view, that UN institutions should take a more limited view of their role and accept a position as one of many equal partners in development, with no more right to claim priority for their views than any other institution. The same line of thinking leads to a laissez faire or “anything goes” attitude toward partnerships; we need action, it is often said, and we don’t have time for UN deliberations to decide what needs to be done. Let those who can, and want to, contribute do so, and let the beneficiary countries decide what is most helpful for them.
Such views, to a large extent, are misguided. If widely adopted, they will sooner than later undermine the potential for genuine multistakeholder partnership that exists in many areas of nutrition action today. They will undermine confidence that these partnerships are guided by a genuine public interest. They will also undermine it by limiting what is put on offer to what the providers themselves want to offer; which leads to a reduced set of choices and an impoverished dialogue between development partners and their beneficiaries. Finally, such misguided views will discourage UN bodies from playing important regulatory and governance roles that only legitimate multilateral organizations can play to establish effective cooperation among the vast array of institutions involved in nutrition today.