Dark clouds are hovering over a nutrition forum which for the past 30 years has brought UN agencies, NGOs and academics together to help shape policy and programmes on minimum standards in terms of nourishment for people across the world.
The UN Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN), based at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, has run out of money because UN agencies have failed to pay their individual annual contributions of US$100, 000, according to its chair Alexander Müller.
The SCN has not received funds for 2011, and all the three permanent staff were told last month they would be made redundant.
The SCN, set up by the UN in 1977 to harmonize action around nutrition policy and programming, was instrumental in getting the world to pay attention to micronutrient deficiencies, especially iron, iodine and vitamin A. It is the leading multi-agency forum for nutrition issues. The global nutrition “cluster” coordination group deals only with emergency-related nutrition issues.
In an attempt to draw attention to SCN's problems, Ted Greiner, chair of the NGO and Civil Society constituency of the SCN, recently wrote to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, pointing out that “while this would be a serious concern any time, it is especially embarrassing at this moment when calls for leadership are sounding so loudly [on nutrition] from your High Level Task Force on Global Food Security, the recent Lancet series on nutrition, and the 1,000 Days Challenge that you spoke at last month.”
In an article on the World Public Health Nutrition Association’s website, Boyd Swinburn, director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University in Australia, asked: “Will the UN SCN die?”
“No,” Müller told IRIN. Müller, who is also assistant director-general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said he had “put a lot of pressure” on agencies in the last two weeks to commit to their contributions. He was also in talks with private donors for advance 2011 contributions.
SCN’s financial problems have raised questions about its relevance and the need for reforms.
Not “activist” enough
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At the heart of the lack of contributions is perhaps “dissatisfaction” over how the SCN works, said Greiner, professor of nutrition at Hanyang University in South Korea.
“The main criticism I am aware of is that it is not activist enough,” he wrote in his letter to Ban. “But that has never been a proper role for such an organization.”
Stuart Gillespie, coordinator of the Agriculture and Health Research Platform at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), told IRIN, the SCN “has gone through several phases”. During its most activist phase in the late 1980s “it documented country-level approaches to nutrition-relevant policy and programming.”
It pushed for a multi-sectoral approach to nutrition. The SCN drove the need to address multiple micronutrient deficiencies, especially iron and vitamin A, and convened multi-stakeholder groups, said Gillespie.
SCN also established the Refugee Nutrition Information System in 1993, which publishes data and reports on the nutrition, health, and survival status of refugees, internally displaced populations, and those forced to migrate.
It also publishes authoritative World Nutrition Reports which provide “state-of-the-art insights into the current world nutrition situation, using the latest data”, said Gillespie.
SCN foundations “progressively eroded”
From the mid-90s, SCN’s foundations were “progressively eroded: leadership, funding and mandate weakened and became increasingly uncertain,” he added.
The above-mentioned article by WHO’s Swinburn notes attempts by certain agencies to remove civil society involvement from the SCN and bring in industry - something that met with resistance.
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One of the main problems SCN has had to face, Greiner and Gillespie say, has been to get the UN agencies to act as one.
“One of the main challenges for the SCN has always been to demonstrate the `win-win-win’ nature of its work… the notion that whoever works with and through the SCN will see a greater return to its inputs than if it acted alone,” said Gillespie. “If and when this penny drops across the UN system then the SCN will rise from the ashes.”
To achieve this, Greiner wrote in his letter to Ban, “there must be that conceptual, even analytic step, and common platform agreed upon, before trying to deliver as one”.
The time is right for re-focusing on nutrition in terms of the “bigger picture”, and this needs strong leadership, said Gillespie. “The biggest picture of all is the simple fact that rates of undernutrition are stagnant in many parts of the world… So much is now known about the damaging consequences of this neglect - this type of evidence is clear - but we do need to work towards a greater understanding of what works at large scale.”
Both FAO and IFPRI in their latest hunger reports found that the number of undernourished has begun to rise. The new focus on nutrition follows the global food price crisis in 2007-2008, which saw the number of undernourished shoot past a billion.
“More than ever now, the UN needs a properly funded inter-agency institutional mechanism for harmonizing nutrition-relevant actions,” said Gillespie.
Müller said he was aware of these problems and criticisms and was pushing for reforms. His vision of the SCN is to get UN agencies to use the forum to harmonize their programmes and build a broad constituency on nutrition involving the private sector.
“But this has to be discussed and analysed by all the stakeholders before a decision is taken.”
He hopes to hold a meeting of all parties before the end of 2010 to find a way to press ahead with reforms.