Global and national leadership in nutrition

Published on 12 September 2016

Nicholas Nisbett

Research Fellow

Over 500 people attended last week’s World Public Health Nutrition Association conference (WPHNA) in Cape Town. With the focus of “addressing the double burden [obesity and undernutrition] of malnutrition in a globalised world” this was, unsurprisingly, a very popular event.

I was there to run a workshop with colleagues from Stellenbosch University; Lisanne Du Plessis, Head of Community Nutrition and Scott Drimie, Director of the Southern Africa Food Lab and collaborator on the recent IFPRI-IDS work on ‘stories of change’. We explored ‘innovation in governance and leadership for public health nutrition at sub-national levels’, and focused on bringing out the experience of sub-national leadership from the researchers and practitioners present.

Supporting nutrition leaders

Identifying, nurturing and supporting nutrition leaders to drive action on nutrition has been central to research (pdf) in the Transform Nutrition consortium, which also compliments Scott and others’ research in Zambia and Lisanne’s excellent work, about to be published, within South Africa. It also chimes strongly with the capacity building objectives of the WPHNA.

At the workshop we were lucky enough to have some people in the room who are at the frontline of national and sub-national leadership in South Africa. We had some great and in-depth conversations about challenges and enablers in improving nutrition and there was a strong consensus of the need for leadership at the regional, district or community level, if we are to start to make the connections between national and international policy and on-the-ground improvements in community nutrition.

Malnutrition and the global food system

Leadership in research and practice was on display at the rest of the conference, which considered the how the unpriced costs of cheap, processed and high energy density food, have impacted the bodies of people globally. It is no longer news that we have seen an unprecedented rise in overweight, obesity and the rise in non-communicable diseases within all countries and communities – both rich and poor. Many of the contributions were focused on how to turn this juggernaut around.

There was an incredibly diverse and interdisciplinary group round the table, including nutritionists and dieticians, but also geographers, political scientists, including South African experts from institutions such as the Institute for Poverty Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) and IDS research fellow Stephen Devereux. Having so many people in the room, from whatever discipline, solely focused on the inequities and complicities of the global food system, seems to represent a significant turning point in the ‘double burden’ conversation.

There was also a good global showing: with a great Brazilian contingent (and a fantastic plenary from Carlos Monteiro contrasting Brazilian successes on undernutrition with failures on obesity) and leaders connected with India’s Right to Food Campaign including Vandana Prasad and Biraj Patnaik.

And last week, we saw the launch of the latest IDS/Oxfam report on the ‘end of cheap food’, which Biraj was also involved in. This final report is one of a series that has tracked the impact of volatile global food prices on 10 communities around the world since 2012 and has also dealt, as the conference did, with the loss of healthy diversity in people’s food habits just as the food system seems to be offering more ‘choice’.  In the same vein as the conference, research such as this is critical in charting the way the food system continues to evolve in communities around the world and to understand and anticipate its growing challenges.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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