Building capacity — and leadership — for the next decade of progress on nutrition

Children receiving micronutrient powder packets to increase the nutritional value of staple foods. Nutrition leaders have a critical role in ensuring access to these lifesaving products. Photo by: Sight and Life

Within the global nutrition community, all attention will turn to Rome, Italy later this month. There, the Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization will host the second International Congress on Nutrition — ICN2, a follow up to the first ICN in 1992. This major global conference is an opportunity to reflect on our progress to date, and to serve as a guidepost — marking the way forward and providing a framework for action to drive further progress on nutrition over the next decade.

We have much to show in terms of progress since the first ICN. In the past decade alone, we’ve put nutrition on the global agenda. The first Lancet series on maternal and child nutrition in 2008 was groundbreaking, because it brought the community to consensus on a package of proven, cost-effective interventions to improve health and save lives. Governments and donors have since made unprecedented policy and financial commitments. And through the Scaling Up Nutrition — or SUN — movement, more than 50 developing countries are now driving progress with a truly transformational agenda.

But it is in that “scaling up” that our progress is stalling. Lack of capacity is one major bottleneck — we know what to do, but there aren’t enough people who know how to do it, or are in place to do it. A transformational agenda requires visionary nutrition leaders on the ground to drive the momentum and change to take that agenda forward. The need for capacity development is well-documented in the literature and in the field. A 2013 paper in public health nutrition described the capacity in lower-middle income countries to manage and implement nutrition programs as “virtually nonexistent,” noting that lack of capacity has been a critical element limiting the large-scale implementation of nutrition programs for several decades.

Undoubtedly, increasing capacity is crucial to scaling up nutrition. But we need more than just traditional capacity building, which has focused on building knowledge and technical skills, such as by producing more master’s graduates or training more health workers. We must also build and mentor leaders. Indeed, leadership in nutrition has also been recognized as a key factor in national-level capacity for effective action.

The nutrition community needs transformational leadership.

Eradicating malnutrition in today’s world will require so much more than the traditional manager who performs the planning, organizing, directing and controlling of work activities. Leadership is a body of orientations, attitudes and behaviors that can be developed. A transformational leader is emotionally intelligent, innovative and often charismatic — and always open to new ideas. Such leader encourages the personal development of others, unlocking their potential, and empowers and inspires others to achieve a shared vision. A transformational leader also works across sectors and disciplines. Such leadership development requires a transformation in the way one thinks and does things, to create more successful teams.

The attributes of a transformational leader — the ability to generate and focus team members’ energy to realize a goal — are critical to developing and implementing well-constructed nutrition action plans on the ground. Unlike the many managers we read about in today’s press, the nutrition community needs leaders who are committed to serve and have purposes beyond self-interest.

But investments and commitment to developing leaders in nutrition is lacking. How do we create and motivate transformational leaders? How do we scale up the knowledge, skills, leadership and human resources needed to guide nutrition agendas? And how do we help leaders to deepen and sustain the commitment to nutrition?

Developing strong leaders and sustaining leadership will require a large, sustained financial commitment over time. It will involve a fundamental change in the way leadership is still viewed in many of the environments where we need to be making a difference. It will need mentors to support the new leaders. Leadership development is much more than a two-year grant or a short course. And success will be difficult to measure. Brave sponsors will need to step up to the plate to fund this important effort.

Already, the United Nations’ REACH program, the SUN Movement, and the African Nutrition Leadership Program are making progress. At ANLP, nutritionists, scientists, academics and others working in nutrition come together for an intensive course on the path to becoming a transformational leader. They receive experiential training on vital leadership skills based on three core principles:

  1. Challenge — new experiences, difficult goals, conflict situations and hardship provide an opportunity for growth.

  2. Assessment — including self-awareness.

  3. Support — to encourage growth and provide guidance.

To date, more than 300 leaders from 33 African countries have gone through the ANLP training program and are now part of a continentwide network of leaders making a difference across Africa.

I hope that greater investment in leadership for nutrition is a topic of discussion at ICN2. Because it is after the political declarations have been signed and after all the dignitaries have returned home that the hard work begins. In many ways, it is easier to “talk the talk” than it is to “walk the walk.” The rubber will really hit the road in the coming decade as we continue to turn our commitments into action.

And so as we count down to the end of the Millennium Development Goals, look ahead at meeting the World Health Assembly targets for 2025 on nutrition, and agree on a new set of Sustainable Development Goals, it is absolutely critical that we sustain our momentum on nutrition. We have a long way to go before we get to the finish line. And as we look to scale up what is working, we must prioritize greater investment in cultivating a cadre of leaders to take us there.

Want to learn more? Check out the Healthy Means campaign site and tweet us using #HealthyMeans.

Healthy Means is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Concern Worldwide, Gavi, GlaxoSmithKline, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Johnson & Johnson and the United Nations Population Fund to showcase new ideas and ways we can work together to expand health care and live better lives.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Klaus Kraemer

    Dr. Klaus Kraemer is managing director of Sight and Life Foundation and adjunct associate professor in the Department of International Health of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He serves several professional societies dedicated to nutrition, food systems, micronutrients, and implementation science. He has published about 140 scientific articles, monographs, reviews, book chapters, and co-edited 12 books. He serves on the board of the Micronutrient Forum, assumes several advisory functions, and is the recipient of distinguished international honors.