Q&A: Scaling Up Nutrition head Gerda Verburg

Gerda Verburg, secretary-general of the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement. Photo by: Mattias Nutt / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

DES MOINES, United States — Gerda Verburg has worked in the labor movement as an organizer, in politics as both a member of parliament and a minister, and has served as an ambassador. In 2016, the Dutch diplomat was tapped by then-United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to be coordinator of the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement, or SUN Movement.

“All my skills and my experiences are coming together, so I’m extremely proud and happy to drive this agenda: encouraging people where necessary but also keeping people in line,” Verburg said. “In a nice way.”

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The SUN Movement began in 2010 under the leadership of 2018 World Food Prize laureate Dr. David Nabarro with the goal of strengthening political commitments of governments on nutrition. The movement encourages countries to work with multiple stakeholders, including civil society and the private sector, to improve national nutrition plans.

Verburg sat down with Devex at the recent World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue to discuss the Sustainable Development Goals and why the U.N. is the right forum to push members to act on country-led nutrition plans.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is it important to connect agriculture and nutrition?

Especially during the last 10-15 years, the recognition started step-by-step — that it’s not only about the number of calories it’s about the quality, diversity. Nutrition and good food is an investment in your health and also an investment in your cognitive development.

I wasn’t aware until three years ago — about the impact of good nutrition on your cognitive development, your brain development, and especially during the first two years of life. That was an eye-opener. Nutritionists did know this already, for decades.

Nutrition is very often considered from a health perspective, which is right but it’s not only a challenge for health. You really need to bring the different sectors together: health, agriculture but also education, social protection. Good nutrition and poverty are very much interconnected. If you solve the nutrition challenge, then you solve the poverty challenge, because people who are well-nourished are able to overcome poverty.

How do the nutrition and agriculture communities come together to solve this problem?

It is how can we look into opportunities to merge food production and nutrition in such a way that we do not only answer the challenge of nutrition — how to nourish, in a healthy, way 9 billion people by 2050 — but also how do we do it in a way that is profitable for farmers that is not using too much water. Potable water and drinking water and safe water is also a challenge for the future.

“If you solve the nutrition challenge, then you solve the poverty challenge, because people who are well-nourished are able to overcome poverty.”

— Gerda Verburg, assistant secretary-general, the SUN Movement

So how do we kill two or more birds with one stone? It’s possible, but what is needed is to bring the right people to the table at government level: the minister of health, the minister of agriculture, the ministry of forestry, the ministry of women’s affairs, the ministry of social protection, the ministry of education. How do you build a prosperous future for your country that is at the same time climate resilient, and is able to serve a prosperous new generation, and also is serving the planet?

What role does the U.N. play?

The U.N. is not an institution, it is all countries together. They have decided upon an exciting agenda, the agenda 2030, with 17 sustainable development goals that are all interconnected. At first glance, you might think that food and nutrition are SDG 2. That’s right. But at the same time, good nutrition is an enabler for better health, better education, better innovation, a world where it’s good to live for everyone. It’s preventing migration and conflict.

One thing is crystal clear: governments of countries, all organized in the UN, need to take the lead. It is every country. There’s no one-size-fits-all, there is no magic bullet. Each country needs to take a challenge from where they are.

But the U.N., from different perspectives, can play an important role to encourage the government, to bring coherence between the different players and to push the governments.

How do you manage the fact that each country is at a different starting point?

That’s also the unique character of the movement: A government signs for membership. At that moment they say “we want you as SUN Movement to support us in bringing the different departments together to develop the right policy and legislation, but also to learn how do we bring the stakeholders together and how do we make them work together all in coherence.”

They decide about their priorities and if they have convincing commitments, then we start to work with them. We work a lot on capacity building, on policy development, legislation development.

How do you maintain continuity of the nutrition agenda when governments change?

It’s happening all the time. Sometimes you have champions or we have a focal point that is doing a great job, and then suddenly is promoted to another position where she or he cannot do it. It’s a fact of life. We have learned to live with it and to work with it.

Civil society indeed can play an important role, but also private sector and donors. The more commitment they can organize or hold the government to account to appoint the next minister or to continue where they are. The ideal way of working in several countries is to have the political convening partner in the office of the president or the vice president and the technical focal point in agriculture, planning, health. But you need to organize them to work together.

How do SUN Movement countries share learning on nutrition?

Sharing, learning, and inspiring is front and center as part of our movement. So what we do is workshops where we bring together the people who have good examples of where they can learn. Sometimes people take the initiative to visit one or more countries. Afghanistan joined one year ago and they visited Nepal because Nepal had a very dynamic new national nutritional plan.

We have, once every two years. the SUN global gathering where we bring multistakeholder delegations from each of the SUN countries and from countries that want to be a member of the SUN Movement and they build their agenda.

I hope that many organizations and U.N. organizations are looking at the example because I think this is a way forward to really implement the SDGs. We hope that the SUN movement model will inspire many other initiatives on many other SDGs.

About the author

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    Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Reporter with Devex based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa wrote about Latin America from McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She worked as a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.