Q&A: USAID's first chief nutritionist plans to 'demystify' the sector

Shawn Baker, newly appointed chief nutritionist at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Photo by: © UNICEF / Tanya Bindra / CC BY-NC-SA

WASHINGTON — Shawn Baker is the U.S. Agency for International Development’s first chief nutritionist, a role he told Devex he is particularly excited to take on in 2020 — a critical year for the global nutrition agenda.

“This is a moment to reenergize the community to invest in nutrition.”

— Shawn Baker, chief nutritionist, USAID

Formerly the director for nutrition at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Baker said he wants to use USAID’s expertise and relationships to galvanize support for the Nutrition for Growth Summit set to take place in December in Tokyo. That event aims to secure concrete commitments from donors, partner countries, and the private sector to accelerate progress on improving nutrition worldwide.

“In nutrition, we’ve not had global resource-mobilization moments, and the Nutrition for Growth Summit in 2013 was the first time that happened,” Baker said, noting that the event increased nutrition-specific funding from around $400 million up to nearly $1 billion.

“Most of those commitments are ending by 2020, so this is a moment to reenergize the community to invest in nutrition. Where we are really aspiring to put the spotlight is on the leadership coming from a number of high-burden country governments that are making strong policy commitments and strong resource commitments of their own, where we as donors can really partner with them.”

As he begins his USAID tenure, Baker spoke with Devex about what he brings to the role from his time at the Gates Foundation, how he plans to work across the agency’s bureaus to “demystify” nutrition, and how to solve nutrition’s “orphan problem.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why does USAID need a chief nutritionist?

It’s a strong demonstration of the recognition that everything USAID cares about is underpinned by good nutrition. I make the case that nutrition is a foundation to self-reliance. And the data to back that up: We start with the 45% of under-5 mortality attributable to undernutrition. It’s not necessarily that those kids were quote-unquote “starving to death,” but most of those children would have died of other causes. But if they had not been undernourished, they would not have died.

Secondly — and almost as important — is that we know that those children who survive undernutrition, if we deprive them of optimal physical and cognitive development, then everything else you’re doing to invest in those children is undermined because we’ve not invested in good nutrition in the 1,000-day window. I actually turn that on its head though, as I am an optimist: If we lock in good nutrition in that 1,000-day window, we lock in that potential to survive and thrive, which is just a fundamental investment in the future of those children and their communities.

USAID is now modeling the behavior that we’re encouraging other countries to take. Nutrition suffers an orphan problem. Is it a question that the ministry of health takes the lead on? The ministry of agriculture takes the lead on? The ministry of social development? Is it the food industry? While in fact we need those different sectors to take a role, for nutrition actually to be well orchestrated, you need to have high-level leadership that’s actually making sure each of these sectors has clearly defined its contribution to nutrition and is given the resources to perform and be held accountable for it.

Why does USAID believe that a multisectoral approach to nutrition is most effective?

The multisectoral approach is not an end in itself. It is being very strategic about what is the problem we’re trying to solve for, understanding what is the burden of malnutrition in a country, then based on that, what are the solutions we have that have to be taken to scale. Then thirdly, how do we know which sectors need to be at the table to take those solutions to scale.

Instead of speaking in broad strokes about the importance of multisectoral programming, let me give you a couple of examples. We know that the health sector is essential. If you’re looking at something like providing good care during pregnancy so that children have optimal health and nutrition in utero, that’s essential. However, we see huge missed opportunities. If you look globally, there’s been a real scale-up of antenatal coverage. But the most essential nutrition intervention during that period is both counseling on diet and provision of both iron and folic acid tablets, is woefully inadequate. There’s these missed opportunities that we can seize.

An example of the food-processing sector: We know that the burden of micronutrient malnutrition remains enormous. Some of the estimates are that there are over 800,000 deaths a year due to micronutrient malnutrition ranging from vitamin A deficiency to zinc deficiency. One of the most cost-effective ways to turn the tide very quickly is to make sure that staples and condiments that are consumed by most-at-risk populations are carrying essential vitamins and minerals. The public sector has a strong role in setting those standards and setting the mandate, but it has to be private sector food companies that actually do the fortification and produce products.

What do you bring to this new role at USAID from your time in philanthropy at the Gates Foundation?

My prior six years at the Gates Foundation has been incredibly enriching. But to me, what's most formative is I’ve spent most of my career in the field implementing programs. Any time I’ve been in a headquarters position, I’ve really aspired to make sure that what we’re doing in headquarters — be it here in D.C. or in Seattle — how is that translating into solving the needs of countries that have high burdens.

Philanthropy in particular, there are several areas where they can have a particular added value. Often, philanthropies can invest in longer-term commitments. Any bilateral organization is subject to appropriations cycles through its overseers. Private philanthropies have the luxury of being able to take much-longer-term investments, be it research investments or institutional capacity-building investments.

We are at a point in time where nutrition is getting a lot of attention. But the attention of politicians is also being bombarded by hundreds of other priorities. I think philanthropies can have a strong voice to make sure very critical issues such as nutrition continue to have a place at the table.

At USAID, how will you serve both as a resource to people in the field as well as people in bureaus in Washington who may not see themselves as doing nutrition work or even needing to care about nutrition?

It’s actually part of my job that I enjoy the most because I think anytime you’re very deep in a given field, you can start speaking in your own codes with your peers. I’d like to see myself also as a translator and advocate of why this is important for us. Everything we care about at USAID is going to be better if we address nutrition, and many of the things we do at USAID have a huge role to improve nutrition. How do I work across these different bureaus to in fact demystify nutrition, make the case of why it’s in everybody’s interest to invest, and what are some of the concrete solutions to do that?

What’s been set up structurally is very exciting: a nutrition leadership council that brings in bureaus across the agency, which will look at high-level guidance across the agency, how the multisectoral nutrition plan is being implemented, set agencywide priorities, and — very importantly — then be the voice for nutrition within their respective bureaus. I’m very pleased to see really a host of talent of nutrition across the agency in different bureaus and field missions.

Will USAID be making specific commitments at Nutrition for Growth? How will you be working with other nutrition advocates to galvanize tangible commitments that can lead to progress?

We are looking internally within USAID and then in partnership with other U.S. government agencies that are involved in nutrition to see what commitments we can make. We do understand the importance of the Nutrition for Growth Summit, so we’re very much engaged in the process. We realize the commitments we bring to the table are important, but it’s also very important that we are working with our partners to encourage them to bring commitments to the table.

We think the aspiration for Nutrition for Growth — and I think has been a big change in the nutrition landscape — is the extent to which national-level decision-makers in high-burden countries have taken up nutrition as a high priority and are starting to put their own political commitment to it, domestic resources to it, using their concessional financing from development banks, et cetera.

Because we have such a strong network of field missions who have deep connections to these government leaders, we also really want to work hand-in-hand with governments of high-burden countries as they come to the table in Tokyo and make commitments.

This focus area, powered by DSM, is exploring innovative solutions to improve nutrition, tackle malnutrition, and influence policies and funding. Visit the Focus on: Improving Nutrition page for more.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was 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.