Reflections from retiring SUN Coordinator Gerda Verburg
SUN Coordinator Gerda Verburg retired from her position on 31 December 2022, after serving more than six years. In this op-ed, she reflects on the successes and challenges for the SUN Movement during her tenure, and her hopes for the future of the movement.
31 December 2022 -- For over six years, I have had the privilege and honour of serving as the Coordinator of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement. Now, as I prepare to pass the baton on to my successor, who will carry the SUN Movement global coordination forward, I would like to share my gratitude and some reflections.
When I accepted the appointment in 2016 by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, I was filled with energy and optimism, ready to support countries to advance nutrition at every level and to further strengthen the unique SUN Movement country-led, multistakeholder and multisectoral approach. I believed then, and still believe today, that to truly create change at the country level, countries must be in the lead – and all nutrition stakeholders need to come together and work together to support them. When a country is in the lead, sustainable and durable impact is possible!
It has been truly exciting to see these changes happen over the past few years. Growing country ownership and self-confidence at the country level is creating real advances for nutrition. National investments in nutrition are building, as countries recognize the impact that nutrition has on improving people’s health, cognitive development and productivity to boost livelihoods and ensure a healthy, productive and prosperous population and secure economy. That is the SUN Movement spirit of Engage, Inspire, Invest. With support at the highest political levels, ten more countries have stepped up to become members of the SUN Movement since I became SUN Coordinator – a significant commitment to tackle malnutrition. Today, 65 countries and 4 Indian states drive the country-led SUN Movement.
The just released 2022 Global Nutrition Report, shares encouraging data that confirms this scaled up country-level nutrition action is taking place. It reports that twice as many Nutrition for Growth commitments were made at the 2021 summit than at the previous summit in 2013, and of the 65 countries that have made commitments, 52 (80%) are from low- and lower-middle-income countries and 55 (85%) are SUN Movement countries. It also reports that these commitments have a strong focus on the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, including promoting exclusive breastfeeding, which is a child’s most valuable ‘gift for life’ and the very best investment in nutrition. Preventing malnutrition is an investment, while responding to malnutrition is an avoidable and expensive cost.
It is my missions to SUN Countries that created some of the most memorable moments for me during my tenure as SUN Coordinator. I recall sitting with committed small- and medium-sized business entrepreneurs who are motivated to be part of the solution and to develop business models that support good nutrition in their communities; standing side-by-side with an African president who called on his country’s citizens to change their food behaviour in favour of nutritious foods, step-by-step, and who made his own personal commitment to do so; meeting journalists in developing countries who commit to focus on nutrition as they understand the impact it has; seeing a religious leader teach and counsel good nutrition to young people, women, couples ready for marriage, and men who he guided to ensure their wives and daughters were well nourished.
I remember a discussion three years ago with then Vice-President Daniel Kablan Duncan of Cote d’Ivoire and former President Kikwete of Tanzania – both SUN Movement Lead Group members. I suggested they propose an ‘African Year of Nutrition’ to further enhance the level of understanding on the difference between food security and nutrition and to raise the political profile of, and national investment in, nutrition. They did, and in 2022 this important year took place, paving the way for increased national nutrition commitments and elevation of nutrition to the highest political level within national governments.
It is this country and community level ‘people’ focus that I have prioritized during my tenure. This means shifting from a ‘food security’ only approach of filling stomachs to keep people alive, to a ‘nutrition security’ approach, which strengthens people’s cognitive development, wellbeing, resilience, productivity and ability to escape poverty and move towards prosperity. SUN Countries’ multisectoral and multistakeholder forward-looking vision and action has led to the implementation of nutrition security, early warning systems, inclusion of nutrition in social safety nets, increased local production of diverse nutritious food products and reduced dependence on imported goods, and importantly the focus on applying a comprehensive ‘food systems’ approach – among many other response actions. Witnessing country-level joint planning, priority setting and coordinated implementation among sectors and stakeholders has been heartening. Investing time and commitment to this multi-stakeholder approach pays significant dividends in long-term sustainable results for nutrition and should be embraced more strongly by global players.
The SUN Movement has now evolved to play a growing role in making the important connection between nutrition and other key sectors and work areas, including food systems, water and sanitation, vaccination, climate change and climate-related nationally determined contribution, education, health, economic development and more. Through this work, the SUN Movement is strengthening the enabling environment for SUN Countries to effectively develop and implement their nutrition actions, embedding them in a systemic approach. Ahead of the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit, 14 SUN Government Focal Points were appointed their country’s Food Systems Dialogue conveners while all SUN Countries were able to get nutrition very well reflected in the National Food Systems Pathways. The SUN Movement also plays a strong role in advancing the nutrition-climate nexus, culminating at the December 2022 Global Climate Conference where several SUN Countries called for nutrition-sensitive climate action and financing.
These efforts have today made the SUN Movement a strategic ‘partner of preference’ for both those seeking to engage with countries on nutrition and to implement a multistakeholder and multisectoral approach for food systems and climate action. Looking forward, I see new opportunities to address current challenges. The most important will be the development of effective data tools and systems that respond to country needs. New monitoring and evaluation approaches should be leveraged to shift from simply measuring how many people have been reached, to measuring real impact factors as the impact on people's dignity and resilience; ability for people to own solutions and drive them further; adaptation of technology to people’s needs including in remote areas; gender equality; involvement of women and youth in decision-making; accessibility of global funds for developing countries to reduce need to hire international consultants to manoeuvre overly complicated processes.
Other opportunities are capacity strengthening that will further boost ownership and aligned financing at country level. Here I want to make a strong appeal to global donors and financial players to really try to understand the sign of the times, and make real efforts to align behind country leadership and nutrition and other priorities.
It is by making these tools and resources available and accessible to countries and supporting learning and exchanges between countries that they can further boost their nutrition security solutions. This was echoed by two political leaders I met on recent country missions, who said, “Others cannot develop our country, only we can do it ourselves, international support is only helpful when it supports our priorities,” and “If we don't invest in nutrition and human capacity development, in ten years from now our country will be led by international consultants and not by our own future leaders."
I would like to thank all SUN Country Focal Points and other members for your immense commitment to nutrition, creativity, solution orientation, leadership, drive, stamina, hospitality and trust. I would like to thank all SUN Movement governance members for their encouragement, guidance and for challenging me. Only by challenging each other in a constructive way will people be able to find and agree on the best possible way forward – it is an essential part of the process to create effective change.
Please rest assured that the SUN Movement and its people will always hold a warm place in my heart and I will continue to be a strong advocate for nutrition and the SUN Movement.
Thank you, each and all so very much – and please continue to always explore and to use the power of ‘WE’ to keep scaling up nutrition, and as the catalyst for most of the Sustainable Development Goals.