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Working with businesses: How to improve the positives and minimise the negatives to better advance nutrition?

  |   Blogs, Engaging Multiple Stakeholders, SUN Business Network

Photo: © GAIN/Nadine Hutton

A blog by Lawrence Haddad* based on a plenary panel presentation made at the 2019 SUN Global Gathering in Kathmandu, 4-7 November

The Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement has been a pioneer in multi-stakeholder action to advance nutrition, bringing together government, civil society, business, donors and the UN to create winning coalitions that can do more good, together, than any stakeholder alone.  As the Movement evolves, coalitions of action with businesses are likely to become more and more important: more people are buying food from markets and this means businesses are engaged in determining nutrition – for good or for worse.  The challenge is to maximise the good and minimise the bad. 

You could say, “great, this is the job of the SUN Business Network”, but all stakeholders can –and must – contribute to this steering of businesses towards better nutrition. Why?

We often hear that Governments are too underpowered compared to big businesses to do anything to counter their power.  This may be true in terms of a head to head market power, but governments have the power to make so many decisions that could change the dynamic.  For example globally governments invest heavily in R&D for cereals, but a tiny fraction of this in fruits and vegetables.  They subsidise the production and consumption of cereals, but not pulses.  They procure food for schools, hospitals and the prison population, but the procurement rarely considers nutritious foods. Governments also have the power to tax.  This is less easy to do in the face of industry pressure, but over 40 jurisdictions now have sugar taxes and these will become more prevalent as governments around the world learn how to implement them, and see their benefits to health budgets.

Businesses have to realise that the “circle of pressure” around them is not going to let up. Customers, investors, NGOs, governments and even their own employees are demanding more access to nutritious foods and incentivising businesses to step up.  The demand for healthier foods is here to stay and is increasing.  And there are more and more studies that show that having a social purpose is good for commercial bottom lines.  Like any group of organisations there will be progressive business pioneers and there will be laggards. We need to work with and valorise the former and keep putting pressure on the latter.

Civil society needs to help governments get the message out about the on-going “affordable healthy diet extinction”. We need constructively channelled outrage, but there is too little right now. Civil society also needs to align accountability mechanisms.  There is an optimal number – too many and we give companies and excuse to opt out—and right now the number seems too high.

We need the UN to speak with one voice on the private sector.  At the moment there are different perspectives and this sows confusion and corrodes trust between agencies and between those who work with different agencies.

Donors should be bolder in engaging with the private sector too.  The taxpayer funds they manage could do so much to leverage and direct private sector investment towards nutrition via blended finance, public research into consumer insight, supporting start ups of workforce nutrition programmes and evaluations of public private investments, just to name a few.

Finally, we need the discourse on the private sector to be elevated.  It is so ideological.  Ideology is an important guide to action in uncertain contexts where there is little empirical evidence, but often ideology is applied indiscriminately (businesses are not all good or all bad) and can be an excuse for not getting out of our comfort zone and experimenting to advance nutrition outcomes.  So people need to engage with businesses.  It is the way to build trust in different companies, and it is how one identifies the opportunities to advance nutrition as well as navigate well the real risks of doing so.  Finally, people need to be more civil, and respectful of each other.  Too often people who disagree on the role of business in nutrition are quick demonise each other. There are too many people who are only casting stones. This is very unhelpful.  As President Obama said a few weeks ago, this kind of behaviour is not going to help us make the change we want to see — and the change we in the nutrition community want to see is the scaling up of nutrition to meet the global nutrition goals by 2030.

*Dr. Lawrence Haddad is GAIN’s Executive Director, and a member of the SUN Executive Committee.

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