Making malnutrition history – one story at a time

by Edwyn Shiell – Policy and Strategy Advisor, Advocacy and Communication Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement Secretariat

On Monday 12 July, I had the privilege of moderating a panel of esteemed nutrition champions at the Brighton launch of a landmark new book: Nourishing Millions – Stories of Change. It’s a major effort to bridge the gap between the technical aspects of what’s working (or not) to improve nutrition, and communicating it in simple stories that resonate.

We strive to tell stories in the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement, guided by the experiences of our member countries. About the challenges and successes they endure as they embark on their journey’s to scale up nutrition. What struck me about this book, is its accessibility. It feels like a long overdue effort to distil, through memorable stories, written with simplicity and style, what’s working and what’s not. We all need to do more of this.

Stuart Gillespie kicked off the discussion providing an overview of the books aspiration – to chronicle how countries are converting political momentum into impact on nutrition. Through four sections that walk the reader through efforts to transform nutrition interventions, transform sectoral actions, transform national policy and programming and sustain change through inspired leadership, the books structure feels linear and intuitive, in the far from linear world of nutrition.

Judith Hodge set the tone for the panel’s exchange – noting that a clear narrative for nutrition does not exist. The very technical language around nutrition can be isolating, distracting people from seeing it as the fundamental building blocks of healthy and productive lives. Chapter 1 of the book ‘How Nutrition Improves’ feels like a light-bulb moment, where decades of nutrition experience are packed into 13 pages, making it effectively a Nutrition for Dummies Guide. It’s essential reading for any aspiring nutrition champion.

Purnima Menon elaborated on the tacit knowledge which each chapter captures. The quest for solutions and how countries are learning by doing, and adapting in light of their results. The book is a repository of experiences, and amidst the effort – the nutrition community often doesn’t make the most of looking back and taking stock. Doing this through stories can provide the space and frame to explore what key factors led to success. In Chapter 20, Nepal’s success in reducing stunting from 48 to 27 percent (from 1996-2011) is debunked and their multi-sectoral approach that fostered improvement in health services, more toilets, wealth, and parental education – is a breeze of a read. Debunking multi-sectoral approaches to nutrition are rarely a breeze of a read.

Lawrence Haddad elaborated on key features across the success stories – including implementation success, a focus on equity and rights, driven by data, all upheld by enduring commitment and leadership. He also flagged the importance of ensuring future stories are backed by data and evidence. In Chapter 18, the stories of change are propped up by the reflections of Transform’s Nutrition Champions, whose experiences as inspiring leaders, have led to remarkable progress. It’s the stories of such individuals, and their evidence based advocacy efforts, which give a glimpse of what’s possible when committed individuals lead from where they are.

Nick Nisbett and Sir Richard Jolly built on this, commenting that leadership is fundamental to drive change. The stories in the book provide the context, but winning the attention of high level leaders is something we all need to focus further on. In this sense, this collection of stories can be viewed as the much needed context, though winning hearts and minds is the next step.  The stories can also be considered as the start of a new conversation with our peers in countries everywhere. We now need to facilitate face-to-face dialogue about the findings of these stories, seek out MORE progress stories in nutrition and tell those stories.

The event was a key starting point. Spreading these stories and telling more – are going to be vital for improving the nutrition status of people everywhere. These stories are memorable. They cut through complexity. And they will change perceptions and inspire people. They paint a picture of what is possible, and this is the inspiration and practical guidance which will make the difference.

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