When he started his career as a mid-level health worker 30 years ago in rural Nepal, Raj Kumar Pokharel was saddened to see health facilities overrun with preventable illnesses aggravated by malnutrition. “When I visited different parts of Nepal and many districts and villages, it shocked me that I found such high levels of stunting and undernutrition,” Raj Kumar says. “That is what inspired me to do something. I wanted to prevent and control malnutrition, particularly stunting and wasting.”
In the years since, Raj Kumar’s commitment has contributed to a changing nutrition landscape in Nepal. Since 2006, he has served as the Chief of the Nutrition Section at the Ministry of Health and Population. When he started in this role, he notes that nutrition was not a high priority on the agenda of development sectors, including health—but that much has changed.
Many see the 2009 Nutrition Assessment and Gap Analysis (NAGA), prepared under Raj Kumar’s leadership, as a catalyst for action. The NAGA report recommended a multi-sector approach and identified the need for a national nutrition architecture in Nepal, envisioning the National Planning Commission in this leadership role. Per the report’s recommendations, a multi-year, costed framework for nutrition was developed to engage the health, agriculture, education and water/sanitation/hygiene sectors, as well as local government.
Similar to other countries, Raj Kumar notes that Nepal faced challenges in bringing sectors together—primarily due to misperceptions and a lack of knowledge within these sectors of the implications and effects of poor nutrition. Overcoming this lack of knowledge became a key focus for Raj Kumar. In fact, he believes that it is a critical element for other countries to consider as they seek to bring stakeholders together around nutrition. Based on Nepal’s experience, Raj Kumar believes that the key to engaging sectors is in an “orientation on nutrition and continuous dialogue; strong political commitment and the presence of a strong apex body; involvement of sectors during the development of nutrition plans; formation of multi-stakeholder national, regional and village-level committees; and feelings of ownership.”
Raj Kumar played an important role in bringing government and organizations together in support of Nepal’s Multi-sectoral Nutrition Plan (MSNP) and during his tenure, the budget for nutrition programming has almost quadrupled. A part of the SUN Movement, Nepal is now working to implement the MSNP, and Raj Kumar sees great promise. “In the coming 10 years, I hope that the MSNP will be implemented throughout the country, in a collaborative and coordinated manner,” he says.