Whether ICN2 will do what its predecessor couldn’t two decades ago, will depend on the political will to establish a governance framework to ensure cross-sectoral collaboration, mutually enforcing policies and a clear code of conduct for multi-stakeholder initiatives. Here are my five points to take away.
The Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) took place at FAO headquarters in Rome last week. Jointly organised by FAO and WHO, the conference brought together some 2200 participants, including member states delegations, representatives from relevant UN agencies, as well as researchers, farmer organisations, private sector and civil society.
The aim of the conference, themed ‘Better Nutrition, Better Lives’, was i) to assess progress made since ICN1 (1992); and ii) to address global nutrition challenges by formulating policy options in the run up to next year’s adoption of a new global development agenda.
Besides discussing national experiences, there was no point elaborating on the first matter. Progress has been disappointing and with approximately 805 million people undernourished and some two billion suffering from micronutrient deficiencies, there is a clear need to urgently adopt more appropriate responses to bring nutrition to the forefront of national and international development strategies.
The ICN2 process resulted in the adoption of the Rome Declaration on Nutrition, and a Framework for Action with 60 voluntary policy recommendations for governments to incorporate, in dialogue with other stakeholders, into their national policies and investment plans.
With both outcome documents agreed upon in previous negotiations and formally adopted by acclamation at the start of the conference, the discussions at ICN2 focused on follow up: what governance and accountability frameworks to put in place to ensure that the current momentum results in meeting the needs of the needy. Or as one of the speakers quoted Nelson Mandela: “Will our generation’s legacy be more than a series of broken promises?”
The answer to that remains to be seen and will in my view partly hinge on the following five considerations I picked up from last week’s discussions.
1. Need for sustained political leadership. Food and nutrition security are the result of conscious political decisions and the good governance to translate these into action. Although data- and knowledge gaps remain, evidence built up over the last two decades, including two Lancet Series, has shown what works and what doesn’t. According to FAO boss José Graziano da Silva, speaking at a CSO pre-conference event early last week, “we have all the resources and knowledge to end this, and it has been our main fault for not translating this into improved food and nutrition security”.
2. But generating political leadership around nutrition is challenging, in part because nutrition was not recognised as a clear and present danger. Despite the magnitude of the damage and costs it causes, malnutrition is a largely ‘hidden’ problem. Because of it’s ubiquitous nature, malnutrition is indeed the norm in many countries, and those most affected are those with the least voice, notably the poor and young. It’s been the merit of the ICN2 process and of large-scale research projects like the Global Nutrition Report and the Global Hunger Index, to make the problem visible and urgent.
3. It’s a systemic issue that needs holistic and coherent action. Today’s food system is complex, responding to different, sometimes opposing, incentives. Ensuring that the right to adequate food and good health become the predominant incentives will require a fundamental revision of our food system. In how far last week’s commitments can actually contribute to that change will depend on the extent to which policy makers and private sector actors are willing to align economic, social and health interests. In short: there is money in bad food, but there is money in good food too, as well as savings in health care and profits from a productive labour force. The ICN2 process managed, for the first time at this level and scale, to bring together the relevant actors from a wide range of different sectors, which in itself is an achievement. Especially because it reflects a shift from the rather technical approach to nutrition as a stand-alone health issue to a more holistic approach.
4. Multi-stakeholder cooperation requires trust and transparency. Realising the universal right to adequate food, as recognised in the Rome Declaration, implies providing both ‘rights holders’ and ‘duty bearers’ with an enabling regulatory environment that empowers the diverse sectors and stakeholders to contribute. On the flip side, it is necessary to establish a governance framework that defines clearly the responsibilities of the different actors and holds them accountable. With multi-stakeholder fora becoming increasingly fashionable in the global architecture for food and nutrition security, questions were raised by both state- and non-state actors, about corporate interests entering the policy sphere and whether there is still space for rule setting outside these ‘stakeholderised’ fora.
5. Nutrition in the post-2015 Development Agenda. Nutrition is essential to all Sustainable Development Goals and bears the potential of huge development gains across generations. More broadly speaking, next year highlights three major events that can change the future of our planet: the Third International Conference on financing for Development in July in Addis Ababa, the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in September in New York, and the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in December in Paris. This type of global and cross-sectoral momentum is unique and the relevance of ICN2 will to a large extent depend on whether it can usefully link up to these developments.
These are the views of the author and not necessarily that of ECPDM