Politics, Stature and Status: The Lusaka GNR Roundtable

Wow. We had a wonderful Global Nutrition Report Zambia Roundtable on Feb 26.  William Chilufya of CSO-SUN did a great job as Roundtable shaper and master of ceremonies.  A keynote speech from the Minister of Health, Dr Joseph Kasonde, MP began the event.  The Minister said “investing in nutrition is non-negotiable” and “no government can afford to ignore malnutrition”.  The Minister’s speech was informed, delivered with conviction and inspiring.

Minister of Health, Dr Joseph Kasonde, MP

Minister of Health, Dr Joseph Kasonde, MP

It needs to be.  Zambia has a difficult challenge indeed—it is only one of 17 countries that have serious issues with under-five stunting, wasting and overweight.  A corrosive triple threat.  Another way of viewing it: 1 in 2 under-fives in Zambia are not growing healthily.

Fortunately the appetite for fighting malnutrition seems high, as evidenced by President Lungu’s recent inauguration speech and the caucus of 30 parliamentarians, chaired by Hon Hamududu MP. Indicators are going in the right direction, for the most part, but too slowly for an economy that is growing as fast as Zambia’s.

But now is the time for moving from commitment to action.  This was the focus of the fantastic panel (chaired by Faith Kandaba of the Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation). The panel consisted of Robinah Muluenga, the new Director of the National Food and Nutrition Council (NFNC), Monica Musonda of Java Foods representing the SUN Business Network, Emma Donnelly, the Head of DFID Zambia (representing the development partner community), Hon Highvie Hamududu, MP and Dr Phoebe Bwembya of the Nutrition Association of Zambia.

The questions from Faith were hard but fair.  The responses open and candid.  The panel lasted for 2 hours.  My takeaways:

Political will. The panel was long, but it did not seem like it because the panelists talked a lot about politics and nutrition in a nuanced, realistic and optimistic way -- that was refreshing.  How can we get commitments to turn into action? How can we get government and other partners to “put their money where their mouth is” and “walk the talk?”  Government has to lead, but it cannot do it on its own.

Data and analysis.  There was a real appreciation for data, including the Nutrition Country Profile for Zambia.  However, the panel said it was vital to make the data “sing”.  How can we use the data to guide action, assess delivery and stimulate new activity?

Embed commitment into legislation and action.   The NFNC is preparing a new National Food and Nutrition Act.  The panel said this was a key opportunity to enshrine some key principles in law. The need to link commitments to specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and time bound estimates was emphasised.  Our business panelist mentioned the importance of legislation and standards for guiding private sector action towards good nutrition (e.g. maize fortification, testing of nutrition claims, labelling).  Others mentioned the need to work across sectors, and of “doing what we know works”

Capacity. Often capacity to do all of this is ignored.  Not here.  First we discussed how to empower the NFNC through a switch in location—would it be more able to get ministries to work together for nutrition if in the VP or President’s office?  I personally think this would be desirable but only if the struggle to make it happen would not distract from direct action.  We talked about the need for more frontline nutrition workers, the capacity to monitor and enforce standards, and of implementation deficits at the district and central levels.

Money. We were reminded that the development partner budgets are about 3% of the GoZ budget.  The GoZ commits to spend $472/person/year.  That is twice what Rwanda is spending per person and yet the latter is reducing poverty faster than Zambia.  If nutrition is to improve significantly in Zambia the government will have to choose to spend more on nutrition. Develop partners can help catalyse that public (and private funding), but malnutrition in Zambia will only be ended on the back of government spending. As one panelist said, “the money is there, we need to choose to allocate it to nutrition”.

Building political commitment.  Zambian citizens must take the lead in holding stakeholders to account. This includes monitoring existing commitments, and may also spark new commitments.  Just as it helped establish how much the Zambian government spends on nutrition, civil society organizations are crucial, but they do need supporting.

Conclusion?  Zambia is currently in a positive space for nutrition improvements.  The hope is that the new President will make this a legacy issue.  For sure, heightening political commitment and then delivering on that commitment will heighten the stature of the Zambian people—but also the electoral status of politicians who are brave, driven and skilled enough to fight for nutrition.


Press coverage:

Government notes rise in cases of obesity