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My First 100 Days: reflections from CEO, Jim Emerson

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Last week I received an email from a colleague in another nutrition focused organisation. The opening line “Dear Jim, this is an emergency” was a little startling; my first reaction was that this may be spam and my colleague’s email account had been hacked. It went on “…Right now, a quarter of a billion people are facing acute food insecurity. 735 million people are hungry, and 3 billion people can’t afford a nutritious diet.

Emergencies are all around us these days; for many people they are likely to become more frequent, more protracted, and more severe as a result of climate change, conflicts, Covid and the cost-of-living crisis. According to Maslow’s hierarchy – food, water, shelter are the most basic needs. Ensuring these necessities are met has been a focus of the aid and humanitarian system for over 100 years. Have we failed? A failure of strategy? A failure of implementation?

I would suggest that two factors have contributed to our collective inability to meet the basic needs of the world’s most vulnerable people, despite years of investment and learning.

  1. Our failure to sufficiently understand and appreciate the inter‑connectedness of poverty, health, education, justice, climate, politics, conflict, economics. Today’s food emergency cannot be separated from the climate emergency, from the cost-of-living crisis, from failures in leadership, and from the disasters and conflicts we see so much of in the news in recent years. The Power of Nutrition (TPoN) along with many sister organisations and partners recognises this inter-connectedness. Nutrition is at the heart of every SDG; our 2030 agenda cannot be achieved, and societies cannot reach their potential if the potential of their children is compromised by poor nutrition. Good nutrition drives up IQ levels (SDG-4); good nutrition supports women’s development (SDG-5); poor nutrition due to iron deficiency results in a 0.9% drop in GDP (SDG-8). Investment in early development and nutrition of children is critical to national social and economic development.
  2. Lack of attention to strengthening national systems and ownership of our programme and priorities so that they can be taken to scale. The international aid system despite our rhetoric often works outside of, or parallel to, national structures and systems. The competitive fundraising context and the need to be accountable to our funders pushes organisations to seek to take credit for reducing poverty, malnutrition and other deprivations. We need to find effective ways to measure ‘system strengthening’ in a consistent and objective way, and give this equal importance to our goals to improve the lives and opportunities for children.

TPoN’s explicit recognition of the centrality nutrition to the achievement of the SDGs, its commitment to strengthening national systems, and its focus on designing programmes that leverage and match funding to ensure programmes can be taken to scale, encouraged me to join the organisation.

Its 2022-25 strategy offers a flexible, multisectoral proposition to governments, CSOs, corporations, and funders; it seeks to create opportunities for innovative financing, as well as generating evidence for holistic programming to tackle malnutrition. TPoN, as a partnership convener for the nutrition sector, brings civil society, the private and the public sectors together to pool resources, expertise and influence, through flexible funding and implementation structures that deliver impact at scale.

Since joining the organisation three months ago, this strategy has been the thread that ties together, and flows through, all the interactions I have had with the team, with the Board, and with our diverse network of partners. The words that stand out in these discussions are: impact, scale, flexible, evidence-based innovation, and most importantly partnership, collaboration and co-creation.

Over the last eight years TPoN has invested the initial funding from FCDO, CIFF and UBS Optimus Foundation to design and deliver a portfolio of nutrition programmes of US$ 636 million across 16 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, by ‘leveraging’ contributions from other partners. Setting up these partnerships for multi-million-dollar programmes requires patience, flexibility, expertise, and time; the result is impact at scale and sustainability through the strengthening of national policy and delivery systems.

With current economic challenges organisations are finding it harder to raise funds. TPoN is no exception. I have been impressed with the enthusiasm and professionalism of the team, and how they are developing new products and approaches that will deliver scalable nutrition programmes addressing multiple deprivations, broadening, and deepening our partnerships, and building sustainable funding foundations. We are a small team of just over 20 people, but we are able to synthesise diverse and complementary areas of expertise in a way I have rarely seen.

The 2022-25 strategy is transforming The Power of Nutrition. Recognising that holistic nutrition solutions that address the crises of stunting, wasting and hunger are inextricably linked to immunisation levels, access to potable water, climate adaptation, subsistence farming, agriculture, and education requires new programme approaches and new ways to mobilise funding. My overall impression after three months with The Power of Nutrition is that we have the will, we have a strategy, we have the right staff and a supportive Board, and we have the connections and track record to take on these challenges.

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