This post was written by Shawn Baker, HKI’s vice president and regional director for Africa.
Nutrition is truly an adventure – and you end up doing so many things that you never even imagined when getting training at university. This last week has been a huge privilege, engaging for four days with one of the most respected statesmen of West Africa, President António Manuel Mascarenhas Gomes Monteiro (photo at left), former head of state of Cape Verde, to discuss the issues of undernutrition in West Africa.
Helen Keller International has been working with nutrition partners in the region including UNICEF, the World Food Program, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, the World Health Organization, Action Against Hunger, Micronutrient Initiative, Save the Children, ECHO and USAID for a number of years to better coordinate nutrition actions in West Africa. This regional nutrition working group has solidified relationships with the key West African institutions involved in nutrition including the West African Health Organization, the Interstate Committee to Fight Drought in the Sahel and the Commissions of the two regional economic communities.
At a technical level, there has been great progress in harmonizing actions and agreeing on priority interventions. Some key interventions – such as vitamin A supplementation and deworming for children 6-59 months and fortification of cooking oil and wheat flour with essential vitamins and minerals – have gone to scale in most countries.
However a number of other life-saving interventions, such as exclusive breastfeeding, integrated management of acute malnutrition, complementary feeding, iron-folic acid supplementation for pregnant women and enhanced homestead food production, have remained small-scale: enough experience to show they work – but not reaching enough women and children to make a dent in the huge burden of undernutrition in the region.
Starting over a year ago, partners decided that having a strong voice who could engage in direct dialogue with heads of state across the region would be a major advantage in putting improved nutrition on the top of the political agenda. We identified President Monteiro as having the ideal profile – and we were grateful that he accepted the challenge.
You can imagine our anxiety as the big day arrived – three of us met him at the airport on Sunday morning. Within minutes he had calmed all of our nerves – his warmth and sincerity were evident from our first meetings. His insights into the workings of government and of West African institutions have greatly enriched our ideas of how to mainstream nutrition. His constant hunger to learn more during the three days of briefings and his willingness to candidly share his own experiences are a source of motivation.
We closed the sessions this afternoon with a press conference – and the conviction in President Monteiro’s voice as he addressed journalists’ questions left all of us feeling confident that we are poised for a major leap forward in combating undernutrition in West Africa.
Read this press release to learn more.
UPDATE (September 30, 2011): President Monteiro advocates for urgent action at the UN General Assembly. Click here to read more.