To engage or not to engage with the private sector to advance nutrition?

by Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director

Recently GAIN’s position on the need to engage with the private sector to advance nutrition has attracted some disagreement on social media. The general argument of the critics seems to be twofold: either that no good can come from engagement because it will provide unwarranted credibility to the company in question, or it will result in bad deals for nutrition because of the power imbalances between private and public sectors. The focus of these social media interactions is usually large food and beverage companies. These are certainly real risks, but I would argue that they can be minimised and when set against potential risks of not engaging, they can be worth the risk.

First, some definitions. Engagement can mean everything from dialogue to coordinating actions, combining resources and integrating planning.  And it applies far beyond large food and beverage companies to small and medium size entrepreneurs (SMEs) in the food sector and to all sizes of companies in the non-food sector too.

But all engagement starts with talking.  How else can we find out what the potential opportunities are? Most of the information necessary to gauge whether there are alignments of interests between public and private sector actors is not written down, it is too detailed, too dynamic or too nascent for websites. For GAIN, if it looks as if we are going to enter into sustained conversations with a company we perform due diligence on the company, as we would on any partner. Our principles of engagement articulate whom GAIN works with. If the company passes our due diligence we begin talking in earnest. When we talk we often discover substantive opportunities to advance nutrition. Some typical opportunity areas are mapped out below.

Opportunities to advance nutritionFood companiesNon-Food companies
Multinational/Big CompaniesReformulation to reduce levels of transfat, sugar, salt

Food Staple Fortification with essential vitamins and minerals

Workforce Nutrition programmes
Business to business support to smaller firms to build relationships, market intelligence and insight

Workforce Nutrition programmes

Mobile phone companies (messaging)

Insurance companies (incentivizing healthy lifestyles)
Not Multinational/Big CompaniesSupport SMEs that are producing nutritious foods (business model development and financing)

Scaling of non GMO biofortified foods
Fund Managers for Nutritious Food Financing to help SMEs

Creative Agencies (building demand for nutritious foods)

Packaging, Refrigeration, Haulage & Renewable energy companies (reducing food loss/waste)

These are just some of the potential areas for doing good and for doing less harm in reshaping food systems around healthy diets.

Once public private engagement opportunities have been identified that could, in principle, advance nutrition and be commercially sustainable, discussions can begin on what might actually work. Often ideas that sound good in principle don’t make it beyond this stage because when it comes down to it they are not practical. For example, we wanted to work with the government and street vendors in a particular setting in one of the countries we are based in to develop standards on the food ingredients used by vendors and then use quality assurance seals to signal that to consumers. But we found some of the key ingredients in the meals sold could not be fortified, that consumers would be too confused with all the different quality seals in addition to the ones we were proposing, and that the customers of the vendors in question were relatively well off (although still malnourished) and hence less of a priority for our programmes.

Once an idea really seems to have practical potential then funding proposals need to be developed (if they need external public funding, which they often do). This puts the ideas through another level of scrutiny. Proposals will need to get sign off from a government department or a board of the public sector organisation. Once the idea has been approved by the public funding source then agreements and contracts can begin to be drawn up. Our contractual agreements involve clauses that ensure all programmes will be assessed and all assessments and reports will be publicly available. And when the evaluation results are out they will be reviewed internally by our M&E experts to protect our reputation and then externally by journal peer reviewers and editors. 

So there are many opportunities that should be screened and there are many screens that an opportunity has to pass through. 

Ultimately any organisation entering into a public private engagement has to be able to publicly justify using public funds. Identifying, preventing, reducing, mitigating and managing conflicts of interest is a key part of that.

The potential for conflicting interests is always present when two partners seek to come together even if both are from the public sector — rarely do they have exactly the same interests. And conflicting interests can turn into conflicts of interest whether or not they involve the private sector. The difference with public-private engagements is that a conflict of interest could result in a course of action that worsens nutrition because that course of action generates the largest commercial gain. In both cases, if the screening is done well, the engagement can be justified on a balance of risks and benefits, and if the full results are publicly accessible then the engagement stands a good chance of having a positive impact on nutrition, or at least avoiding a negative one.

Where does this leave the argument?

For some people, arguments about opportunities, screens, and balances of risk will not resonate. They will describe my line of reasoning as naïve, at least in certain scenarios. For some, this argument is about values and culture, not benefits and costs. The decision as they see it is binary, not granular. I recognise I won’t change the view of many of them, although I hope they will support the importance of open and critical debate around this fundamental issue. Given that “big food” is driving big changes in diets, and the private sector as a whole produces and sells the vast majority of everyone’s diet, including to the poorest consumers, is it really enough of a change strategy to not engage, to not understand, to not challenge and to not seek allies for change? Sometimes in development we talk about the food system being “broken”, but to many of us it is far from broken, actually it is more like a runaway train, moving at an increasing speed and often in the wrong direction. Most of us agree on that. So don’t we have a duty to engage and reshape it?

I was in India recently and I am drawn to the proverb about the Banyan tree. The tree provides shade, and is comfortable, but nothing much grows beneath it. I worry that rigid views about the inevitable harm that public private engagement will have for nutrition is too comfortable a perspective and gives us an excuse not to look for and grow new opportunities to advance nutrition. 

Back to the question then: to engage or not to engage? Actually that is the wrong question. The question is when to engage, why, to what end, how, and with whom? And sometimes the answer to that has to be to sit in rooms with the organisations we disagree with the most. After all, we have already all done that with governments many a time!

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Published 6 May 2019