Five things we need from the Japan N4G Summit in December 2020

London, 17 February 2020 - 

The clock is ticking. We are just 10 short months from the Nutrition for Growth Summit (N4G) in Japan in mid-December. Many people are working hard with the Government of Japan and partners, allies and colleagues to energise the nutrition base - and beyond - about the Summit and to develop commitments that will accelerate improvements in nutrition.  

What are my hopes for the Tokyo Summit? Here are five things I will be looking for the Summit to do. 

1. Champion a big tent view of nutrition

We often use the wonderful phrase "nutrition is a marker and a maker of development". This means many development drivers and trends affect nutrition status and nutrition status effects many development trends. But we will not be sufficiently alive to these “affects” and “effects” if nutrition does not look up from its own lines in the script to engage with the wider cast of players and understand the opportunities and risks engaging with them may entail. That means focusing on nutrition - but through a wider lens, aligning more and more with those who care about food systems, climate change, biodiversity loss and sustainable natural resource use. Will nutrition get lost? This was a more understandable risk in 2008 at the time of the first Lancet series which documented the dysfunctional nature of global efforts to address nutrition. But now we have the country and global infrastructure and enough focused energies to keep nutrition at the forefront of a wider angle view: note SDG2, the UN Decade of Action, Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, N4G and the Global Nutrition Report - to name a few. I don’t want nutrition to be a big fish in a small pond. I want it to be a medium sized fish that is swimming the oceans, looking for new opportunities, protected by a wide range of allies. 

2. Generate meaningful commitments - from all stakeholders

If the first point is about framing, inclusivity and forging alliances, the second point is about delivering meaningful commitments. What is a meaningful commitment? Simple: one that stands a good chance of accelerating widespread and sustained reductions in malnutrition and is also specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and time bound (or SMART). This means commitments that are substantial, technically sensible, have political momentum, are implementable, and can be monitored credibly and publicly. Acceleration is important because it implies an uplift in effort and focus - and we need and uplift because we are off track for many of our nutrition goals especially on overweight and obesity, and also in certain regions such as sub-Saharan Africa where hunger and hidden hunger are on the rise. 

Commitments have to come from all stakeholders. The issues are too big for any one stakeholder to solve on their own.  

Governments must be in the lead and will want to make commitments around the rate of improvement in nutrition outcomes - and that is great. But such commitments are less meaningful if not accompanied with commitments about leadership, legislation, policies, hiring and spending. I will be looking for these kinds of commitments from governments, including my own, the UK.  

I don’t want nutrition to be a big fish in a small pond. I want it to be a medium sized fish that is swimming the oceans, looking for new opportunities, protected by a wide range of allies. 

Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director

For donors, it will mean at least meeting London 2013 commitments, acknowledging that this is a very difficult time for our champions within donors to argue for more for nutrition per se, given the increasing (and welcome) focus on climate, nature, migration and zoonoses. For me this is just another reason for donors to link across other departments in their governments, multilaterals and foundations to leverage more resources (policy instruments, staff, money) for nutrition. 

In 2020 businesses have a fantastic opportunity to change the narrative that they are only part of the problem and to prove that they can be a big part of the solution. They can do this by making meaningful commitments to advance nutrition. That means doing things that affect as much of their portfolio, their geographic footprint, their consumer base, and their business model, as possible. The move towards healthy sustainable diets is not going away and is going to get stronger as the demand for health increases as populations age and become better off and as young people become more and more radicalized about the poor or harmful nutrition outcomes advanced by some food and beverage companies. 

Civil society has many functions including advocacy, delivery and accountability promotion. These functions need to be intensified through commitments at Japan. On advocacy, where is the breakthrough in public consciousness we are seeing for climate? Perhaps it is time to join forces more and try new things. On delivery I’d like to see more commitment to trying new models. I’m thinking about the innovations that World Food Programme (WFP) pioneers around building local food entrepreneurs in complex emergency contexts. On accountability I’d like to see greater alignment of efforts: less duplication, less competition and more alignment = stronger accountability. 

Woman cleaning veggies Indonesia

Commitments have to come from all stakeholders. The issues are too big for any one stakeholder to solve on their own. © GAIN / Andrew Suryono

For the UN I’d like to see greater leadership across agencies. The Food System Summit is a great example of the 3 Rome Based Agencies coming together in common cause. We need more of that. 

For researchers I’d like to see some commitments around working more on the incentive mechanisms needed to get us from where we are to where we know we need to be: what combination of sticks and carrots from consumer campaigns, investors, social media influencers, employees, government regulators and NGOs works best to shift the behaviours of consumers, businesses and governments towards nutrition? 

3. Have a country level focus

When I return from international meetings on food systems, the nine GAIN Country Directors view me with much trepidation. With good cause. Things that look relatively straightforward at the "global" level are fiendishly difficult at the national and subnational levels, with real interests, constraints and power dynamics surfacing all too clearly. That is why I am so enthusiastic about initiatives such as the Food Systems Dialogues and the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact – they are engaging national and municipal actors to describe, diagnose and decide on how to change their food systems to deliver more nutrition in a sustainable way. The role of the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement will be vital in facilitating the development of National Food System Action Plans that are focused on a manageable set of priority actions.  

Researchers can help here by identifying a small set of national; no regrets or "safe bet" food system actions that are likely to be effective, politically feasible and affordable.  

Too often we talk about the importance of country driven development, but we fail to live up to our own rhetoric. The GAIN country offices keep me honest and grounded, and we need to listen hard to all national stakeholders - and follow their lead. 

4. Frame the 2021 Summit

The Nutrition for Growth Summit in 2020 will be followed 9 months later by a Food Systems Summit called for by the UN Secretary General with the support of the 3 UN Rome Based agencies: FAO, IFAD and WFP. The impressive Agnes Kalibata, President of AGRA, has been appointed by the UNSG as the UN Envoy for the Summit. 

It would be easy to be anxious about the 2021 Summit eclipsing the 2020 Summit.  But that is the wrong thing to worry about.  We should be working to make sure that the 2020 Summit serves as a framing launchpad for the 2021 Summit, to link nutrition –via food systems--to other issues such as climate mitigation, biodiversity enhancement, livelihood promotion and sustainable natural resource use. The links should be technical, but also political, financial, and conversational.  These issues should be treated as indivisible--much as human rights are.  They don’t all have to be addressed at the same time or given equal weight in each context but they cannot be treated in isolation without the risk of doing harm to the others. The two Summits can dance a beautiful tango to make this happen. 

5. Serve as a starting gun for 2030

Back in March 2019 I noted that while the N4G Summit should serve as a starting gun in the 2020 race to 2030 the race is not the same one we have run for the past 10 years. It is more complex. With more connectivity and less linearity. The potential for paralysis, atomisation and the pursuit of self-interest looms large in such a fluid and dynamic space. But so too does the potential for embracing complexity and aligning coordinated action; action that is free of egos and logos - all focused on improving the indivisible wellbeing of people and planet to meet and exceed SDG targets. Let’s make it happen. This is at the top of GAIN’s priorities during the next 18 months.