Talking Nutrition at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in Timor-Leste
This spring, I returned to Dili with colleagues Dr. Jessica Fanzo and CGSD Director Glenn Denning. This was my third nutrition-focused trip to Timor-Leste in the last year and over the course of that time I have been struck by the increasing attention paid toward nutrition, and the number of positive developments that have taken shape. It has been widely noted that Timor-Leste has some of the worst malnutrition statistics in the world with an estimated prevalence of infant stunting (or low height for age) at 58%. But perhaps what has been under-reported thus far are the encouraging steps that are being taken across multiple sectors to address this nutritional crisis.
Nutrition generally has been creeping up the agenda in international development circles, and in recent years there has been a lot of discussion on what are called “nutrition-sensitive” activities. Our recent work in Timor-Leste focused on exactly that. In November 2012, CGSD began working with a major food security project in the country called Seeds of Life, which is housed at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. We were asked to consider ways in which Seeds of Life could potentially adapt or “tweak” its work in order to better target and impact nutritional or dietary outcomes. This analysis, led by nutritionist Jessica Fanzo, was presented on March 18th at a high-level consultation hosted at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF). Over 80 attendees joined for the day-long event which featured the participation of the current Minister for Agriculture, Mariano Assanami Sabino, as well as participants from the Ministry of Health, civil society, major donors, UN agencies, and staff from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Seeds of Life project. Themes of the day included the global trends in nutrition, the current evidence and thinking behind agriculture for improved nutrition, as well as some context-specific recommendations for MAF and Seeds of Life to consider for their future programming.
During the consultation, I led a session based on the findings of our mapping and gap analysis, which looked at the ways in which different international and local NGOs incorporate nutrition into their agricultural programs. Encouragingly, we found that there were a number of active agricultural projects in Timor-Leste run by NGOs at varying scales that are already operating “in-line” with the current thinking on nutrition-sensitive agriculture. For example over half of their projects stated specific nutritional or dietary objectives in their program design, most organizations targeted their activities at women farmers and most of the projects twinned their agricultural interventions with some sort of nutritional or dietary educational activity. Panelists from the local NGO HIAM Health, as well as from Mercy Corps and Care shared their specific experiences, best practices and challenges. Common questions or knowledge gaps that emerged from the discussion were focused how to measure the impact of nutrition-oriented actions in agricultural programs or projects.
In the closing session, Glenn Denning and the Minister spoke about the options at a national level for coordinating nutrition, noting specifically the potential for Timor-Leste to join the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) initiative, as well as the active role that the Ministry will have in Timor-Leste’s newly established national Food Security, Food Sovereignty and Nutrition Council (KONSSANTIL) which will be chaired by MAF.
A lot of work and research still needs to be done to fully understand and quantify the role that agriculture can play in improving nutritional and/or dietary outcomes. The evidence base on nutrition sensitive approaches still needs to be strengthened and there are no hard and fast rules for ensuring cross-sectoral collaboration across ministries and sectors. But sitting in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, hearing agronomists and agriculture experts discussing topics ranging from stunting to promoting dietary diversity and the nutritional content of various crop varieties in Timor-Leste, it certainly made me think that we were starting to see very positive steps in the right direction.