Last week I joined nearly 30 public and private sector leaders from all over the world as the inaugural cohort of a very special course, Together for nutrition: public-private engagements to improve the consumption of nutritious foods, organized by GAIN, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. GAIN’s visionary leader and executive director, Lawrence Haddad, co-led the course together with Myrian Sidibe, a brilliant brand builder, behavior change expert, and senior fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. We couldn’t have been in better hands.

The course covered topics like demand creation, sustainable business models, and enabling environments – all essential to moving the needle on nutrition. But a few learnings rose to the top – not because they were necessarily new concepts, but because of the extremely relevant and actionable way in which they were framed:

  1. No one is your enemy. Our first day culminated in a gorgeous lakeside dinner with two incredible leaders in nutrition: Diane Holdorf, head of Food and Nature at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and David Nabarro, global health advocate and World Food Prize Laureate. They both shared thought-provoking visions for how public-private engagements could be more effective, but David Nabarro’s first point really stuck with me: No one is your enemy. We simply cannot dismiss entire organizations or sectors for the actions or words of the past if we truly want to make progress in nutrition. This is as much directed at the industry as it is at the public sector. We need to find those common interests, be willing to sit together and work on collaborative solutions. Even if we disagree.

    David Nabarro and Erin Kappelhof – photo credit Surbi Bhalla
  2. It’s all about desirability. This point came as no surprise to me having experience in the private sector, but I was thrilled that it was given so much emphasis. At the end of the day, the foods we want people to eat and the behaviors we want them to adopt MUST be desirable. When it comes to food innovation, words like acceptability or palatability should be completely removed from our vocabulary. Myriam Sidibe explained this beautifully, drawing on her rich experience at Unilever.
  3. Everyone has interests. On day four, Lynette Neufeld, Director of Knowledge Leadership for GAIN and President-Elect of the International Union of Nutritional Sciences (IUNS) took us on a potentially uncomfortable journey into the topic of conflicts of interest in nutrition. It was one of my favorite sessions. There’s a frequent (incorrect!) assumption that the private sector has inherent conflicts of interest, which simply don’t exist in the public sector. The truth is, we all have interests. Whether those interests revolve around business, funding, research results, reputation, power or pride – we all stand to gain or lose from various decisions or outcomes. Interest does not equal conflict. But disclosure and discourse can help mitigate the risk of conflict resulting from those interests. Those of us who regularly attend scientific conferences are used to seeing conflict of interest declarations quickly flash by at the start of each presentation. Yet many of them simply state “nothing to declare,” meaning the speaker has decided that his or her interests did not influence the presentation ahead. But it’s the audience, not the speaker, who should be making this judgment. Not the other way around. The good news is there’s an easy fix (at least when it comes to conference disclosures): by simply asking speakers to list their interests versus their conflicts of interest. I look forward to this small but important shift and will do my part to reinforce this concept wherever and whenever I can.

    A desirable meal!

GAIN plays a very special role in global nutrition, bringing together partners with various skills and assets to tackle some of the world’s most important nutrition problems. It’s a fine balance, gaining the respect of parties that may have differing views while holding them accountable for missteps when necessary.

To Lawrence and Myriam and the GAIN team who worked so hard to put together this course – thank you for all the work you do and for giving me this opportunity. My hope is that through more dialogue like this, coupled with real action and application of these principles, we’ll be able to channel our collective resources, insights, and access to improve nutrition for all.

Graduation ceremony with Lawrence Haddad Myriam Sidibe – photo credit Angelika de Bree