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NutritionNET: independent nutrition information exchange

By Saskia van der Kam, chairperson of NutritionNet, and headquarters nutritionist in MSF Holland.

Evaluations of emergency nutrition programs have repeatedly illuminated the need for improvement in several operational areas including interagency co-operation, communication, transparency and shared ownership of interventions. Humanitarian players need to share information and experiences in order to assure timely and appropriate action in nutritional crises.

Attempts have been made to improve communication between nutritionists, field workers and policy makers. Whilst successful, the three-year run of NGONUT - a moderated e-mail exchange of ideas, question and answers between nutritionists - illuminated the need for a more extensive forum of information exchange and dynamic debate, and a demand for improved access to grey literature and distance learning modules. NutritionNET, which is a web-based interactive platform, was created in response to these needs.

The aims of NutritionNET are to increase the quality of nutrition and food security interventions by promoting:

As a working area rather than a pure reference site, participants actively contribute and respond to new information and commentary, and can create their own discussion groups/clusters. Shared information may range from the latest news about emergencies and technical details on micronutrients, to questions from the field and dilemmas about food security strategies. Moreover, professionals can advertise their skills and identify potential colleagues, job vacancies and courses.

The benefit of a virtual meeting place is that it is open to participants who are not part of the humanitarian aid 'inner circle' of nutritionists. It also gives professionals from aid-recipient countries the opportunity to participate in programme decision-making and implementation, and help develop context sensitive strategies and programme accountability.

There are a number of characteristics of NutritionNET, which set it apart from many other websites:

Pure interactivity: Participants work without the input of a committee or board to check the value or quality of information. Specific expert groups may, however, be convened and work effectively and safely, governed by internal quality control.

Subject driven: NutritionNET is a platform to develop broader issues around nutrition and food security. It is hoped that it will evolve into a regular first point of query for all those involved in nutrition and food security interventions.

User ownership: Responsibility for the operation and management of NutritionNET lies completely with participants themselves.

Transparency: Processes are transparent, since all information and debates are directly shared on the website.

Independence: There is no particular school of thinking promoted and all views are equally represented, without panel censorship or donor influence (there is a broad funding base).

The challenge of sharing

As a meeting place and a working area, NutritionNET must be treated as a safe zone. Participants should be able to challenge each other and examine problems from different angles, without being held accountable or personally criticised. There is no such thing as a 'wrong' answer, but only interaction, exchange and learning. Content quality is controlled by participants who take the initiative, or not, to respond.

During this first six months of NutritionNET's existence, there has been much interest and use of information available on the site. However there is a greater hesitancy in contributing information. This may reflect fear of exposing lack of knowledge with implications for personal and professional reputation. While this caution may be understood, it is only through the contribution of participants that nutritional experience and knowledge will accumulate and become available to others. With the development of NutritionNET, sharing information is now more of a mental challenge than a physical or logistical one. Can YOU rise to this challenge and dare to share?

Join Nutritionnet at http://www.nutritionnet.net or for further information or comment, contact Saskia van der Kam, Nutritionnet Chairperson, email: saskia.vd.kam@nutritionnet.nl

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Saskia van der Kam (2003). NutritionNET: independent nutrition information exchange. Field Exchange 18, March 2003. p14. www.ennonline.net/fex/18/exchange

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