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Nutrition research in emergencies

Summary of meeting

In 2002/03, the ENN undertook a pilot study to look at the feasibility and appropriateness of an initiative to support information sharing and nutrition research in the emergency food and nutrition sector . The main premise of the study was that opportunities for conducting research during implementation of emergency food and nutrition interventions are not fully capitalised upon and that there is a need to strengthen links between academia and operational aid agencies in order to support research capacity. Further to the findings and recommendations of the report, a small meeting was convened at Brookes University, Oxford on 8th December, 2003 between interested academics and NGO staff.

The objectives of the meeting were twofold. First, to explore the opportunities, constraints and practicalities of nutrition research in emergencies, from planning to publishing, and secondly, to identify the type of steps or activities that would be necessary to strengthen nutritional research in emergencies.

The morning session comprised a series of presentations on practical examples of current research/ operational agency collaborations. Following opening remarks by the sub-dean of Brookes University, Marie McGrath outlined the key findings of the ENN pilot study. The ENN pilot study proved partly a catalyst for the development of a framework for an academic-NGO partnership between Merlin and the University of Aberdeen. This framework, entitled PREN (Partners Research Emergency Nutrition), was described in the next presentation by Linda Doull of Merlin and Jane Knight, University of Aberdeen. Both presenters identified transparency as a key requirement on both sides for successful collaboration. From the academic side, benefits so far have included an iterative process that has set the scene for developing a working framework that is now being applied to other partnerships. From the NGO side, real progress is being made towards getting answers to field questions, and a greater confidence in challenging standard norms.

A collaborative project between Valid International and Brookes University was the subject of the next presentation. Steve Collins of Valid International flagged the breadth of expertise available through academics as an immense resource, impossible for any one agency to replicate in their in-house research capacity. Factors on both NGO and academic sides can prohibit collaboration, however small, positive steps and strong, positive feedback to the field will encourage progress.

Outlining their work together developing locally produced Ready to Use Foods (RUTF), Professor Jeya Henry from Brookes University went on to describe how well-defined research, fieldbased questions and strong feedback links to field operations through Valid International, allowed the expertise and resources at Brookes to come up with field-orientated answers. The unique structure of Valid International with established feedback mechanisms in the field, personal contact between academics and field staff, and staff continuity were recognised as key factors in the success of the collaboration.

Developing the evidence base of emergency nutrition was the topic of the next presentation by Jane Knight of Aberdeen. Working with Merlin, PREN are developing a framework to facilitate the use of the large volume of so-called 'grey literature' in the field of operational emergency nutrition. While there is no standard approach to categorising and dealing with grey literature, the team are developing an objective and robust framework for classifying, and thereby making accessible, this type of invaluable field based material.

The afternoon session began with three short presentations on infant feeding in emergencies. As well as demonstrating the extent and range of cutting edge programming that goes on even in this one subject area, the presentations highlighted the need to get access to real-time technical/academic support and advice in the field, the need for operational staff to get help with research design more or less on demand, and the need to get findings more widely published and in a format/state that can influence and/or be incorporated into international guidelines. Marie McGrath from ENN shared the experiences of a core group of agencies involved in developing training material on infant feeding in emergencies. Jeremy Shoham outlined work that MSF France are engaged in, in Malawi, looking at the use of RUTF in HIV/AIDS infants and children. Finally, Caroline Wilkinson of ACF shared the agency's work in developing the social care sphere of the UNICEF framework for managing malnutrition, operational research they are engaged in which is helping them achieve this, and the constraints and issues they face in the research process.

In order to probe deeper into the issues, three working groups were formed.

The NGO group were asked to identify a range of cutting edge subject areas where research is critical to future development and programming. A long list was generated under the headings of assessment, programming and monitoring. The group recognised that this was by no means comprehensive, but even this list reflected how fertile a ground the NGO world was for research opportunity.

Charged with how to get field based findings/ research into the public domain, the media dissemination group considered all forms of media, from peer review journals, to radio and newsletters, and considered the ease of dissemination versus impact for each media suggested.

The academia group considered how to 'get in early' with operational agencies to inform programme design in such a way that findings meet adequate research criteria. Much emphasis was placed on the building of confidence to form a research culture within the NGO from the top down. Some practical suggestions included:

The meeting was closed by the ENN with suggestions that some sort of 'middle man' is needed to facilitate research opportunities in the food and nutrition sector of emergencies. Activities might include:

Further to this meeting, the ENN are now exploring working closer with PREN at the University of Aberdeen, with a view to realising stronger links between academia and field practitioners.

For a copy of the full report of this meeting, or any comment, email: marie@ennonline.net, or see online at http://www.enonline.net

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Reference this page

Nutrition research in emergencies. Field Exchange 21, March 2004. p19. www.ennonline.net/fex/21/research