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From the editor

While there are at least four distinct thematic areas addressed by articles in Field Exchange 37, there is arguably one cross-cutting issue - namely the tendency towards fragmentation and lack of coordination within the emergency nutrition sector. We will return to this later.

This issue of Field Exchange carries a number of research summaries related to the role of data and indicators in emergencies. There are pieces on the evidence for impact of the global food crisis on the poor, a new method of statistical forecasting for famine, based on data sets produced in Kenya, and programmatic implications of the roll out of the 2006 World Health Organisation (WHO) growth standards. There is also an important review conducted by the Health and Nutrition Tracking Service in WHO on the primary indicators used in emergencies. This highlights the lack of standardisation and measurability of many of the indicators used for monitoring emergency programmes. Another study, conducted by Fiona Watson, analyses the role of contextual (nonanthropometric) data in nutrition surveys conducted in Ethiopia. Again this highlights the lack of standardisation of information collected, as well as the limited use made by decisionmakers of this information.

A second thematic area concerns the use of specialised foods used in feeding programmes. Research findings are summarised on the relative effectiveness of fortified spreads compared to corn soy blend (CSB) in Malawi supplementary feeding programmes and, again from Malawi, the morbidity and mortality outcomes of using probiotic and prebiotic fortified ready to use therapeutic foods (RUTFs) compared to 'normal' RUTFs. Another study reviews the value of using lipid based nutrient supplements in food rations. There is also an article on the roll out of RUTFs in a number of Indian states, which discusses whether such a strategy is appropriate given long-term use of local recipes for treatment of severe acute malnutrition (SAM). Finally, a field article written by Caroline Wilkinson and Sheila Isanaka, compares the use of diluted F100 and infant formula in the treatment of severely malnourished infants under 6 months old in inpatient therapeutic centres in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Another thematic area is programming in conflict situations. One research summary describes the experience of decentralising growth monitoring in conflict affected areas of DRC. There is also a field article written in collaboration with members of SAACID (an Australian based charity), giving a fascinating account of a food kitchen programme in Mogadishu that has been running for two years and has served over 33 million hot meals in that time. The programme has operated in one of the most insecure environments of the world and yet only had one major security incident directly affecting the kitchen sites. However, the widespread insecurity in the city has impacted programmes by making access difficult, while the surge in demand for the meals has meant that each meal has effectively been used to feed close to five people.

A final thematic area in this issue of Field Exchange concerns 'how nutrition is conceptualised' within the humanitarian sector. The utility of the UNICEF conceptual framework on malnutrition is explored in an article from Afghanistan where interviews with stakeholders at community and various government administrative levels demonstrated how it has helped foster collaboration between the agricultural and health sectors. A second piece by Action Contre la Faim (ACF) evaluates their approach to integrated nutrition programming and reflects that, although the UNICEF framework has been useful in conceptualising how to integrate programmes across sectors, the practical challenges of so doing are substantial.

As with so many past issues of Field Exchange, it is hard not to be struck by the richness and diversity of initiatives and programming approaches that are ongoing in the emergency nutrition sector. In many respects this is commendable and engenders a sense of optimism around the fact that there is so much energy, innovation and drive towards improvement in the sector. However, the other side of the coin - and one which is of increasing concern - is that many of the initiatives are uncoordinated, disparate, not joined up and are agency specific. At best this leads to competition between initiatives and approaches, with the best ones rising to the surface and receiving deserved funding and uptake by agencies. At worst it leads to confusion, inaction, duplication, and in some cases, wasted resources.

Some elements of this 'worst case scenario' are already being played out in two of the thematic areas above.... A range of new specialised foods is currently being developed by a number of actors to improve the outcomes for children affected by, or at risk of developing, moderate or severe malnutrition. These foods have different specifications and are being piloted in a variety of contexts and populations. There is no overall coordination of the foods being developed and piloted and perhaps more importantly, no agreed validation process. The result is an increasing number of pilot studies purporting to demonstrate certain outcomes in relation to programme efficacy and impact. At the same time, a number of private companies and other organisations are developing new products, yet have no internationally agreed means for validating these products. Agencies responsible for implementing feeding programmes and donor organisations funding these programmes are therefore increasingly being faced with an array of potential products and no mechanism to determine which are most cost-effective and which ones satisfy essential nutritional and medical standards. This proliferation of initiatives is a relatively new phenomenon in the emergency feeding sector and is giving rise to a range of additional challenges. For example,

There are currently no lead agencies helping to chart the way forward in this increasingly complex area.

A similar process of proliferation has been ongoing with regard to food and nutrition information systems over a longer period of time. While it is not possible to provide data (as there is no body charged with overall responsibility for collating such data) there appears to have been a steady increase in the number of Food Security Information Systems (FSIS) and FSIS-related initiatives over the years (Borton. J and Shoham (2009), OCHA (2009) ). Underpinning this is a continued drive to strengthen the 'science' and rigor of food security and nutrition assessment. New approaches are emerging as the humanitarian system seeks to improve its alert systems, as well as its ability to prioritise between different contexts (e.g. OCHA's Dashboard and the Global Vulnerability Alert initiatives). At the same time, there is a less visible attrition of initiatives - especially normative ones that once received substantial funding, reflecting in part the fierce competition for resources as well as the overall lack of coherence in the sector.

The initiation and evolution of these systems supports the diverse needs of a wide range of stakeholders. The lack of an agency with overall responsibility for FSIS development in the humanitarian system means that there is inevitable duplication and overlap of systems as well as a bewildering array of data. At the same time, the lack of coordination of FSIS often results in critical gaps in information (geographically or of specific data types). The consequence of weak coordination in the FSIS sector is that there is a need for national consensus building around FSIS findings. While steps have been taken in a number of countries to establish a process for consensus building, there are many countries where no such system exists. Furthermore, the variety and lack of standardised FSIS at national, regional and global level make it increasingly difficult for regional or global decision makers to compare findings between countries and therefore make rational needs based resource allocation decisions. The Integrated Phase Classification System (IPC) has been configured to address both these problems.

In essence, what seems to have occurred in the FSIS sector is that we invent systems to solve a problem (e.g. lack of early warning information) but in so doing create new problems (too much data with conflicting findings) and then are forced to invent new systems to deal with the problems that we have created (e.g. the IPC).

One of the key findings of the Lancet nutrition series published last year was that there is too little coordination and too much fragmentation within the nutrition sector. Lack of stewardship was highlighted as a major issue. Clearly, we already have agencies which take a lead in various important areas within the nutrition sector, e.g. UNICEF, FAO, WHO, WFP. However, these agencies rarely work together so that there continues to be overlap and duplication and, inevitably, critical gaps. One step forward would be for agencies to agree who should take a lead in a particular thematic area. Such decisions could be taken within international fora like the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN) or the Nutrition Cluster. It is not hard to envisage having lead agencies for specific areas like development of specialised foods, food and nutrition information systems, impact assessment, programme design, etc. In some situations this may require agencies to 'let go' of activities and 'areas of interest', while being given more of a mandate to focus on other areas. Other institutional permutations may also serve the same end, e.g. working groups for specific thematic areas within the Global Nutrition Cluster, although the Global Nutrition Cluster has some way to go in developing its own strategic framework and in securing resources to pursue a framework.

The energy, drive and capacity for innovation within the emergency nutrition sector is quite remarkable. Imagine what more could be achieved if this were better marshalled and coordinated?

Finally, we heartily welcome Carmel Dolan to the ENN, as she joins us as a new Technical Director (see back page).

Jeremy Shoham
Editor

Any contributions, ideas or topics for future issues of Field Exchange? Contact the editorial team on email: office@ennonline.net

Show footnotes

1Shoham. J and Borton. J (2009). IPC External Links and Relationships Study. Report to IPC partnership. July 2009 OCHA (2009). Assessment and Classification of Emergencies (ACE) Project. Mapping of Key Emergency Needs Assessments and Analysis. February 2009

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Jeremy Shoham (2009). From the editor. Field Exchange 37, November 2009. p1. www.ennonline.net/fex/37/fromtheeditor

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