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KM and nutrition sensitive developments; Views from Rome

By Carmel Dolan & Jeremy Shoham on 2 February 2017

We’ve recently been to meet with two Rome based UN agencies – World Food Programme (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), as well as the UN Network for SUN (UNN). Our trip had a number of objectives; to discuss ENN’S SUN KM Project, highlight a forthcoming ENN hosted meeting to explore the need for a systematic review of nutrition sensitive interventions, share the latest issue of Nutrition Exchange, promote the new ENN Media Hub and to pick up on conversations held in late 2016.

Two interesting observations struck us from this visit; firstly, all three agencies now have staff/teams dedicated to knowledge management (KM). In the old days (which we can still just remember) instead of KM we talked about ‘strengthening institutional memory’. Indeed, one of the key conclusions from the largest ever evaluation of a humanitarian response (the Great Lakes Emergency) was that lessons had been forgotten and wheels were being reinvented and that there needed to be a better way to institutionalise hard won lessons. ENN was largely borne out of this experience.  Now, thankfully KM appears to have found its way into the mainstream. In nutrition, the term KM seems to have really gained widespread currency over the past 3-4 years. This prompted us to ask what was behind this mainstreaming of nutrition focussed KM in many large and well-regarded organisations.

So, we asked each of the organisations we met and three explanations were suggested; firstly, the impact of social media and web hosted interactive fora has made it far easier to share knowledge resources; secondly, donors are asking agencies to account for what goes well and what doesn’t go so well and to actively engage with this learning; thirdly, there is growing demand for nutrition-related knowledge and learning from many national actors and development partners tackling the complexity of scaling up nutrition specific and sensitive interventions. These answers certainly resonated with us and we reflected how there is now a demand, if not an impatience, for faster dissemination of learning and, for greater accountability. The number of actors actively working on KM is growing and these organisations are going to need a level of coordination we haven’t needed before. We have the responsibility to ensure our KM assets are not duplicative but play to our strengths and most importantly, meet the needs of country nutrition actors. We don’t all want to be turning up at the same offices of hard-pressed national nutrition staff asking for engagement in learning.  Expectations are rightly high and there is a need for greater clarity of the who, what, where and why….

Another major thread running through our conversations was just how much thinking and progress is being made in getting to grips with what nutrition sensitive means for each of the agencies we met with, how they can retrofit nutrition into their ongoing programmes as well to support new activities. What is also notable is the work being invested in nutrition sensitive theories of change, impact pathways, better M&E and operations research. We should expect to see a host of new nutrition sensitive knowledge and learning being curated and disseminated in 2017 and beyond.

It is just one year ago that ENN published a special issue of Field Exchange on nutrition sensitive programming. Key conclusions from reviewing and publishing a large number of articles on what authors described as nutrition sensitive programmes were that there was a need for greater clarify around definitions, the types of interventions best suited to what are markedly varied contexts, to costing the nutrition component and to measuring and synthesising evidence on outcomes and impact. We left Rome feeling that in this short time since the publication -only 12 months - considerable progress has been made on definitions’, re-invigorated policies and in setting out the range of interventions countries can consider to reduce malnutrition: one example of this is the Compendium of Actions for Nutrition compiled by the UN Network for SUN. However, there continues to be a tension between the need to roll out programmes which we ‘believe’ impact on nutrition like WASH or diversified agriculture, and waiting for rigorous studies that not only demonstrate impact but reveal how that impact is being mediated.  No pun intended but we guess it will all come out in the ‘wash’ as the large number of studies currently in progress begin to add to the evidence base of what does and doesn’t work.

We left feeling that the KM future looks bright and will look even brighter as we start to share and coordinate our resources, and this will continue to improve the “institutional memory” of the sector. Developments on the nutrition sensitive front are moving fast and there should emerge many more examples of good global and country level practices to keep those concerned with KM very busy indeed. 

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