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A new SUN civil society network: Advice from nutrition champions on set-up

Charulatha Banerjee, ENN’s Asia Regional Knowledge Management Specialist, put questions from the Philippine Coalition of Advocates in Nutrition champions with knowledge of advocacy networks. They are SanSan Myint, who was Myanmar’s SUN CSA programme manager before taking up her current role as nutrition advocacy consultant at UN REACH, and Basanta Kumar Kar, chief executive officer (CEO) for the Coalition for Food and Nutrition Security in India.


A poor suburb of Yangon, Myanmar, where a cash handout programme is underwayThe Philippine Coalition of Advocates in Nutrition (PHILCAN) was formed by non-government organisations in the Philippines nearly two decades ago and has 12 member organisations at present. The coalition is represented in the formal government structure for nutrition policy formulation and coordination. In 2014, the Philippines joined the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement. PHILCAN plans to restructure itself as a Civil Society Alliance and is seeking advice from other Alliances in the region on setting up and running successful networks.



Myanmar joined the SUN Movement in April 2013. The Myanmar Civil Society Alliance (CSA) for Nutrition was launched in 2014 with eight international members and expanded to include many national organisations and currently has 52 members, of which 40 are local groups. The network has received funds from the SUN’s funding mechanism, the Multi Party Trust Fund (MPTF), and from other donors. See myanmar/

Formed in 2007 and institutionalised in 2014, the Coalition for Food and Nutrition Security (CFNS), India is a group of policy and programme leaders committed to knowledge management, fostering collaboration and evidence-based advocacy for improved programmes to achieve sustainable food and nutrition security. More than 500 organisations and influential leaders are associated with the group. The Coalition has received some donor funding, but it also harnesses the experience of its members through working groups for various activities and uses an annual subscription model. See www.transformnutrition. org/country-focus/india/coalition-for-nutrition-in-india/

1. What are the key points to keep in mind when a network is starting out? What were the teething problems when you set up your network?

SanSan Myint (SSM): Strong leadership is key. A leader who is strong but not authoritarian, but supportive. The person should lead by example and ensure that each and every activity – meeting, training, field observation trip, etc. – has outputs that ultimately lead towards another milestone along the road map. Work planned by the network should be supportive of what the government is doing and also ensure that the passed legislation is trickling down and benefiting the communities and for that to happen, the government needs partners.

Basanta Kumar Kar (BKK): Running a coalition needs a catalytic approach, managing power equations, some negotiation and bargaining. It is a balancing act to keep the people and public interest agenda high. How do we ensure that in the process of keeping consensus, strong individual organisations are not weakened? We are an advocacy-based organisation, we have to champion the cause of the people, align with the government and take positions based on evidence. Funding is also a teething issue. You need to identify organisations who can provide core funding for the initial years.

2. How did you determine on which areas to focus?

BKK: This has been a long, drawn-out process led by the network’s members. We also engaged a professional organisation to design the CFNS’s strategy through a consultative process. We have focused on sustainable food and nutrition security as a key focus area. Within that, we prioritised actions on: a) membership engagement; b) knowledge management; and c) evidence-based advocacy.

The CFNS has undertaken numerous interventions, including:

• Promoting the right to food and nutrition, accessing nutritious food, mobilising the commitment of the highest political leadership, and micro-level planning;

• Developing awareness on World Health Assembly targets and Sustainable Development Goals;

• Setting up appropriate institutional arrangements to improve food and nutrition governance from village level to national level, such as more empowered gramsabhas (village parliaments), National Nutrition Mission and revamping the Prime Minister’s Nutrition Council.

SSM: Monitoring the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes was picked up as a key activity. The Government was going through the process of legislation in Parliament and was asking the milk companies to follow the Code. We felt that the Ministry of Health would need partners for monitoring and reporting and this is how we continue to contribute, to ensure that violations of the Code are reported and action taken. At the same time, we have also conducted trainings for local organisations on infant and young child feeding practices.

3. How do you ensure that all members are equally engaged, considering that each organisation has its own focus areas? 

BKK: In my experience there are four key points to ensure everyone’s involvement:

1. We employ a very strong membership engagement agenda. Often smaller national/sub-national actors might feel marginalised, so we try to make it as inclusive as possible by bringing in national actors at all levels – state and district – to ensure better horizontal integration.

2. At regular intervals we renewed calls for membership. This gave the signal that the organisation is dynamic and open to an inclusive membership agenda.

3. Transparency and knowledge management are key principles – we communicate openly, proactively engaging people in discussions. Through our working groups, we engaged on developing evidence-based knowledge products on various themes and functions involving more than 150 knowledge leaders.

4. Credibility of the Coalition is critical. When members see that the leaders in the network are involved in policy discussion, legislation development at the Prime Minister’s Office, this gives a lot of legitimacy.

SSM: In Myanmar, it was the first time that a network was being formed to include national organisations also working on nutrition. Organisations were looking for support, and a formal institution as an anchor for their activities. The National Nutrition Committee under the Ministry of Health and Sports also needed partners to scale up nutrition initiatives at the grassroots level as they were the SUN focal institution. We did a lot of preparation work, securing interest was not difficult but the messages needed to be correctly drafted and SUN training materials simplified, made user- friendly and, in several instances, translated.

4. What has been the initiative of the network in engaging with your country’s Government? Can you give us a few examples of successful lobbying?

SSM: One of the first points we lobbied with the Government was the need for more comprehensive, reliable and valid nutrition data. Recent nutrition data that is representative of the general population is not available. Some of the nutrition data that is being used as reference is as old as 2005-06. All members were crying out for data, we write reports to donors, we need data that is reliable, at least output data. Without this, monitoring progress was so difficult so consensus among the network on this goal was very easy. This situation of lack of reliable and timely data will soon change with the availability of the Demographic & Health Survey (DHS) Report. Unlike other countries, this is the first DHS survey in Myanmar. In the early days, prior to political changes, press briefings were rare and it was considered sensitive to share information and data with the media. Now government staff are able to share information more freely with development partners and the press. We have also supported the generation of qualitative and quantitative information as well as disseminating that information. The political changes actually facilitated our work and we took advantage of the enabling environment that emerged to introduce creative communication methods with local authorities and local community groups.

5. What are the collaboration points with other networks, especially the business sector?

BKK: The main point of collaboration with any other networks is to drive the public interest agenda. There is no real problem on engagement with socially responsiblecbusinesses, as long as the agenda is public interest in nature. We need to bring the Government on board so that there is a stakeholder and message alignment and malnutrition and food insecurity are fought together. The Corporate Social Responsibility Bill in India is a big resource, it is mandated by law that 2% of the profits have to be used for social development and so there is a lot of financial resources available through this. Civil society can make use of these capacities towards improving food and nutrition value chains, introducing climate-smart and nutrition-sensitive agriculture, or information technology and professional management skills available within socially responsible businesses.

6. How can the media be engaged effectively? Can you give us some successful examples of media engagement in your countries? 

BKK: “If you cannot manage media, media will manage you.” One of the operating models in the CFNS we have formed is the Media and Information Communication Technology working group. We are trying to engage media at many levels – ‘barefoot’ reporters, stringers, even women from grassroots organisations can bring information – the real stories. The media needs to be shown evidence from the field to be convinced and engaged from the beginning. Another barrier is the media’s frustration with the jargon used by civil society. We have to communicate in simple language. Interestingly, today, everyone has become a reporter with the growth of social media. We need to take advantage of this arena.

To work with the Government, one has to build trust, and the relationship needs to develop over time. Once that relationship is built, it becomes less difficult to make a convincing case based on hard-core evidence to policy makers.

BKK: In the Coalition there is provision for four government representatives and we have tried to facilitate representation of senior government people in our programmes and governance structures. We have also worked with quasijudicial bodies like the State Food Commission – in Odisha, this was mandated under National Food Security Act to improve access to food and nutrition entitlements. Most importantly, the Coalition has worked closely with policy makers to influence their thinking and actions on food and nutrition security.

7. India and Myanmar are big countries with linguistic and cultural differences across the regions. How do you keep your focus on the national goals while motivating members to be active locally?

BKK: There has to be goal alignment in a large country like India, which has national, state and local governments. Our effort has been to go to the states and districts so as to position ourselves as an inclusive and powerful platform in a public space. To do this we are now convening consultations at the state level. We are trying to ensure higher representation of people from the states in the governance structures like board and general body. After a successful membership drive, we now have members from 14 Indian states. So there is a conscious strategy to reach out, engage the members, the leaders and then the platform becomes more credible and legitimate. Through deliberate efforts, the local representation has increased in our working groups and various committees and we have a plan to establish global and national advisory bodies.

SSM: We can start working with large, local parastatals that have networks at the national level and right down to the village levels. It is not possible for us to move all over the country. However, we have partners in the Alliance such as Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association and the Women’s Cooperative Society. There are others in the private sector that we have not tapped into yet. These large organisations have their networks in all the 15 states and divisions and will be able to carry the messages, programmes, trainings and other activities right down to the grassroots village level.

The Global SUN Civil Society Network (SUN CSN) has a membership of over 2,100 civil society organisations engaged through national civil society alliances (CSAs) established in 34 SUN Countries. Visit for more information, including resources such as a guidance note on establishing a SUN CSA and a post-2015 tool kit.

Key points for PHILCAN

1. Ensure strong and supportive leadership which is reinforced by a transparent and effective governing mechanism that mentors the network.

2. Develop a clear and definite agenda which is responsive to the country’s needs, based on evidence, and supportive of national policies.

3. Be far-reaching and inclusive – “with everyone for everyone”.

4. Invest in cultivating relationships with members, governments and all nutrition actors.

5. Engage with media and others outside the nutrition sector in simple language.

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Charulatha Banerjee (). A new SUN civil society network: Advice from nutrition champions on set-up. Nutrition Exchange 7, January 2017. p19.



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