A Nutrition Cliff-Hanger in Geneva!

This post was written by Shawn Baker, Helen Keller International's Vice President and Regional Director for Africa, about his attendance at the 65th World Health Assembly last week to advocate for maternal, infant and young child nutrition. 

We were all holding our breath waiting to find out the outcome of the Maternal, Infant and Young Child Nutrition (MIYCN) comprehensive implementation plan. So much of what HKI promotes is central to this plan, so it was critical that the resolution be passed. It was a real cliff-hanger – but in the final hours of Friday’s debates at the 65th World Health Assembly the plan was adopted unanimously – a real victory for nutrition and the timing couldn’t be better. It was never a “done deal” that the resolution would be passed; there were competing resolutions from different national delegations and the exact wording was under heavy scrutiny. I came to Geneva to advocate for a holistic strategy to address nutrient needs of young children, and ensure that language was included supporting exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of life with continued breastfeeding to at least two years. Our HKI team was accompanied by the West African Nutrition Advocate, President Monteiro (former head of state of Cape Verde). One of the highlights of the week was the Monday evening side event on acute malnutrition co-sponsored by Action Against Hunger, Concern Worldwide and HKI, where President Monteiro spoke and Issakha Diop (both pictured above) – our regional coordinator for community-based treatment of acute malnutrition – gave a stellar presentation. This drove home the message of the urgency of the adopting the MIYCN plan and the importance of adequately addressing acute malnutrition. Our combined advocacy over the course of the week helped push the adoption of the MIYCN plan, but it was certainly touch and go…we weren’t even certain when the nutrition item would be taken up by the Assembly. The nutrition discussion was originally scheduled to start on Tuesday, then was deferred to Wednesday, then was briefly suspended to discuss another topic, and finally started up again on Thursday evening. After having been queued up several times to present HKI’s statement on the MIYCN plan, I finally was able to read it very late on Thursday. Soon after, a compromise resolution was presented. We were near closure, but some delegations wanted to see the full revisions in writing, so a meeting was scheduled again for Friday morning. I had already postponed my departure by one day and had to follow the remainder of Friday’s drama by text message and e-mail as I traveled back to Dakar. Finally, late Friday afternoon, the second compromise resolution was adopted. After a week of high drama and high tensions, I couldn’t ask for a better outcome. It was an exhausting week, but worth the efforts given the final resolution, which will provide the framework for our nutrition programs in the coming years.