Transforming leadership in nutrition

Championing the people that lead the fight against undernutrition

The 2016 intake for the Transform Nutrition short course, UK.

Strong leadership plays a crucial role in enabling action to tackle undernutrition. From its inception in 2012 Transform Nutrition set out to establish a growing network of leaders armed with the latest knowledge, a supportive peer network and an appreciation of the tools to bring about change in nutrition policies and programmes.

The commitment to tackling undernutrition at both national and international level is on the rise. The 2015 Sustainable Development Goal to “end all forms of malnutrition” by 2030 reflects the political momentum built around nutrition globally. On the ground, there is now a greater awareness of the multiple, underlying causes of undernutrition and how to address them, which has led to the ‘scaling up’ of many successful nutrition sensitive interventions[1]. However, within countries that have made rapid progress in tackling undernutrition, the role of strong leadership has also been highlighted as a crucial element in ensuring this political will and the increasing knowledge is turned into impact.

Prior to 2015, Transform Nutrition research highlighted the role of strong leadership in tackling child and maternal undernutrition (‘Food Policy’ — Nisbett et al. 2015; ‘Global Nutrition Report 2015 and further updated in the book ‘Nourishing Millions: Stories of Change in Nutrition’). Subsequently, the consortium set about establishing an active network of leaders from a range of countries where potential for action to improve nutrition would have maximum impact. Through this network the leaders were given the tools,evidence, training and support needed to translate and apply knowledge in their policy and practice decisions more effectively.

Training global leaders in nutrition

Hear from the participants of 2016 Transform Nutrition short course

Over the past 6 years, the Transform Nutrition: Ideas, Policies and Outcomes’ short course has welcomed over 123 global leaders in its UK summer school and another 50 through the same course being run in India. Tailored versions of the course have also been held in India for District Nutrition Officers (Bihar) and practitioners (Karnataka). The five day course has been designed for both policy makers and practitioners and aims to provide a base from which participants can develop their own future leadership for transformational change in nutrition.

The teaching materials exposed participants to cutting-edge knowledge and evidence on nutrition. Using an interactive diagnostic approach, participants learn to apply such knowledge to specific national or sub-national situations to identify strategic areas for nutrition action.

“The course was really useful for me in this respect as it gave me the ‘nuts and bolts’ of everything I needed to know about nutrition for my new role at the World Bank. This knowledge is with me while I am working, making decisions or giving advice. For example, I have used the knowledge from the course while I have been designing a $26 million health governance and nutrition development project in Laos, which was recently awarded the World Bank Vice-Presidential Award.”

- Course participant from the World Bank in South Asia

The course plays a vital role in exposing leaders in high burden countries to Transform Nutrition research and wider nutrition research whilst also teaching practical approaches for applying this evidence and as such getting evidence into action through their work at a local and national level. As a result participants have reported a number of examples whereby changes in practice have been influenced by the short course, including changes in organisational policy and procedures as well as government policy:

“Tanzania strategically supported participation of key decision makers to the course, especially from Prime Minister Office and President Office, in order to improve their understanding of nutrition. This has contributed to lay the basis for the development of the National Multisectoral Nutrition Action Plan 2016–21.”

- Course participant from UNICEF, Tanzania

“I have used the course learning to inform the design of a Cornell led initiative — Technical Assistance and Research for Indian Nutrition and Agriculture (TARINA). CARE India is part of this consortium and is implementing the project in Odisha, India. I have deployed the course learning to enhance appreciation of Agriculture-Nutrition linkages in teams at CARE India, and to layer nutrition on livelihood initiatives.”

- Course participant from CARE India Solutions for Sustainable Development, India

Participants have come primarily from Transform Nutrition’s four focal countries (Bangladesh, India, Ethiopia, Kenya), plus Tanzania and Nigeria and have included senior civil servants, civil society partners, NGO workers, practitioners and activists. The course has been consistently well received by the participants with many going on to build lasting connections with both their peers and the Transform Nutrition programme and researchers. Last year an evaluation of the course showed that all of those surveyed would recommend the course to a colleague and some alumni have sought to adapt the course and offer it in their own locations.

Raising the profile of nutrition champions

Transform Nutrition partnered with Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) in 2013 and Save the Children in 2015, to recognise individuals who have had significant success in transforming thinking or action on nutrition. This initiative aimed to acknowledge and raise the profile of leaders in complex policy contexts. Nominations for ‘nutrition champions’ were invited for individuals from countries with a high burden of undernutrition. The consortium were looking for individuals that were innovating or influencing in the field of nutrition and whose work has started to make a real difference in their locality in recent years.

Nick Nisbett (Institute of Development Studies) and Marie Rumsby (Save the Children) discuss the Transform Nutrition Champions 2016 initiative.

Those that were selected as champions had their work profiled on the Transform Nutrition website and some of their stories featured in the ‘Nourishing Millions: Stories of Change in Nutrition’ book. The 2016 champions were also offered the chance to participate in media and advocacy training offered by Save the Children in March 2016 to equip them to raise attention and commitment for nutrition in their contexts.

Quotes from some of the 2016 champions

An evaluation of the initiative revealed that the champions valued the chance to build strong connections and relationships with others. They also noted that the increased profile they had received through the initiative had strengthened trust and their ability to convince potential partners and donors with whom they worked.

The SUN secretariat which works to support governments to realise rights to food and nutrition, recognises the value of supporting individuals to lead action. Transform Nutrition has worked with SUN to prepare guidance on identifying, engaging and sustaining champions that will be made available to SUN country focal points to help them seek out and foster leaders for change in their contexts. A dedicated workshop session at the next SUN global gathering will also take the initiative forward.

Listen to Manaan Mumma explain why leadership is important in her work.

Establishing a network of leaders in nutrition

The Transform Nutrition Leaders Network is a community of nutrition experts that connect with their peers nationally and globally to share experiences and lessons. The network is made up of previous nutrition champions, alumni from the short courses and other researchers and practitioners that work on nutrition. It provides a platform to contribute to discussions on the realities of tackling nutrition and advocating for political leaders to prioritise nutrition on their agendas. Through communications, including events, online discussions and blogs, it provides opportunities and different ways to engage and participate in the network.

One of the purposes of the network is to highlight practical examples of influence on practice and policy and share it with others. While the network is still in its infancy, alumni continue to express their demand for the network and recognise the importance of a supportive peer network for the sharing of knowledge fosters mutual learnings amongst members along with an appreciation of the tools that bring about change in nutrition policies and programmes.

Delegates at the media Advocacy training hosted by Save the Children.

Transforming research into action

“To turn words to actions, talk to walk, a learning culture is needed in which lessons from the past are shared and used better.”

-Gillespie.S, Menon. P, Kennedy. A (2015) Global Nutrition Report,pp71

Rather than focusing on generating evidence to influence policy objectives, this pillar of work has attempted to do something a little different. This work has focused instead on supporting and strengthening individual leaders working at all levels of government and civil society to tackle undernutrition. These leaders have not only been trained in interpreting and implementing evidence into policy and practice. They have also become part of a wider network of nutrition experts and the emphasis on peer-to-peer learning and support has been crucial to the successes of the leadership initiatives described here.

The legacy of this work will carry on beyond the life of Transform Nutrition through the leaders network and the collaboration with the SUN movement. It will also be carried forward through the people that have been engaged in this work and their motivation and ability to influence and improve nutrition policy and practice in diverse contexts.


Gillespie. S, Haddad.L , Mannar. V, Menon. P, Nisbett.N (2013) “The politics of reducing malnutrition: building commitment and accelerating progress”.Lancet, 382 (9891), pp. 552–569.

Nicholas. N, Wach. E, Haddad. L, El Arifeen. S (2015) “What drives and constrains effective leadership in tackling child undernutrition? Findings from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India and Kenya”. Food Policy, Volume 53, May 2015, Pages 33–45.

[1] Gillespie. S, Haddad.L , Mannar. V, Menon. P, Nisbett.N (2013) “The politics of reducing malnutrition: building commitment and accelerating progress”.Lancet, 382 (9891), pp. 552–569.