Setting up a UN Network in Honduras: Challenges – and opportunities – in the COVID-19 era and the road ahead

Setting up a UN Network in Honduras: Challenges – and opportunities – in the COVID-19 era and the road ahead


Honduras joined the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement in 2019 as the 61st member, making it the fourth Central American country to join SUN. The move was one of the latest signs of the Government’s commitment to nutrition, with a policy agenda that has included updating its National Food and Nutrition Security Policy and Strategy (PyENSAN2030), together with an associated Action Plan (2019-2023). 

“It’s been a bold move from the Government to join SUN,” confirms David Nataren, Programme & Policy Officer with the World Food Programme (WFP is chairing the UN Network for SUN in Honduras). “Part of the motivation is to share knowledge – to find out what other countries with similar conditions are doing, how they are working to prioritize their Food Security and Nutrition [FSN] plans even when facing tough spending decisions. In Honduras, we have a scarcity of resources and a lot of competing priorities.”

A high percentage of the country’s population live in poverty (64 percent): of this percentage, 40 percent live in extreme poverty with over two thirds of the extremely poor living in rural areas.[1] Twenty-three percent of children under five years old are stunted: prevalence of stunting increases to nearly 50 percent in the ‘Dry Corridor’, an area populated by smallholder farmers that is particularly susceptible to irregular and long-lasting droughts, which have worsened due to climate change.[2]

Dry Corridor_Honduras

At the same time, rapid urbanization is leading to higher consumption of processed foods high in sugar, salt and fat, and lower levels of physical activity: approximately 51 percent of women in Honduras are overweight or obese (2012) [2]. Non-communicable chronic diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, hypertension and cancer, are now among the top ten causes of mortality in Honduras. Therefore, promoting healthy diets are part of the strategy of PyENSAN2030, contributing to the goals of Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development in the country.

UNRC call for a multi-dimensional approach

Increased efforts to ensure a multidimensional approach to nutrition, as well as strengthening the nexus between humanitarian and development interventions, are being supported under the leadership of the newly-appointed UN Resident Coordinator (UNRC), Alice Shackelford, and the Resident Coordination Office

“This is critical in a country such as Honduras where structural nutrition issues are coupled with over 60 percent poverty, 75 percent informality [in the job market] and a lack of social security measures and protection mechanisms,” says Alice.

“We need to keep a medium/long-term approach and integrate these efforts in the strategy for eradication of extreme poverty and reduction of inequality critical to the 2030 Agenda [Sustainable Development Goals] and leaving no one behind. And this directly links to capacity of the population to actively engage and strengthen democracy and rule of law. The UN has to be up to the task and be able to work as a system and not any more as individual agencies and mandates.”

Network membership

The UN Network (UNN) is one of the new SUN networks to be established in Honduras, along with the Civil Society Network and the Academic Network. David Nataren confirms that it has been easier in the early stages to bring on board the agencies that have more obvious synergies, such as WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO/WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and that the organizations are already working together on joint proposals. The UNN has also had exploratory discussions with the World Bank and UNDP to see how each agency fits in with the Food and Nutrition Security Plan, as it recognizes that this is definitely the way forward and not the work for just one agency.

United Nations’ agencies were invited to join the Network at the UN Country Team meeting in September 2019, which was attended by eight agencies. An understanding of the multi-sectoral approach to nutrition is described by United Nations stakeholders as in its early stages in Honduras. It is a particular priority for the UNN to make sure the World Bank is included in the network. “We need WB’s technical expertise and investment if we’re to have a holistic approach as advocated by the SUN Movement,” says David.

Nutrition data gaps

A top priority for United Nations agencies is to collect key data in order to put nutrition within the framework of public policies and with all actors working across different sectors. This lack of data capacity was highlighted during Gerda Verburg’s [UN-Assistant Secretary General & Coordinator of the SUN Movement] country visit last year.

“We need to have a faster and easier reading of the nutrition situation in the country, using evidence that has been built jointly at the country level,” confirms David. “At the moment the Government has to turn to the UN for a specific study – there will be more efficiencies if we work together to build capacity. When we have the numbers, it will also enable us to talk to the private sector about investing in good nutrition.”

According to Jose Ramirez Arita, Early Childhood Development Officer with UNICEF Honduras, COVID-19 has shown the government that it is possible to handle information virtually. “I believe that the Network should support the government in information management. Our country still does not have a digital online system that can show the number of children affected by malnutrition, anaemia, etc. This information is only known from surveys, which are not very frequent.”

Growth monitoring_Honduras

Family, Health Promotion and Life Course Advisor with PAHO, Evelyne Ancion Degraff, agrees that lack of nutrition data is a major concern in Honduras. In 2019, PAHO coordinated a workshop in which UNICEF and WFP participated, in order to build national capacity for the implementation of a National Nutrition Surveillance System. “Participants included the SUN Movement Country Representative and the UN Network, and 19 health districts were also represented. Since then, national health authorities have expressed their commitment to developing the surveillance system.”

The UNN is now working with the Government and academia to build a Food Security and Nutrition Observatory to develop standardized data bases, information systems and increase accessibility to updated information. The COVID-19 crisis has added impetus to this work.

COVID-19 – exposing new vulnerabilities

The current pandemic has further exposed data gaps related to food and nutrition vulnerabilities in the country, in particular the high informality in the job market. On 10th March, when the Government announced a lockdown, millions of people in urban areas were not included in any census or eligible for social protection. Responding to the crisis, the International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency, made a rapid assessment estimating that 72 percent of the working poor in Honduras are employed in the informal sector and were now in need of help due to being unable to work. According to the study, around 200,000 households in the ten largest cities of the country have lost their income due to the crisis, placing the vulnerable at high risk of malnutrition.[3]

There has been some response from the Government – it has distributed food rations to 800,000 vulnerable families (around 3.2 million people). However, programme targeting has been based on information from before the crisis and distributing food and cash to people that were already vulnerable. Much of the nutrition programming prior to COVID-19 was focused on the ‘Dry Corridor’. Yet for the first time in seven years there have been rains this year and food shortages  are not expected in this region. Moreover, urban areas have been more affected by COVID-19 than these rural populations as smallholder farmers can generate their own food production. There were reports at the beginning of the lockdown that a little more than 78 percent of the markets nationwide suffered some sort of food shortages and prices of food increased in general.

COVID19 response_Honduras

COVID-19 has once again highlighted the lack of data in Honduras that the new public observatory seeks to address. ‘The pandemic is going to create a multi-polar crisis for food security and nutrition in the country; we need to keep a check on what’s happening in the Dry Corridor as we expect the recovery may only be in the short-term, while at the same time dealing with the huge rise in numbers [of vulnerable families] in urban areas,” confirms David. 

New opportunities to work together

“Only together can we address the crisis produced by the pandemic and the UN at country level is committed very much in this regard both through the humanitarian response and the response to the socio-economic impact,” says UNRC, Alice Shackelford.

This commitment is being realized in Honduras through increased collaboration between United Nations agencies in areas such as research, data collection, advocacy and joint programming. COVID-19 has uncovered challenges as well as created opportunities for the UN to work together. “It has helped us to look for real synergies, not just talking – it has served as a bridge to move us to the other side and to make things happen,” says David.

Following the Government’s declaration of a humanitarian emergency in the country, the Food Security and Nutrition Cluster was activated under WFP’s leadership and prepared an emergency response plan, working closely with other sectors including social protection and with support from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The initial focus has been on supporting immediate needs, such as increasing hospital capacity and feeding those facing hunger.

In close collaboration, WFP and UNICEF are technically supporting the country’s Early Childhood Unit in a programme to provide complementary foods for children under two years of age in six departments in the country. “The idea is not to substitute household foodsalong with the cereal [Super Cereal Plus], the child continues to be fed with the food that the home community has”, says Arita from UNICEF. “It’s interesting because this intervention, which we plan to scale up, is the first to be led Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion [where the Early Childhood Unit is housed] rather than the Ministry of Health.”

Child feeding_Honduras

United Nations agencies have worked on a socio-economic response to the impact of the COVID-19 supporting the Government in specific recovery measures. For example, WFP in alliance with ILO has worked on a microeconomics study with a livelihood approach to identify vulnerable populations outside of the current social protection system, as well as trying to understand how COVID-19 has affected the FSN of women differently than men etc. Conversations with the World Bank have been held to advocate jointly for an expansion of social protection measures.

FAO and WFP have been working together on generating data in collaboration with the Government’s technical unit for Food Security and Nutrition Technical Unit (known as UTSAN) to strengthen the Food and Nutrition Security Monitoring and Evaluation Information System (SISESAN), and are committed to creating an integrated platform with the exchange of information and knowledge.

Both UN agencies are monitoring the FSN situation across the country particularly to identify effects of the current health crisis. WFP is working on generating evidence on the impact of COVID-19 on food consumption habits with regards to processed food and sugar-sweetened beverages, bearing in mind the country’s overweight and obesity challenges. The studies are part of an effort to address the lack of evidence to better inform the design of policy and programmes in the country. FAO is also carrying out rapid evaluations with the National Institute of Statistics on the impact of COVID-19 on FSN.

According to Wendy Carranza Rios, National Officer for Food and Nutrition Security Policy with FAO, attention to priority groups must be coordinated, effective and relevant to the needs of the population. “FAO has worked to strengthen the decentralized management of FSN in the territories, specifically in the process of training community volunteers, in the implementation of the Integrated Care for Children in the Community strategy and the promotion of adequate food.”

Challenges and lessons learned

“The challenges in Honduras are two-fold: an external one, in terms of a weak institutional architecture (and efficiency) and internal one, in terms of limited incentives for agencies, funds and programmes to break their traditional institutional approach,” summarizes Alice Shackelford. “The 2030 agenda and the response to COVID-19 provides a very strong opportunity to look at an integrated approach to sustainable development and humanitarian response."

According to PAHO’s Evelyne Degraff, there is still a need to define the mechanisms of coordination and collaboration between UN Agencies, and to elaborate a UN Network plan. “While COVID-19 has been an opportunity for PAHO to work with UN agencies on other issues, mostly related to the pandemic response and to sexual reproductive health, there is a need to reinforce collaboration on nutrition,” says Evelyne. She suggests that one option would be to create a thematic group on nutrition that meets periodically to share information and coordinate actions. This suggestion was supported by Wendy Carranza Rios from FAO, who added that there was a need in Honduras to establish a National Nutrition Authority to lead and coordinate advocacy, prevention and nutritional care to tackle malnutrition in all its forms.

Next steps

“Nutrition is very young as a subject in this country – we have to keep pushing for funding for the whole FSN strategy and national plans,” claims David Nataren from WFP. COVID-19 has disrupted some of the momentum that UNN actors were making, in terms of engaging nutrition champions – the Network was engaged in conversations with the First Lady’s office, who is very interested in social policy.  It was also just days away from presenting a study on the cost of the double burden in Honduras before lockdown occurred. But there is a growing awareness in Government of the need to involve all sectors in the fight against malnutrition – and the cost of inaction on the economy, particularly in recovery during the post-COVID-19 era.

“The role of the UN is focused on strengthening the capacity of institutions to provide response and service provisions, as well as strengthening internal UN mechanisms of coordination and joint programming,” summarizes Alice Shackelford. “This will be part of the new United Nations Cooperation Framework for Sustainable Development (2022-2026), which is being worked upon right now.”

The UN Network has a key part to play in these next steps and can help country actors connect the dots to fortify the efforts underway. 


[1] Encuesta Permanente de Hogares de Propósitos Múltiples en Honduras (2017) Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas (INE)


[3] Microeconomic and Livelihood Recovery Study: ILO and WFP


Photo credits:

Photo 1 @FAO / FAO

Photo 2 @UNDP Honduras/José Mario Lagos

Photo 3 @UNHCR Honduras

Photo 4 @UNDP Honduras/José Mario Lagos