Unpacking the role of UN regional offices and platforms
The role of UN regional bureaus and offices is multi-tiered. In smaller offices, such as Eswatini and Lesotho, the regional colleagues tend to be more involved in country-level activities, including the formulation of UN Joint Programmes. Clearly, the line of support does not stop there. The regional offices can also play a catalytic role in strengthening ties between UN agencies. For example, regional engagement enabled UNICEF and WFP to come together in Zimbabwe to promote increased complementarity between the two agencies, including measures related to the COVID-19 response. UNICEF and WFP have teamed up in-country on SBCC regarding maternal, infant and young child feeding, which now includes COVID-19 related messaging and is disseminated through lean season food distribution points in 23 districts. UNFPA is also using this channel to distribute sexual and reproductive health commodities, drawing upon WFP logistics support. With that said, collaboration takes effort and a willingness to understand the other side ─ and compromise at times. The regional colleagues are also mobilized when there are challenges and the agencies ‘don’t get along’, encouraging country-level colleagues to work through the issues and resolve misunderstandings. Furthermore, UN regional staff can serve as matchmakers, connecting their nutrition colleagues in countries to the UNN Secretariat for technical assistance (e.g. on UNN analytics).
Regional platforms, such as the Food Security Working Group and Regional Nutrition Group in Southern Africa, co-led by UNICEF and WFP, also help foster increased collaboration between the agencies. This has ensured that partners in the region have a harmonized approach to nutrition in the COVID-19 response and are updated on the latest guidance. In addition, the working group has fueled nutrition advocacy, having developed a Call to Action in late July that highlighted the potential impact on nutrition outcomes in Eastern and Southern Africa due to COVID-19. Experience has also shown that these regional platforms can serve as incubators for new ideas, such as mother-led MUAC assessment in the face of COVID-19, which was conceived in this forum. A number of country offices, including Zimbabwe, have minimized malnutrition screening performed by Community Health Workers to reduce contact and are having mothers do it themselves. The underlying premise is that this adaptation is one way to minimize risk to the virus.
Joint action during the age of COVID-19
While the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a series for new challenges from how UN staff communicate to programming delivery, it has also increased the appetite for joint approaches. At the regional level, UNICEF and WFP have used the COVID-19 as a window of opportunity to develop a list of indicators for which it is relatively easy to collect data in order to get a snapshot of the situation without going to the field to reduce exposure to virus. The two agencies have also joined forces at the country level to safeguard nutrition during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Malawi, UNICEF developed jingles with key messaging on the prevention of COVID-19 that are being used by WFP and other partners to strengthen SBCC and awareness activities across different programmes. The two agencies are also providing joint support (technical and financial) to the government for district teams on ensuing programmatic adaptations from the use of personal protective equipment to frequency of distributions to curtail contagion. As part of these efforts, UNICEF and WFP supported the revision of the national standard operating procedure (SOP) on management of acute malnutrition in the context of COVID-19 as well as the implementation thereof. Colleagues from both agencies were quick to point out that these measures built on a rich history of inter-agency collaboration in support of the national nutrition emergency response from October 2015 to June 2017. This might suggest that collaboration breeds collaboration or that it is easier to execute where there is already a precedent.