Strengthening a multi-partner and multi-sectoral response for nutrition
In Lesotho, the UNN-REACH facilitator is fortunate to be based in the Office of the Prime Minister where she provides technical support to the Food and Nutrition Coordination Office (FNCO). This has given her a vantage point for strengthening multi-stakeholder engagement through regular meetings with government and capacity-building of the FNCO technical team. Since the country went into lockdown, Maseqobela has been consulting via phone and virtual meetings with both government and UN colleagues.
“We are very lucky in having a collective culture, nurtured by the UNN chair – and exercises such as REACH and UNN mapping tools have helped inform nutrition strategy and key UN documents such as the UNDAP [United Nations Development Assistance Plan].”
COVID-19 has also proved a catalyst for broadening the network of United Nations agencies and other partners involved in nutrition in Lesotho, including plans to work closely with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) on a food production initiative, and to further strengthen the Water, Sanitation and Health (WASH) component both within the Ministry of Health and in the country’s school feeding programme.
Before COVID-19 and now - what has changed for UNN-REACH?
“It is not that we are necessarily doing anything new,” claims Maseqobela. “Strategically, we decided to continue with our plan [2020/2021 UNN-REACH workplan] but to conduct it in a more robust manner with a wider involvement of stakeholders and with a multi-sector approach”.
UNN-REACH has created a sound enabling environment for nutrition, particularly at national level. In the wake of COVID-19, however, even more attention is now being focused on the facilitation of actions at the district and community level.
“We are striving to strengthen the Maximum Intervention Programme approach to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 – and we are doing things in a more collective manner,” confirms Maseqobela.
Impact of COVID-19 on health and nutrition programming in Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone registered its first case of COVID-19 on 30 March 2020, two months after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic. Initially, many nutrition programmes were suspended due to measures instituted by the government to stop the spread of the virus. According to Marian Bangura, UNN-REACH facilitator in the country, most United Nations agencies and development partners have diverted some of their project funds to a COVID-19 response, such as provision of infection prevention control materials (including personal protection equipment and soap), food assistance and promotion of relevant public health messages.
Unfortunately, preventative measures such as restrictions on movement, physical distancing and a ‘no touch’ policy have affected access, utilization and delivery of life-saving health and nutrition services in the country. For example, there has been a large decline in number of pregnant women accessing antenatal services, and reductions in immunizations for infants aged 0‒11 months. Moreover, 63 percent of households are now food insecure (up from 48 percent in the previous quarter), and nine out of sixteen districts had a higher prevalence of children with severe acute malnutrition (SAM) than before the onset of COVID-19.
Creating a new Food Assistance and Nutrition pillar
The COVID-19 pandemic in Sierra Leone has triggered the creation of a Food Assistance and Nutrition (FAN) pillar. According to the UNN-REACH facilitator, this is the first of its kind in all the emergencies that the country has faced over the years, including the rebel war, the Ebola outbreak and the mudslide that claimed thousands of lives. The pillar consists of two clusters: the nutrition cluster, chaired by the Directorate of Food and Nutrition within the Ministry of Health and Sanitation and co-chaired by UNICEF; and the food security cluster, chaired by the Ministry of Agriculture and co-chaired by WFP.
The FAN pillar, strongly supported by the Vice President (both UNN-REACH and SUN are housed in the Vice President’s office), collaborated with other nutrition and food security partners to develop the COVID-19 National Emergency Plan. The plan provides technical oversight and coordinates all food assistance and nutrition support. A coordinated approach between actors is ensured via sharing roles and responsibilities, weekly cluster meetings and reporting, and tracking of interventions by different stakeholders to avoid duplication and overlap.
Through the coordinated efforts of the different working groups, the pillar has produced a context-specific Standard Operating Procedure for Nutrition Response to COVID-19 as well as defined a food basket package for vulnerable households and individuals to be distributed to treatment centres and quarantine homes nationwide. As infection rates spread to the districts, the national-level coordination structure was decentralized. Each district established its own mechanism for coordinating the COVID-19 response activities, headed by the district coordinator.