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Denise Costa Coitinho

Denise Coitinho 130 x 180In the South, public health is often a very serious business. It is bound to be a central concern of government. Born in 1960 in São Paulo, I was brought up and lived my teens during the hard years of military dictatorship between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s. Like everybody of my student generation, I soon learned that when living under such regimes, saying what you really think, and even just hanging around with friends, can be dangerous. At that time, some student and other leaders in Brazil died defending their ideals and beliefs in social justice and human rights.

This experience has made a lifelong impression on me and my friends and colleagues from those years. Democracy, freedom of political expression and speech, equality, and the right of equal access to public goods, are precious and often have to be fought for. And that’s what we did. This was the context within which I chose to work on food and nutrition problems and opportunities. I found out that there was an undergraduate course on nutrition at the University of São Paulo. On my first day at USP, I decided to commit myself to public health nutrition.

Since then I have had almost 25 years of professional experience in food security and nutrition policies and programmes. This has included extensive experience in government, developing, implementing and evaluating rights-based nutrition programmes at the country level. Working as Director of Nutrition for my Government I learnt how important it is for economically developing countries to act supranationally in nutrition, creating strong bonds and networks with other countries. In this way it is possible to maintain a high level political dialogue to voice concerns, experiences and needs to the international nutrition community, to actively influence the global agenda, and to ensure that international assistance is responsive to actual country needs. My experience as a mother of three children – all boys – has also shaped my thinking about food and nutrition in the world we live in now.

I have an MSc from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a PhD from the University of São Paulo. After my MSc I worked with UNICEF in Africa. From 1998 to 2008 I was a researcher, then senior lecturer, in public health nutrition at the University of Brasília. My work there, with colleagues, included development and implementation of the first food security and nutrition policy blueprint for the Americas. While retaining my university position, from 1998 to 2003 I helped to create and then was director of the food and nutrition policy unit (CGPAN) at the Ministry of Health in Brasília. Within Brazil my work included working with Minister of Health José Serra on national programmes designed to ensure household food security in impoverished communities. I was responsible for developing in consultation with main stakeholders Brazil’s official food and nutrition policy and all derived programmes, including implementing the Brazilian dietary guidelines, micronutrient malnutrition interventions, food assistance and cash-transfer programmes. With colleagues I developed and advocated the position of Brazil and countries from the South on infant and young child feeding as Brazilian representative on this topic at WHO meetings; this is now the basis of the UN Global Strategy.

In 2004 I became Director of the Nutrition for Health and Development Department of WHO in Geneva. During this time I was vice-chair of the UN System Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN). In December 2007 I was seconded by WHO to Rome as co-ordinator of the REACH initiative headed by the UN Food Programme, designed to alleviate child hunger and undernutrition. I am now back in WHO in Geneva, working on country-focused nutrition capacity development. This project looks at building technical skills, and also leadership and strategic management capacities which, in my view, are the most important way to generate lasting change.