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Talking to Anna Lartey, next IUNS President

Anna Lartey is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Ghana. She is President-elect of the International Union of Nutritional Sciences (IUNS, 2009-2013), and will be starting her term as IUNS President after the 20th International Congress on Nutrition, which will take place in Granada from 15 to 20 September 2013. In June this year, Anna very kindly agreed to be interviewed by the Association so that we could find out her thoughts about her upcoming term as IUNS President, the Granada Congress, and her advice for young public health nutrition professionals.

She attended The University of California, Davis as a Fulbright student and received her Ph.D. in nutrition. For over 20 years, she has conducted research on maternal and child nutrition in Ghana. She was Co-Principal Investigator for the WHO Multicenter Growth Reference Study, Ghana site, and won the University of Ghana’s “Best Researcher Award for 2004”. She serves on several International Boards and Committees including the MRC International Nutrition Group’s Scientific Advisory Committee; Council of the African Nutrition Society; Food and Nutrition Bulletin Editorial Board; Bioversity International Scientific Advisory Council; WHO Nutrition Guidance Expert Advisory Group and HarvestPlus Program Advisory Committee. She served as a co-facilitator for the task force on coordination of civil society for the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement.

Anna has been a member of the IUNS Council for the past 8 years. In 2009, during the last IUNS congress in Bangkok, she became President-Elect and has been working closely with the current IUNS President, Ibrahim Elmadfa, to progress the mission of the Union.


Q: So Anna, you are starting now in September your term as IUNS President. How has this transition process been?
The years as a council member have really exposed me to the workings of IUNS. In the past four years since becoming president-elect, I have been working very closely with the president Ibrahim Elmadfa and also with the officers and council members to continue to promote the mission of IUNS. Every 4 years IUNS holds elections to bring on board new council members and new officers. In September I will be getting a new council and new officers to work with, when I take over as the substantive IUNS President for the next 4 years. To be President you have to be voted at the General Assembly, by the adhering bodies, who are the countries’ Nutrition Associations that are subscribed as members of IUNS. This year we will also have in Granada elections for the next President-elect.

Q: What are your expectations about the work for the next 4 years?
Well, I see a lot of exciting times ahead; there is such excitement and enthusiasm to do something about malnutrition, especially undernutrition, in the world. We’ve seen what is happening now, the G8 is interested in nutrition, a lot of high-level meetings on nutrition are being held to bring awareness to the problem, and the Lancet Nutrition series 2 has just been launched this year. There is a lot of excitement and momentum for nutrition at the global level, as well as in the regions. So I think taking over at this time is very strategic. In addition, what is very interesting and significant is that in the midst of all this, for the first time somebody from Sub-Saharan Africa is taking over as president of this global organization. Having lived in Africa almost all my life and knowing the situation, I think that I can bring on board a lot of my experiences. I have worked in Ghana, in rural areas, I have travelled extensively to many parts of Africa, I am very much aware of the problems as they are close to me, and when I take over this is the kind of experience that will make a difference, because when I am talking about addressing undernutrition I really know what I am talking about.

And also, being a nutrition scientist who has worked in Africa for many years, I am also aware of the interventions that we should be looking at, what we should really be promoting and where are the gaps. As a body that is made of nutrition scientists, we (IUNS) are the ones who should generate the knowledge in terms of the science and the evidence to move us forward. The evidence in terms of where we should put our emphasis, the interventions that should be done. And I think this is the area that I will really encourage our adhering bodies to be looking at. Another issue that is very important to me is capacity building, which is really needed. There can be a lot of excitement and momentum for nutrition, but ultimately the countries that bear this high burden of malnutrition need to have the capacity to run the programmes, to scale up some of these interventions. We need to build capacity to have people who can manage some of these interventions at large scale, because until we get our programmes to large scale the impact will not be seen.

Another important issue for my term as President is that IUNS will champion and make sure that nutrition continues to be on the global, regional and national agendas. We have members at all levels, global, regional and country levels, and we need to get them all excited and to link up with the global momentum, to get the political leaders to understand why they should pay attention to nutrition. They need to understand that you need to pay attention to nutrition at a very early age. You don’t wait for people to grow before you begin to address their nutrition. It should

have been done earlier. If you want to improve economic development, make sure that you are building the human capacity that you need to move the country economically. Nutrition should be a very important part of that equation. This means paying attention to nutrition of adolescent girls, mothers, and to pregnant women. As nutritionists we need to work at all levels to promote a better understanding of what nutrition can do for national development.

Q: In your opinion, how do we move forward to convince the high-level policy makers that we need to invest in nutrition?
Sometimes when you get people from other professions to attest to what nutrition can do, it is a stronger tool for nutritionists. For example, the Copenhagen Consensus is made up of a group of eminent economists who meet regularly to see what can be done to develop the world. They have put addressing nutrition at the top of this list. For me that’s a very important message. They have looked at the strategic places where we should be focusing our efforts to get the maximum impact and they saw that nutrition is one of the areas. That message is very clear, but sometimes we don’t put it in a way that our policy makers and our political leaders will understand. We have to let them know that if you don’t address nutrition at a very early age it doesn’t help much to address it later. They have to know the damage that this will cause to cognitive development. They need to know that if they want to improve education they need to prevent stunting and the damage it will cause to children, the future leaders of the country. And this is irreversible. They need to understand the long-term impact of undernutrition. It will cost the country much more if nutrition is not addressed at an early age. In addition to the Copenhagen Consensus, we have the UN Secretary General who is now championing Zero Hunger, we have the UK Prime Minister talking about the fact that we need to do something about nutrition. Presidents who are not nutritionists have come to realize the importance of nutrition! I am very happy, a lot of the presidents and policy-makers in the developing countries listen to what is happening at the global level. They go to these meetings like the World Health Assembly and the UN General Assembly, and they are talking about nutrition there, so they come back and ask ‘what is this about this nutrition that everybody is talking about?’. And this is where the nutrition professionals in the countries have the opportunity to bring them the evidence, make it clear to them that nutrition is important.

Q: What do you see as the key challenges for your work as IUNS president for the next

4 years, considering the context that you have just mentioned?
Because I am taking over at a time when there is so much enthusiasm, the expectations of me at this time will be high, much higher than probably of other previous presidents. Now they expect that you have the wind with you, so they expect you to fly faster than having the wind against you. So I see that people would have much higher expectations of me and my council that will be taking over this time. The other challenge is the fact that we really need to build collaborations. To be able to work well, we need to build collaboration with various groups, and sometimes building collaboration is not easy. We’ve got to build collaborations with non-traditional partners, because of the complexity of nutrition we need all hands on deck: the private sector, the civil society, and all the other groups. This collaboration will be needed, and I see a lot of challenges there. I don’t know how easy that is going to be, linking civil society, private sector and saying that we really want to work together and make sure that we move nutrition forward. It is going to be one of the big challenges that we will face. But certainly it is not insurmountable. The Scaling Up Nutrition Movement (SUN) is trying to do something like that, and they are moving far with it. We need to see how can we also work together with SUN to be able to make an impact. SUN is in many of the high malnutrition burdened countries, some of these countries are also adhering bodies of IUNS, so we hope to work with them through the adhering bodies to address the problems at the country level.

I am sure that the adhering bodies will have a number of expectations of us, what we will do to help them, what we will do to make sure that they remain strong members of IUNS. My council and I will really look at these issues and see how we can fully engage with our members. I think one thing that we need to do is to make sure that our members are capacitated enough to be the voice of nutrition in their countries.

It is not going to be easy to face these challenges, I must say, but we will work through it and will succeed.

Q: The Granada conference is almost here, how are the preparations, how is the excitement at IUNS?
It is quite exciting for us, we have been linking up with our adhering bodies regularly through our news updates. We have received quite a number of abstracts, not only from nutrition scientists but from program managers, organizations, a lot of different groups. We are far advanced with the programme, the speakers, and we have had a lot of groups that are interested in using the IUNS ICN platform to showcase their work. Some are coming to present results of what they have been doing, and this will come on as symposia that these organizations want to hold. It is a very exciting programme that will really show the cutting edge of nutrition science, what have we achieved so far, what programmers are doing, what are the successful interventions that are being carried out around the world. One of the most exciting part for me is that IUNS is making available a number of travel fellowships for young scientists, young nutritionists from the developing parts of the world who under normal circumstances would not be able to afford to attend a conference like this. We are all looking forward to it.

Q: And you will also have the young scientists awards, right?
Yes, that is true. And there will be a number of other awards, there is a group that wants to give an award to nutrition champions, people who may not necessarily be nutritionists but who are doing a lot to address nutrition but nobody is recognizing them. So the nutrition champions awards will give them recognition. And we must not forget those who have contributed to the work of nutrition, all the fellows that will be nominated into the IUNS Academy. And a special distinguished lifetime award to those who have contributed significantly to nutrition globally. There is also the Living Legend award for nutritionists over 80 years of age who have contributed to nutrition in their countries. We will also be honoring such persons.

Q: Since we are talking about younger professionals, awards, scholarships, what advice would you give for young public health nutritionists?
When I was a young girl there is a poem I learned in class 4 which has remained with me. It goes like this:

The height by great men (and now I will say, and great women) reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight. But while their companions slept, they were toiling upwards in the night’.

Now, this is a very simple poem. But I have not forgotten it. When you see somebody at the top, they have gone through a lot of experiences. They have gone through a lot of hard work and sacrifices, and I underline the hard work. It is a step by step process. We don’t just jump to the top. You have to go through learning; you have to go through mentoring by other people. People will mentor you and you should be willing to learn from people who you see as your mentors, because they will always have something to guide you, they may have made mistakes but they found ways that work better, and you can learn from them. I always had that kind of support, all through my years at University, I have always had someone to look up to as a mentor, they directed me, held my hand and helped me move along. And I am very grateful to all of such persons who have done that for me. My advice to the up and coming professionals is work hard, take your studies seriously. Whatever you have to do, do it well, just do it well. If you learn to do the little things well, when the big things come your way you will do them well. I encourage the young professionals to take the opportunity to attend these professional conferences. The networking is very good, it is through such meetings that one can meet future research collaborators.

Q: Any final messages?
We should not lose sight of the IUNS vision, which is to see a world without malnutrition. For us, we see the continuous presence of malnutrition especially among mothers and children in a world of plenty, as immoral. There is so much food in the world, and yet mothers and children are born malnourished. The IUNS vision is to see a world without malnutrition, and we will continue to champion that. We know that to do this we cannot do it alone, we work through partnerships and collaborations. My council would link up with well-meaning groups that can help us move towards achieving this vision.

After our interview with Anna in June, it was announced in July 2013 that she will also be taking up the position of Director of Nutrition at the Food and Agriculture Organization, this October.

For more information, visit the IUNS website and the 20thICN website.

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