Making real change means lifting up leadership from the ground up

by Corinna Hawkes
It has been particularly depressing in the past weeks to read about the implications of the Ukraine war on malnutrition (among other things).  It raises the question: why have we not learned from past experience to create greater nutrition resilience? A naïve question of course, but reflective of the frustration that we already know so many of the solutions – and yet the problems remain.  As a commentary published this week in Nature Food pointed out, experiences of previous crises show that when food prices rise – which the Ukraine war is further exacerbating – people’s diets suffer. Needed are robust social protection programmes, continuation of basic nutrition interventions, resources for humanitarian support – and over the long-term, food systems that are “more resilient and sustainable, and that support people’s consumption of safe, nutritious and affordable diets.”

The frustration that solutions are known but not yet sufficiently delivering change struck me equally forcefully when in the Western Cape Province in South Africa last week. We were visiting the sites involved in The Nourished Child project, where stunting is stubbornly high, child death from severe acute malnutrition is at numbers not seen for awhile, and obesity rising. It’s a classic case of malnutrition in all its forms – in a country with plenty of resources, and where actions to make things better are being taken.

But being in the spaces where these burdens are being experienced made it blindingly clear why known solutions are struggling to have impact. Mums cannot pay the fees to send their kids to state-funded creches (which provide food) when the agricultural work they rely on disappears for the season. Education on breast-feeding provided through local clinics is undermined by social relationships which put mums under pressure to listen to conflicting advice from grandma, shaped historically by advertising. Absent fathers pay for formula as a form of control.  Babies die when immigrant populations are unable to access the clinics. Kids buy cheap sweets and snacks as one of the few things that are accessible, enjoyable and affordable in their day (this video tells the story from a child’s-eye view).

Talking with women trying to do something about it (they were all women) likewise makes it obvious. With limited capacity, a local health leader told us she has no choice but to focus most of her time and resources on managing the most severe cases of malnutrition. A local foundation leader told us that while she is absolutely dedicated to improving the quality of creches, she only can afford to focus her time on improving a limited number. The head of a small creche we visited – herself living in poverty – was doing an extraordinary job of looking after children in frankly abject circumstances, while also nurturing a garden at home. But with only a couple of pans and a single gas stove in a tiny 2-room shack, she has to feed the kids donated packages of heavily sweetened instant porridge. We met another amazing community leader who has done astonishing things to navigate power hierarchies to engage local youth in a safe space for better food and nutrition – but issues of poor infrastructure for the delivery of energy,  water and sanitation are way out of her hands.

While the outcomes of the hard work of these unsung women are necessarily limited by conditions not of their own making, what I saw in them was real leadership: a passion for their social purpose (the leader of the creche was driven by her love of children, the  community leader by her belief in young people), amazing persistence in adapting in the face of hardship, clever ways to somehow subvert the norm to get things done, lifting others up to effect change, listening, reflecting and learning, taking voice and speaking out, and  connecting with others for collective action.

I was left with the feeling, as I so often am when talking with women on the ground, that this leadership operating in the relatively hidden spaces of so many women’s working lives, is the real type of leadership we need to see. It’s the type of leadership that the Next Gen(D)eration Leadership Collective is trying to make more visible through our publication of Achieving A Well-Nourished World: A Manifesto for Leadership last month.

The Manifesto describes eight practices (shown on the figure) we believe can help lead through  challenges so pervasive in our space – the economic, political and institutional imperatives that  prevent commitment being converted into action; the power hierarchies holding back transformative ideas and innovations; the diverse perspectives that give rise to conflict; and the fragmented governance and siloed ways of working that gets in the way of aligning solutions.


At the launch event for the Manifesto (online here) we heard from many inspiring women about how they are practicing leadership to drive change . Like the women I met in the Western Cape, examples abound. In a story that showed such courage, Maisha Hutton shared with us how she used the practice of connecting for collective action to drive forward a regional movement for healthy food environments in the Caribbean. Tilly Karupaiah showed how deviating from the norm helped her and colleagues tackle power hierarchies in Malaysia to shift the whole nutrition agenda. Jemimah Njuki highlighted how other women lifting her up had enabled her to power forward change. Michelle Grant brilliantly illustrated the power of reflection, Camila Corvalan the importance of taking time to listen with curiosity, and Katie Pereira-Kotze the thought and planning it takes to communicate  openly. There were many more stories, all from women who are taking power to redefine leadership in nutrition and food systems, the kind of leadership that, if rewarded, would help us progress further faster towards a well-nourished world.

The trouble is, this type of leadership is not being sufficiently rewarded. It is not being sufficiently lifted up to ensure we are all learning from experience, listening to what is really happening on the ground, and providing the resources and capacity to act accordingly. Thus emerges the frustrating situation that change is just not happening fast enough.

Thus the call to action of the Next Gen(D)eration Leadership Collective: that everyone who works in nutrition and food systems should integrate the eight courageous leadership practices into the way you work –  including and especially those with the power to allocate capacity and resources.  Singing the praises of women leaders on the ground or in any professional role in not enough; they need to be listened to, learned from, and provided with the resources and capacity to really make the difference.

How do we know that the more widespread integration of these leadership practices will really make a difference? That they will mean that ten years from now  the learnings from Ukraine and all the other experiences will lead to change? Well, we don’t. But we at least owe it to those who are trying to make things happen. Having been yet again inspired by women in far more difficult situations than my own (and that’s a massive understatement), I certainly plan to try to do better. For starters, doing more to connect with others for collective action, and, perhaps most importantly of all, to lift others up to lead. As Liz Ogutu put it so marvellously in the story she shared during the Manifesto launch, it’s not just about sending the elevator down to lift others up, but about getting in to the elevator, enabling others to get in – and then doing everything possible to make sure it’s actually going up. Thank you, Liz, and the many women I have the good fortune to encounter, for the inspiration.

More information about the Next Gen(D)eration Leadership Collective is on our website.  I’d like to thank the many women who have engaged in the Collective and my colleagues who formed the team who wrote the Manifesto – Shu Wen Ng, Rebecca Namara, Kathryn Backholer, Elaine Borazon, Namukolo Covic, Ana Clara Duran, Purnima Menon,  Carmen Torres Ledezma and  Anne Marie Thow, Thanks also to the fantastic team in South Africa working on The Nourished Child project.