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Political will needed to make the right investment for nutrition – Ugwunta

Political will needed to make the right investment for nutrition – Ugwunta

David Ugwunta, Enugu State commissioner for Budget and Planning, in this interview with REGIS ANUKWUOJI at a Nutrition workshop organised by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), explained why he developed interest in nutrition matters, as malnutrition, he said, had dragged Nigeria backwards. Excerpts:

You seem to be very interested and committed in this nutrition workshop; what inspired you?

What inspired me in the first instance is that I am doing my job; that is the most important thing. I thank His Excellency, the Governor of Enugu State, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi who found me worthy to be part of his cabinet and then placed me in the Ministry of Budget and Planning. Secondly, I was told that Nutrition is multisectoral and being multisectoral, it has so many arms involved in the delivery or in the fight against malnutrition, which include ministry of health, water, education, information, gender, agriculture and the likes, and also involves private sector and development agencies like UNICEF and others. The Ministry of Budget and Planning is playing a coordinating role and again seeing what malnutrition can do and how far it has actually dragged the country backward, I developed serious interest, because no matter what investment the government has been making at various levels – Federal, state and local governments – it seems that nothing is being achieved because of high level of poverty and then this high level of poverty is now increasing as a result of some factors like the header/farmers clash, insecurity in the country and then most recently the flooding that is happening in many states across the coastal regions.

So, it continues to worsen, as we are trying to come out from the negative effect of COVID-19 and then all these other ones are happening; so it seems that all the investments that the government is making in the fight against poverty, making sure that food is available seem not to be yielding the needed results and benefits. All these lead to the situation of serious malnutrition in the country; in view of this, UNICEF and my ministry then deemed it possible and fit to have this community of practice for states within the UNICEF Field Offices of Enugu and Rivers and then we have twelve states participating. Ranging from Rivers, Akwa-Ibom, Delta, Imo, Abia, Ebonyi, Benue, Kogi, Bayelsa, Anambra, Cross River and Enugu states and the people that have gathered here who are participants ranging from policymakers including myself, permanent secretaries, state nutrition officers, baby-friendly initiative officers and so many other people including the media, Academia and the UNICEF themselves to come together so that we can cross-fertilise ideas, learn from one other; we can have the states that have recorded successes share their success stories for other states that are not that successful to emulate and leverage from those successes to grow and move forward. For the five days we have been here, we have seen presentations and how people can lead advocacy, dialogue, get government at all levels involved as well as private sectors and all that, so it has been a great programme which I know that by the time we leave here, participants will be more poised to be able to deliver on the fight against malnutrition.

October 16th and 17th is world food day and international day for eradication of poverty; what message do you have for the people of Enugu State on this special day?

Well, my message to the people of Enugu is that no matter the situation we are facing there is hope; the government of Enugu State, the Governor, His Excellency, Ugwuanyi has shown that he is a nutrition-friendly governor. When we lead advocacy to him with UNICEF he makes commitments; that investment would be made, the Multisectoral action plan would be approved by the state; so, once we have this in place we believe it is the first step because once you have a policy document, donors, development agencies who are coming into the state to help can now find somewhere to start with, and have a document to work with.

Read also: Nurturing your social well-being is important for your personal health

You said that the issue of malnutrition has dragged the country backwards; what do you think the federal and state governments can do differently to boost nutrition?

Well, what we can do differently to boost nutrition is that we need to continue to make investment, I do not know how far investment had been made in the past, like we are told in this workshop that the Federal Government requires almost N7trillion, you know trillions of naira to make sure that we are out of malnutrition, it needs dedication in terms of dedication of fund, it needs dedication of people in policy-making who are at the other end to make sure that deliverables get to the grassroots; so, it needs everybody, and all these people who are stakeholders in nutrition have to dedicate their energy and resources.

We need to do things differently. Because part of what came out here is even when investments are not being made, the little that are being made do not also go down where it they are supposed to go down to, that is why I am talking about rededicating ourselves, redefining our purpose in our fight against malnutrition and I think once it is done even if we invest one billion it will go a long way because it will definitely have its own multiplier effect for things to begin to turn around.

You talked about N7trillion to trigger malnutrition in Nigeria; for what period of time do you think such money can be used?

It has to do with development and development doesn’t just happen overnight; so, you should be talking of about three years to five years if there is a dedicated spending in the right places then I Know that in the next three to five years, even before the SDG goal of 2030 that Nigeria will go a long way.

We are looking at this question of mainstreaming nutrition in the budget; what message do you have for policymakers?

Well, first everything starts with political will; there has to be that political will that we are going to make this investment for nutrition. Once that happens you now see, just as we were told here, that you don’t just come and say in a budget line, may be, under your ministry you say nutrition activities, you need to identify the activities that need to happen and it is only when you have these activities identified, you can situate them up in the budget and of course, you know that budget gives teeth for government performance so what you do not have in the budget is always a problem in terms of implementation. So, political will needs to be developed, then funds have to be dedicated, then when nutrition activities and intervention find their way in the budget they will also have to be funded because if they get into the budget and funds are not released; I mean, we have not gotten it right.

What is your impression about the intervention of UNICEF in the area of nutrition?

I think UNICEF is doing a good job, if other development partners can emulate what UNICEF is doing then we will go a long way. How I wish other partners, particularly those in the north should begin to look down south. The way Nigeria is; if you solve a problem in one area without solving it in the other area you will actually not have solved the problem. So, there must be that collaboration among partners, among governments and international agencies so that we can get it right.