Last week, I had the opportunity to meet USAID Nutrition Division Chief Anne Peniston at a meeting on global nutrition hosted by 1,000 Days, an organization focused on promoting nutrition during the critical period of life between conception and two years of age. Anne has worked in US and international public health for more than 30 years as a clinician, researcher and program manager. We caught her at a particularly historic moment in her career –- she just moved to Washington, D.C. after 15 years in Nepal.
In light of our campaign to end global childhood malnutrition, I thought it would be great for our ONE members to learn about her professional and personal experiences in the US and abroad, her vision for USAID’s nutrition strategy, and the role of NGOs in global nutrition.
How did you come to be the head of USAID’s nutrition division?
I got my start in public health right after college, when I volunteered for a year in Mexico at an orphanage of 600 children. I went back to the States, studied nursing at Carlow University and at UNC Chapel Hill (which has a fabulous public health program). I completed my master’s thesis on traditional birthing practices in Peru, where I met my husband. We moved to Indonesia, then Virginia, USA and finally Nepal, where I was head of health programs for USAID several years. In each of those places, I worked with local communities to address malnutrition and health issues. I have been working for USAID for 17 years, but this is actually my first headquarters job.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in how the US government fights malnutrition?
I would say the two biggest changes I’ve seen are the Global Health Initiative and Feed the Future. They’ve really forced technical experts to work together and integrate their programs. For instance, on the nutrition side, we began asking constructive questions like, “What do agricultural extension agents do? How far away are the clinics from where they work?” Development should be integrated. It’s more effective and more efficient that way.
What is your vision for nutrition at USAID?
I would really like to see the US government’s global nutrition strategy integrated throughout the agency -– in agriculture, HIV/AIDS, water, sanitation and hygiene, reproductive health programs, environmental programs and emergency response. This requires bringing together the “diaspora” of nutrition experts in various offices around the agency, to create that collective vision and understand our mission in terms of agency priorities. Additionally, in this constrained budget environment, we need consensus across the government on how we approach nutrition and on what our priorities should be.
How can US citizens and non-profit organizations fight global malnutrition?
I see three primary roles for civil society and NGOs:
1. Education: The general public and Congressional members need to be educated about the issues of child undernutrition. Without widespread support, the USAID nutrition team won’t be able to do its job.
2. Programs: NGOs and other organizations do great work in the field. We need them to keep doing great work, especially in partnership with national governments, private sector entities and other stakeholders under coordinated, aligned and harmonized plans.
3. Governance and accountability: Holding governments accountable to their promises is one of the most important things that NGOs do. That is equally true for governments in our partner countries, and with donor governments such as our own. Also, of equal importance, is that NGOs lead by example with good internal governance.
What can we expect from the US government on nutrition at the UN General Assembly this week?
Dr. Raj Shah, the USAID Administrator, will speak on a panel with David Navarro, the head of the UN’s Scaling Up Nutrition Movement (SUN). I’ve heard that Raj Shah has spoken very emotionally when he speaks about nutrition. It’s personal for him – he talks about the experiences his grandmother had, growing up in India, and the poor nutrition that she personally experienced. I’m looking forward to hearing him speak. Additionally, the US is very supportive of the SUN movement, and we can expect that the US government will ask other governments to be supportive as well.
Got another question for Anne? Leave them in the comments below and I’ll forward them to her. Also, be sure to recommend other inspiring leaders for us to interview on the ONE Blog.