2017 Fellow Catherine May, PATH & Heifer - USA
Catherine May is a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow based in the Seattle office of PATH, an international nonprofit organization that is leading innovation in global health. As a Collaborative Fellow, she is looking at the intersection between food systems and human health/nutrition and development as part of research that will advance a collaboration between PATH and Coalition member Heifer International. Catherine is currently completing her MPA at the University of Washington. In this post, Catherine describes how an integrated approach that crosses sectors can lead to sustainable interventions and improved nutrition, health, and development outcomes.
Partnerships for Impact: Nutrition, Agriculture and Development
by Catherine May
In international development, problems are rarely simple and solutions never are. There are few silver bullets. This lesson has been a recurring theme throughout my education and professional training.
The first time I heard this message was during an undergraduate course on genetic engineering in agriculture. My professor described how projects were trying to improve health outcomes by enhancing nutrient content of staple crops, but were experiencing setbacks ranging from efficacy to public acceptance. Biotechnology could be a useful tool in rural development, but it requires outside support from other sectors to achieve impact.
Later, I rediscovered this lesson while working in a lab that studied the molecular mechanisms of metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes. My colleagues and I were concerned with the global incidence of noncommunicable diseases, but we understood that no pharmaceutical alone could slow the increasing rate. Other solutions must also be implemented to effectively tackle such a complex global challenge.
Most recently, the importance of collaboration was reinforced during a graduate course on ‘Values in International Development.’ My classmates and I learned how a well-intentioned donation of t-shirts led to the crash of a textile industry in Zambia. Not only do single-sector interventions leave behind possibilities for greater impact, but also can lead to unintended consequences that might be avoided by taking a broader perspective.
The importance of collaboration is recognized by many. How else can we ensure that development efforts are effective, sustainable, and just? The United Nations has demonstrated a recognition of the importance of this work with the launch of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda. In fact, Sustainable Development Goal number 17 focuses specifically on “Partnerships for the Global Goals.” So, why do projects in international development so frequently take a sector-specific approach?
In May 2017, I was thrilled to join the Nutrition Innovation team at PATH. This group seeks to “crowd in” knowledge from the many sectors that contribute to nutrition outcomes to combat the complexity of malnutrition through a collaborative approach. My research examined the intersections of agricultural practices and nutrition—and how integrate approaches across these sectors can lead to improved health and development outcomes.
This fall, I helped with the Nutrition Innovation team’s exhibit at the PATH After Hours event, which showcased global health innovations from across the organization. I interacted with doctors who were interested in our fortified rice work, which is compatible with existing dietary habits and could help address a number of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Investors and I discussed the potential for expanding the edible insects market, which could increase incomes for women farmers and reduce the environmental footprint needed to meet increasing demand for animal-source foods. PATH’s devices and tools team taught me that agricultural waste could potentially be pulped into sanitary pads—enabling girls to attend school more often. Not only do these examples highlight the potential to improve global health, but they also reinforce the importance of working with diverse sets of expertise.
Yet, today’s global and national systems still do not encourage cross-sectoral collaboration. Relationships must be cultivated in order to achieve the ambitious, shared goals that are out of reach of any single entity. Substantial effort is required to ensure that efforts are not happening in isolation, but rather as a piece of a larger strategy. It is often easier for an organization to stay within their own area expertise.
Building partnerships frequently leads to the realization that different sectors speak “different languages.” We are still learning how to communicate with each other about shared challenges. For example, consider yogurt. An agriculture-focused organization might think of the ability to increase incomes for dairy farmers. A health organization might think instead of the potential to improve gut health. Different priorities lead to different metrics.
Finally, the need for funding for cross-sectoral work cannot be overstated. The push towards stronger collaborations is dependent on donors who are equally committed to holistic, systems-level change.
Despite the many barriers to cross-sectoral collaboration, this fellowship has given me confidence that these are not insurmountable challenges. Thanks to the Hilton Prize Coalition Fellows Program, I have had the opportunity to network with professionals who recognize the importance of partnerships, to experience the challenges of humanitarian work, and to work for PATH, an incredible non-profit that recognizes that innovation can transform lives.
There may never be a silver bullet solution for our complex, global problems. Yet working together across development sectors, with dedication and creativity, can lead to sustainable interventions and improved nutrition, health, and development outcomes.
(Cover photo shows an exhibit from PATH's Reproductive Health program at the PATH After Hours event. Photo courtesy of Catherine May)