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Nigeria: Community leaders set the pace on nutrition

In northern Nigeria, community leaders – often referred as traditional rulers – wield great power. They act as gatekeepers with decision-making power over any new initiatives that will affect the lives of their subjects.

However, in my experience of development work in this region, it can be very difficult to persuade community leaders to commit to financial support for new projects. A project may get their immediate support, but most of the time this doesn’t last.

As a region with one of the highest rates of child malnutrition in Nigeria, the state is currently benefiting from a nutrition intervention funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and implemented by Save the Children.

We have been looking for ways of scaling up this project by gaining support from the state and local governments to supply essential drugs to treat malnutrition-related complications in children.

An exceptional achievement

It is therefore really worth cheering for us that the Every One Advocacy Project in Zamfara state, northern Nigeria, has just secured support for our nutrition interventions from local community leaders. Remarkably, this happened before we had gained endorsements for the project from either the state or local governments.

A recent pledge of support from the Emir of Bakura, Zamfara State, represented an exceptional achievement. During a visit by Save the Children’s advocacy team, the Emir pledged to offer his utmost support to our nutrition work and offered to help provide routine drugs needed for the treatment of malnourished children.

To make the supply more sustainable, the emirate has made a commitment to set aside money each month from its Zakat (Muslim alms) purse to fund these medicines, starting from November 2012.

Creating community champions

Getting this kind of buy-in from traditional leaders for any advocacy issue can represent a great milestone achievement on the way to its success.

In Zamfara State, we have strategically involved the most powerful community leaders as champions, positioning them at the centre of projects which address the problems affecting their subjects. We have been using various strategies to maintain their interest and involvement, including:

• presenting them with evidence-based situational analysis, as well as outlining the socio-economic implications of these problems to their communities
• updating them with regular progress reports and case studies
• organising meetings for them with journalists to increase voice and accountability.

Supporting local leaders

We have been supporting community leaders to increase the level of  nutrition interventions in the state by:

• supporting advocacy and political mobilisation to encourage government authorities to increase investment in nutrition
• promoting good infant and young child feeding practices, and other key nutrition education
• encouraging community members to refer malnourished children to treatment centres supported by UNICEF and DFID.

These developments have the potential to help us to achieve vital change on nutrition and other major health challenges. Through this work, we are forging a new approach to sustainable health advocacy in northern Nigeria.

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