GELI Stories – Building Coalitions between UN Agencies and Government Ministries in Eswatini

February 20, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

In the second of this series of podcasts with UN and other aid leaders making change happen on the frontline, I talked to Cissy Kabasuuga of WFP about how she managed to unblock a school feeding programme in Eswatini.

Duncan: Welcome back to GELI Stories. With me today is one of the participants in our 2023 Nairobi cohort, Cissy Kabasuuga. Cissy is currently Country Director for the World Food Programme in Zambia, but she has a story from when she was Head of Office in Eswatini, and I don’t think I’ve ever talked about Eswatini on the podcast or on the blog, so I’m very excited. Welcome, Sissy. Now, as I understand it, you arrived as Head of Office in Eswatini, and there was a really interesting but defunct programme of school feeding using locally-produced food. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Cissy: Thanks a lot, Duncan. First of all, Eswatini is the former Swaziland. The country changed its name in 2018, the year that I arrived. When I arrived I found we had a programme where we were providing food to schools from locally-produced food from smallholder farmers. That programme was being led by the government, with support from the World Food Programme with other ministries and other UN agencies.

What I would like to share today really is on the power of collaboration. When we started this programme as the World Food Programme, it was really important for us. It was really critical to have other entities within the UN system to participate in this program due to the other added advantages, the comparative advantages that they bring on the table. So we got together with our sister UN agency, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, (FAO), and discussed how we would support the government to implement this program. We drew up terms of reference for each of the agencies. We also discussed how we would engage with the different ministries, cognisant of the fact that yes, the program is led by the Ministry of Education, but you have other ministries participating in this programme: the Ministry of Agriculture, the Office of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Community Development.

In order to foster this collaboration we came up with a technical working group that was led by the Ministry of Education with all the other parties involved. So we had bi-monthly technical meetings, and that technical working group was really able to drive the implementation of the programme.

Duncan: Now that’s all very polite. My understanding was that when you arrived in Eswatini, that programme was stuck, and it was stuck because of a lack of collaboration. So would you want to give us a bit of an idea of what wasn’t working, why it was stuck?

Cissy: Yes, the programme was stuck for about three years – it was supposed to start in 2017. But there were disagreements between the different government ministries. The Ministry of Education leads this program, but the Ministry that was heading the localisation or bringing the homegrown approach was the office of the deputy Prime Minister, who also has a role in coordination.

Duncan: So what was the problem?

Cissy: People couldn’t agree on who would lead this program. One was the implementing ministry and one was the coordinating ministry. So it was critical that this program should be led by an implementing ministry, which was the Ministry of Education. Our role as WFP was to bring the parties together.

Duncan: How do you do that? You’re a UN agency and you’re trying to get government departments to talk to each other and work together. Is it money on the table? Is it the authority of the UN? Is it just social skills and empathy? What unblocks that problem?

Cissy: It was a combination of different things, Duncan. First of all, we focused on generating evidence and focused on the issue. So we worked with the Ministry of Education to review how the program had performed for the last ten years when WFP handed over that programme to the government. We had many players: NGOs, different ministries, and the evidence that we generated was shared across different ministries. That gave the impetus to the Ministry of Education as the implementing ministry. They used that evidence because that was within their control. Then we had to bring the deputy prime minister on board to demonstrate that the implementing ministry should lead this project. The Ministry of Agriculture, on the other hand, plays a key role because the Ministry of Agriculture provides technical services to the smallholder farmers who supply the schools. So it was really bringing all the right people to the table. We were engaging with the permanent secretaries who make the decisions, and I had to have meetings with each of the permanent secretaries to really understand what had blocked this programme and how to unlock it.

Duncan: That’s interesting. So it wasn’t the ministers, it was the top civil servants.

Cissy: Exactly.

Duncan: Ah okay, and where’s the FAO in all this? Explain the difference between the World Food Programme and the FAO.

Cissy: We are all agencies that support the agriculture sector, but we have our different strengths, and I think coming together, we complement each other. FAO, as you know, primarily works really on policy and strategies. For a very long time, they had been working very closely with the Ministry of Agriculture. The World Food Programme were primarily a humanitarian agency, but also having a development role looking at the root causes of food and nutrition insecurity. If you talk about the root causes of food and nutrition insecurity, we look at areas like market access, post-harvest loss management, school feeding as an enabling environment, or a platform that enables the country to increase production and productivity through providing a stable market to smallholder farmers. So there are linkages here and there.

Duncan: In this situation, was it the FAO and its relationship with the Ministry of Agriculture that could bring them to the table to talk to the Deputy Prime Minister’s office and the Minister of Education or did different UN bodies have better relationships with some ministries than others. How does this work in practice?

Cissy: We had good relationships with most of the ministries, but as I mentioned, we worked very closely with the office of the Deputy Prime Minister because humanitarian response and disaster preparedness was under that ministry, and we were not very close to the Ministry of Agriculture. The FAO was working very closely with the Ministry of Agriculture. So coming together opened doors for us, at least as WFP, to access and work together with the Ministry of Agriculture.

Duncan: Okay, so the picture is complex. I’ve never been to Eswatini and I haven’t worked for the UN. But how I understand it is you’ve got interest from the Ministry of Education; you’ve provided evidence to them to demonstrate that their leadership can be really effective. You’ve got support from the deputy prime minister. The Ministry of Agriculture has come to the table partly because of the FAO. Was there a particular moment or a particular thing that you did that shifted the system from paralysis to action?

Cissy: Yes, I had access to the deputy Prime Minister himself, and I was able to discuss these issues with him. He had very good relationships with the different ministries and believed in this project. So I also talked to the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Education, who really believed in this project. I had moments where you had a minister simply saying, ‘We are bringing food into this country and providing a market to other farmers in other countries. We could do that for our own farmers in this country and this would be a game-changer’. So adding the voice of the ministers really made a difference, and the Permanent Secretaries were already on board.

Duncan: So you lined up the politicians and the senior civil servants and the evidence, you brought in the relationships of different UN bodies to different bits of the government, and…. Boom!

Cissy: And the project was successful! We were all set to launch the project and Covid happened. It was a week when everything closed and they stopped people from moving. I had my regional director coming from South Africa and everybody coming to really launch this project. But nevertheless, the farmers really started producing food for the schools. They were paid on time. We were able to demonstrate that it’s cheaper for the government to buy locally than having to import food either from South Africa or buying from one region (of Eswatini) and distributing in another region. And after demonstrating these savings on the project, the government has actually now issued contracts to suppliers at a lower price than what they were getting before because we were able to demonstrate that buying locally not only adds value to their children, but also provides a market to the smallholder farmers.

Duncan: Brilliant, thanks Cissy. Last question. The course we’re on is one about leadership for influence, and clearly you’ve done that in this case. You’ve gone to talk to all the ministers, you’ve talked to the permanent secretaries, you talked to the other bits of the UN system, which I imagine was probably the hardest conversation given what we hear about the UN system. What are the qualities or the mindset that you need to do that coalition-building around a goal like domestic food production for school feeding programmes?

Cissy: First of all, I believe that you have to start in-house. The team that you’re heading has to buy in to your vision and your idea. They have to believe in what you’re going to do, and then you can start discussing externally to get the other parties on board. I believe humility makes a very big difference because things don’t always go your way, but sometimes you have to use certain mechanisms to ensure that you get to people. Working with governments can be a little bit complicated, but you really have to find people who can open doors for you. I mean, Eswatini is a small country and really very accessible, but it’s how you engage with the permanent secretaries, so that you can call them anytime, but also how the technical teams are able to be your voices in some of those areas where you’re not able to access. I think most important in the UN is focusing on the goal, focusing on the objective, what are we trying to achieve? At the end of the day, it wasn’t really so much about me as WFP or as FAO. We always did things together all the time, be it World Food Day, be it the African Day of school feeding, we really work together.

Duncan: That’s really interesting… you get over those rivalries between bits of the UN system by stepping outside your organisation and saying we have a shared goal here.

Cissy: Exactly. And I think maybe the last point is that most of the conflict comes when we have to share a pie or share resources.

Duncan: I was going to ask about money…

Cissy: In this project we demonstrated that it’s not really about money. When we started this project, I remember my colleague from FAO said, ‘My dear, we don’t have any resources to bring to the table’. I said, It’s not really important. Don’t worry about that. We just need to work together. You have good expertise to bring on board. You have your networks that can complement this project. So when we started, FAO didn’t have resources on the table, but they were part of the technical working group. When we had field missions, they were able to come. When we had important national days to celebrate, we worked together with the FAO representative, and in the end, they mobilised the additional resources for the project, but it wasn’t initially focused on sharing the pie. I think that’s what blocks us within the UN system. If we go out, we need to go out focusing on the objective; on the outcome that we want.

Duncan: Cissy Kabasuuga, that was a brilliant example. Thank you very much.

February 20, 2024
Duncan Green


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