Leading a large and complex multi-sectoral nutrition project in Ethiopia: Q&A with Dan Abbott, Chief of Party, Growth through Nutrition Activity

Feed the Future Ethiopia Growth through Nutrition Activity is a five-year, multi-sectoral nutrition project, which aims to improve the nutritional status of women and young children in Ethiopia’s four productive regions, focusing on the critical first 1,000 days of a child’s life - from conception through age two. The project is funded by USAID and implemented by Save the Children International with a consortium of partners, including Tufts University. Growth through Nutrition builds upon the accomplishments of USAID’s prior ENGINE program, making significant investments in the agriculture and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) sectors to address gaps in the availability of diverse food in targeted areas and the supply of WASH products and services needed to alleviate stunting. The project works across all government and society levels to support country-led policies to bring intensified multi-sectoral nutrition programming to community and household levels, through gender equality and women’s empowerment, sustainable approaches, and integration of nutrition sensitive activities.

Rahel Gizaw, Senior Learning Advisor and Delila Tesfaye, Communications Associate from Tufts University interviewed Mr. Daniel Abbott, Chief of Party for Growth through Nutrition. Dan shared lessons learned from managing the project and discussed priority areas, including the focus and relevance of Learning and Knowledge Management activities.

The following Q&A has been edited for brevity and is not verbatim.

Q1. What are some of the most important lessons you have learned over the years from working with Save the Children in WASH and Nutrition programming?

One of the things that is really important, especially in Ethiopia, is aligning our work with the government. The Government of Ethiopia has very strong sectors, programs, and policies in place, and this creates a real opportunity for us to provide support by leveraging existing resources to implement and sustain programs at scale. I think this is a valuable lesson that we applied during ENGINE, continue through Growth through Nutrition, and I think it really amplifies our impact.

Another important lesson is to be proactive in doing continued assessment of our work so we can learn what is working and what is not, and then adapt our programming accordingly. We did that quite a bit on ENGINE and it also features in the design of Growth through Nutrition. As managers, we have to be open and ready for feedback and be willing to accept if things are not working as we hoped. We also have to be open to trying new approaches and applying lessons learned to strengthen what we are already doing. This is one of the areas where Tufts plays an important role in helping to identify some of the learning and knowledge that can help refine our activities.

Q2. What are the biggest challenges that you see for Growth through Nutrition Activity?

One of our biggest challenges is to ensure the quality of our programming as we scale up. We have a huge scope on this project in terms of beneficiaries and woredas, but we are not here just to reach large numbers, we’re here to make a real impact on the lives of individuals and the systems we’re supporting. There is often a tension in programming between hitting targets and ensuring that we have the highest quality programming possible.

Another challenge (and opportunity) is the potential of the new program areas in Growth through Nutrition. We are in the process of developing new approaches around maternal and adolescent nutrition, as well as food safety and post-harvest handling on the livelihood side. We are delving further into our WASH programming with WASH marketing and construction activities. Later this year, we plan to begin giving out grants to the Government of Ethiopia. These are all areas where we are trying to develop new strategies and activities. The challenge is ensuring that we develop the right set of activities and then roll them out successfully.

Finally, the complexity of the project is also challenging, in terms of utilizing a multi-sectoral approach with many partners. To ensure the integrated delivery of the project, we have established several different teams that are inter-dependent. I think it’s critical that we move forward as a whole, not individually, which is a primary role of the senior management team.

Q3. What would you most like to see accomplished by the end of the project?

We should start with meeting our project objectives, which includes a 20% reduction in stunting. We really want to see changes in the communities where we are working - that’s the ultimate measure of the success of the project.

At the same time, it is really critical that by the end of the project we’ve made investments in a way that sustain improvements over time through both the government systems and the private sector. Through our engagement with the government, we want to continue to contribute to their ownership and leadership, as well as support their capacity within the different ministries that are implementing the national nutrition program. Over the life of the project, we expect to see new fruit in nutrition policies adopted by the government and its commitment to end undernutrition by 2030. I also hope that our knowledge and experience will inform other projects - through USAID, Save the Children, and other partners.

Q4. One area that you have been very supportive of in Growth through Nutrition is the use of communication technologies such as the LKM Website and internal KM platforms for project learning and knowledge management. Why do you feel that this is an important component of the project and what do you see as the benefits?

I think this is one of the areas where we shifted a bit from ENGINE into the current Growth through Nutrition project, particularly with Tufts leading the learning and knowledge management component. Under ENGINE, we were doing more research studies that were multi-year so we gained really valuable evidence and information that informed the sector as a whole, but not necessarily in time to apply to our project. So we really value having a learning platform that informs what we are doing now, and not only for documentation or dissemination purposes.

In terms of the different platforms, I am really excited about Yammer, the internal knowledge management platform we’re using. Our staff is spread throughout the country and this online platform provides an opportunity for a lot of interaction and sharing of ideas outside the limits of structured meetings. It’s especially helpful for sharing experiences across regions and bringing ideas from the field to the national team to take forward as appropriate. It’s also a really good platform for advisors to reach out and have discussions with technical teams throughout the country.

The external learning and knowledge management website is another really important platform. We’re able to share key information coming out of the project and updates on the progress of some of the key activities that are planned. It helps promote engagement and stores learning in one place so it’s available to external audiences. Those are both great features of Growth through Nutrition in relation to Learning and Knowledge Management.

Q5. Beyond just Growth through Nutrition, do you think there is a greater role for project learning and knowledge management within the development community in Ethiopia? If so, how can this be realized?

Across the development community as a whole, learning is very important, and knowledge management is an extension of how we use that knowledge and share it. What we’ve seen through the learning and knowledge management assessment that Tufts has done is that learning and knowledge is sometimes a bit fragmented within the country. We’re also seeing the need for additional sharing across different projects, as well as looking at how to fit into the existing government platforms, especially EPHI, to ensure that our learning feeds into theirs and is available to others. What’s really important is to take the time to review the lessons learned from other projects and internalize the knowledge. Many organizations are focused on documenting and sharing what they are doing, but it is just as important to draw from the experiences of other organizations as well.

Q6. Do you have anything else you would like to add in closing?

It’s an honor to have the opportunity as well as the responsibility of leading such an important project here in Ethiopia. It is a priority for both Save the Children Ethiopia and for global Save the Children, and it’s bringing together an experienced set of organizations and staff.

In terms of where we are headed, I would also say that in the country as a whole, we are making good progress on stunting reduction as we go through time. That being said, we still have a long way to go. We still have about 38% of children who are stunted in the country.

Ethiopia has strong national leadership, as well as strong commitments from donors such as USAID and others partners. This is really essential given the multisectoral nature of undernutrition, which requires multisectoral solutions. Growth through Nutrition represents a big investment by Feed the Future USAID and the American people, and we’re certainly committed to our role in the overall national efforts to reduce stunting and improve the nutrition of women and children in Ethiopia.

Dan Abbott PhotoDan Abbot is the Chief of Party for the Growth through Nutrition project at Save the Children, Ethiopia. He earned a Master’s degree in Public Health from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where he focused on global environmental health in international programming. He went on to complete a two-year Fellowship through the Congressional Hunger Center, working first in Kenya and then with Save the Children in Washington DC. He has continued to work with Save the Children for almost 11 years, first in Washington DC and then in Ethiopia, where he has worked in nutrition programs including ENGINE and Growth through Nutrition. Dan is married with three young children. They feel quite at home in Ethiopia, where his wife is originally from, and enjoy living and working there.

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