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Ellen Girerd-Barclay

Ellen Girerd Barclay 130x180I was born in rural Vermont in the US, and spent the first six years of my life on a farm, enjoying clean air, access to nature, and ski trails. In 1965, my family immigrated to South Africa, but was quickly disillusioned by apartheid and returned to the United States the following year. In 1971 my parents joined the US Peace Corps, and as their dependent children, my siblings and I attended high schools in Malaysia and Swaziland. Living on a volunteer income of less than $75/month for almost four years was a life-changing experience for all of us. Leaving a fairly typical, middle-class US way of life, we were suddenly immersed in local cultures and learned two foreign languages, Malay and siSwati. I saw people begging for food on our street every day, and played with children who had only one meal a day, at best.

On a visit to India when I was 13, I watched women collecting grains of rice outside of a shop, which had fallen into the gutter from a delivery truck, hoping to gather enough for the family dinner. This experience was a turning point for me: I decided to abandon my dream of becoming a cordon bleu chef, and instead devote my life to nutrition, focusing on nutrition education as a way to help people tackle poverty and overcome malnutrition.

In 1974, I entered university in the USA, studying home economics education, with a concentration in human nutrition. I hoped to be able to teach others about nutrition and health, and enable them to improve their lives through improved knowledge and skills. In 1976, my parents returned overseas to volunteer work in Papua New Guinea. As I was only 18, and nearly finished with my university studies, I took a year off, and worked on a small island near Madang, teaching local women about food, nutrition, basic health and hygiene, and child care. I also did basic dressings for the villagers, treating micronutrient deficiencies, wounds and infections that were an everyday occurrence. A year later, I returned to complete my vocational education teaching degree in Colorado.

I departed for the Solomon Islands a few weeks after graduation as a Peace Corps volunteer and worked as a home economics extension worker and teacher in an isolated province. Once again, I learned how important information and skills were to helping people help themselves, and to prevent health and nutrition problems. In late 1979, after my voluntary service ended, I took a job teaching home economics at an international school in the Himalayas. Enroot, I stopped in Thailand to visit my brother, who was a volunteer on the Lao border. The same week, half a million Cambodian refugees crossed the border into Thailand. In a second life-changing event, I signed up as a volunteer for UNHCR, and spent three months living in a war zone, advising NGOs on supplementary feeding in three large border refugee camps. I continued on to India, but after one term I returned to the Thai/Cambodian border, and signed on for an additional 18 months. There, I managed Care-Thailand’s general rations, cross-border food distributions and supplementary/ therapeutic feeding programmes in four refugee camps. At the age of 23, I managed over 300 employees, and was responsible for a multi-million dollar food and nutrition programme for nearly 800,000 refugees. Most importantly, I was able to ensure that nutrition and health education were included in all feeding programmes, aimed at preventing future problems.

In 1981, convinced that I needed more knowledge to truly make a difference in the world of nutrition, I entered a Master’s programme at Cornell University, graduating in 1983. My thesis focused on preparing professionals to work in nutrition programmes in emergency situations. In 1983, I travelled in Europe for 9 months, before accepting an internship at UNESCO in Paris, in the Division of Science, Health and Environment Education. For the next 18 months, I wrote several Nutrition Education Series, and created a world-wide manual for in- and out-of-school nutrition teaching and learning.

In mid-1985, I married a Frenchman, Claude Girerd. Keen to assist in the emergency sweeping Africa’s horn, I departed for Gedaref, Sudan a few weeks after our wedding. There I served as UNHCR’s nutrition coordinator in Eastern Sudan, advising 24 NGOs on therapeutic, supplementary feeding and general rations distributions, and managing nutrition information. Again, I was responsible for decisions affecting the nutrition and well-being of almost a million refugees. In 1986, I returned to the United States and began a PhD programme in human nutrition and occupational education administration. I travelled back to Sudan in 1987 with UNHCR to film training videos and manuals for supplementary feeding programmes in emergencies. My dissertation explored various training methods to build the capacity of health workers to implement nutrition programmes during emergencies. In 1988, shortly before graduation, I gave birth to my first daughter.

My philosophy of public health nutrition is based on the fundamental human rights to health and adequate nutritious foods. While nutrition is a basic need and the basis for all survival, growth and development, the human rights to health and adequate nutritious foods require everyone to work to guarantee it. Public health nutrition is founded on prevention and participation, and it is a platform for gathering information, creating innovations and offering services to ensure that the rights to health and adequate nutritious food are met. Involving people in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of nutrition concerns will empower them to find the best solutions. Nutrition and health promotion work to prevent problems, including deficiencies, illness and death, safeguarding health and nutritional status. My role, as a duty bearer of human rights, is to do all that I can to ensure that all people, children, women and men, enjoy their human rights, including those of health and adequate nutritious food. Accordingly, my career and life goals are to promote innovative policies and creative approaches to unresolved social challenges, establishing effective means to improve people’s well-being, and contribute to guaranteeing the basic health and nutrition rights of all individuals, and provide leadership to reduce and treat premature mortality, avoidable morbidity, malnutrition, and HIV and AIDS among children, women, and men.

US and French citizen. Permanent resident of Sweden. From 1990 to 1992, following the completion of my doctoral degree, I was a field director for Plan International in Senegal and Mali, managing large-scale integrated rural development projects. I gave birth to my second daughter in November 1991 and a few months later joined UNICEF in Bamako as nutrition project officer. In Mali, I helped to create the first national vitamin A programme, and the first local iodised salt production facility. I developed a nutrition surveillance system at national level, and designed and implemented district-level multi-sectoral nutrition programmes with local partners. Beginning in 1995, with UNICEF-Mozambique, I managed integrated health, food security and gender programmes, which transitioned from emergency to development following the end of the civil war. I gave birth to my last child in 1996, and soon after left UNICEF for a position as resident nutrition adviser to USAID in Madagascar for the OMNI (micronutrient) and LINKAGES (breastfeeding and infant/young children nutrition) projects in Madagascar. In Antananarivo, I contributed to founding the GAIN – the Intersectoral Group for Nutrition Action – a multi-sectoral nutrition coordinating group that raised the profile of nutrition nationwide and provided a platform for key nutrition actions. In 1998, I returned to UNICEF as regional advisor, nutrition and health, in South Asia, based in Kathmandu. I initiated the SEA –IDDEA group – a trans-regional IDD elimination group, involving salt producers and transporters, legislators and communication specialists, and the SANGAM, a South Asian think tank devoted to resolving the problems of iron-deficiency anaemia. I maintained the nutrition network with UNICEF, NGO and government partners, sharing experiences and knowledge through the region. I transferred to UNICEF-Hanoi in 2001, and served two years as senior project officer, health and nutrition, before moving with my family to Sweden in 2004. From January 2004 to February 2009 I consulted in emergency nutrition and health, with UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF and several private consulting firms. I led both real-time and post-evaluations in over a dozen countries, and conducted several programme planning exercises in crisis-affected and developing countries. In 2004 and 2005, I coordinated inputs from 20 agencies to establish the first interagency guidelines for health evaluations in humanitarian crises. In 2009, I joined Action Against Hunger’s Hunger Watch in London, to establish innovative policies focusing on undernutrition, with an aim to eliminate acute malnutrition. I developed ACF’s White Paper on Acute Malnutrition – Taking Action: Nutrition for Survival, Growth and Development – which was published in mid-2010. In March this year, I joined the faculty of Metropolitan University College in Copenhagen Denmark, as assistant professor, Global Nutrition and Health. I currently reside in Gothenburg, Sweden with my husband and son, and commute to Copenhagen where I teach students of public health nutrition policy on a full-time basis. I am active in the IASC Global Nutrition Cluster capacity development working group, and the Standing Committee on Nutrition, where I participate in the new working group on nutrition as a social movement. I am also director of a small human rights-based association called Mandamus, which aims to ensure that all children everywhere learn and know about their human rights.