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Reaching Food & Nutrition results requires both grease & glue

Learning Review of Embassy Support Programme (ESP) carried out by Wageningen CDI
Learning Review Embassy Support Programme
August 16, 2017 By: Herman Brouwer Image: WUR - EKN Learning Journey 2014 (by: Laurent Umans)

Dutch embassies need help to deliver Food & Nutrition Security results. But what does “supporting embassies” look like? Wageningen CDI shares what it has learned from seven years of running the Embassy Support Programme, including trends that can be observed in the practice of FNS programmes at the embassies.

The embassies of the Netherlands are instrumental in shaping the success, or failure, of Food and Nutrition Security (FNS) programmes. They manage a portfolio of projects that are implemented by partners, but they do much more than this. Their work also includes translating the policy on the Dutch contribution to global food security into relevant interventions with country partners, using a creative mix of policy instruments. Embassies also engage in dialogue with relevant stakeholders in these countries to ensure they are well-informed about the local context, and can represent Dutch interests.

Embassies try to do this work with limited resources. Over the last seven years, several support mechanisms were put in place by the Ministries of Foreign and Economic Affairs to assist embassies to deliver results on the FNS policy agenda. One of these was the Embassy Support Programme on FNS (ESP), hosted by Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation (WCDI). The ESP basically did two things: organizing individual, tailor-made support missions to embassies at their request, and organizing cross-embassy learning activities. In total, 60 missions took place benefiting 15 countries. Four cross-embassy learning events took place, co-organized with the Food & Business Knowledge Platform (F&BKP). Much of the support offered centred around three categories:

  1. FNS programming of embassies;
  2. FNS monitoring and reporting by embassies;
  3. FNS capacity strengthening of embassy personnel.

We conducted a Learning Review1 to take stock of this experience, and to identify lessons for the Ministries and a broader range of stakeholders represented by the F&BKP. We tried to elaborate on the question: what emergent practices can be discerned regarding the design, implementation and monitoring of embassy FNS programmes? What follows, is a selection of highlights from this Learning Review.

Emerging practices

Embassy staff numbers have gone down in the last years. Combined with a trend to substitute technical experts for generalist staff, this has posed a challenge for embassies to develop and deliver good quality FNS programmes. While the mission reports display much concern about capacity gaps at embassy levels, this review has to conclude that there are also positive practices that have been developed at various embassies.

  1. Using the relative distance from The Hague as an advantage to experiment and be creative in using the existing instruments. Some embassies experimented with new methods to do context analysis for their Multi-Annual Strategic Plans (MASP). Others took the initiative to organize learning workshops with their partners – to track progress and revisit the theory of change, and communicate about their results. Still, many embassies struggle to translate their results into the centrally prescribed formats.
  2. Utilization of the contextual expertise and networks of local embassy staff. With Dutch staff members being subject to regular relocations, it often are the local FNS staff at embassies who hold accumulated capital in terms of local knowledge, history and networks. Various embassies invested in building capacities of these colleagues by arranging internships in the Netherlands, and involvement in cross-embassy learning activities. In doing so these embassies are likely to have become more effective themselves.
  3. By practicing the ‘Growth Diamond’ approach locally, several embassies have used their interactions with private sector, civil society and knowledge institutes to develop their own capacity. Having frequent engagements with local partners, can dramatically increase the understanding and know-how of embassy staff. This engagement should go beyond administrative procedures (contracts, reports) and preferably include joint field visits and dialogue sessions. Some embassies used the missions to facilitate this, but others organized it by themselves.
  4. Besides targeted support to strengthen embassy capacity, the cross-embassy learning component of the ESP invested in helping embassies to learn from each other through an evolving learning agenda.  This Learning Review suggests that developing and persisting with a learning agenda can result in a “learning spiral” which accumulates lessons learned, new ideas and insights. For this spiral to work well, active support needs to be in place, as well as leadership to create and protect a learning environment. Both elements of this spiral are under continuous pressure due to budget cuts and restructuring, but we have seen examples where knowledge exchange and reflection results in potentially stronger, innovative FNS programmes. Learning events have been important for exchanging experiences and perspectives, but were less used for collaborative decision making.

Key insights on how to support embassies

Grease and glue

The Learning Review concludes that embassies are best served by flexible and demand-driven support, and by deliberate processes to support embassies to learn from each other’s experiences. The former can be compared to grease: a substance that helps to lubricate an object, so that it performs better. The latter could be compared to glue: a substance which creates cohesion and prevents fragmentation. We suggest that both functions are important to support the best possible delivery of FNS results by embassies.

Anticipating the MASP cycle

An overall conclusion is that even though the political reality of FNS is turbulent and unpredictable, it is possible to anticipate. The Learning Review illustrates that being aware of the cycle of Multi-Annual Strategic Planning can help to plan support for embassies. In the period prior to a new MASP (or MACP – Multi Annual Country Plan) there is high demand for support in the area of strategy formulation. This is usually followed by demand for programme formulation, and M&E support. Towards the end of a cycle there tends to be more demand for communication support and cross-embassy learning activities.

What embassies want most…

The majority of missions contributed to two embassy capacities: the ability to contextualize FNS policy to national contexts (38 out of 60), and the ability to conceptualize and design FNS programmes (39 out of 60). One can also say that these two capacities were most sought after by embassies, as they articulated the demand for missions. If these capacities are so important, a lesson might be to invest in tools that help embassies to do this better, based on the experiences of all embassies so far.




  1. 1. This Learning Review was carried out by Herman Brouwer, Bram Peters and Jan Brouwers (all Wageningen CDI), with support from the Food & Business Knowledge Platform (F&BKP). The full report is for internal use by the Ministries. Advice from Bart de Steenhuijsen Piters (KIT), Herman Snelder (MDF), Frans Verberne (F&BKP) and Melle Leenstra (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) is acknowledged.

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