Homage to Urban Jonsson
A Giant for the World and for Children
Compiled and edited by Claudio Schuftan
The late, great Urban Jonsson
Urban passed away on March 8th, just a few days after his 72nd birthday. He was a resident of Tanzania, but Urban and his wife Olivia longed for his native northern Sweden where he spent summers building his determination to stand up against oppression and indifference and coming up with ways to realize children’s rights and a life free from violence.
He studied philosophy and mathematics which explains his competence on development and human rights.
As UNICEF country representative in Tanzania (1981), him an me launched the successful Iringa community-based nutrition program. In 1983, he became UNICEF’s chief of nutrition and then regional director, in South Asia and in Eastern and Southern Africa successively.
He led the ground-breaking work to develop the ‘UNICEF conceptual framework for nutrition causal analysis’ now universally adopted.
His phenomenal capacity for systematic research and analytical clarity helped open amazing opportunities for enhancing human dignity and respect. He tirelessly committed to children, and to all of humanity. The world will be diminished, and less lively, without him.
Bjorn Ljungqvist was Urban’s longest and closest friend. They had an enviable brotherly relationship.
Urban had a passion for promoting states’ duties to fulfil human rights. The following explains his passion.
“I came from a poor family in a rural area of Sweden. My father lost his job when he stood up for the rights of his fellow miners for shorter working hours and better pay. My parents could not afford to buy me new shoes. The community noticed this and one day our family was given some shoes for me. I did not feel comfortable about those second hand shoes so I took them and dropped them in the river. I felt much better. This 1950 story illustrates for me the difference between a society that relies on charity and one where the state has a duty to realize the rights of poor people. ”
Roger Pearson is a long time UNICEF officer and friend of Urban.
Urban: Valiant for Truth
In 2000, during a meeting of the UN System Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN), after a presentation I did, a man with thick black eyebrows strode to the front, took the microphone, and turned to the audience. With exact phrasing, he denounced ideas that were ruminated about nutrition at that time. He transformed the mood of the meeting. People knew that he spoke with deep knowledge and conviction.
Four of his lessons sunk in. First, nutrition has to be seen in a wider context. Second, the fundamental issues of public health are best understood in the global South. Third, before you speak, you better know what you are talking about. Fourth, sometimes the only way to tell the truth is by head-on denunciation.
In 2005, at the Durban IUNS International Conference on Nutrition, where I presented, Urban was in the front row. After the presentation, he did not ask a question, but made a statement. He politely, but emphatically, pointed out that there was nothing ‘new’ in what had been presented. What hurt was that he was right.
At the 2009 IUNS Conference, Urban presented on ‘Paradigm shifts in world food and nutrition policy’. Transfixed, I asked him for its text for publication in World Nutrition. He agreed and it was published in 2010. Urban then became a regular contributor. He persisted in explaining the original principles of the UN and his lifelong commitment to the cause of his vision of justice and equality.
For me, Urban is Mr Valiant for Truth.
Geoffrey Cannon was Editor of World Nutrition.
Urban Jonsson changed my life
Urban is my role model. He pivoted my life around. In the 1990s, I began to explore the human rights approach and wrote books and articles on it, but in a vacuum. Then Urban swept me into his orbit.
With his support, I was invited to UNICEF headquarters to give different presentations. I soon became part of their Working Group on Nutrition, Ethics, and Human Rights. This led to years of work with the Committee’s successor, the SCN.
Urban contributed to an issue of the International Journal of Children’s Rights that I edited in 1997. He further supported my recommendation for the creation of an Optional Protocol on Children’s Nutrition, to be linked to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. He rightly argued that neither the Code industry had set up nor FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines were part of International Human Rights Law. Neither was/is a legally binding document with specified claim-holders and duty-bearers. He strongly believed it was high time to change this.
I am deeply grateful for the many ways in which Urban continues to inspire so many.
George Kent is an old human rights activist, University of Hawaii.
Urban was a genius
Urban was a genius, possessed rare knowledge of human rights and philosophy that he brought to bear to political processes especially in nutrition. I always learned from what he wrote. He made a lasting contribution to the field with the Conceptual Framework he developed. He defined what ‘care’ meant and incorporated care in the Framework. He was one of those who introduced human rights to the SCN in the 1990s and insisted that UN agencies begin operating within that framework. Julia Tagwireyi could not have said it better: The world still needs more Urbans lest we get complacent again about addressing nutrition issues.
Ted Greiner, was a class mate of Olivia in Cornell under Dr Michael Latham and long time friend of both Urban and Olivia.
Not forgetting the Triple A
As a fresh 25-year old starting nutrition officer with UNICEF, I met Dr Jonsson in Nepal, where he organized the first ever Triple-A Nutrition Workshop (Assessment – Analysis – Action). There, the conceptual framework was presented and discussed. I listened and learned for life. Months later, in 1992, I had to organize a Triple-A Workshop in my duty station in Nigeria, and Urban was a resource person there. What a loss for the nutrition community….
Until recently, Lina Mahy was in the secretariat of the SCN in Geneva.
Urban Jonsson: A towering figure in the world of nutrition and human rights
Why was Urban so great?
Well, he was a conceptual thinker. He understood the importance of politics in nutrition. He was a master communicator and he understood how to do deals for nutrition. He was practical yet idealistic. He popularised the importance of human rights in nutrition –he advocated for people to have support to claim their rights and for duty bearers to deliver on those claims.
He was fearless. He said whatever he thought, no matter the consequences for himself (and sometimes for others). This got him into trouble quite often. Sometimes, it made him unnecessarily controversial. He often sucked the oxygen from a room.
The first time I ever spoke to him was on the phone in 1994. He called me out of the blue to summon me to give a presentation at the UNSCN meeting that year. It took me about 20 minutes to convince him I would not attend — because I would be on my honeymoon! He was that kind of a person–he wouldn’t take no for an answer when it came to nutrition. We need more people like that.
Lawrence Haddad formerly Director of the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex and is now back with IFPRI
Adieu Urban Jonsson, a true combat comrade in nutrition
I met Urban in 1975 during a journey to Sweden to interview people for the job of Director of the Planning Department at the Tanzania Food and Nutrition Centre (TFNC). Urban proved to be the best. But to me, he knew little of nutrition… Once in Dar Es Salaam, Urban was keen to learn about malnutrition. We collected all available information on malnutrition in Tanzania and compiled it. Urban then proposed the idea of training planners in nutrition and so started a project on training national planners. This alone, put nutrition at a much higher importance-level nationally. TFNC then called a meeting of all the sectors. The then Prime Minister launched the conference that came up with a skeleton of the first National Nutrition Program.
Through Urban’s influence in Sweden, TFNC established links with Uppsala University for support in research and higher training. Concomitantly, his relationships with UNICEF gave TFNC a special relationship with the UN.
Urban was to me like a son, often discussing private and official matters with me; that is how he registers in my memory.
Dr Tumsifu Maletnlema was the Managing Director of TFNC from 1973 to 1989.
Let us celebrate his life
I last met Urban and Olivia in December last year when they and Bjorn joined my daughter’s wedding in Dar. On the sidelines, we discussed his next big project: A meeting of UNICEF retirees planned for September 2016.
We met in the early 1980s during the renowned Iringa Joint Nutrition Support Programme (JNSP) when I was working at TFNC. The JNSP convincingly proved that community-focused nutrition actions do work provided that enabling contextual factors are taken into account. It just required top-down governance accountability and bottom-up social accountability. Among the TFNC staff was Dr. Yambi, then Director of Planning. She later became Urban’s wife. I remember the many discussions we had and especially the clarity he brought wherever there were complex issues to resolve. Urban mentioned to me several times that the JNSP was one of his life’s most rewarding experiences.
This all led to the development of the Nutrition Strategy adopted by UNICEF in 1990. Urban used the strategy to incorporate ethical dimensions of human rights and developed the framework on Human Rights Based Approach to Development Programming that has also been adopted globally.
Urban leaves a legacy of a fearless person in pursuit of the Truth; an intellectual whose breadth and depth of analysis brought paradigm-shifting light to the understanding and programming for complex issues. In his words “theory without practice is useless and practice without theory is like walking in the dark”. We all remember his saying “You find what you look for”.
Urban provided voice to the voiceless and to the poor, promoting equality of both opportunity and outcome. He never was bogged down by difficult circumstances. Urban’s legacy will live on for many years to come. Let us celebrate his life.
Dr Festo Kavishe is an independent human development consultant and UNICEF retiree in Dar Es Salaam.
We grieve together
I was one of so many who learned at Urban’s feet. At a workshop in Zanzibar in 1991, he changed my thinking about nutrition. I have not changed it much since. He later taught me to think about development in the context of human rights. This is a process that will never end.
When people ask why human rights are relevant to development and to development professionals, I direct them to Urban’s book ‘The Human Rights Approach to Development Programming’. It is out of print, but can be found here: https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Human_Rights_Approach_to_Development_Pro.html?id=I-bwfNDp1YAC&redir_esc=y Actually, in his memory, it should probably have a huge reprint.
Richard Morgan is an old friend of Urban who participated in trainings Urban organized.
He will be hugely missed
Urban blazed a trail across the nutrition community shaping its discourse and action for decades. He was the ultimate nutrition champion, a master orator and the leading advocate for nutrition and human rights. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to work closely with Urban in the 1990s especially during his time in Kathmandu as regional director of UNICEF. His energy levels were off the scale. I remember his detailed ‘to do lists’, kicking off at 5am ……and the fact that he would actually achieve 90% of what he set himself to do! Urban sharpened our thinking and action in nutrition, and made us step up our game.
Stuart Gillespie is with IFPRI and was also a classmate of Olivia.
The rest is history
1975, Berkeley, California. USAID-sponsored big meeting on applying systems analysis to nutrition planning, the nascent fashion in public health nutrition then. All the gurus of the time in attendance. Brainy slide presentations, complicated diagrams with arrows forward and backwards, up and down the food chain; everything influences everything in endless feedback loops. I am sitting in the back row. Am unimpressed, or rather enraged. Q+A period starts. I raise my hand. Make an impassionate critique: All on offer is so mechanistic; where are the less ‘diagrammable’ social and political determinants hidden behind all these loops? Half of the audience (or ¾?) thinks I am from another world (which I was, having recently come from Chile). I sit down feeling I am sowing in unfertile ground.
Also in the back rows, but on the other side of the big hall, another hand had been raised. He gets the floor and, lo and behold, perhaps more precisely than I, this time a European with a ‘Swedlish’ accent, raises the same concerns. I am not alone after all. The hall is semi dark. I cannot see his face, but I record the baritone ring of his powerful voice. Congratulatory comments to the presenters, ignoring our concerns, follow the rest of the Q+A session.
It is now coffee break time. Some magnetism seems to be at work. We are actually both seeking ourselves out. A handshake grounded in a wide smile follows: “I am Urban Jonsson, and I am Claudio Schuftan: We have to talk”.
And so started a half of a lifetime relationship and friendship. The rest is history.
Claudio Schuftan is an active member of the Steering Council of the People’s Health Movement.
He did it all for justice
Human rights activist, analyst, student, teacher, planner, campaigner and much more was Urban Jonsson. He was all of these on a grand scale, doing everything seriously and nothing by halves, always with generosity and good humor. Urban knew well that information is power and made sure that whatever information and knowledge he had was shared. I learned whatever I know about nutrition from Urban at the UN University in Tokyo where we were colleagues. I also learned when he exposed and explained the power struggles within the food and nutrition world and as he fought to have the interests of poor and vulnerable people addressed –always speaking out so that he could do more. This combination of endlessly learning and doing –of finding what he was looking for and resolutely acting on it– propelled Urban to levels of accomplishment that most can only wish for. And he did it all for justice.
Rozanne Chorlton collaborated with Urban both in Tokyo and then in Dar Es Salaam forging a life-long friendship.
You changed the world
Urban was a giant:
– A giant intellect – a giant star with a huge love of Africa.
– A giant personality – with giant clog-pounding steps in his UNICEF office. (I will miss his laughter – deep, full and fun; I will miss those devilish eye-brows).
– A giant who was strong enough to empower the weaker and the young – and give space for risk, experiment and even mistakes.
– A giant never ceding to the easy explanation or simple solution.
– A giant who talked truth to power…even when that truth was inconvenient.
And so he leaves a giant hole – in our hearts, in our minds, in our souls.
I will miss:
– His intellect – his inescapable logic.
– His reminder to “look for the causes of the causes”.
– His deeply annotated reading (remembering the ruler, the red and blue pens he always used).
Let us remember his caring – that we must all emulate. Every one of us, now live in a world slightly less bright with that giant star now dimmed in our memories.
Dan Toole is the regional director for UNICEF in Bangkok.
Wenche and Asbjorn Eide
Ahead of his time
While in UNICEF, Urban used to carry in his pocket a mini-copy of the UN Charter from 1945. This, to remind himself that he was first of all a servant of the United Nations.
On April 1st 2016, we had the honor to attend Urban’s funeral and moving memorial arrangements in Sweden where his family and friends gathered to say goodbye. On the same day, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on a Decade of Action on Nutrition 2016-2025. This very special coincidence is an omen that, in the next ten years, we will see a payback to Urban’s tireless efforts. He insisted that if you have the UN as your employer, you have a duty to apply and advance the principles established to guide your work, including those of human rights. Urban never let go an opportunity to inform UN colleagues about what was expected of them. Co-initiating and chairing the SCN’s Working Group on Nutrition, Ethics and Human Rights for ten years 1994-2004 was one opportunity to do so. He certainly made both new followers and enemies in the process!
The new and promising ten years opening is an opportunity that can make what Urban preached happen.
Wenche Barth Eide is Associate Professor emeritus, Department of Nutrition, Faculty of Medicine, University of Oslo and Asbjørn Eide is Professor emeritus, Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Oslo.
I never met someone with the same drive
Urban made sure UNICEF staff throughout understood the nutrition conceptual framework and triple AAA approach. One day, as I was UNICEFs Chief of Training, he roared into my office and said ”Steve, we need to go to Manila next week and Nairobi the week after to train people from 30 field offices. Please, buy your tickets”. It took me about 24 shots of whisky in a 2nd Ave bar later that evening to put together the contents for a 5 day participatory training workshop. The following afternoon, we set the training preparations in motion, Urban again appeared and in his very Swedish booming voice asked if I had everything done since he was ready to leave. It took me several more whiskies to get him to agree to a 48 hours departure postponement. We left in record time for the Philippines. During the subsequent six days, maybe 60 more whiskies were drunk, but our participants increased their knowledge on the nutrition conceptual framework and, most importantly, they went away enthused by Urban’s commitment. I never met any other head of technical section in UNICEF with the same drive or liver capacity as Urban. May he finally rest in peace adieu, and a luta continua.
Steve Woodhouse is a retired senior UNICEF officer.
I have photos that can go with this text.
Here is a little video he was captured in.