Nicki Connell MBE, Nutrition Technical Director
- Like many of us, Nicki is struggling with working from home during the Coronavirus pandemic. She’s having to get creative with how she runs her face-to-face meetings and lots of her projects have been put on hold. But when Nicki’s work projects are delayed, it’s a big problem. It could result in thousands of children becoming malnourished.
Nicki is the Nutrition Technical Director for The Eleanor Crook Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to ending malnutrition around the world.
“We are funding a project in Tanzania, which involves groups of mothers and fathers meeting together and talking about critical health topics to help them support their children to grow well; obviously they can’t meet together in groups anymore, so they’ve had to stop the research” she says. “Outside of our direct projects, the biggest challenge we’re seeing now is the level of COVID across Africa is really unknown. They’re not doing widespread testing, so they’re not finding the cases. And even if they find them, many contexts will not have the resources to treat it properly.
“Because of the social distancing and travel restrictions that are being put in place, people can’t plant their harvest or get to market. As a result there is a huge food crisis looming across the whole of Africa, which will cause levels of malnutrition to vastly increase. There are 50 million children with malnutrition in the world at the moment, and we expect there to be an increase of between 10-50% over the next year. We’re trying to raise awareness about this new reality and the impact on malnutrition, to ensure the funding is mobilised to address this increased need before child deaths sky rocket.”
As well as raising awareness of the current imposing threats from COVID-19, Nicki spends her time talking to UN agencies, like UNICEF and WHO, to support them to coordinate across the nutrition sector and facilitate better malnutrition treatment services for children on the ground.
Although Nicki now spends most of her time coordinating projects from her desk, she says her favourite part of the job is working out in the field. “[I love] going to clinics located in the middle of nowhere and working with the staff, helping them understand how to treat children with malnutrition. You think you’re really remote when you’re three days away from anywhere, but that’s their reality. They stay there day in and day out and keep these kids alive.
“I don’t get to do it so much anymore, but in my current job I love going into the field and meeting different people. I’ve always been pretty hands-on; this is the first job I’ve had that has been less so – it’s more about creating impact and opportunities at the global level, and then translating that down to the country level, reaching those staff in the middle of nowhere.”
She says she has a different perspective now that she’s on the other side of the fence, providing funding to organisations rather than chasing funding. “As the custodian of the funding, you’re trying to make sure you’re giving the money to the right people… There’s a lot of inefficiencies and wasted money in how nutrition services are typically set up, so we’re trying to revolutionise it. We’re a relatively small player in a huge public health space… but that makes us flexible, we don’t have the red tape to navigate or ties with government institutions so we can try to be a bit more disruptive and push for change in ways that others can’t.”
Working in the field
Nicki’s first job in the charity sector was as a Nutrition Program Manager in Bangladesh. She spent a year helping to run malnutrition treatment programs for refugees from Myanmar and supporting new mothers to breastfeed their children.
She then progressed to a series of jobs with other charities. “The next job was in Pakistan; I was there responding to flooding, which meant Pakistan had a lot of internally displaced people, so we were providing the same malnutrition treatment services there. I then went on to South Sudan and worked as a Nutrition Coordinator. I was based in the capital and travelled around to different field sites to train staff, coordinate with the government in South Sudan and ultimately make sure that the right services were being provided in the clinics.”
Her longest position was almost five years with Save the Children. “It involved being deployed to and supporting emergency response scenarios. So, I would wait for the phone to ring and be prepared to jump on a plane in 24 hours – so I always had a bag packed. Or sometimes I would travel to emergency contexts and take over from staff to give them a break, or gap fill when there was a vacancy in the nutrition team in country. I did start to develop a love/hate relationship with my suitcase!”
Nicki’s career has taken her all over the world. And in the process of saving children’s lives, she sometimes has to risk her own. “The reality is that the work I do is in places that are lawless or at best not typically law abiding. You have to undertake hostile environment awareness training. You learn what to do if you’re kidnapped, shot at, if the car you’re in is stolen… It’s part and parcel of the job. You have to make a decision that you feel comfortable enough to travel to different contexts, which are often war zones or conflict settings.
“There are different risks depending on where you go as a white woman. For example, in Pakistan – there’s a risk of kidnap, and in Yemen the risk is higher still. People assume that your family is wealthy enough that there would be a ransom paid if you were kidnapped.
The most dangerous situation I found myself in was in Yemen in 2017, after the most recent war had started. There was bombing going on and gunshots could be heard in the streets. Our guest house had shatterproof glass and an underground bunker for when the bombs started dropping. We were there during the world’s biggest cholera outbreak, and I was really ill, to the point where I was wondering if I had cholera. I was thinking about this in the bathroom and bombing started so I was faced with the choice: do I run for the bunker or stay in the bathroom? It was ok – I didn’t go to the bunker, the closest bomb was dropped a block away from where we were. And it wasn’t cholera. But it was a hairy situation!
From Ranch-hand to MBE
Thankfully, these situations are rare, and Nicki enjoys the work she does. Despite the risk of kidnap, Yemen is Nicki’s favourite place where she worked. “It is such a beautiful country and there is an amazing heritage. The Yemeni people are lovely – most are surprised to learn they are a very generous, quiet and humble people, given what is portrayed in the media. It is really interesting working there, but it has changed a lot since there has been a new outbreak of war; lots of the architecture has been flattened. But it’s still a really interesting setting that was rewarding to work in.”
Her other favourite place is Argentina, which is where she spent a year working on a cattle ranch as a horse-riding guide, while she decided on her career path. “It was a really fun place to work. I would take the tourists out on horseback and make sure their wine glass was topped up. Then I met someone who worked in nutrition. I had graduated from Bath University with a degree in Natural Sciences, and I thought nutrition would be good way to build on that,” she says. “I wanted to do something where I felt like I was making a difference… I was never going to choose something with an easy path, that’s not my style!”
Nicki is obviously well-suited to this work, as she’s helped so many people already, and her dedication has been recognized with an MBE for Services to Emergency Nutrition. “I’m in an atypical career. It’s not about aiming to progress up the career ladder; I’m not speaking at events or publishing books. I guess the highlight has been my MBE, but that makes me cringe a bit! I don’t feel I’ve done anything special, and there are so many others doing more than me” she says modestly.
“I didn’t expect to be recognized with this award. I made peace with accepting it through ensuring I accept it on behalf of everyone I work with. I try to use it as opportunity to raise awareness of the he amount of work still needed to reach a world where malnutrition no longer exists.”
Seeking out opportunities in the charity sector
Charity is a very competitive sector. “Surprisingly, it is hard to get very far without a master’s degree in this sector,” says Nicki. “It’s very competitive.”
As well as completing her own master’s degree in nutrition from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, she raised money to help a friend named Chaplain in South Sudan do his master’s degree at Leeds University. “He graduated with a distinction – and was able to go back to South Sudan and impart and utilise his newfound knowledge. He was a refugee back in the 80s when the war was happening – he now supports a huge family. He’s done great things over the years, and is a truly inspirational person. We now fund a project he is the lead on in Uganda. He did the hard work, pitching up in the UK and managing to study, and in English which is not his first language.
She says that fortunately, she personally hasn’t experienced any gender-based prejudice in her industry. In fact, while the older people in nutrition work tend to be men, there are a lot of younger women coming through into the sector these days. The bigger discriminatory issue is actually colour. “As a white woman in the sector, I have been exposed to an unfair amount of opportunities over national staff, or women of colour, or even men of colour.
“You hear stories even of men of colour applying for jobs and getting nowhere, but when the name on the CV is changed to Brown, the interviews start getting offered. That’s the level of prejudice there is… even though it’s usually better to have people working in their own countries, because they know the context, the language, the culture… and where there are less security threats to them because they don’t stand out. It’s really unacceptable and is something we all need to make huge concerted efforts to improve, and immediately.”
That’s why she sees the importance of helping people like Chaplain, who is now running a charity in Uganda called The Refugees Resilience Initiative. Even if he faces prejudice climbing the corporate ladder, it hasn’t stopped him from setting up his own charitable organisation to help others, which at the end of the day is so hugely important.
Nicki is continuing to do great work helping those suffering with malnutrition around the world. And as she mentioned, her job is only going to get harder as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Take a look at the Eleanor Crook Foundation website to find out more about the work they do.
Are you a morning lark or a night owl? Morning
Active holiday or relaxing holiday? Active
What are you watching on Netflix right now? Ozark
Go-to karaoke song? I hate karaoke! I was singing Foals songs around the house earlier though
Biggest weakness? Perfection
What’s your favourite season? Spring
Most used app on your phone? BBC app
Favourite meal/cuisine? Roast pork
Favourite weekend activity? Horse riding or long walk
Who’s your favourite female icon? Judi Dench