Chinese celebrity Ma Yili has over 50 million social media fans, and now she’s using her influence to promote breastfeeding in her home country, where only 28 percent are exclusively breastfed.

Advancing Breastfeeding: The Power of the Network

Chinese actress Ma Yill gathers with breastfeeding adovcates for a workshop on the "10m2 of Love" campaign. Photo: Wu Kaixiang/UNICEF

This blog was originally published in Impatient Optimists. Written by Mariam Claeson and Ruth Landy.  

Chinese celebrity Ma Yili has over 50 million social media fans, and now she’s using her influence to promote breastfeeding in her home country, where only 28 percent are exclusively breastfed. The “10m2 of Love” campaign Ma is publicizing includes a mobile app to help Chinese women locate and use public breastfeeding spaces.  

From China to PakistanVenezuela and Viet Nam, countries are experimenting with new approaches to promote a life saving, natural practice under threat in the modern world.

At the global level, however, the breastfeeding community has yet to coalesce as an effective network. Today it’s in search of the strong leadership, unified agenda and contemporary message required to spark a social movement for breastfeeding in the 21st century. 

Those are the findings of a recent UNICEF study seeking to understand why funding and political commitment for breastfeeding remains low, despite compelling evidence of its benefits.

Sound like a wonkish question? Try answering it, and you’ll soon be grappling with life or death matters.

No one has thought harder about generating political attention for global health than professor and researcher Jeremy Shiffman. His special interest: why some issues receive priority while others are neglected. When UNICEF needed to make sense of the rich feedback it received from breastfeeding stakeholders around the world, it turned to his framework.

Shiffman’s case studies have attracted enormous interest not only because he’s a pioneer in an emerging field. His research also taps into the universal quest by advocates to discover a “secret sauce” – a formula – which could reliably generate visibility, funding and policy change. Shiffman’s latest work focuses on the dynamic interaction of three elements that determine why some global health networks flourish while others stagnate. It’s a valuable checklist for those seeking insight on this vital question:

Network Who are the actors and do they agree on solutions to the problem? Does the network have strong leadership, guiding institutions and a common agenda? Is the issue framed in a manner that resonates with political leaders? Are civil society organizations mobilized behind the cause?

Policy environment Can the network count on influential allies? Is the global policy context favorable to the issue? Does it face opposition and – if yes – what are the implications? Are there sufficient resources for programs? Is the network aligned behind measurable targets?

Issue characteristics How severe is the problem? Which populations are affected? Does the network have effective interventions for addressing it, and are they easily measured?

UNICEF’s study applied Shiffman’s categories to analyze responses such as these:

“Those of us who care about infant and young child feeding need to be together. We cannot afford disjointed messaging or disagreement. We need to focus on the bigger picture.”  

“Leadership is the number one factor in building political and donor support. When James Grant took on the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, that leadership was transformative.

“We need to generate evidence breastfeeding practices can be improved at large scale within a reasonable time frame, because that creates excitement it can be done. You can only achieve scale if you simplify and focus.”

UNICEF is accountable with WHO for global progress on infant and young child feeding and it’s taking the study’s findings seriously. We’re encouraged UNICEF and partners are now working to put the report’s recommendations into action. To raise breastfeeding on the worldwide agenda, the strategy focuses on mobilizing commitment for WHO’s 2025 global nutrition target. This requires coordinated action to support all women to breastfeed from the first hour after birth till their child reaches two. 

Only a high-performing network can do so.

A great opportunity lies ahead when the world adopts the first global roadmap to reduce newborn deaths. It’s also a test.

The first weeks and months after birth are the most perilous for infants in low-income settings. Breastfeeding is the closest there is to a ‘silver bullet’ protecting them from malnutrition and death.

Will the newborn network invite breastfeeding stakeholders to the table, to join forces toward a common goal? Will all partners consulted by UNICEF commit to the shared strategy?

You can influence the debate by commenting below. We also invite you to share on Twitter with a message such as the one below. Your voice matters.

Advancing #breastfeeding – the power of the network 

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