Politics over school feeding

THE avalanche of reactions that trailed the decision of the Federal Government to press ahead with the school feeding programme, amid school closures, have evidently covered the value propositions that informed the pronouncement. The new spate of public uproar against the multi-billion naira programme visibly leans on the logic that the schools that provide the platform and basis for feeding the children are closed, as the nation locks down against the coronavirus pandemic. President Muhammadu Buhari had on March 29th directed the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development to liaise with state governments to develop strategies on the continuation of the school feeding programme, even when the schools are shut as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Consequently, the ministry mapped out a scheme of implementation programmes that would see some 3,131,971 households take delivery of N4,200 worth of food packages; each from a selection of 600 schools that would form the collection centers.

The programme, targeted at primary 1 to primary 3 pupils in public schools, was billed to activate last Thursday across all states of the federation with local logistics and facilities provided by each state government. The food distribution programme would see parents and caregivers collect take home rations of uncooked food items for beneficiaries under the intervention. These rations have been reviewed by nutrition experts. Each ration is made up of 5.0-kilogram bag of rice, 5.0-kilogram bag of beans, half liter of vegetable oil and 750 milliliter of palm oil. Other items in the package are 500 milligrams of salt, 15 eggs and 140 grams of tomato paste.   According to the ministry, the Home-Grown School Feeding Programme (HGSGFP) would first begin in Abuja and subsequently in Lagos and Ogun states before the other states of the federation. The two states and FCT selected for the pilot phase are epicenters of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and the home-grown school feeding programme bonds with direct pandemic palliative initiatives already running in the states.

The announcement of the continuation of the programme has been greeted with a rising wave of arguments, anchored on the consideration that the programme might be vulnerable to manipulation and abuse under the prevailing city lockdowns, closure of schools and restriction of movements across the country.

Second level of doubts about the programme borders on accountability of the process. Fears are palpable that the integrity of the process would be challenged by the prevailing pandemic crisis which might blur public gaze on how the process conforms to established accountability matrix. However, continuation of the programme is justified by the original intention which is primarily to address hunger and poverty while providing incentives for poor families to allow their kids benefit from government sponsored universal basic education. Thus, the school feeding programme which aligns with global basic education templates, tackles the twin social problem of hunger and child education. Another strong case for the continuation of the programme is the fact that the novel coronavirus has brought the economies of the world to their knees, forcing governments to advance social palliatives and stimulus packages that target income earners. Nigeria is not left out.

With many parents without income due to the pandemic, children are in clear danger of accelerated malnutrition and starvation. The situation lays solid reason for the government to go creative with the school feeding programme; to ensure that pupils forced home from school, under the pandemic situation, do not fall vulnerable to malnutrition. At any rate, government is on solid grounds to continue with the school feeding programme, now modified, as obviously, it would already, have been captured in the fiscal projections for the year and therefore, requiring no additional funding appropriation. Taking the meals to the kids at home guarantees that provisions for the programme reaches the target beneficiaries. It will appear that critics of the program seem to forget that given the poor oversight tradition that has bedevilled our society, it is possible that nothing would have happened if the school feeding programme were stalled, despite the budgetary provision. Thus, rather than the puerile and juvenile argument that the exercise is wasteful, the Federal Government should be commended for carrying this budgetary provision at a time that the pandemic and decline in revenues provide ready alibi for abandoning the responsibility. In any case, most people will agree, the home school feeding programme is better than no action in the alternative.

Notwithstanding the juvenility of some of the highly partisan polemics undergirding opposition to the programme, it goes without saying that the interest, so far generated, places the delivery agency in the spotlight of criticisms, suspicion and scrutiny. In this regard, it is reassuring that the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development appears not to ignore the weight and scale of responsibility, trust and accountability placed on the programme implementation processes. Thankfully, the ministry has taken steps to make its plans for programme delivery detailed, open and participatory. Of course, the concerns about the ministry’s capacity to drill down the process is strongly founded and the minster alluded to that with the explanation that the provision of take-home-rations would follow data provided and structures put in place over the years, with the federal government providing funds to the States for implementation. With the attention on primary schools, over 6,000 schools that would serve as distribution centers for clusters of communities are under the purview of state and local government administrations. This functional relay places the second tier and third tier accountability and responsibility, to states and local government administrations.

Sadly, some state governments have not demonstrated the level of transparency that strongly recommends delegating this responsibility without some form of oversight. Thus, as Minister Farouq disclosed field personnel and monitoring teams have also been set up to follow the flow of distribution.

“As an extra layer of monitoring the ministry has requested other agencies of government including the DSS, EFCC, ICPC, Code of Conduct Bureau and a host of NGOs and CSOs to help monitor. The Ministry’s hotlines would be made available to the public to provide accurate information and for grievance redress,” the ministry stated in a document.

Concerns that the implementation of the home grown school feeding programme, at a time the nation is fighting the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, is capable of also providing route for the virus are credible; and the fears that both personnel assigned with roles in the process and beneficiaries are exposed to infection are real and palpable. In addressing these concerns, the ministry stated that it is receiving technical support from the World Food Programme (WFP) following which a joint document on “Safe Distributions during COVID” has been developed and would be shared with the state governments before implementation.

One revelation of the modified programme is the fact that the original programme was not fully operational in Kwara and Bayelsa States. The good news is that the two states will now benefit from the modified programme “once they meet certain requirements.” Again, that is instructive. Agitators and critics of the much-touted skewed implementation of the programme may begin to consider if they should not hold their state and local government administrations accountable for exclusion, poor representation and insufficient allocations.

For now, let those who are playing juvenile politics with the health and future of school children retrace their steps and for once, in spite of themselves, give deserved accolades to the Government for  robustly rising to the challenge of giving hope and succour to the country’s traumatized school children and their helpless parents.

 

  • Megafu writes in from Lagos

 

 

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