By Olasunkanmi Habeeb Okunola
OVER the past few decades, Nigeria’s primary education sector has faced myriad challenges such as religious, political, cultural and ethnic divides, coupled with poor facilities and rising insecurity which altogether have increased the number of out-of-school children in Nigeria. The recent abductions of school children by the so-called bandits in some northern states of Nigeria bear testament to the high level of insecurity problems facing primary school education in the country.
Despite the fact that primary education is officially free and compulsory, about 10.5 million Nigerian children are not in school. This implies that one out of every five of the world’s out-of-school children is in Nigeria. This necessitates the need for Nigerian government to adopt various strategies to increase enrolment and completion rate in primary school. Indisputably, school feeding programme is an important social protection instrument that has been adopted in many countries of the world to improve learners’ school attendance, attentiveness and performance.
In a bid to reduce the number of out-of-school children in the country, the Federal Government of Nigeria in 2016 launched the Home Grown School Feeding programme, HGSFP, in public primary schools in 22 states of the federation. It is a form of social protection Federal Government-led N70 (0.17 USD) per day school feeding programme that aims to increase enrolment rates, improve the nutritional and health status of primary school children, boost the income of farmers and provide empowerment opportunities for women. It is a multi-sectoral programme that involves ministries of education, health, justice, agriculture, and budget and planning, in collaboration with interested states governments; school Board Management Committee, SBMC, community leaders, women groups and parents.
The feeding programme is designed in a way that the Federal Government takes up the feeding of pupils in primary 1 to primary 3, while interested state governments take up primary 4 to primary 6. Without any doubt, the programme has created significant economic impacts on local agricultural production, benefited communities as well as the children. At present, over nine million pupils drawn from 54,619 schools are currently benefiting from the scheme, and with the participation of 80,000 farmers and engagement of over 102,097 cooks across 26 states in the country.
Despite the important role the School Feeding Programme plays in keeping out-of-school children in schools and empowering local farmers and caterers, there are enormous problems that have emanated from organisation and distribution of meals to primary school children. In my five years journey as an education researcher, I have witnessed and read various challenges influencing the implementation of the feeding programmes in some of the schools benefiting from the programme across the six geo-political zones.
Investigations across these zones indicated that the programme is fraught with problems of large-scale corruption, irregularities, politicisation, poor quality control, lack of transparency and accountability. It was learnt that some food vendors who have been selling food to the pupils prior to the initiation of the programme, were sidelined which led to complaints and lamentations in states like Oyo, Edo and Kaduna. The selection process of the food vendors in some of the schools was marred by controversies as loyalty to the ruling political parties superseded competence and expertise.
Other hiccups experienced in the programme include delays in payments of food vendors by the Federal Government in some states, which have drastically reduced the frequency of food given to the pupils in terms of quality and quantity. Despite the claims by the Federal Government of a huge number of chickens, cattle, and metric tonnes of fish being fed to the pupils, many of them, including the teachers, as well as parents, have reservations about the size of what is served on their children’s meal as either meat, fish or chicken given to the pupils failed to meet up with expectations of the required standard.
In terms of quality, some nutrition experts across the country have expressed their dissatisfaction about procurement of substandard food commodities used in preparing the food. This could not be unconnected with a series of allegations of bribery and corruption among vendors, political leaders in the communities and the state officials in charge, which has significantly affected the outputs of the programme.
Another major obstacle is the lack of monitoring and evaluations to establish and quantify the actual impacts of the HGSFP. Since the programme was implemented in 2016, there have been no checks and balances to ascertain that it is being delivered as planned. Equally appalling is the unrealistic budget allocated to feed a child per day which is reported to be N70 at the time of writing this piece.
Consequently, the question begging for an answer is: what type of food can N70 buy today in Nigeria? In light of the aforementioned challenges of the School Feeding Programme in Nigeria, the following are strongly suggested towards improving enrolment, attendance and cognitive development of primary school children in Nigeria:
Increase funding capacity: The current budget of N144.9 billion per year for the School Feeding Programme is a strain on the finances of the country. Also, N70 per child is not a realistic budget that can provide food that will keep children in school, improve the nutritional and health status in the present economic meltdown. This necessitates the need for the Federal and state governments to seek financial support from local and international organisations such as World Bank, UNICEF, among others, to strengthen and increase the efficiency of the feeding programme.
Improve welfare of food vendors: Payment of vendors for the School Feeding Programme should never be delayed for any reason. The Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development and state governments must work together and ensure that vendors’ monies are paid directly into their accounts as at when due to prevent any form of bribery and corruption, and reduction in the quality of food served to the children. It is also recommended that vendors should be trained and certified on a regular basis to guarantee safe and nutritious food and good health of the school children.
Monitoring and evaluation: Given the relative newness of the School Feeding Programme in Nigeria, there is currently little empirical evidence on the impacts and effectiveness at a local or national level. A comprehensive monitoring and evaluation system is needed for the programme to provide an evidence-based framework in order to generate recommendations for better programme decisions.
Implementation of multi-stakeholders approach: The Federal and the state governments must utilise a multi-stakeholder approach to support an effective School Feeding Programme and policies at the local and national level. This will go a long way in promoting active involvement of parents, community leaders, and local government in the development of the School Feeding Programme in the country.
Dr. Okunola is a DAAD ClimapAfrica postdoctoral fellow (Global Change Institute) at the University of the Witwatersrand.