Nigeria launches school feeding scheme

A government programme to provide primary-school children with free lunches has been launched in Nigeria, to encourage parents to educate their children—and to ensure that pupils learn effectively.

While a campaign to achieve universal primary education was started in 1999, it has become clear that poverty is still resulting in the exclusion of millions of children from the West African country’s education system.

The prospect of free lunches can make sending children to school a more attractive proposition for poor parents. According to Ayalew Abai, country representative in Nigeria for the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), there is evidence to suggest that free school meals lead to increased attendance—and better performance on the part of pupils.

Research by the education ministry has shown that almost half of children between the ages of seven and 15 are underweight.

“[Poor] nutrition compromises the physical and mental development of the population, particularly the children,” said President Olusegun Obasanjo at the launch of the project in the capital, Abuja, last week.

“[The] specific objectives of the school feeding programme ... are to reduce hunger among Nigerian schoolchildren, and increase school enrolment and completion rates—particularly among children in rural communities and poor urban neighbourhoods.”

About 2,5-million pupils in 12 of the country’s 36 states will benefit from the programme.
At present, just more than seven million children are estimated to be out of school, while about 25-million children have been enrolled. Most of those who are being denied an education are girls.

“The school feeding programme will be a complementary initiative to Unicef’s current education programmes, which focus on both girls’ education and the promotion of child-friendly schools,” says Abai.

Previous attempt failed

A previous attempt at providing free meals at primary schools proved unsuccessful, due to inadequate planning, a lack of resources and corruption.

The programme, launched May 2002 in 20 local government areas of southern Lagos state, was intended to help pupils in more than 900 public primary schools—at a cost of about $10-million.

“We have had instances of the earlier programme being abused by teachers who took away the things, and contractors who shortchanged pupils,” said Babs Animashaun, chairperson of the National Parents/Teachers’ Association of Nigeria, who fears that history may repeat itself with the latest school feeding scheme.

To avoid the ill effects of graft, he has called for parents to be closely involved in the new initiative.

“In order not to turn the project into a money-spinning avenue, we are insisting that accredited representatives of the PTA [parent/teachers’ association] must be involved in whatever they are going to be giving for the project: money, nutritional supplements and the purchase and distribution of food,” Animashaun said in Nigeria’s financial centre of Lagos.

“We believe it will succeed this time around if parents are involved. They will serve as vigilante groups since the welfare of their children will be uppermost in their minds as parents.”

The Berlin-based corruption watchdog, Transparency International, last year rated Nigeria as one of the worst of 146 countries surveyed for its annual corruption perceptions index (only Bangladesh and Haiti fared worse, tying for last place). The index ranks various states according to the levels of graft that are popularly viewed to prevail in these countries.

Pupils have also given the latest feeding initiative the thumbs up.

“It is a good idea, but the president should extend it to other states: not just 12 states,” said nine-year-old Tunji Taiwo, a primary-school pupil in Lagos.

Millennium goals

If successful, the feeding scheme could assist Nigeria in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of objectives agreed on by world leaders at the Millennium Summit held in New York in 2000.

The deadline for reaching the MDGs is 2015. The goals include reducing by half the number of people facing extreme hunger and poverty, achieving universal primary education and promoting gender equality.

Child mortality is to be cut by two-thirds, and maternal mortality by three-quarters.

In addition, the MDGs aim to reverse the incidence of Aids and other diseases that take a severe toll on developing countries, ensure environmental sustainability—and create a global partnership to tackle issues such as unfair trade rules and unsustainable debt.—IPS

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