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Opinions of Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Columnist: Ato Kwamena Dadzie

THE OUTSIDER: School feeding programme - Cooked up to fail?

The real intention behind the government’s decision to introduce the national school feeding programme remains quite unclear to me. Under the programme pupils are provided with at least one hot-cooked meal every school day. And for what? The idea, we’ve been repeatedly told, is to use food to literally entice kids to stay in school with the promise that at the end of the day they will get a bowl of ‘gari fortor’ to eat. Sounds like a good idea. The only problem is that the programme is too expensive and just a few days ago, we heard that it’s not sustainable. That’s to say that there would come a time when the nation cannot afford it any longer.

So far, government claims that the programme has been very successful because it has increased school enrolment. On the surface, this looks like a good thing. But it’s not. The fact is that in most cases this increased enrolment has not been matched by increased numbers of teachers and better teaching aids. This means that a classroom that used to seat about 30 pupils is now occupied by about 50 pupils and they are being ‘educated’ by the same stressed out, under-paid and extremely frustrated teacher.

Not quite long ago, there were very disturbing reports about how the school feeding programme was feeding more than school pupils. In other words, the programme was reported to be providing a steady stream of illicit income for certain individuals. After dilly-dallying a bit (as he often does when his pals are accused of corruption), the president acted and got rid of Dr. Amoako Tufuor, the man who was overseeing the rot (both in the pupils food and in the school feeding programme itself).

Last week, Dr. Tufuor’s successor, a retired director general of the Ghana Education Service, Mike Nsowah, addressed a press conference to outline the successes and challenges facing the programme. Tried as he did to cook up a tasty meal of the programme’s successes, he ended up serving us with a sorry meal of an initiative which is unsustainable.

According to Mr. Nsowah, the school feeding programme will cost about 328 million dollars over a five-year period. At the end of this period, he suggested, we may have to go to so-called development partners (that’s our former colonial masters and their allies) for more money to feed our kids. That’s not all. He is also thinking of asking government to introduce a new special tax to help raise money for the school feeding programme. Now that’s some food for thought but I’d rather let it pass.

Right now the school feeding programme covers just about 470,000 pupils in selected schools in 170 districts. Working with the figures released by Mr. Nsowah, we can assume that between 2005 (when the programme started) and 2010 (when the current funding – with ample support from our ‘development partners’ ends), an average of about 65 million dollars will be spent on this programme every year. Remember it doesn’t cover most public schools in the country yet. When the school feeding programme was introduced, it struck me as yet another half-baked government initiative which would at best win the ruling party some votes and enrich a few people but the ultimate benefit to the nation will be hard to determine. It seems to me that the programme was meant to make parents feel that government is sharing the burden of feeding their kids and the administration hopes that this could translate into more votes for the ruling party.

Everything that has happened to the programme since its introduction has not helped to change my mind. From where I stand, I think the school feeding programme is an utter waste of money and it should be scrapped.

I don’t think it is government’s duty to be feeding school children. Our constitution says government should provide ‘free, compulsory, universal basic education.’ Government is not doing this quite well and now it has introduced an initiative which takes out money which could otherwise have been used to live up to its constitutional obligations. Did you hear the news that about 50% of pupils who sat for the Basic Education Certificate Examinations failed? That’s such a huge number and I think it can be attributed to the fact that for quite a large number of pupils classes are held under trees. If after a rainstorm, they wake up and the tree has been blown away by the wind, school is off until another tree is found. Instead of using hefty sums of money to provide kenkey and ‘keta school boys’ for the kids, government should concentrate on providing the education infrastructure. The kids need modern learning aids. They need to sit on comfortable chairs and desks in well-ventilated classrooms with proper lighting. They need well-paid, brilliant and highly motivated teachers. And, of course, they need good food. But this food should be provided by their parents – not the government, especially if there isn’t a national emergency.

Government’s job is to make sure that when children come to school, they are going to learn skills that will prepare them for adult life. It is the responsibility of parents to make sure that their kids are well-fed and well-groomed for school every day. Any man who cannot feed a child should be told in no uncertain terms that he should only take out his pecker to pee. Any woman who cannot cook a decent breakfast (not to mention a lunch pack) for her kid should also be told to keep her legs crossed and restrict entry into her Garden of Gethsemane with the zeal George Bush uses to keep Osama bin Laden out of America.

NPP presidential candidate, Nana Akuffo Addo said quite recently that we should all be minded not to procreate “by heart.” He is right. And that’s the message government should be drumming into people’s head – that in the modern world, it doesn’t make sense to sow wild oats every chance you get thinking that some uncle somewhere will ‘water’ them for you. Instead, what do we see? Our president goes begging our former colonial master for money to help us take care of our pregnant women and we are going to the same colonial master to provide food for our kids in school. Have we no shame?

Now that the co-ordinator of the school feeding programme has been honest to tell us that the programme is not sustainable, I am hoping that government will take a step backwards, put the politics on hold and take a very critical second look at this programme. It’s a needless drain on our coffers. And surely, the money can be used on more sustainable and beneficial projects.

With the current programme, kids are getting their bellies filled but their skulls are as empty as ever.