The Federal Government’s National Home Grown School Feeding Programme (NHGSFP), which was launched in 2016, has been hailed as a laudable scheme. But the idea of continuing implementation of the programme at a time schools are on holidays and the country is battling with scarce financial resources is baffling to many observers. Deputy Political Editor RAYMOND MORDI, who has been monitoring the development, reports.
WHY is the Muhammadu Buhari administration insisting on continuing with its National Home Grown School Feeding Programme (NHGSFP), when all schools are closed and the beneficiaries are at home due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic? That is the question on the lips of many Nigerians.
The programme, which is targeted at primary one to primary three pupils in public schools, was introduced in 2016 as part of the administration’s N500 billion National Social Investment Programme (NSIP), and it was widely perceived as a laudable scheme.
But, the idea of continuing its implementation at a time children are not in school and the country is battling with scarce financial resources is baffling to many observers.
The Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Hajiya Sadiya Umar Farouq launched the new phase of the programme penultimate Thursday amidst protest.
Explaining why the Federal Government is going ahead with a modified version of the programme, despite the criticisms that have trailed it, Farouq said this is due to the Buhari administration’s commitment and determination to cushion the hardship vulnerable children are facing at home, following the lockdown.
Speaking during the launching of the programme at Kuje Central Primary School, Abuja, the minister said: “Hunger is a serious by-product of this pandemic crisis, which is why from the outset the ministry has been evolving strategies to facilitate humanitarian interventions.”
She said: “The ministry in consultation and collaboration with state governments identified the distribution of Take-Home Rations (THR) to the households of the children on the programme as a feasible method of achieving this directive after exploring several options.
This is a globally accepted means of supporting children to continue to have access to nutrient-rich foods despite disruptions to the traditional channels of school feeding.
“The ministry has requested states to carry out mapping exercises to trace the households of the children using all available data sources, including the School-Based Management Boards, community focal persons, cooks on the programme and most importantly existing school registers in the local governments where the schools are domiciled, which is the primary source of data of beneficiaries used by the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme.”
The ministry said each household will receive uncooked food items that have been assessed and approved by nutrition experts as adequate for the children.
It further disclosed that 6,000 schools will serve as distribution centres for clusters of communities “except in some states with unique security and safety issues where other structures will be used.”
Farouq said denied media reports that suggest that the Federal Government intends to spend N679 million daily to feed the children at home, saying the reports were based on the old figure of N70 per pupil per cooked meal.
However, she failed to provide any figure, either what the ministry has spent so far or what it intends to spend on the initiative.
For several weeks the criticisms trailing the programme on social media, on radio phone-in programmes and elsewhere have refused to go away.
The announcement of the continuation of the programme has been greeted by an uproar. Many observers believe the modified version of the programme might be vulnerable to manipulation and abuse under the prevailing city lockdowns, closure of schools and restriction of movements across the country.
Some of the recurring questions are: “Is the government implying that the parents cannot feed their children at home? Are they also to be fed during the holidays?
What are the criteria for selecting the beneficiaries? Has the cost of distributing the food rations to beneficiaries been factored into the new phase of the programme?”
The criticisms of the modified school feeding programme are coming against the background of the fact many Nigerians are not happy with the way the idea of providing succour to vulnerable groups was handled by the government since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly when the restrictions of movement in Lagos, Ogun and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) nearly grounded the economy.
It was widespread complains that the Federal Government’s palliative measures were not trickling down to those they are intended for that compelled President Buhari to partially relax the lockdown.
Emmanuel Gabari, a Kano-based social worker and human rights activist, said since the programme is for school children that it is strange that the ministry wants to feed them in their homes now that schools are on holidays.
His words: “The programme is for school children; now that the schools are on holidays, it doesn’t make sense to say you are going to feed them in their homes.
How is the ministry going to distribute the food? Not every principal or headmaster knows where his pupils live. Besides, many people have re-located during this period of lockdown. In some cases, the children and their mothers have moved to re-unite with their fathers.”
Gabari, who is the Executive Director of African Focus For Youth Development (AFFYD), an organisation that tackles issues that affect youth, women and children, said Farouq’s explanation on why the government is going ahead with the school feeding programme when the children are on holidays does not make sense.
He said: “The minister said the reason the ministry is insisting on it is because it has already paid for the food stuff two or three months ago.
“It is strange; I’m hearing this for the first time. Anybody that has done or business or the other with government agencies know that they do not pay for goods and services in advance. It takes several months, sometimes years, before such contracts are settled.
That is why some road contractors do substandard jobs because they usually use their money to complete the contract and they know that it will take time to recoup their investment. There is no government contract where they will pay you 100 per cent in advance.
We have been on lockdown since March; that’s about two months ago. There is no way the government will pay for a school supply contract in advance on the eve of a crisis.”
He said even if it has been paid for in advance, the government can always tell the caterer to hold on for a while. He added: “We see this every day; somebody engages a caterer to cook for a wedding ceremony and later the event is postponed.
You can always tell the caterer to hold on, as long as the caterer has not started cooking the food. By the time you are ready for the ceremony prices might have changed and you have to do some re-negotiation.
It is wrong to insist that the children should be fed at home because you have paid the caterer. “It is the wrong move.
Why don’t they convert it to palliatives for parents; and parents would take care of their children? I don’t understand how people in government do things sometimes.
In my view, the essence of the whole thing is defeated; unless they have another agenda that we don’t know about.”
The Executive Director of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Auwal Ibrahim Rafsanjani, also frowned at the issue.
His words: “It is important that the government prioritises its programme on palliatives that could alleviate the ongoing suffering of Nigerians and stay away from carrying out programmes that have no positive impact on Nigerians.
Many Nigerians don’t understand why the government is not focusing on palliatives that are needed to reduce the suffering of Nigerians but rather they are focusing on programmes that are not addressing the problem of Nigerians.
“This school feeding is not a priority at this lockdown period because the schools are closed and children are with their parents.
So, what is the justification when we have millions of Nigerians who starving and have no means of feeding themselves as a result of the government’s lockdown and prevailing poverty in the country? Nigerians are worried that the whole management of Covid-19 and its palliatives has not met their expectations.”
In its reaction, the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) described the programme as a huge scam because the government failed to account for how the children will be fed during the ongoing lockdown.
The party said, in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary Kola Ologbondiyian that the use of innocent children as cover to siphon a targeted N13.5 billion public funds to finance the lifestyles of some officials of the administration.
Ologbondiyian said: “While it is clear that the APC-led administration’s school feeding programme had always been a scam, the claims to feed the school children even when schools are closed is colossal racketeering taken too far.”
The PDP said Hajiya Farouq has been making conflicting pronouncements each time Nigerians demand details of the new phase of the programme.
The only coherent statement the minister has made on the modified version of the programme, Ologbondiyian added, “is that she has been directed by the president to continue implementation of the programme during the Covid-19 lockdown”.
He said the minister has failed to provide details of how she intends to reach the 9.7 million school children, who are now in their homes in different locations since the closure of schools.
A politician, Chief Chekwas Okorie said on a compassionate ground it is understandable that the Federal Government is making efforts to feed children who ordinarily do not have access to nourishing food.
Nevertheless, Okorie whose former party, the United Progressives Party (UPP) recently collapsed its structures into that of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) added: “But, on a more serious ground, the Federal Government has no business feeding children at the level; at the community level.
This is one of the problems of our federalism; you can never have this in any federal structure anywhere in the world for a federal government to go out of its way to feed children at the community level, whether they are in school or on holidays.
“But, as I said, given our situation the school feeding programme can be done on a compassionate ground. Nevertheless, in doing that the government must ensure that all children in that category of vulnerability have access to the food; so that it will not attract criticisms of sectionalism or lopsidedness.
In a federation, however, it is absurd that a central government would go out of its way to start feeding children at the community level.
That is the responsibility of the local government or perhaps the state government. All we need to do is to provide the necessary fund for those levels of government to carry out that responsibility.”