Food for thought -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

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Food for thought

Many school-aged young girls are kept at home to help their mothers with household chores. Providing incentives for schooling girls in these areas can help lessen local community reticence towards female education.

International development agencies classify Pakistan as a food-deficit country, which means that malnutrition is an evident problem in a majority of our poor households. Recent studies by the specialised UN agency for children, UNICEF, have aptly highlighted the heavy price which a nation pays for failing to adequately nourish its children. Malnutrition stunts growth, intellectually and physically, and ultimately damages children’s productivity as adults. The multiplicity of adverse effects of malnutrition provides a strong argument for paying more attention to addressing this problem.

A seemingly good way to address the malnourishment of children is to begin offering them free food in schools. Providing adequate nutrition in schools can help children concentrate on their studies, and the education they receive can then subsequently broaden their livelihood options, eventually enabling them to lift themselves out of poverty more easily. Even in a more immediate sense, poor parents find the prospect of their children being fed free of cost a very convincing reason for them to attend school. Increased enrolment in schools offering such enticement schemes provides proof of this fact. Yet, the goal of merging the objectives of improving nutrition and educational outcomes is not as easy as it sounds. This article will consider some of the efforts being undertaken to achieve this dual objective, and pinpoint the implementation hurdles that they have to contend with.

Several initiatives have been introduced to simultaneously improve literacy and malnutrition in Pakistan. Some of these initiatives distribute edible oil to families who send their children to school regularly, while others provide food to students while they are on the school premises. Donors like the US Agency for International Development (USAID) have been supporting oil distribution, particularly to girls schools since increasing female literacy is generally viewed as an urgent development issue. Many school-aged young girls are kept at home to help their mothers with household chores, including looking after their younger siblings and even to work in the fields or help tend livestock. Providing incentives for schooling girls in these areas can help lessen local community reticence towards female education.

Ghotki in Sindh, for example, has begun showing impressive enrolment growth for girls, while in 2001 female enrolment in the district was recorded to be merely 19 percent. Local communities in remoter areas where these nutrition schemes have been introduced are now reportedly asking authorities to open additional schools. Parents have even begun sending their girls to boys schools, and schools previously closed due to a lack of enrolment are being reopened. These are indeed encouraging trends, which must continue even if the incentive scheme is withdrawn. The need for sustainability can thus not be ignored.

The ‘Tawana Pakistan’ initiative, jointly initiated by the Ministry of Women Development, the Bait-ul Mal and the Aga Khan University, also offers a school nutrition package for girls attending primary schools, but this programme was meant to be more than a food supplement programme. It additionally aimed to target some of the underlying determinants of malnutrition such as household food security for women and children, and tried to focus on promoting awareness regarding sensible food choices within poor households, where malnutrition occurs commonly. For this purpose, NGOs were asked to help organise School Nutrition Committees comprising teachers, parents and students. In its first phase, this initiative was implemented in the 26 most malnourished districts of Pakistan. But then instead of trying to consolidate its efforts to improve implementation on ground, this year, the programme has further extended its outreach to 50 districts. Whether this programme will effectively be able to equip local communities to tackle malnutrition in all these districts remains to be seen.

Then there is the UN-backed World Food Programme which is also providing significant support to address malnutrition in Pakistan. The WFP provides edible oil not only to school children but also to pregnant and lactating women attending health centres in Pakistan. The provision of food incentive to encourage mothers to visit health centres is supposed to help improve the dismal state of mother and child health.

Before assuming the positive impact of nutritional schemes on educational or health outcomes, a word of caution is in order. The fact remains that there are several problems concerning the actual implementation of nutritional programmes. The WFP itself admits that it is not allocated adequate resources to tackle the mammoth scale of mother and child malnutrition across Pakistan. While ‘Tawana Pakistan’ has initially adopted a more holistic approach towards addressing malnutrition, it has fallen prey to the compulsion of extending its geographic reach, instead of focusing on improving its performance in the initially earmarked districts.

School feeding programs are certainly not meant to grease the palms of service providers like teachers or government officials, but preventing this in effect is rather difficult. There have been incidences of parents and teachers selling edible oil donated to schools in local markets to make cash. While it is understandable for poor parents who have more then one daughter in a school offering such an incentive to supplement their incomes by selling the extra oil distributed to their other daughters, the suspicion of teachers selling off edible oil donated to their school is much less justifiable.

Besides minimising this potential risk for corruption, there are several logistical difficulties which such programmes face, that in turn cause other unforeseen complications. Providing meals alongside education in two or three roomed primary schools can prove to be very disruptive with regards to improving learning outcomes. Due to lack of adequate storage facilities, the education department often stores oil canisters in school classrooms, which also causes much inconvenience to teachers and students. Then there is the evidence of children being shifted from functional schools by poor parents to almost dysfunctional schools, just because they are offering incentives like edible oil or meals.

Such unintended consequences of nutritional schemes can serve to disrupt rather than reinforce educational outcomes, unless the implementation and logistical hurdles emerging from the ground experience are rapidly addressed.
Source: Daily Times