On May 6, 2020, Sadiya Umar Farouq, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, gave a briefing at the daily media interaction of the Presidential Task Force. During her briefing she tried to bring her audience up to speed with activities and interventions in her ministry since her last briefing on May 1, 2020.
Her opening salvo caught people’s attention: “In the time since I was here last, we have made progress on the overhauled Home Grown School Feeding Programme and sensitization has already begun in the three frontline states of Lagos, Ogun and the FCT in readiness for full implementation.”
Her announcement, understandably, made the news. “Why we’re going ahead with school feeding during lockdown,” Vanguard noted in its headline before reporting: “The federal government, Thursday, explained that it decided to go ahead with the feeding of school children captured in its Home Grown School Feeding Programme, NHGSFP, even when schools were still shut down as a result of coronavirus pandemic, because of its commitment and determination to cushion the hardship vulnerable school children were facing at home following the COVID-19 lockdown… Mrs. Farouq said her 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.”
The newspaper report made it to Twitter, where it was greeted with comments, many of them insulting and disparaging and clearly showing proof that there was a huge problem of comprehension regarding the programme. One of the comments, from the handle: @inkredible_, caught my attention for its sheer vitriol: “Your love for projects that can’t be tracked and evaluated accurately is overwhelming. U obviously want to Name a huge figure that can’t be trailed nor tracked with accuracy. The evil in the heart of the rulers of Nigeria is unimaginable.” His tweet contained obvious false accusations and half-truths that one feels compelled to point them out.
@inkredible_ wrote that the minister’s “love for projects that can’t be tracked and evaluated accurately is overwhelming” and in so doing missed the point completely because the minister was clear in her briefing and the newspaper report was unequivocal; the idea for the overhauled school feeding programme came from President Muhammadu Buhari via a pronouncement in his March 29, 2020 national broadcast, during which he said: “Although schools are closed, I have instructed the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development to work with state governments in developing a strategy on how to sustain the school feeding programme during this period without compromising our social distancing policies.”
What is a minister to do, disobey a directive from the President?
Secondly, this is not something the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development woke up one morning and decided to undertake. According to its widely reported press statement, the ministry in complying with the presidential directive, consulted with the State Governments and jointly identified the distribution of Take-Home Rations as a feasible method of achieving this directive after exploring many options and following consultations with state governments and sundry partners, the plan was adopted.
So, the first fallacy debunked is that the project did not originate from the minister and if that is the case, where is the so called love for projects that can’t be tracked?
Now, it will surprise many to note that contrary to speculations, the Take-Home Ration option is not a Nigerian invention neither is it a HOME GROWN scam. According to the World Food programme, there are 17 countries currently distributing Take Home rations to school children. In Liberia Take Home Rations have been distributed since 2019.
Going further in traducing the minister, the Twitter user wrote: “U obviously want to Name a huge figure that can’t be trailed nor tracked with accuracy.”
To address this accusation, it is important to point out that the minister in her appearance at the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 briefing on May 15, 2020 informed the whole world that to ensure transparency in the process it has invited other agencies of government, including the Department of State Services, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission, Code of Conduct Bureau and a host of NGOs and CSOs to help monitor the programme. The Chairman of the Code of Conduct Bureau noted through a tweet that he was at the flag off with his operatives to monitor the process.
Surely, a criminal does not invite the police to watch it commit a crime.
But for the avoidance of doubt, the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development is not implementing this programme. It is merely facilitating and supervising. The Federal Government has provided the funding while the states are implementing. All the vendors supplying food have been chosen, not by the Federal Government, but by the states.
Now, how much is this project costing the Federal Government? Vanguard Newspaper in its May 13, 2020 edition provided an inaccurate figure as well as an inaccurate premise. Its headline was: Worry, as FG spends N679m daily on feeding schoolchildren during lockdown.
The figure is inaccurate because, though the ministry has not provided a figure, a quick arithmetic will show that if each Take-Home Ration is worth N4,200 then 3,131,971 rations (total number of targeted households to be impacted) will cost N13,154,278,200 for the intervention, excluding logistics costs.
And the Vanguard story gave a wrong premise because the programme is not a daily programme costing N679 million per day. It is, as Sadiya Farouq noted at the PTF briefing, not a COVID-19 Intervention.
And talking about figures, no one is looking at what this programme will do for local farmers and the Nigerian economy. Poultry farmers for instance are in for a huge windfall. Each Take Home ration is comprised of 5kg Bag of Rice, 5kg Bag of Beans, 500ml Vegetable Oil, 750ml Palm Oil, 500mg Salt, 15 pieces of eggs, 140gm Tomato Paste. Now, with every one of the beneficiaries receiving 15 eggs in their Take Home ration, it means that the programme is sourcing 46,979,565 eggs at a time when poultry farmers are groaning about egg glut.
The Twitter user’s final quip to the effect that “the evil in the heart of the rulers of Nigeria is unimaginable” clearly showed that he or she has not kept abreast of global trends. Feeding children whether in school or out of school can never be equated with evil.
A 2013 UN report indicated that National school feeding programmes feed as many as 368 million school children daily all over the world. The report also showed that as at 2016, nine countries in Sub Saharan Africa were implementing school feeding programmes and the countries were Nigeria, Botswana, Cabo Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Namibia and South Africa. And as earlier stated, Liberia which has joined them, is presently giving out Take-Home Rations. So, where is the evil?
School feeding, according to experts, is important in the sense that children who eat good food in school get required nutrients, stay on in school because they are incentivized and usually never miss school because to miss school is to miss food.
In Nigeria, the school feeding programme was initiated in 2016 as part of the government’s Social Investment Programme to provide one free nutritious meal daily during school term. With schools shut down but with children still hungry, President Buhari realizing that for many children from vulnerable homes, not going to school could mean going without food, directed the ministry to find a means of feeding children already enrolled in the programme even while they are on lockdown.
While one can always take issues with governance and our ruling elite in Nigeria, this initiative to overhaul the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme so that it impacts school children from vulnerable households is one initiative that deserves applause.
For Doubting Thomases and naysayers, a Reuters news report of May 7, 2020 should convince them. “South African children face hunger as school closure halts free meals,” screams the story headline before going ahead to report: “The closure of South Africa’s schools seven weeks ago halted a national feeding programme providing meals to 9 million extremely poor children, filling their stomachs and helping them get through the classroom day to get an education.”
That is one story that will clearly not be written about Nigeria thanks to President Buhari and Minister Farouk.
. Akande, a public commentator, writes from Lagos.