Community volunteer cooks at Sankana Primary School
It is quarter to twelve on a hot summer afternoon in July. Hundreds of children, those enrolled in the school, and others from the surrounding community ranging in ages, are filtering slowly into a bare classroom at Biihe Primary School in Ghana’s Upper West region. They are following two female cooks wearing bright, colourful smocks and carrying large basins on their head. As you enter the classroom, there are children scattered everywhere. The sounds of hungry children crying, teachers shouting directions and clanking tin bowls and cutlery fill the room as the cooks serve three-ladle-full portions of ground-up maize, micronutrient powder and oil mix to the children. In front of the large bowls of food, many children stand in line waiting to be fed, while the others sit on the floor or benches to finish their meals. Although every child receives an equal serving, many attempt to get a second helping. As the food gradually disappears, the lines of hungry children are still forming. Their boney, meatless limbs, extended bellies and reddened hair are very noticeable; all signs of malnutrition and hunger. As it turns out, many children in this rural community, as well as many other areas in the Upper West, come from families that make up a large majority of Ghana’s population who are extremely poor and food insecure. For many children at this school, the lunch they are served is often the only meal that they will receive that day. The only thing keeping many of these children in school, and fed, is this single, daily meal.
Food is widely available in Ghana, but it is not accessible to all. Five percent of the population or 1.2 million people are food insecure; they have very limited access to sufficient and nutritious food. This coincides with the 28.5 percent living in poverty (on $1.25 CND a day or less).While the national average is lower than other developing countries’, food insecurity and poverty remain disproportionate among the country’s regions. During Ghana’s colonial rule and even post-independence, the three northern regions (Upper West, Upper East and Northern Region) have never been the focus of major economic growth and development initiatives. Expansion has been a slow-moving process and a variety of other factors, such as natural disasters, refugee resettlement, and the instability of the global economy have affected these areas considerably in recent years. As a result, many people, especially women and children, whose families’ livelihoods depend mainly on low-yielding and labour-intensive agricultural practices, are deprived of their basic needs and left vulnerable to conditions of poverty, hunger, malnutrition and inequality. Consequently, the Upper West is one of the poorest areas in the country. On average, poverty affects over 95 percent of the rural districts’ populations, and over 89 percent in the region’s few urban areas. As a whole, 34 percent of the population is food insecure, the country’s highest rate- this number continues to grow. When combined, conditions of poverty and food insecurity create a trap that is difficult for people to get out of on their own. Therefore, many families cannot provide their children with daily meals, let alone afford their healthcare and education that are critical in sustaining their welfare, food security, and guaranteeing their futures. Many children need to help their families with household or farm labour; as a result, they often miss school for lengthy periods of time or do not attend school at all. Even though basic education (kindergarten to grade eight) is free in Ghana, many children are still kept out of school.
The World Food Programme (WFP) is a non-governmental organization (NGO) assisting the Government of Ghana and actively tackling malnutrition and poverty in the three Northern regions. The organization donates approximately 23,407 metric tons of food (estimated at a value of $19.6 million US dollars) to Ghana. In joint effort with UNICEF and the Canadian International Developing Agency (CIDA), WFP provides food-based assistance for over 102,000 primary school children and 10,000 junior school girls in over 370 schools in communities where food insecurity is highest, and primary school enrollment and gender parity is lowest. Basically, the program has a threefold objective in mind: improving school enrollment, attendance and retention; reducing short-term hunger and malnutrition; and boosting domestic food production by using locally-produced food for school feeding, and providing a ready market for local small scale famer. The overarching goal for the school feeding program is to alleviate the effects of poverty, hunger and malnutrition in the northern regions in the long term.
lining up for lunch at Biihe Primary School
The joint collaboration and active participation of the programmes’ actors (or development partners), including schools, parents and local government officials have been essential in its effectiveness. People within the schools, communities and the local governments share responsibilities in implementing and managing the program efficiently, by donating their time and contributing extra resources to cover supplementary costs and to make up for any losses (transport and cooking of food, supplying additional ingredients and firewood etc). With this collaborative approach, WFP’s donations are not merely a handout but an attempt for communities to take ownership of the program and pilot their own development, eventually eliminating the need for WFP and assistance in general.
I met Headmaster Adams Awudu, from Sankana Primary School, another rural community in the Upper West, to discuss the school’s WFP-assisted feeding programme that began in March 2009. The successes are obvious; enrollment has increased significantly, from 483 students last year to 586 this year, the drop out rates have fallen, student transfers have increased and the children’s academic performance has improved. “The children are very happy to have the food. When they are at home, sometimes they have nothing to eat. We provide them with food. Many [of them] switch schools just because of the program,” says Awudu with pleasure, adding, “The feeding programme is helping a lot. When [the children] are eating, they open up their books and they are learning. It [the programme] encourages them to come to and stay in school.” Despite these obvious achievements, challenges for the programme and the school still remain. Sankana Primary and many other schools I visited lack the necessary facilities (kitchens, dining halls, toilets) for cooking and feeding their children, and to accommodate the increased enrollment of students and their needs. Insufficient funds, lack of resources, infrastructure and means of transport (most communities are only accessible by long stretches of uneven, dirt roads) make seemingly simple tasks like delivering food to the schools very difficult.
A sole sack left of WFP-donated food at Biihe Primary School
The Government of Ghana recognizes the obstacles that prevent many children from receiving quality education and having their daily nutritional needs met, and has committed itself to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals of halving the number of people living in poverty, and achieving 100 per cent equal access to universal basic education by 2015. The National Government has made gradual improvements in realizing these targets. To help reduce poverty restraints while improving the quality of education, the National Government introduced a capitation grant that covers school tuition fees and levies, facility construction and repairs, free school uniforms and exercise books. Since 2005, it has also been providing nutritious lunches for children in selected schools nationwide through its own feeding programme with similar objectives as the WFP’s feeding programme. But although the Ghana School Feeding Programme (GSFP) also works towards poverty reduction and food security, many have criticized it as being mismanaged and not reaching those who need it most, particularly the food insecure in Ghana’s poorest communities.
Vera Boohene, a National Information and Public Relations Officer of the WFP, asserts that food security has not been the main priority of the National Government in selecting the schools to benefit from its feeding programme. “Food insecurity should be at the top of the agenda because you just don’t get the maximum of a child who is hungry. They can’t learn and they are unproductive.” The WFP and the GSFP work collaboratively in some schools in the Upper West. In these schools, the WFP provides food for three school days, while the government is supposed to shoulder the other two and eventually fully take over. But, in many of the schools, this commitment is lacking. Boohene explains, “We expected the government to expand their coverage and come and partner with us in more schools. That hasn’t happened yet. We are trying to pitch in so that they come and join us in the most deprived regions and schools…Because we know the value of the programme, we don’t want it to be affected by any political concerns.”
I met with Seidu Paakuna Adamu, the recently-appointed and highly-demanded National Coordinator of the GFSP, a few weeks ago in Kumasi on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Schools had just closed for the summer break a week before and Adamu had finished his evaluation tour of the feeding schools in the region. Only four months into his executive position, Adamu was fully aware of the program; its successes, its goals and more importantly, its shortcomings. “Since it first started in 2005, the program has expanded from five pilot schools to 1,900, reaching over 657,000 school children,” said Adamu proudly, but admitting, “we did get some of the targeting wrong.” He explained that the selection of some schools (particularly middle class areas in main cities) were not as deserving of the programme compared to many schools in deprived areas of the country. Although he acknowledged the necessity of putting more feeding schools in the three northern rural regions, he mentioned the difficulties of withdrawing the feeding programme from recipient schools. “We need to concentrate on the poorest communities. We are trying to retarget the programme and make sure that it remains more even and focused…Expansion is needed but present recipients still need support too. [Present] communities are interested and concerned about any changes.” As phase II of the GSFP is set for September 2010, a national assessment exercise is currently underway. Adamu explained, “We have started to collect figures. Once we get our figures right and the spread [of schools] in the rural regions, then we can look at poverty areas and fill in the gaps. We are raising this issue with the Ministry of Local Government to discuss it and retarget it to make sure that the objectives of addressing poverty are strictly adhered to.”
Despite the many challenges rural communities face in the Upper West, their determination and resiliency are very inspiring. Although these communities have not received sufficient government support, they are working as best they can with the meager resources they have. With the rural community’s eagerness for improvement and engagement in assistance programs, such as the WFP’s initiatives, the potential for further growth and progress in the Upper West is promising. More attention and support for these people and the northern regions are greatly needed.
Adamu concurs: “We hope that the government will be able to provide one hot meal to each school child in the country. We haven’t gotten there yet…As of now, what we are trying to do is strengthen the management of the program [by] getting the right staff to handle it. Then, we can look for the funding to expand the project as we go along. We have a lot of children who need to get on board.”
children in the schoolyard after lunch at Kyang Primary School
Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis: Republic of Ghana (May 2009), World Food Programme, Republic of Ghana, and Ghana Statistical Service
The Ghana Poverty Reduction Strategy II (GPRSII) (2006-2009), Ghana National Development Planning Committee