The subject of school feeding in conflict and crisis was addressed by Soha Mousa in the Dr Abraham Horwitz Memorial Lecture at the Berlin symposium on Nutrition in the Context of Conflict and Crisis (29th SCN session).
The paper set out a number of benefits of keeping schools open and offering meals during times of crisis. Such benefits might include improved attendance and attentiveness and keeping children out of the workforce. Crises, especially those involving conflict, tend to pull children into the workforce as formal labour or as child soldiers. An objective of keeping children out of the workforce may be achieved if the meal is sufficiently large in terms of income transfer. Another benefit is to provide children with a sense of normality, unbroken routine and a friendly and structured environment at a time of turmoil.
Keeping schools open in such circumstances can be difficult, but not impossible. UNICEF can make educational inputs available and provide access to water, sanitation and health services. WFP can identify and supply food needs. Community members can participate in any necessary re-construction and food delivery. This type of joint arrangement worked very well in Daru in Sierra Leone. The town was a safe-haven in an area surrounded by conflict. The Norwegian Refugee Council with support from UNICEF, WFP, UNHCR and local NGOs, expanded their rapid educational programme to the region. The programme was designed for children between 7-12 years (mainly refugees, returnees and displaced persons). Within one academic year (2000-1) enrolment had increased from 1000 to over 6,500 children.
The paper identifies the main challenges to such programmes in situations of conflict and crisis as security; the political nature of the crisis and related vulnerability; nutritional issues like targeting and programme design; availability of teachers and school infrastructure; availability of complementary health activities and gender-related issues.
Security. This is a pre-requisite for success to ensure access to targeted areas, mobility of children and teachers, transport and delivery of food.
Political context and related vulnerability. Understanding the political interplay that causes vulnerability, and incorporating this into the assessment and scope of school feeding programmes is important to ensure that they effectively cater for those most in need.
Targeting. Often malnourished children are delayed in enrolling at schools or may have dropped out to assist with household income generation. Moreover, targeting schools in the most food insecure areas might not yield the desired returns because these are the schools with least resources. Therefore, building monitoring and surveillance into the project is important to evaluate and understand effectiveness.
Lack of trained teachers. Teachers are often the first to leave an affected area so incentives may be useful, e.g. free food for teaching. Also, classroom overcrowding can be a problem if numbers increase due to the incentive of food. Such problems may need to be anticipated and consideration given to expanding the school or rehabilitating a larger number of rooms.
School accessibility. Schools in less accessible areas are often excluded or may have been destroyed. Alternatives must be found, e.g. UNICEF's school in a box.2 Tents are set up so that children can continue to go to school despite their displacement and the lack of school infrastructure (Liberia, DRC and East Timor).
Gender issues. Girls experience war and displacement differently from boys because of their culturally defined social roles and expectations. Girls are often reluctant to attend school when safety concerns exist and are often the first to drop out when family resources become scarce. Their safety may be at risk while commuting to and from school. Drop outs also increase when the head of the household is absent because of war or when both parents are absent, thus adding income generation and sibling care to the already heavy household responsibilities of girls. Gender based educational incentives have worked particularly well in drought affected Pakistan where a WFP assisted programme distributes oil rations for girls attending at least 20 days of schooling in a month. Enrolment increased in participating schools by 76% as a result. The oil ration in Pakistan represents 10% of a poor family's monthly income.
The author concluded by stressing the importance of keeping schools open in times of crisis for the comprehensive well-being of children and ends with a very personal statement. "In Lebanon, food was not short during the seventeen years of war, hope was. Schools were the most precious source of hope, they maintained our faith in the future."
1 Moussa S (2002): Keeping schools open: School feeding in conflict and crisis. Dr Abraham Horwitz memorial lecture. SCN News, number 24, July 2002, pp 54-59
2 A school in a box is a portable kit developed by UNICEF and UNESCO. It contains basic school supplies and educational materials for up to 80 children