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Interview: Alain Homsy of the Norwegian Refugee Council in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

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The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has suffered through decades of instability and conflict. As the DRC moves forward with elections and peace building, it must contend with hunger, poverty, and displacement.

The International Food Policy Research Institute calls the hunger crisis in the DRC “extremely alarming.” In fact, their Global Hunger Index (GHI) report recently revealed, “Among the six countries in which the hunger situation worsened, the Democratic Republic of Congo stands out. Its GHI score rose by about 63 percent owing to conflict and political instability.”

That same report shows that 70 percent of the population in the DRC is undernourished, the highest rate in the world.

Close to two million people have been displaced due to the conflict. A majority of these are located in the North and South Kivu areas of the DRC.

 

photo credit: Norwegian Refugee Council/Eirik Christophersen.

 

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is coming to the aid of children in the DRC through programs like school feeding. School meals not only fight hunger and malnutrition, but give children a better chance at getting an education. These basic rights we take for granted are constantly in peril for children in the DRC.

Alain Homsy, country director for the NRC in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, recently took time to answer some questions about its school feeding mission.
 
How many children are benefiting from the NRC school meals program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

In Grand North Kivu (Beni/Lubero Territories – 2011), in a total of 156 primary schools, 87,848 pupils (43,166 boys / 44,682 girls) have benefited from the school feeding program, along with 1,953 teachers (754 men / 1,199 women) and 970 cooks (833 men / 137 women). In addition, two NRC Youth Education Program centres also benefited from the school feeding program with a total of 192 learners (94 boys / 98 girls);
 
In South Kivu (Mwenga Territory – 2011), in a total of 52 primary schools, 22,367 pupils (11,220 boys / 11,157 girls) have benefited from school feeding, along with 524 teachers (445 men / 79 women) and 220 cooks (0 men / 220 women).  In addition, one NRC Youth Education program centre also benefited from school feeding with a total of 192 learners (74 boys / 91 girls);
 
Have the meals had an effect on class attendance and performance?

 
In Grand North Kivu (where sending kids to school is a priority for those who can afford it and satisfactory security conditions prevailed for most of past decade), thanks to school feeding, enrolment and attendance went up by an average of 28 percent in the academic year 2009-10, with a maximum of 63 percent and a minimum of two percent.  The regular meal supply therefore appears to have a clear impact on attendance although changing security conditions also affect attendance in a significant way.

In terms of performances, impact of school feeding is more difficult to demonstrate as it is not solely linked to quality/quantity of daily food intake but also clearly affected by other factors, amongst which an obviously determining one, the class size.  Therefore, in some areas with less populated schools (classes of 25-30), proportion of pupils who graduated went up by 10 to 15 percent based on the Directors’ verbal comments while in areas where schools listed high number of students (classes of up to 58 pupils), graduation rate sometimes decreased by 80 percent in spite of school feeding.
 
In South Kivu (where sending kids to school has not been a priority and/because security conditions were bad for most of the past decade due to presence of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), thanks to school feeding, enrolment and /attendance shot up by an impressive average 119 percent (bearing over 52 schools covered from 2009 to 2011) with a maximum of 248 percent and a minimum of 80 percent.

On the other hand, six schools which were either temporarily occupied by Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) or [were] located nearby temporary armed forces positions lost up to 20 percent of their pupils.  In terms of performances (remarks listed above under Grand North Kivu still apply), proportion of pupils who graduated after school feeding introduction stands at an average 85.2 percent for girls and 89.1 percent for boys, reportedly being an increment of about five percent (School Directors’ estimates – not fully documented).

In addition, it is worth remembering that all school feeding should be accompanied by regular (twice a year minimum) de-worming treatments/prevention so that food eaten effectively contributes to better child development and higher concentration/learning capacity.

How long does NRC expect to run this school feeding program? Do you anticipate being able to hand it over to the government or local community?
 
On a general note, Emergency school feeding is indeed expected to have an impact on attendance and performances as well-fed kids not only have a higher concentration/learning capacity but also “do…not need to rush back home for a meal as soon as the school bell rings!” That quote is from primary school Mabasele’s School Director, who went on to elaborate that school feeding (i) clearly is the number one reason for an ever growing number of registered kids, and (ii) helps pupils stay in school after class hours where they can do homework instead of going straight home for food and being called upon by parents for home chores (at the expense of studies).

As such, taking into consideration current instability (around 1,000,000 displaced people minimum in Eastern DRC) and potential renewed difficulties in connection with Presidential elections due in November 2011, NRC believes that there will be continued need for Emergency school feeding at least for the whole of 2011-12 academic year for it does stimulate vulnerable children to attend classes and help schools cope with increased number of pupils both in displacement and return areas.

It is important to note that from the World Food Programme’s point of view however, Emergency school feeding is purely linked to nutritional considerations and therefore targeted to areas where indicators justify it, but in light of the recently revised “global-hunger-index” amongst which DRC ranks first, it is very unlikely that conditions will evolve for the better in Eastern DRC in the short term and therefore Emergency school feeding should be extended.

Longer term perspectives in terms of handing over to local government are extremely limited as so far even “free education for all” remains a remote dream in DRC. On the other hand, substitutes for Emergency school feeding are currently being studied by NRC, first involving gradual introduction of a Cash & Vouchers approach in a selection of pilot schools as a first step towards reducing dependency on the WFP supply lines while increasing efficiency and stimulating the economy by local purchases of food needed.

Thereafter, self-sufficiency of these schools could be reinforced by developing Improved School Feeding Programs including food production on school-owned land by parents of vulnerable children, who in return for their work/commitment would gain free/cheaper access to education for their kids and receive a share of the harvests. Additional features of such program will include introduction of improved/fuel-efficient kitchen/habits both at school and at home, as well as small-scale animal husbandry (SSAH) for diversified sources of proteins and income generation.

For more information about the Norwegian Refugee Council visit www.nrc.no. 

Special thanks to Kaja Haldorsen and the field staff of the NRC in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for helping to coordinate the interview.

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About William Lambers

William Lambers is the author of several books including Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World. This book features over 50 interviews with officials from the UN World Food Programme and other charities discussing school feeding programs that fight child hunger. He is also the author of Nuclear Weapons, The Road to Peace: From the Disarming of the Great Lakes to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Open Skies for Peace, The Spirit of the Marshall Plan: Taking Action Against World Hunger, School Lunches for Kids Around the World, The Roadmap to End Global Hunger, From War to Peace and the Battle of Britain. He is also a writer for the History News Service. His articles have been published by newspapers including the Cincinnati Enquirer, Des Moines Register, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Buffalo News, San Diego Union Tribune, the Providence Journal, Free Lance-Star (VA), the Bakersfield Californian, the Washington Post, Miami Herald (FL), Chicago Sun-Times, the Patriot Ledger (MA), Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail (WV), the Cincinnati Post, Salt Lake Tribune (UT), North Adams Transcript (MA), Wichita Eagle (KS), Monterey Herald (CA), Athens Banner-Herald (GA) and the Duluth News Journal. His articles also appear on History News Network (HNN) and Think Africa Press. Mr. Lambers is a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio with degrees in Liberal Arts (BA) and Organizational Leadership (MS). He is also a member of the Feeding America Blogger Council.
  • http://www.lunch.com/DrJosephSMaresca Dr Joseph S Maresca

    “Thereafter, self-sufficiency of these schools could be reinforced by developing Improved School Feeding Programs including food production on school-owned land by parents of vulnerable children, who in return for their work/commitment would gain free/cheaper access to education for their kids and receive a share of the harvests.”

    This is the best part of the program for promoting long-term self-sufficiency. A program is needed very similar to the Victory Gardens under President Truman.

    Such a program will involve large portions of the general public in the food production process. This process alone will help to lower food costs and bring sustenance to the country at large for the long term.

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