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Interview: Zelleke Shibeshi, Emergency Program Coordinator, Catholic Relief Services, Southern Sudan

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While in Southern Sudan, Debbie Devoe, a Catholic Relief Services (CRS) officer, snapped photographs of a group of people seated around a conference table. This may not seem like a major event, but after decades of a brutal civil war, the people of Southern Sudan are thrilled to be seated at a table discussing peace.

The civil war between North and Southern Sudan ended in 2005 with a peace agreement, but the struggle to rebuild lives and communities is ongoing. CRS is assisting by setting up peace workshops to help communities deal with potential conflict issues, such as the sharing of scarce resources and helping with school feeding programs.

These meals are a critical part of the foundation for peace and progress, but only if the program remains funded. CRS Emergency Program Coordinator, Zelleke Shibeshi, recently discussed school feeding in Southern Sudan.

How has CRS been involved in school feedings in Southern Sudan?

Since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in January 2005, the Government of South Sudan and humanitarian agencies have made efforts to re-establish the educational system in the region. Schools abandoned or destroyed during the war have been renovated, new ones have been built, and enrollment — including that of girls — has increased steadily.

Despite these positive improvements, however, the percentage of children attending school in South Sudan (17%) is much lower than the national average (56%). There are also huge gaps in the number of schools and the quality of education currently offered in southern Sudan. Although teachers are now salaried, the majority are untrained, and many schools lack basic scholastic materials.

To help address these issues, CRS started its first school-feeding program in 2001 in schools within camps for internally displaced people in Eastern Equatoria. Geographic coverage gradually expanded to other towns and villages in Eastern Equatoria and Bor County of Jonglei State. Regular day students were provided school lunches five days a week while boarding school students received two meals every day.

The primary focus of CRS Sudan’s school feeding program is to ensure that schoolchildren have access to food. Most target schools are located in areas with high returnee populations where food security and earning a living are major challenges for most families. School feedings directly contribute to food security at the household level because children don’t eat from the family pot on school days. In addition, school feedings encourage parents to enroll their children into school and improve their attendance.

CRS obtains the food and financial resources for our school feeding program and other food-supported programs from USAID’s Food for Peace program via annually approved Emergency Operational Plans. With funds from USAID (BPRM) and the United Nations (Common Humanitarian Fund), CRS has also been supporting South Sudan’s educational system by constructing schools, providing other educational materials, training teachers, and forming and training Parent-Teacher Associations that help manage schools and strengthen community support of education.

How many children are benefiting from the project?

In 2008, CRS assisted 54,263 students under our school feeding program at 157 primary and secondary schools, 20 boarding schools, and five vocational schools. In 2009, we aim to serve a total of 37,800 students at 110 schools due to shortage of resources. USAID now views the need for institutional feeding at schools and hospitals as a problem of underdevelopment rather than emergency and has requested CRS to phase out the program.

Discuss what effect the meals have on the children in terms of school attendance, performance, and nutrition.

School feedings help to improve school attendance, a prerequisite for any further achievement for children. In addition, a meal served at school improves the ability of students to concentrate on lessons. Schools have reported that in the absence of a meal provided at school students cannot effectively complete a full day in class and tend to wander off in search of something to eat in the afternoon.

In Jonglei State, CRS has pioneered schools specifically for girls in a culture where education — especially for females — is only beginning to be accepted. In 2009, CRS will be providing a special take-home ration to further increase enrollment of girls. In this pilot project, 48 elementary schools in Bor County will be identified, and each school-attending girl will receive each month two liters of vegetable oil as an added incentive for families to send their girls to schools.

Are there plans to expand the school feeding project in Southern Sudan?

As large numbers of refugees and internally displaced people return to their homes of origin each year across southern Sudan, school enrollment and construction continue to increase. Towards the end of 2008, 47 new schools with a total student population of 10,277 submitted applications to CRS for inclusion in our feeding program.

However, due to limited donor resources, CRS was not able to include these additional schools in the program. Even in the schools where CRS is already providing support, enrollment continues to increase to the point where CRS can no longer provide food to all students. To address this situation, CRS has started discussions with the concerned authorities and the World Food Program in hopes of handing over some schools to WFP.

Starting in 2009, CRS plans to link our school feeding program with the typical food availability in the communities we serve. Because more food is normally available after the main harvest, we plan to suspend school feedings from December to March as well as during school vacations. Providing school feedings for just six months of the year is also a first step towards phasing out school feeding, as feedings at schools and other institutions are no longer being viewed by Food for Peace as necessary emergency activities.

Why is expansion currently not possible? What would need to change to support expansion? What other funding sources could support expansion?

Expansion is not possible due to a shortage of resources. We would need to find new donors to expand our current school-feeding program.

How can someone get involved with helping the CRS school feeding project in southern Sudan?

CRS offers Operation Rice Bowl and Food Fast programs to get people involved with our hunger programs in 100 countries through prayer, learning and action. People can also donate to CRS to support our lifesaving programs in Sudan or learn more about CRS’ work in Sudan.

Is there anything else you would like to add about the CRS project?

CRS’ school feeding program is carried out in the same geographic areas where we implement other recovery and rehabilitation programs. This integrated approach maximizes program impact and helps returnees to rebuild their lives more quickly.

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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.
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