This outer island in Guinea Bissau’s remote Bajago Archipelago is one of the most beautiful. The 283 inhabitants are mostly penniless but they have fresh water, arable land and are surrounded by water teeming with fish.
“Do we look like we’re starving,” Domingos Alves, a representative of the community in the village of Eticoga who was also a teacher, told IRIN pointing out the chubby-cheeked children milling around him at the village’s modest primary school.
So why then does the World Food Programme (WFP) take on the complex logistics and expense of shipping seven tonnes of imported food aid here a year.
“Sure we are not talking of an emergency like in Darfur,” said the WFP representative in Guinea Bissau, Hiro Matsumura. “But from surveys we have made there is no doubt that the diet of children on these islands needs to be supplemented or else it could effect the development of their bodies and minds.”
Their minds also benefit because more of them are attending school. Since last November, when the school feeding programme at Eticoga primary school started, attendance rates have almost doubled and are now at 95 percent.
“We come for the food,” said Assane Balde a young student at the school, “and we also get to learn.”
For teachers, school feeding gives them more gravitas. “Sometimes parents find it hard to understand why schooling is important for their children as it doesn’t provide any immediate benefit to their lives,” said Alves. “Now at least they know that their children will be fed even if they didn’t catch a fish that day.”
Some 650 schools in Guinea Bissau have school feeding, about 50 percent of the total in the country. To provide extra incentives for parents to send girls to school, WFP has recently started to provide bags of rice to the girls which they bring home to their families once a month.
Worldwide in 2007 WFP fed more than 20 million children in schools in 70 countries, according to a 2007 WFP report. Still, 59 million primary-school-age children in the developing world go to school hungry every day.
“We would like to be able to support school feeding programmes wherever governments do not have the capacity to do it themselves,” Matsumura said. “But the cost would be in the billions so all we can do is go where the needs are greatest.”
It is school attendance rather than the food that drives its programme, he said. “The primary objective is not nutrition or food security but to encourage education.”
Former WFP Executive Director James Morris, described school feeding as being “to attract poor and hungry children to school and ensure that they get the nutrition, education, health and other basic services they need to thrive.”
“Schools, textbooks and teachers are not enough if the classrooms are empty and children are too hungry to fill them. Food for Education can bring children into school and out of hunger,” Morris told IRIN.
In fact nutritional rates in children seem to correspond to school attendance rates. “I have no doubt that families who can’t get enough food are less likely to send their children to school,” said René Grojean, a WFP consultant with whom IRIN travelled to Orango Island.
Despite the happy correlation, Grojean sees drawbacks to school feeding. “The programmes can make communities who have been largely self-sufficient dependent on international aid. And what happens if one day the aid stops?” he asked. “What is our phasing out strategy?”
He said ideally school feeding should be the job of the government, not humanitarian agencies. “The work of aid organisations is supposedly temporary so we need to act differently.”
WFP’s policy has been to hand over school feeding operations to host governments and it has done this in over 30 countries. But for impoverished governments like the one in Guinea Bissau the experts say that is unlikely to happen any time soon.
So for Grojean the long-term solution needs to be to get the communities to take responsibility for the programme. “We need to consider how to get school attendance levels up and at the same time make communities more self sufficient”.
“Let me make you a proposition,” Grojean said to a gathering of teachers and other members of the community at the school. “We could keep sending food to you from outside for the school feeding programme or we could provide you with technical assistance to grow more food yourselves and you could do the school feeding yourself.”
“Which would you prefer?”
Their response was unanimous. “If you help us grow more food then everyone would benefit” said one man in the group. “And we would ensure that all school children are fed.”
For many experts this so called “home grown school feeding” approach is more sustainable and ultimately cheaper for donors - and it is also the policy of the Hunger Task Force set up to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) on eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.
The task force has called for school feeding to be linked directly with agricultural development through the purchase of locally produced food, the cultivation of school gardens and the incorporation of agriculture into school curricula.
According to a 2007 MDG update, “Ghana is successfully implementing a national school feeding programme using locally produced foods.”
WFP says it, too, has started collaborating with the Food and Agriculture Organization and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) in various countries, but WFP’s Matsumura said countries like Guinea Bissau were not ready.
“We would like to see a home grown programme here eventually but the fact is that for communities like those in Orango Island the motivation for parents to send their children to school is low compared to other countries,” he said. With the island being so remote monitoring would be difficult and local government and community organisations are weak.”
“We just have to face the reality that for the moment donors have allocated imported food aid and that is all we can manage.”