From Okwe Obi, Abuja
Out of the five National Social Investment Programmes (NSIPs) established by President Muhammadu Buhari in 2016, targeted at creating jobs and alleviating the sufferings of Nigerians, one of its components that has consistently been in the eye of the storm is the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme (NHGSFP).
The NHGSFP, according to the Federal Government, is specifically targeted at improving school enrolment, attendance, reducing number of out of school children, and improve nutritional status of benefiting students from primary 1 to 3.
The fuss heightened in 2020 when the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Umar Farouq, claimed to have forged ahead with the feeding of school pupils at home even when the country was on a lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Development experts, who received the news with a pinch of salt, accused the Federal Government of deploying the scheme to loot the treasury, despite plethora of explanations.
So, in a bid to strengthen the programme and disabuse the minds of Nigerians of alleged racketeering, Farouq and focal persons drawn from about 30 states converged on Abuja for the fourth Annual Review of NHGSFP.
The meeting afforded the state coordinators to give account of their stewardship, aired their frustrations, challenges, and how there could be addressed.
In her address, the minister stated that over 9,051,393 pupils drawn from 54,619 schools are currently benefiting from the scheme, and with the participation of 80, 000 farmers and engagement of over 102, 097 cooks.
She pledged to always make the scheme more transparent and accommodating, as the Federal Government prepares to resume operation in February 2021, across the country.
“We are commencing the school feeding scheme immediately school resumes. We normally do the payment at the third week of the month.
“So, before the third week of February we will be able to achieve some of these things. And we will be able to see increment in school enrolment,” she said.
Farouq, who disclosed that additional five million pupils, including children in the non-conventional educational settings, would be added to the scheme, added that the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), had been added to NHGSFP, while Kwara State would be included in the coming months.
She further announced that the NHGSFP “will soon launch a capacity building exercise for vendors and enumeration of all beneficiaries on the programme.
“Plans have been concluded for the transition of the N-Power Batch A and B through the creation of the NEXT portal, which would allow those who choose to sign up to access other government empowerment opportunities.
“A beneficiary management system for the NSIPs is expected to be deployed in 2021, which would have the capacity to manage payments, address grievances and improve dissemination of information.”
On a broader scale of the NSIPs, she said: “While the GEEP programme will provide loans to an additional one million traders, farmers and market people, the social register is also being expanded to accommodate an additional one million households;
“We have also launched the Rural Women Grant, which will reach women in the 36 states of the federation and the FCT; As part of the Economic Sustainability Plan, the Shock Responsive Social Register is to be launched, which would provide grants funds to one million vulnerable persons in urban areas;
“We have also successfully created and operationalized the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities to better manage the needs of our comrades who have special needs.”
However, most of the states focal persons who churned out successes recorded in the areas of scaling up the number of pupils and boosting the well being of beneficiaries, identified lack of logistics such as operational vehicles, communication gap between the national body and state managers, and poor funding as some of the hiccups bedevilling the scheme.
They further stated that a change in government poses another challenge as newly elected governors do not like working with those on the ground but would prefer to install their stooges to manage the scheme.
They also lamented that they get pressured and threatened by proprietors of private and some institutions affiliated to government, not yet enlisted into the scheme to accommodate them even without government’s provisions.
The NHGSFP Programme Manager and Senior Special Adviser on Special Duties to Kogi State Government Abdulkareem Suleiman, appealed to the Federal Government to increase funding and communication channels with state governments in order to achieve the aim of the scheme.
He said: “The school feeding programme is one of the components of the NSIP and there are a lot of procedures to be followed. We notice that there is a need for support from the Federal Government for us to be able to operate smoothly.
“We are advising that the Federal Government should not leave anything for the state government. Inasmuch as the beneficiaries are people from the state, the people should be part of the Federal Government because it has nobody except people from various states.
“We have challenges of utility, proper managing and evaluation. We also have challenges of the media. The media is expensive.
“The Federal Government has spent over N16 billion in Kogi State, which includes all other schemes. There should be special provision for media engagement because, as far as I am concerned, each state’s NHSGFP is a segment of the national office of the programme.
“In the last feeding programme we were supposed to implement before the outbreak of COVID-19, there were 85,000 pupils. But since we did not do anything, we will use the opportunity to revalidate our data. So, we will be feeding about 258,000 pupils.”
On her part, the executive assistant to the Plateau State governor, who doubles as Focal Person on Social Investment programme, Dr. Sumaye Fadimatu Hamza, suggested that N70 per meal should be reviewed upwards, noting that it would not meet the quality of food intended due to the high cost of food items and transportation.
Dr. Hamza added that government should always fulfil promises it makes to beneficiaries in order not to mislead them and create bad blood between the people and state governments.
“The N70 per meal will not be feasible in 2021 because of the high cost of food items. There is also a delay in payment. In December 2020, the cooks were not paid for two weeks, so there was no feeding. We had expected that, today, when schools are resuming, the cooks would be paid. But up till now they have not been paid.
“So, inconsistency in payment is generating a lot of worry and people are now beginning to see the programme as worth mentioning but not worth practising.
“So, we will encourage the national office to draw up a line of effective communication. I will suggest also that, before communication is passed, please, be sure that it is going to be implemented because, once you pass it, people think that it is going to happen in the shortest possible time.And when nothing happens, people will think that it is the state that is not working, whereas it is not us. So, we need to strengthen the national office in terms of communication.
“I want to say that Plateau State is passionate about this programme. But this attitude that things are not happening is very discouraging,” she submitted.