It is true in part that most countries in Africa and the world over have had a semblance of a school feeding or school health and nutrition program. Unfortunately for Africa, many of these initiatives have been ad hoc, underfunded, with no sophisticated management to speak about, not taken to scale and clearly not sustainable.
With this reality and recognition and coupled with the obvious statistics of staggering child hunger and malnutrition, and more so the low enrolment levels in school especially for girls, the challenge was due for attention and business “unusual”. So, Africa’s leadership through the African Union (AU) and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) agreed in 2003 that the education, health and nutrition of young children and leaders of tomorrow had to be the centerpiece for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and other targets.
Therefore, to concretely move this agenda forward, NEPAD (under the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme – CAADP) teamed up with World Food Programme (WFP) and other partners to craft the Home Grown School Feeding Programme (HGSF), a programme that would address the needs and growth of the local small farmers, while providing nutritious meals for pupils and improving enrolment and retention in schools. This agenda has since blossomed into a widely recognized phenomenon that goes beyond even the borders of the initial 12 pilot countries; thanks to the addition of partners such as GCNF, the World Bank, The Partnership for Child Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that have joined hands to cohesively and coherently deal with this issue.
GCNF, through its annual Global Child Nutrition Forum, has invited African policy and programme scholars to attend. My first experience with the Forum was in Philadelphia, USA in 2008. I was in for a very pleasant surprise. First of all, the quality of the programme, the participants (from Africa, Latin America, Asia, USA, etc.), the speakers, and the materials were all mind blowing. I was like a sponge observing and absorbing as much as I could with the childlike anxiety of wanting to come home to share and implement. Since then, I have never looked back. I am a woman on a mission; with an even stronger outlook and conviction to advocate for change, for investments and a sustainable resource base, and for better design of policies, programmes and their implementation thereof to improve child nutrition and school feeding.
At the AU and NEPAD, we are definitely making inroads. Through CAADP, the Investments Plans at the country level have now improved the allocation of resources for food security, nutrition and child development. This is a quantum leap from the past situation where even less than a decade ago nutrition, food security and child development were the Cinderella’s of development. Now that CAADP has developed a working relationship with GCNF on these issues, CAADP can confidently expect to strengthen its delivery.
GCNF is the embodiment of positive change in the lives of young people providing them with the opportunity to reach their potential by creating the conditions for schooling without hunger and with substantially better nutrition. The AU and NEPAD have taken full note of these and incorporated GCNF’s sustainable school feeding technical assistance into home grown and home made solutions. All of the lessons learned dovetail and fit snugly with new global initiatives such as Scaling Up Nutrition, 1000 Days, Feed the Future, and Africa’s own Africa Food and Nutrition Security Day (AFNSD) launched in October 2010 by the AU Chair. AFNSD is to be commemorated annually by all member states on October 30th. This is a banner under which school nutrition and child development will always be a feature or highlight.
2011 saw me nominated as the 5th Winston LAC Policy Scholar. What a privilege and challenge in terms of transferring the lessons and experience to Africa! In short this is what I learnt:
1. There may be many ways to deal with legislation and get what you need as a group, but there needs to be a clear methodology and strong leadership to guide this process;
2. Setting the agenda of what the “issues” are at the outset is extremely important so that there is focus and clarity of purpose;
3. In order to get the most “buy in” everyone has to be on board and have the same message they are delivering to their highest level policy makers (Congressmen, Senators, or parliamentarians, in the case of most African States. The messaging has to be concise and strategic;
4. The leaders are always ready to listen (Votes do matter!) so it is in THEIR interest to do right. But if you don’t engage them with burning issues they will never know what they should be focused on. Engaging them is not science, after all.
5. Using champions for your cause pays dividends. So, invest time and resources in getting people with clout, influence and power to can carry your message across; and
6. The power of a dedicated group of people with a common cause and goal from thousands of miles, all States, from thousands of school districts, and millions of schools demanding the same thing and demanding change with one voice is beyond powerful. It confirms that anything is possible if there is a strategy, perseverance, tenacity and the passion for the issues.
Having the opportunity to share my experiences with the participants at the GCNF’s A Possible Dream Gala was extraordinary. But even more important was having the opportunity to meet the numerous officials from the state and national level, from Congress, the Senate and the Administration which gave me the opportunity to see how and why the USA has over 65 years of a successful national school feeding and school nutrition programme. That is not to say it was or is always smooth sailing, but whatever challenges arise, they are addressed through a systematic and formalized lobbying and legislative process.
Going forward, the impact that these experiences have had and will have is beyond mere words right now. I’ve learnt a whole lot on the power of organization, open-minded consultation and collective bargaining, and advocacy.
What I realized recently is that across the globe, in every city, town, village, community and household, EVERY parent wants the best for their children. I’ve also discovered that all leaders at all levels pay attention when you have your story straight about what you want to do to improve the lives and future of children. Any nation that does not invest in its children is fast calculating failure and demise for itself.