The ministry has conveniently forgotten the fact that Bangladesh is implementing a successful school feeding programme
Doesn't it come as a surprise when you get to know that you have to go abroad to gain "knowledge" about something in which you already are an expert, something you have excelled in with lots of accolades and of which you can be proud of, something that you can actually invite people to show off?
But if you are not surprised by that at all and insist on going on such "knowledge gaining trips", on government expenditure, how do others see that? Can it be called a self seeking waste of taxpayers' money?
Encouraged by the outstanding success of the school feeding programme being implemented, though on a limited scale, the cabinet led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in September last year approved the National School Meal Policy aiming to bring all government primary schools under the programme by 2023.
The World Food Programme that had first completed successfully a pilot project on school feeding a few years ago and has been providing technical assistance to the ongoing programme has highly praised the government's initiative to expand the programme countrywide.
But one year down the line when the government is readying a mega project to expand the programme, the primary education ministry has sprung a surprise and caused a controversy by proposing foreign trips for 500 officials as part of the project to learn about school feeding.
This raises an all important question of whether they are prepared to efficiently implement the project worth Tk19,283 crore. The intention of the proposed foreign trips has also become questionable followed by a public outcry.
It should be noted that last year a team visited India to learn about school feeding. A high level delegation had also visited Brazil a few years ago for the same purpose.
Moreover, the WFP, that has six decades of experience supporting school feeding and has been working with more than 100 countries to set up sustainable national school feeding programmes, is ready to provide any technical assistance to the administration for implementing the large-scale programme.
Currently, the school feeding programme is being implemented in primary schools in 104 upazilas where the majority of the students are being fed fortified biscuits. More than four lakh students in three upazilas are being fed either vegetable khichuri or egg-khichuri as a mid-day meal with the assistance of the WFP since October last year under the national school meal policy.
In a mid-term evaluation report this year, the WFP has lauded the implementation of the programme where it did not find any major flaws.
In the view of the IMED, a wing under the planning ministry, the school feeding is a successful programme in Bangladesh.
It has contributed significantly to higher enrollment rates, improved attendance and a higher number of primary education completions. It also reduces absenteeism and dropout rates even in poverty-prone areas, according to the IMED. It did not find any major flaw in the implementation process either.
But notwithstanding the aforementioned positive evaluations, the primary education ministry does not feel competent enough to go ahead with the new project before sending its officials on foreign trips to gain more knowledge about the relatively simple affair of providing a single meal at noontime to schoolchildren.
So now there are two ways to look at the decision of the ministry. One, the administration failed to gain enough technical knowledge about the school feeding programme over the past ten years, and two, officials take it for granted that a project means foreign trips for themselves.
Lamentably, the proposal of foreign trips was made at a time when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has repeatedly asked public officials to avoid travelling abroad unnecessarily and her government is focusing on austerity to revive the pandemic hit economy.
In face of overwhelming criticisms after this newspaper published a report on Monday on the proposed foreign trips, the primary and mass education ministry secretary, in a press conference the next day, defended the perplexing initiative saying "every project has a component for training of officials at home and abroad."
His notable remark—"every project has components for training for officials at home and abroad" is reflective of the regrettable culture going on for long that most often, projects mean foreign trips regardless of appropriateness.
His claim that the proposed trips for officials are not aimed at learning how to cook khichuri, a popular and conventional local dish prepared with rice, lentils and vegetables cooked together, is not supported by the project document prepared by his ministry.
He might have forgotten that the proposed project is a continuation of the ongoing one under which more than four lakh students are being fed khichuri as mid-day meals in schools until the time they were compelled to be confined at their homes due to the pandemic shutdown in March.
According to the project documents, students will be fed micronutrient fortified biscuits for three days and nutritious cooked meals for the remaining three days of the week. In the first year, the program will be implemented in 250 upazilas and expanded gradually covering all 509 upazilas in five years.
The project proposed purchasing a huge amount of rice and lentils for cooked meals—khichuri.
Let us have a look at what the project document says about the purpose of the foreign trips.
The officers, according to the project document, in foreign training will acquire knowledge on "food safety, quality control, nutrition and other issues."
The secretary, however, claimed the proposed foreign trips are aimed at gathering knowledge "on mid-day meal management."
What do you need to know if you want to acquire knowledge on mid-day meal management? The project document has the answer: "food safety, quality control, nutrition and other issues."
If you don't know how the meal is being cooked, can you ensure safety, quality and nutrition of the food?
You need to ensure hygiene and quality at every step--from purchasing of ingredients for the meals to cooking and distribution process. If the kitchens are unhygienic and cooks do not maintain hygiene and food safety, will you get safe food?
What the project documents say about selection of countries for the proposed trips is also intriguing. It says the officials will visit "the countries where school feeding programme has been and/or being implemented successfully".
But the ministry has conveniently forgotten the fact that Bangladesh is implementing a successful school feeding programme which is evident in the evaluation by the WFP and the IMED.
According to the IMED, the school feeding programme commenced in Bangladesh in 2001 by the WFP as an emergency response programme for 3.50 lakh schoolchildren from flood-affected families in Jessore with the aim of bringing them back into school.
The programme was considered highly successful and then included as a core-component in the WFP's country programme to address poor enrollment and attendance rates in poverty stricken areas of Bangladesh, it said.
Given the positive impact of school feeding for more than a decade and lessons learned from the programme of the WFP, the government, with direct technical assistance from the WFP, began school feeding programmes for 56,635 primary students in two upazilas in 2011 with its own resources.
By 2016 it had reached up to 2.53 million students in 72 upazilas at schools run by the government.
It is to be noted here that over the past years, there have been successive rounds of handover from the WFP to the government and the WFP's coverage is decreasing as such, says IMED.
The evaluation made by the IMED is proof enough of the success story of the school feeding programme in Bangladesh.
But the primary and mass education ministry wants the officials to learn about 'mid-day meal management' abroad. They want to learn food safety and nutrition abroad by ignoring the strength of our own organisations such as the National Nutrition Council and Institute of Public Health Nutrition.
The WFP that is working with the governments of 65 countries to build capacity and helping bolster the national school feeding programmes has consulted our national nutrition council to prepare its strategy for school feeding programmes.
The primary and mass education ministry, perhaps, does not consider the national nutrition council fit for consultation as arranging foreign trips for officials with the taxpayers' money seems more meaningful.