On school lunch Besigye is right, Museveni is wrong

In Uganda the idea of school lunch is very popular throughout the country. If Besigye who supports it musters the right skills and sells it, it could carry him shoulder high to state house in 2011!

There is indisputable evidence from developed and developing countries that school lunches work. They increase attendance especially of girls (which is in line with MDG 2 on universal primary education) and improve performance. Children from poor families are less likely to attend school than those from rich ones in part because of lack of school lunch.

In fact, in Uganda over 80 percent of children drop out of primary school largely for lack of school feeding programs. Studies from Kabale district have confirmed high dropout for lack of school meals. On the other hand studies from Ruhiira in southwest Uganda where school lunches are provided attendance and performance have improved significantly.

Museveni must therefore have other reasons for rejecting government support for school lunches for children from poor families that cannot afford to bring packed lunch from home.

According to UNICEF (2010) “The lowest rates of primary school participation are in Sub-Saharan Africa, where only 65 percent of primary-school aged children are in school”. In Uganda less than 20 percent complete grade seven. For this reason NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) of which Uganda is a member adopted a resolution urging African governments to support school feeding programs using as much as possible locally produced foodstuffs so that peasant farmers earn cash.

Yet despite advice (orally and in writing) from many stakeholders at home and abroad and resolutions at the United Nations and in Africa, Museveni has consistently and single handedly rejected the idea of school feeding programs without giving convincing reasons. From his humble background, one would have expected Museveni to be the school feeding champion for children from poor families. For reasons best known to him this has not been the case – sadly.

When the subject of school feeding came up during the current presidential campaign with full support by Besigye whom he fears could snatch state house from him, Museveni began to talk cautiously about school lunch, arguing that he had asked the World Bank (why not WFP with a comparative advantage in school feeding matters) to study the matter and report back to him. Museveni had also instructed the ministry of education to prepare a cabinet paper on the subject. At the same time he sent out feelers to gauge the mood on the school lunch proposal.

While in Rukungiri town this week (Besigye’s birth place), Museveni announced definitively that he would not spend scarce resources on school feeding programs reasoning that that should be the responsibility of parents. Unfortunately, Museveni announced this ‘cold’ news in a wrong place and for very wrong reasons.

A few weeks ago Susan Muhwezi senior presidential adviser and wife of Major General Jim Muhwezi MP for Rujumbura (where Rukungiri town is situated) addressed a rally in Rukungiri. She urged parents to prepare lunch for their children. Reports coming from the area indicate that her message did not go down well with the participants. They felt she was being sarcastic coming from a filthy rich family where food is not a problem (eating too much could be the problem in her family as Jim Muhwezi alluded to during a recent interview when he introduced reporters to his ‘palace’ in Rukungiri). And there she was addressing peasants most of whom and their families go to bed hungry to pack lunch for their children from Monday through Friday.

Cannon Susan Muhwezi should have been aware of a report written in mid 1990s and subsequent supplements showing that in Rukungiri “Due to lack of alternative incomes in families, much of the food produced is sold leaving almost zero or little for the children to feed on” (Tom Barton and Gimono Wamai 1994). In October 1994 Museveni wrote a foreword to this report.

In Rukungiri food consumption at household level has got worse for various reasons including land shortage, Museveni’s policy of food production for cash rather than for the stomach and climate change which has adversely affected food production. Therefore announcing his definitive decision (the World Bank possibly advised him finally to reject the school lunch idea because it is believed World Bank is not in favor of school lunches) in Rukungiri was the wrong venue where parents, children and other stakeholders want school feeding programs. In this case Museveni inadvertently campaigned for Besigye.

By way of digression, what is perplexing is that soon after announcing that he does not have money for school lunch, Museveni announced willingness and readiness to subsidize or cover in full funeral expenses of poor people, implicitly acknowledging that death rates are very high (which he cannot do much about) and very costly. People got a shock from reports we are receiving in this world that has been reduced to a village! Many stories have emerged about Museveni from this announcement.

And yet some people who have been given big jobs by Museveni they probably never dreamt of getting preach that Museveni was God send to save Uganda. You do not save Uganda by burying her people. You save Uganda by preventing deaths. Perhaps the woman in Rukungiri was right when she said that Satan dropped Museveni on Uganda soil to destroy her people through poverty and death. The only thing that needs to be said at this stage is that this statement should be taken very seriously because it could mean a lot of things in store for the people of western Uganda where he made the statement and the rest of the country. Keeping silent could be interpreted as consent.

History should serve as a reminder where such a statement could carry Uganda to. Development partners who support Museveni and friends of Uganda need to study carefully the real meaning of Museveni’s statement. This is not normal in western Uganda’s cultural context.

Let us resume our story on school lunch. Museveni gave very wrong reasons for rejecting school lunch. First, Museveni said it was a populist issue and he was not going to do it simply to please. Museveni (with respect) you are very wrong. School lunch as an integral part of food security is a human right, not a populist issue. By supporting school lunch Besigye is upholding a human right to food recognized in the UN Charter (1945), Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948) and other international instruments. It is also recognized in Uganda’s 1995 constitution and Uganda Children Statute of 1996 both adopted under your presidency. By rejecting school meals you (Museveni) are violating the right to food. Specifically, the right to food is contained in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration and in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights among other documents.

Second, it is reported that Museveni argued that he would rather channel funds to roads than provide school lunches. Museveni’s rationale is believed to be upside down. To use roads either in private or public vehicles you need money to buy a vehicle or bus ticket; to get money you need a job; to get a job you need education; and to get education you need lunch to stay in school and perform well and graduate.

Once graduates get jobs and earn income then part of it is taxed to pay for road construction. If you can’t wait for these taxes to come in, you borrow and construct roads (do not embezzle the money), then tax graduates when they start work and repay the loan. Those I talked with believe that Besigye’s approach of starting with school lunch makes sense and he wins.

As an aside, since Museveni deliberately (because there were lengthy discussions) introduced shock therapy version of structural adjustment in May 1987, Uganda government’s practices have been against the poor. Museveni has prepared excellent documents (including modernization of agriculture, poverty reduction action plan and action plan for nutrition) supposedly to get Ugandans out of the poverty trap but these documents never got implemented. Some documents have been regularly revised and updated, yes, but never implemented! The proof is that we have ended up with diseases of poverty including those that had been forgotten such as jiggers, scabies, trachoma etc that have resurfaced with a vengeance implying that absolute poverty is deep and widespread. Reporting inflation control and per capita income growth as Keith Muhakanizi is fond of writing in an environment of increasing diseases of poverty is very disturbing and smacks of insensitivity.

There are people (you may not believe it immediately) who have argued that if fertility cannot come down quickly in any country to reduce population growth, then mortality must go up through wars, diseases and famines etc (is this surprising in the great lakes region of which Uganda is a member?).

In Uganda both fertility is going down from 7.1 to 6.5 so far and mortality is probably going up or soon will (statistics in Uganda should be read with a grain of salt) due to HIV pandemic (HIV infection has increased and soon many Ugandans will begin to die in large numbers. May be that is why Museveni wants to help with funeral expenses when the death rate increases out of hand), destructive wars in central, northern and eastern Uganda and now increasing and spreading diseases of poverty and malaria emergency in Kabale district.

To repeat for emphasis, Museveni’s statement to help with funeral expenses implies that deaths are high and/or are likely to increase beyond the means of poor families. At the same time Keith Muhakanizi has issued statistics showing that poverty has declined dramatically implying that death rates have also declined commensurately. Has Muhakanizi talked with Museveni lately? We need more guidance on this apparent contradiction when statements should be clear especially during a campaign season.

What is clear is that in the absence of massive migration Uganda’s population would have declined through observed declining fertility and rising or stable mortality. Therefore, what is keeping Uganda’s population ‘exploding’ is largely immigration and not natural increase (births minus deaths). This may explain why in order to hide migration factor from Uganda’s population growth files on migration and vital statistics (births, deaths and marriages that give information on migrations) have suddenly disappeared although it is alleged authorities know who’ stole’ them!

Fellow Ugandans you must understand this development (immigrants outgrowing indigenous population) to figure out where our children and grand children will be in the not too distant future. This is the future of our children and grand children we are talking about. It requires that bold decisions be taken on what to do to save Uganda for them. If it means opposing the government or the president who support immigration, so be it.

Since Uganda’s revenue is limited, allocating resources to funerals and birth control for poor families means that funds will be deducted from social services mostly health which will increase death rate. Museveni is perhaps anticipating high death rates that poor families will not cope with funeral expenses.

One would have expected Museveni to declare that he is going to improve health care, nutrition/school meals, housing and women empowerment etc to reduce deaths and minimize funeral expenses. Instead Museveni (if his message was interpreted correctly) has opted to let people die in large numbers and then he helps with funeral expenses.

Ugandans must make a counter proposal. Our government must invest more in saving lives and reduce funeral expenses. We must also limit immigrants into Uganda. This means going slow on East African economic integration and political federation. These two instruments have the potential of increasing immigrants of humans and livestock mostly from Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi. If allowed to enter they will squeeze Ugandans out of the land and the job market. Also many foreign states and corporations are eyeing Uganda land to grow food for their citizens.

The easiest way to succeed in this noble effort to save Uganda for present and future generations is to defeat Museveni come February 2011.

If re-elected he will take it that we have endorsed his ideas and he will begin to implement them immediately by deducting money from social and productive sectors and paying for funeral expenses instead of paying for school meals, subsidized agriculture and improved health care etc. We should not complain later because Museveni has told us loud and clear in broad day light where he wants to lead the country and her people in the next five years.

, , , , , , , , , All