The role of Uganda’s under-five children in human capital formation

In his end of 2009 address, President Museveni included the important subject of human development. To achieve it he stressed universal primary and secondary education. He also underlined the critical role of a sound health system, adequate provision of safe water and proper sanitation facilities. However, he left out two important aspects – under-five children and food security. Without these two, no country can achieve satisfactory human capital development.

It is surprising that the president left out food security because it was an area that received his strong support at the beginning of his presidency. He lamented that food insecurity in Uganda had been caused by neglecting the production of nutritious food stuffs (finger-millet, sorghum, soya beans etc) in favor of cash crops (coffee, cotton, tea and tobacco) needed by consumers in foreign countries. He stressed, at home and abroad, the need to re-orient Uganda’s economy so that food production for domestic consumption is balanced with production for export markets.

It has long been recognized that human development begins with the health and especially the nutritional status of the mother at the time she conceives. A mother who is under-nourished will likely produce under-weight children with permanent disabilities including physical and mental retardation. Therefore human capital development should begin with adequate nutrition of the mother to produce a healthy and normal child.

In turn, a healthy infant should receive adequate nutrition which should continue after breastfeeding for at least six months. Brain development takes place during the first three years of human life. Ipso facto this is the period that a child should not miss a balanced meal in quality and quantity. Adequate nutrition should continue to be provided as the child grows and prepares to go to school.

It has also been established that school lunches improve attendance especially of girls and school performance. School feeding provided under the Millennium Village program at Ruhiira in southwest Uganda has confirmed both improved attendance and performance. NEPAD has adopted a school feeding program to be implemented by member states in all schools in Africa using, to the greatest extent possible, locally produced foodstuffs or with donor assistance.

During colonial days and the first decade of Uganda’s independence, students performed very well in large part because they ate well. In my community in southwest Uganda, most households ate four meals a day – breakfast, lunch at school or at home, evening porridge or milk, and dinner. Many did not miss school because they wanted to eat different foodstuffs brought by different students.

Through Mothers’ Union, women were taught the importance of food and nutrition security. Food was produced and bought for domestic consumption. Mothers were taught how to prepare balanced meals (carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins). Those households who could not afford animal proteins had a lot of it from beans.

Studies conducted in former Kigezi district found that students’ excellent performance was in large part due to eating adequate and balanced nutritious meals. There was plenty of millet, sorghum, milk, green vegetables, beans and peas, fruits, fish (wild and farmed) etc all produced for domestic consumption. Sodas, polished rice, cassava and maize did not constitute regular diet. Cassava and maize which have now become staple crops were then used as famine foods or snacks. At that time government policy was on food production and storage for the stomach.

Beginning in the 1990s, under the NRM government, there was a policy reversal. In his address on January 26, 1990 and in compliance with the Washington Consensus conditionality of export growth and diversification, President Museveni announced that Uganda’s economic growth would be export-led. Projects aimed at promoting and diversifying exports would be given government priority support. The policy of production for the stomach was replaced by the policy of production for cash. Relevant government authorities were empowered and funded to implement the new policy.

Accordingly food stuffs traditionally produced for the stomach were converted into cash crops which WFP (World Food Program) among others helped to purchase and transport to areas of need including those outside Uganda.

A study conducted in the mid-1990s found that in Rukungiri district many households had virtually sold all the food, resorting to maize or cassava which was not even enough to provide more than one meal a day!

Since government policy to produce for cash and not for the stomach is still in force, the president presumably was not in a position to include it in his address because it would have created a serious conflict with food export policy and the operation of market forces. This also explains in large part why school feeding programs have been rejected by government notwithstanding that they improve school attendance and quality performance.

Therefore, Uganda’s development strategy for human development needs to be revisited to include the nutritional status of mothers and of under-five children without which human development will not be achieved in Uganda.