When a president refuses to feed children, Uganda should demand answers

We have a president who came to power in 1986 advocating what Ugandans wanted to hear and he said it all loud and clear. He said that under his brief administration (because he had more important things to do at community and Pan-African levels) he would end the suffering of all Ugandans children included. In his eagerness to drive the point home, he blamed all previous regimes for failure to take good care of the people of Uganda. The welfare of children was a recurrent theme in his speeches as was the empowerment of women including through reduction in maternal mortality. One of the themes he stressed with implications on children was food and nutrition security. He talked clearly about balancing agricultural production for domestic consumption and export markets. Museveni knew that all parents regardless of their status want good education and health for their children. And he knew that they know that children need to feed adequately in order to study well and stay healthy. So when Museveni talked about the welfare of children including good education, healthcare, decent shelter and clothing including shoes and food and nutrition security he endeared himself to the people of Uganda particularly women who take care of children most of the time.

As a student of demography (population) I was taught the importance of nutrition in human welfare. The role of balanced, safe and adequate diet was stressed especially for children, pregnant women and lactating mothers as an important step in human capital formation. This training reinforced what we had been taught about nutrition and health science in secondary schools and teaching by Mother’s Union leaders. Even dictators like Pinochet of Chile recognized the importance of nutrition and allocated funds to provide food to children, pregnant women and lactating mothers. I have since then attached special importance to food and nutrition security in development. Consequently, I have undertaken research and written extensively on food and nutrition in Uganda and elsewhere. In Uganda the findings show that previous administrations except during the unique 1971 – 1985 period did better that what has been done under NRM administration, notwithstanding the latter’s condemnation of all previous governments’ poor performance.

The colonial administration recognized the importance of food security and took policy decisions to prevent famine. Cassava was introduced in Uganda as a famine crop. It grows well in poor soils and in areas where moisture is low. The tuber also stays in the ground for a long time cutting on storage costs. Thus, cassava production significantly reduced famines. But because of its low nutritional value it introduced endemic hunger. Farmers were required to grow food for domestic consumption and crops for cash such as cotton, coffee and tobacco. Very rarely was food for domestic consumption sold for cash in my home area. Food was kept in compulsory stores that were inspected regularly to ensure compliance. Fisheries including fish ponds were developed to provide an affordable source of protein to low income families. Health clinics were constructed where women were taught to prepare balanced and safe diets. Primary school children carried food for lunch. In secondary education, schools provided lunch daily. These programs were kept virtually intact under Obote I administration between 1962 and 1970. School lunches played an important role. In primary education pupils brought different foodstuffs and by sharing lunches were nutritious. In my area, food included millet, bananas, sweet potatoes, beans, peas, peanuts, fruits and vegetables and millet porridge. In order to enjoy this variety of food not available at the household level student attendance was almost perfect. School performance also improved. Because of overall good feeding rarely did pupils fall sick and miss classes. This was a good record.

Museveni’s good ideas about nutrition were contained in the ten point program which was scrapped and replaced by structural adjustment program in 1987 with adverse impact on nutrition. One of the conditions of structural adjustment was to increase and diversify exports. Since Uganda does not have minerals, diversification of exports came from agriculture including food stuffs traditionally produced for domestic consumption. Land previously used to grow food went to export crop production. In areas around Kampala and Entebbe and between the two urban centers, cut flowers have replaced foodstuffs that were grown there. Increased cultivation of traditional crops such as coffee and cotton replaced food crops in other areas. Food production for domestic consumption was shifted to marginal lands suitable in many areas for cassava. Consequently, cassava which is non-indigenous and non-nutritious and was originally introduced as a famine crop has become staple food for many households. Maize production also non-indigenous and non-nutritious has increased in domestic consumption replacing nutritious millet. In the absence of nutritional supplements, eating too much cassava and maize has contributed to acute under-nutrition and neurological disabilities including insanity. Thus, the number of insane people has increased tremendously under NRM administration due in large part to poor diet and stress, seriously undermining human capital development making Uganda unlikely to compete in a globalizing world. Furthermore underweight and underfed children in Uganda have developed smaller size brains, limiting their capacity to learn.

Museveni’s policy of production for cash and not for the stomach has had a tremendous negative impact on household nutrition. A study conducted in the 1990s showed that the selling of food was impacting the health status of children as more nutritious foodstuffs such as eggs, fruits and vegetables were being sold to generate income some of which if not all is then spent on medical care due to malnutrition.

People who know Museveni well will tell you that he is a politically sensitive person and will respond favorably and find all the money needed when there is a critical mass demanding something like free education. However, on feeding primary school children and there is overwhelming demand for it Museveni has not budged an inch. Ugandan and non-Ugandan delegations have discussed this matter with him to no avail, raising serious questions as to why Museveni would jeopardize Uganda’s future by denying school lunch that has forced many hungry children to drop out of school. Why allow free education when you know children will not attend or study well because they are hungry? Those of us who do not know how it feels when you are hungry and working hard, miss one breakfast and one lunch on the same day and you will feel the difference. Many Uganda children get one meal a day of cassava or maize at dinner time. No breakfast, no lunch. And walk many miles to and from school. How do we expect these children to learn under these conditions? During the 2011 presidential campaign the issue of school lunch came up. He reported that he had commissioned the World Bank to study the matter and report its recommendations. It is not clear whether or not the report has been released. If it has not, it should be because Ugandans are anxious to know what the World Bank recommended. The World Bank which is an anti-poverty organ knows the role of nutrition including school lunch in poverty reduction.

It is important to stress that food and nutrition security is a pillar in human development. Well fed people develop immunity against disease, students learn well and employees do not miss work either because they are sick or are attending to sick persons. A healthy population is productive and that is good for the economy and society. Parents and Uganda leaders should therefore make sure that children are prepared well to do better in their lives than their parents. That is what progress is all about. Thus, the importance of nutrition should be given pride of place in Uganda’s political economy discourse. It is also important to underscore that in a parliamentary democracy as in Uganda policy making is the responsibility of Parliament. The executive branch makes recommendations. If the executive continues to drag its feet on school lunch, Parliament has an obligation to act in the interest of children and the nation. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) adopted a resolution calling on African countries to launch school lunches using locally produced foodstuffs. School lunch has worked well in developed and developing countries and in Uganda where pilot projects have been implemented. All primary schools in Uganda should therefore be provided with lunch without further delay. It is a very good investment.