Abidjan- Côte d'Ivoire (PANA) -- Designed with the primary objective of attracting school enrolment, the school canteen programme in Côte d'Ivoire, a low-cost exercise (25 FCFA a meal), has become popular means of poverty alleviation.
United Nations experts therefore insist that the school canteen programme in Côte d'Ivoire has been a successful operation on which most African countries could emulate by following the example.
African countries are confronted with problems ranging the education of their children of schooling age to poverty alleviation.
They also have the obligation to nurture and mould a new type of citizen who would participate in village development communities and the management of local affairs.
The project was originally designed as an attractive framework aimed, in the long run, at increasing school enrolment in primary education, while discouraging school dropouts, by keeping children at school until the end of the cycle.
Nearly fifteen years after, the Ivorian school canteen is considered as a real vector of development, "the entrance door to local development", according to the principal technical adviser of the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), Jean Négrel, who pilots the project.
Launched in 1989, thanks to the assistance of the World Food Programme (WFP), with some 277 canteens, the project was popularised by the slogan: "One school, one Canteen".
The school canteen programme currently covers about 4,000 out of the 8,000 schools in the country, or a 50% national coverage.
It makes it possible to serve a balanced meal to more than 350,000 pupils in primary education, against the modest contribution of 25 FCFA for a meal.
Although thwarted by the dichotomy of the country since the 19 September 2002 armed insurrection, with the suspension of the programme in rebel-held zones, this progression testifies to the success of the operation which is confirmed by a joint technical mission of WFP and UNESCO carried out in 1996.
The mission had commended the positive impacts of canteens on the schooling rates and recommended a re-directing of activities towards the regions with the lowest schooling rates.
It had also advocated the introduction of local foodstuffs into the basket and better internal control in the management of resources.
With the announcement in 1997 of WFP'S gradual withdrawal over four years, a substitution device likely to ensure the programme's sustainability was put in place by the Ivorian government, with the technical and financial support of the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
Not being in a position to take full operation of the canteens, nor of charging the cost price (25 FCFA on average) of a meal to parents, the State of Côte d'Ivoire finally decided to bring village solidarity into play.
It avoided the risk of instituting real social discrimination through money and this, all the more so as underprivileged families already have difficulties to bear school fees.
As a child-centred strategy, in exchange for support to favour local development, of which canteens would be the focal point, the project enlisted the support and endorsement of UNDP and WFP.
It eventually took shape in 1999 with the School Canteen Sustainability Project (PP/CS).
With UNDP's much accelerated involvement, the programme served as a pretext to the development of a set of community income- generating activities, within the wider framework of poverty alleviation, especially with women's economic integration.
Implementing the project came against the background of an economic and social situation marked by a sharp decline in the living conditions of the populations, particularly those of farming communities hit by persist illiteracy, most prevalent in rural areas.
UN estimates put the rate of poverty in Côte d'Ivoire at 33.
6% in 1998.
The most affected socio-economic groups mainly farmers, including a majority of women engaged in food crop production, planters of export crops, 45% of households in this group and one third of agricultural workers' households.
For UN experts, lack of education is undisputedly one form of poverty.
In Côte d'Ivoire, the authorities have been endeavouring in the past few years to reduce the average illiteracy rate, which, in 1998, was about 63%.
Official figures indicate that women are the most disadvantaged ones as far as literacy education and schooling are concerned, as two-thirds of illiterates living in rural areas come from their number.
On the basis of the school canteen programme, expected to lead to total autonomy by 2005, UNDP undertook the formulation of a local development support programme.
This programme is an integral part of the Ivorian State's decentralisation policy, thus making the government to devote substantial financial resources into it, even at the height of the on-going crisis in the country.
The programme provides direct assistance to grassroots communities, within the framework of partnerships, to bring answers to their needs of self-belonging, in order to contribute to the exercise of local democracy.
In the long run, with all the activities that will revolve around it, the school canteen has the potential of becoming a gateway to local development.
The scheme will make it possible to put in place several strategies that will deal a the local level with, among other things, HIV/AIDS control, the promotion of participatory civic education and participation in local governance.
"The school canteen will finally facilitate the use of Information and communication technologies (ICTs) and a better integration of Côte d'Ivoire into the globalisation process," UN experts say.
In addition to the State itself, whose education promotion and poverty alleviation strategy it supports, the project will be beneficial to village communities, through the strengthening of their production and management capacities.
In this regard, vulnerable categories (women and youths) will see the improvement of their living conditions and quality of life, along with primary school pupils, in particular women and dwellers of remote villages.
The schooling of that category of population will be ensured through regular and diversified nutrient intakes as means to valorise the production capacity of women.
The success of the Ivorian experiment led several donors to get interested in the project.
This is the case of Japan, which decided to allocate $20 million earmarked for the sustainability of some 300 canteens.
Many people on the continent also emulated the Ivorian experiment.
Togo, Congo-Brazzaville and Guinea have already shown immense interest in this special innovative project.