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WFP’s belt tightening

Primary-school children get ready for class in Phnom Penh
Primary-school children get ready for class in May. The UN World Food Programme has reduced its funding in Cambodia drastically over the past two years. Vireak Mai

WFP’s belt tightening

Pressing humanitarian emergencies across the globe have seen the budget for the World Food Programme’s multimillion-dollar school feeding operation in Cambodia slashed for the second year in a row, leaving about 275,000 students without daily hot breakfasts and other food rations this academic year.

WFP, which has the largest food-assistance program in Cambodia, has reduced its budget to about $14 million for the 2014-2015 school terms starting in November – down from more than $25 million just two years ago – Cambodia country director Gianpietro Bordignon told the Post.

“The resources are just not sufficient,” Bordignon said. “Our program for this year is now close to half of what was the original plan … because of emergencies like Ebola and hunger in Syria, which draw away attention and resources.”

Through different components of the program, preschool and primary-school children are provided hot breakfasts, while grade four to six students from low-income households and their families receive take-home rations in the form of food or money.

The cuts, which were also attributed to the global recession as well as the redirecting of funds to humanitarian emergencies across the globe, mean the number of beneficiaries will go from 710,000 to about 435,000, Bordignon said.

As part of the cuts, aid has been phased out in five provinces, including Kratie, Kampot, Kampong Cham, Tbong Khmum, Svay Rieng and a small area of Phnom Penh due to “better food security and education performance” in the areas, according to a WFP letter sent to School Feeding Programme (SFP) coordinators across the country in early September.

The change has left many students helpless and with little to eat, said Kampuchean Action for Primary Education project manager Pich Sophoeun.

“It’s really difficult for students here, because normally they have full meals, and rations help poor students. Now, they’re all hungry … and no one is helping,” said Sophoeun, who used to coordinate the SFP across Kampong Cham.

Repercussions could be felt not only by students but also by parents, who are no longer receiving enough support to sustain their families.

“The parents of some of the students are farmers, and they are so poor that they don’t have money to buy nutritious food to help their children,” said teacher Kong Kimyada from Pursat’s Bak Chunh Chean primary school, where grade four students no longer receive food or cash rations. “I heard that the aid is going to stop soon and I hope that doesn’t happen.”

Parts of the SFP were also partially phased out in Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Speu, Prey Veng, Kampong Thom and Siem Reap, the WFP letter said.

Multiple studies conducted on Cambodia’s SFPs show that it decreases overall hunger, increases enrolment, improves regular attendance, reduces dropout rates and betters students’ ability to concentrate on their lessons. Schools with SFPs also tend to have lower repetition rates.

“Based on our experience, the schools with breakfast programs have improved enrolment and [have] fewer dropouts than schools without feeding programs … while rice [rations] help the families to afford school fees by helping feed the families,” said Dr Yung Kunthearith, chief officer of school health at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports.

When asked what the consequences of suspending the program would be, Kunthearith said he would be worried that poor communities might not be able to afford to send their kids to school every day.

“It could increase dropout rates again, but food alone is not the only factor.”

Although unsure of the project’s future, Kunthearith said that the current SFP is scheduled to run through 2016.

This is not the first time that WFP has scaled back its operations. The organisation confirmed that the SFP has been running at about 60 per cent capacity since last year, when it also reduced its rice rations for school meals from 115 grams to 100 grams per meal per child.

Due to rising food prices, the program was also suspended temporarily in early 2008 until it obtained monetary contributions from the US government to ease the financial strain.

The United States has pledged $20 million on the SFP from 2013 to 2016. The Cambodian government has also donated nearly $1.3 million to the project since 2011.

Currently, the WFP is in consultation with the government, international partners and NGOs to develop independent food programs, which will be implemented once the country reaches middle-income status in the next few years, Bordignon said.

Cambodia has made substantial leaps in raising incomes and reducing poverty, which has fallen from over 63 per cent in 2004 to just below 19 per cent. Higher incomes and lower poverty rates, however, have not translated to improvements in the quality and quantity of food consumption in a country where 40 per cent of children under the age of 5 are malnourished, according to a draft of a WFP-commissioned review of Cambodia’s food and nutrition security issues.

“We have limited resources … and nobody can cover 100 per cent,” Bordignon said. “We need resources to continue at a reasonable level of involvement, but for now, we are covering those who are most vulnerable to food security [issues].”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PECH SOTHEARY AND LAIGNEE BARRON

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