Interview: Alain Homsy of the Norwegian Refugee Council in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

School feeding in the DRC (WFP photo)

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has suffered through decades of instability and conflict. And as the country moves forward with elections and peace building, it must contend with hunger, poverty, and displacement.

The International Food Policy Research Institute calls the hunger crisis in DRC “extremely alarming.” In fact, its Global Hunger Index (GHI) report recently revealed that, “among the six countries in which the hunger situation worsened, the Democratic Republic of Congo stands out. Its GHI score rose by about 63% owing to conflict and political instability”.

Close to 2 million people have been displaced due to the conflict. A majority of these are located in the North and South Kivu areas of the DRC. And the same report shows that 70% of the population in DRC is undernourished – the highest rate in the world.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is coming to the aid of children in the DRC through programmes like school feeding. School meals not only fight hunger and malnutrition, but give children a better chance at getting an education.

Alain Homsy, country director for the NRC in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, recently took time to answer some questions about its school feeding mission.

How many children are benefiting from the NRC school meals program in DRC?

In Grand North Kivu (Beni/Lubero Territories – 2011), in a total of 156 primary schools, 87,848 pupils (43,166 boys and 44,682 girls) have benefitted from the school feeding programme, along with 1,953 teachers (754 men and 1,199 women) and 970 cooks (833 men and 137 women). In addition, two NRC Youth Education Program centres also benefitted from the school feeding program with a total of 192 learners (94 boys and 98 girls).

In South Kivu (Mwenga Territory – 2011), in a total of 52 primary schools, 22,367 pupils (11,220 boys and 11,157 girls) have benefitted from school feeding, along with 524 teachers (445 men and 79 women) and 220 cooks (all women). In addition, one NRC Youth Education programme centre also benefitted from school feeding with a total of 192 learners (74 boys and 91 girls).

Have the meals had an effect on class attendance and performance?

In Grand North Kivu [where sending children to school is a priority for those who can afford it and satisfactory security conditions prevailed for most of past decade] thanks to school feeding, enrolment and attendance went up by an average of 28% in the academic year 2009-10, with a maximum of 63% and a minimum of 2%. The regular meal supply therefore appears to have a clear impact on attendance, although changing security conditions also affect attendance in a significant way. In terms of performances, impact of school feeding is more difficult to demonstrate as it is not solely linked to the quality or quantity of daily food intake, and is also clearly affected by other factors, amongst which is an obviously determining one, the class size. Therefore, in some areas with less populated schools (classes of 25-30), the proportion of pupils who graduated went up by 10 to 15% based on the directors’ verbal comments, while in areas where schools listed high numbers of students (classes of up to 58 pupils), graduation rates sometimes decreased by 80% in spite of school feeding.

In South Kivu [where sending children to school has not been a priority and security conditions were bad for most of the past decade due to presence of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda], thanks to school feeding, enrolment and attendance shot up by an impressive average of 119% – bearing in mind over 52 schools were covered from 2009 to 2011 – with a maximum of 248% and a minimum of 80%. On the other hand, six schools which were either temporarily occupied by Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) or located nearby temporary armed forces positions lost up to 20% of their pupils. In terms of performances, the proportion of pupils who graduated after school feeding introduction stands at an average 85.2% for girls and 89.1 % for boys, reportedly being an incremental increase of about 5% [school directors’ estimates – not fully documented].

In addition, it is worth remembering that all school feeding should be accompanied by regular, twice a year minimum, de-worming treatments so that food eaten effectively contributes to better child development and higher concentration and learning capacity.

How long does NRC expect to run this school feeding program? Do you anticipate being able to hand it over to the government or local community?

On a general note, emergency school feeding is indeed expected to have an impact on attendance and performances, as well fed kids not only have a higher concentration and learning capacity but also “they do not need to rush back home for a meal as soon as the school bell rings”, to quote from a Masabele primary school director. [The same teacher argued that school feeding is the main reason for an ever-growing number of registered children, and that it helps pupils stay in school after class hours where they can do homework instead of going straight home for food and being called upon by parents for home chores at the expense of studies.]

As such, taking into consideration current instability in DRC and potential renewed difficulties in connection with presidential elections due in November 2011, NRC believes that there will be continued need for emergency school feeding at least for the whole of the 2011-12 academic year, as it stimulates vulnerable children to attend classes and help schools cope with increased number of pupils both in displacement and return areas.

It is important to note that from The World Food Programme’s point of view, however, emergency school feeding is purely linked to nutritional considerations and therefore targeted to areas where indicators justify it. But in light of the recently revised Global Hunger Index, in which DRC ranks first, it is very unlikely that conditions may evolve for the better in Eastern DRC and therefore emergency school feeding should be extended.

Longer-term perspectives, in terms of handing over to local government, are extremely limited as so far even “free education for all” remains a remote dream in DRC. On the other hand, substitutes to emergency school feeding are currently studied by NRC, first involving gradual introduction of a cash and vouchers approach for schools as a first step towards reducing dependency on the WFP supply lines, while increasing efficiency and stimulating the economy by local purchases of food needed in a selection of pilot schools. Thereafter, self-sufficiency of these schools could be reinforced by developing improved school feeding programmes, including food production on school-owned land by parents of vulnerable children, who in return for their work would gain free or cheaper access to education for their kids and receive a share of the harvests. Additional features of such programmes will include introduction of more fuel-efficient kitchen use, both at school and home level, as well as small-scale animal husbandry for a diversified source of proteins and income-generating purposes.

For more information about the Norwegian Refugee Council visit

Special thanks to Kaja Haldorsen and the field staff of the NRC in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for helping to coordinate the interview.

Article first published as Interview: Alain Homsy of the Norwegian Refugee Council in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Blogcritics.

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