Access to universal primary school education has been a key policy priority for many nations trying to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, learning outcomes of students in sub-Saharan African, particularly those in rural areas, remain disappointing. Of the continent’s approximately 128 million school aged children, only half will attend school and learn basic skills (see the Africa Learning Barometer). Researchers from the Consortium for Social Economic Research are examining efforts in Senegal to improve the quality of education. On March 28th, the organization’s director, Abdoulaye Diagne, gave a seminar to the Brookings’ Africa Growth Initiative on a recent study on the impact of school feeding programs on the cognitive acquisitions in rural primary schools in Senegal.
Hunger, malnutrition, and chronic fatigue are huge hurdles to learning in sub-Saharan Africa. One proposed intervention is the implementation of school feeding programs, or cantines as they are called in Senegal. Diagne’s research seeks to determine whether cantines in Senegal have a significant impact on learning outcomes in the areas of reasoning, memory, comprehension and knowledge. Additionally, the study analyzes the impact of governance (in this case the presence of a parent teacher association) on student achievement.
The research sample spanned 120 schools that had no prior cantine programs in four Senegalese provinces that featured a high incidence of poverty. In half of these schools (the treatment group) feeding programs were administered and the other half (the control) received no feeding programs. Over the course of one academic year, students were given cognitive tests in two subjects, French and math.
The results showed that the feeding program contributed to the cognitive development of the students and produced positive outcomes that were more pronounced in math than in French. The school feeding program did not have a significant impact on grade repetition or the dropout rate. Also noteworthy was the finding that the program contributed to an increase in the nutritional well-being of both students and children who co-habitat with the students, such as siblings, but who do not attend school themselves. Diagne also found heterogeneous impacts of the treatment on different groups of students. For instance, the treatment had a greater impact on boys compared to girls, and was especially beneficial to students who had delayed entry into school and were over 10 years old.
Diagne concluded his presentation by noting that the cantine program in Senegal was effective in raising learning and nutritional outcomes among students. However, the cost of school feedings was a concern expressed by schools during the study. Diagne suggests that if the school feeding programs were administered in conjunction with other health-based programs such as de-worming, the results might have been even more notable. In light of Diagne’s study, programs such as cantines could be considered as a critical intervention that helps holistically address the learning needs of the poorest, most marginalized children.
Dr. Abdoulaye Diagne is the director of the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative’s partner think tank the Consortium for Social Economic Research or CRES. He visited Brookings for the meetings surrounding the visits of President Macky Sall and the presidents from Cape Verde, Malawi and Sierra Leone. For more information about his study, please contact Dr. Diagne at firstname.lastname@example.org.