Government Intervention in Bangladesh: Public Education and the

Intervention in
Bangladesh: Public
Education and the
Girl Child
An Analysis of the Food for Education Program in Bangladesh
Raiya Kishwar Ashraf
Ethics in Intervention
Professor Jennifer Cronly
21st November, 2012
Primary education is a Human Right, or as Martha Nussbaum puts it in her list of basic
human capabilities, every human being should be able to ‘use the senses, to imagine, think, and
reason ... [in] a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education’ (Nussbaum, 2003, p.41).
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights goes beyond that and includes people’s rights to
free primary education and the kind of education that promotes tolerance, friendship and respect
for human rights (United Nations, 2012). All of these approaches indicate the integral need for
every person to have the opportunity to truly develop as a human being and for societies to
cultivate individuals who can contribute to their community and the state. Recent debates among
economists and social policymakers have resulted in the acceptance that it is the state that is
responsible for ensuring all of its citizens can avail of the same education and develop the rights
to work and economic development (Economist, 2008). Their justification remains clear: it is the
state that most benefits from educated citizens in the end and hence it should be responsible for
incentivizing education. Where some have demanded that the state should be responsible for
funding students up to college level, it is surely not an overstatement to say that every state
should aim for a 100% school attendance at primary level for both boys and girls. Nobody can
deny the long term impacts such an assurance will have: a society devoid of class conflicts and
discrimination, nonexistent crime rates, greater taxes for the state – the formula is too good to
resist. This paper shall look at the successes and failures of the Food for Education program in
Bangladesh as a government intervention in education. It will show that despite the drawbacks
such as overcrowding, increased corruption in rationing and decline of the academic quality and
performance of the schools, the initiative took significant strides in securing a better place for
individuals tackling poverty, especially girls and women who bear the heaviest brunt.
Despite the undeniable positives, universal education is a distant dream. Our existing
status is a society where families are curbing starvation by sacrificing their children’s education,
where sons are sent to school while daughters work as housemaids in the city to provide for their
family, where even when a child is admitted to school, it is too hard for them to continue because
books and stationery just cost too much. For Bangladesh in particular, the lack of sources of
nutrition and the added responsibility on children pushes them onto the same vicious cycle their
parents get caught in, driving the nation deeper into poverty. With innovative economic
programs being launched to help poor families leave behind a life below the poverty line, there is
increased need for these families to have the education required to really take advantage of such
options. Hence it is essential that education is incentivized in order to ensure the state receives
the positives of educated populations.
It is to achieve all that and more, that the Government of Bangladesh launched the Food
for Education Program (FFE) in 1993. After an intensive study conducted by International Food
Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), it was concluded that the existing village subsidized rationing
programs being run by the government were expensive and inefficient in helping those who need
it. The FFE program was hence developed where every family which fell within the
requirements of the FFE target group (discussed later) would be given monthly rations from the
school for each of their children sent to school. This would be a direct incentive for the families
to enroll and keep their children in school as it mitigated the monetary problems which led them
to keep sending their children to work. It would be at the disposal of the beneficiaries to decide
whether to consume or to sell the rations. The IFPRI study made it evident that the policy needed
to include provisions that pressure families to sending their girl children to school. Girls being
the primary victims of the poverty of the family, it was important for their needs to be met
through the food policies. Hence the FFE initiative was highly recommended. The aim of the
program was to increase primary school enrollment and attendance, discourage dropouts and
improve the quality of education in both the governmental primary schools and nongovernmental
school (Ahmed and Ninno, 2004, p. 36). It was believed that attaining primary education would
be the first step towards raising families from poverty for it would directly affect their income.
This resulted in the FFE program to be run by the government for 10 years till it was finally
ended in 2002. The target of the food and educational intervention by the government was to
bring social change as well as improving schools.
The FFE Program has successfully confirmed affirmative action. The program has been
thoroughly successful in ensuring significant increase in school enrollment from its very
inception, especially for female children. The violation of human rights was and is still acute for
females who are the first to be kept from finishing school, or working outside their homes.
Bangladesh being very prone to natural disasters makes this problem worse as such events put
further restraints on family assets, resulting in many girls being married off early – putting an
end to the academic careers of many such girls. The government has been active in curbing this
by emphasizing the participation of the girl-child in the FFE program. Studies showed that the
enrollment of girl children increased more significantly than boys, even though their
performance lagged behind the latter (44% increase for girls and 28% for boys) (Ahmed and
Arends-Kuenning, 2003). Hence the program directly contributed to the long run development of
the rights of the woman. Evidence shows that it is political leadership and participation in policy
making, not economic emancipation that contributes more to the empowerment of females (Plan
UK, 2011, p. 5); hence receiving the basic education is the first step for them to build their
careers in public fields, in order to understand greater global issues and make rational judgments.
In addition to culturing gender equality, FFE has helped in improving social justice by
redistributing food and monetary resources towards populations in need. The families which
used to previously stay beyond state support and the formal market were finally given access to
state resources as the government reallocated funds towards educational programs which are
more inclusive than other policies. The direct supply of food rations to the poor had to improve
living standards. The FFE schools also bring together children from all communities; and with
foreign aid contributions and NGO presence, the children have increased contact with people
from different social, national and economic backgrounds. Studies by the international aid
organization which has conducted similar programs in Bangladesh, Plan UK shows that
academic and vocational courses which expose children to people outside of their own
communities and countries increases empathy and mutual respect for peers, heightened
sensitivity to social justice and global awareness (Plan UK, 2011, p. 34).
Also, due to the FFE programs, more female teachers sought employment in FFE
schools, which in turn encouraged enrollment of girls: gender equality was further promoted
through the increased participation of females. The statistics show that the participation of
female teachers increased significantly from 1992 to 2000. In 2000, 29 percent of teachers at
FFE schools and 33 percent teachers at non-FFE schools were females (Ahmed and Ninno, 2002,
p. 15). A role model effect could be anticipated from such participation as the girls and boys
become more comfortable seeing women in public forums, and their place in society is
normalized. With more girls being inspired to remain in schools where comfort levels should be
higher with female teachers, boys also learn to respect women as equals in intellectual arenas.
Hence from such an intervention, micro-level changes can cause long run macro-changes in
society. Other impacts include increase in enrollment and significant dropout rates in comparison
to non-FFE schools (Ahmed and Ninno, 2002, p. 18).
However, the program has seen certain drawbacks which led to the questioning of its
success in achieving its goals. The most significant drawback was the fall in the quality of
education in the schools. This happened in two layers. Firstly, the increase in enrollment was not
complemented by increase in the number of teachers nor the size of the classroom resources.
Hence as class sizes increased, the performance of students dropped. The scores of the FFE
students dropped on a common evaluation test where non FFE students scored 7 percentage
points higher than FFE students (Ahmed and Ninno, 2002, p. 19). This happened not only for the
FFE primary schools, but also the non-FFE schools, which brings us to the second reason. The
government funding allocated for the FFE program was expected to increase with its expansion,
but instead, the government reallocated the funds from the non-FFE primary schools which
resulted in further deterioration of the primary school system and disadvantaged children who
were not part of the program.
Moreover, the environment in which girls and boys studied also varied. Boys performed
better than girls as the latter still had to go back home and help with the household work. The
same obligation did not apply for boys in most cases. Both parties performed badly in homework
due to the same loss in academic environment at home as well as the lack of educated parents
helping them learn. In families which were involved in farming, the enrollment rates were seen
to decrease as well (Ahmed and Ninno, 2002, p. 32). It is also valid to note that the girls under
the FFE programs were not given any further training as follow up to their few days in school.
Once the five years of primary schooling was over, FFE did not extend its services to the girls
under the program. They did not have the skills to do any specialized work or earn to gain
decision making power in the family. The inadequacy of their education pushed many back into
the regular lives of struggle and many into early marriages. The ethical dilemma presented here
is again of the value of the girl child and their capability as human beings. Not having further
opportunities to improve their living standards, having received full primary education, despite
having some positive impacts on their families, did nothing else for most of them. The failure in
the program was the lack of the separation of needs of the girl child from other women. Girls
need specialized education depending upon their backgrounds and capabilities. Since they have
been marginalized so far, it was required of the government to divert more funds towards
creating vocational training programs for the girls to really set the balance right. Hence, it can be
questioned justifiably whether the true aim of the program was achieved or not, even with higher
Another major problem which surfaced was concerning the ration distribution channels
and the prevalence of corruption in the system. In order to give teachers more time to focus on
lessons, the government shifted the responsibility of distributing rations among families to
private firms. These private firms, entrusted with the efficiency of a competitive market, failed to
live up to their roles and instead focused on their own profit motives. They were seen to supply
rations to family’s non eligible to the program and also made it difficult for FFE participants to
collect their rations by stationing distribution points far from the villages – increasing
transportation costs. In many cases corruption was prevalent where local dealers sold portions of
the rations to the black market in the front for transportation costs (Ahmed and Ninno, 2002, p.
34). Meanwhile, many families have been unfairly left out of the system. The eligibility criteria
set for families included families where the heads of the household earned meager salary as day
laborers and similar jobs, the head was a woman (widowed, divorced, or otherwise separated),
the family was landless. This strict criterion along with private distribution channels kept many
deserving families from receiving the same services. Hence the implementation of the program
had technical limitations which made it less effective for a significant part of the population.
The program was ended after 10 years of operation which did not provide enough time
for permanent improvements to be introduced. FFE needed to be continued in complete
operation for it to truly impact education and maintain high enrollment rates in the long run. This
would also have provided time for its drawbacks to be evaluated and solved. Similar programs
have been tried abroad by philanthropic organizations such as Plan UK, USAID, Gates
Foundation, etc, following the FFE model. They have had relative success in Africa and the
Americas, as well as Asian countries. In Bangladesh, they contributed funds to further expand
such projects. While some of the funds came from such donations, the initiative remained a
government venture, here in Bangladesh, keeping the incentives at home. The FFE program was
mostly funded by the Government of Bangladesh since its inception and the fund allocation has
been somewhat insufficient throughout the period. The decrease in the quality of education has
taken a great toll on the expected success of the program. While the program has stopped, it
continues to be implemented in kind as a part of other interventions in Bangladesh (such as the
School Feeding Program in Poverty Prone Area in 2010) which would need to integrate much
change in policy for it to be effective, in quality and in numbers (MOPME, 2012).
Nonetheless, the impact FFE has had in increasing school participation and increasing the
value of the girl child in the family was very significant, and helped set the base for many
interventions following this one. There were significant room for improvements of course, where
more schools needed to be built and lessons needed to focus on improving the cognitive skills of
the students, but results have shown that the primary school students performed at the same level
as non-FFE students in standardized achievement tests. A possible improvement that would
protect the distribution chains is by handing over distribution to youth organizations which could
supply the rations without the profit motive. FFE has been able to achieve part of its goal despite
the unfortunate compromise of quality to numbers, however, the far reaching social implications
of 100% attendance will be evident in the long run as Bangladesh can invest in better industry
and work opportunities for men and women.
In conclusion, it is justified to say that FFE has had a positive impact on Bangladeshi
children since it has successfully improved school attendance. However, due to its problems in
monitoring and incomplete evaluation of its impacts on society, the range of responsibilities this
program bears has proved it to be comparatively ineffective in solving all that it could. Further
improvements needed to be made to the program, such as greater efficiency in providing the
rations, as well as eventual independence of the program itself, from government help as well as
foreign donors. A conversion as a social business initiative would benefit the parents as well as
the children by improving the quality of education. Integration of the households with the social
businesses might provide the girls with opportunities for jobs in the future, hence reducing the
bottleneck for women and breaking the glass ceiling after primary school. This educational and
food intervention by the government has proven that simple programs can make huge
Ahmed, Akhter U. and Carlo del Ninno (2002). The Food for Education Program in
Bangladesh: An Evaluation of its impact on educational attainment and food security,
Washington D.C.: IFPRI
Ahmed, Akhter U. and Mary Arends-Kuenning (2003), “Do Crowded Classrooms Crowd
Out Learning? Evidence From the Food for Education Programme in Bangladesh, forthcoming,
International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C.
Cronly, Jennifer (September 2012). United Nations: Human Rights Charter, Ethics in
Intervention, Bangladesh: Asian University for Women
Economist Debates (29th October 2008), This house believes that individuals, not the
state, should pay for higher education, Retrieved from:
Ministry of Primary and Mass Education (November 20, 2012), Government of the
People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Retrieved from:
Nussbaum, Martha C. (2003), Capabilities As Fundamental Entitlements: Sen and Social
Justice, IAFFE.