The World Food Programme pledged on Tuesday to expand an aid programme in Egypt that helps poor families keep their children in school and out of the workforce.
The programme, aimed at combating child labour, currently assists more than 100,000 children and some 400,000 family members, but it remains unclear how many new participants will join them following the meeting between WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The children, mostly from poor, rural areas in Upper Egypt, would be working on farms or in machine shops if their families did not receive the subsidies to keep them in school, WFP spokeswoman Abeer Etefa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
“We identify children at risk, and the families get take- home (food) rations as an incentive,” Etefa said. “A lot of the focus is on keeping girls in school, in particular.”
Some poor families will receive micro-credits to start small businesses as part of the initiative, she said, though most will just receive rations of cooking oil, rice and other basic foodstuffs if their children continue attending classes.
At least 1.6 million children are involved in hazardous work in Egypt, the WFP has reported.
Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer. About 75 percent of the population, 68 million people, have ration cards that entitle them to subsidized food, particularly bread.
Four million of the poorest Egyptians, however, have fallen through gaps in the subsidy system, according to the United Nations, and the new programme is aimed specifically at them.
The outlook for malnutrition appears to be getting worse due to a growing population, insecurity and sluggish economic growth.
More than 30 percent of Egyptian children aged 6 to 59 months are stunted, which is classified as a “high” percentage by the World Health Organization.
But the Arab world’s most populous country does not need large-scale food aid, Etefa said.
Sisi, a former military general, is on his first official tour of Europe since taking power after the coup which ousted the elected Muslim Brotherhood government led by Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. Sisi won subsquent elections in June.
Sisi, who is looking to drum up investment in Europe, has been criticised by human rights groups for his heavy-handed crackdown on opposition demonstrators, and groups linked to the ousted Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt, officially classified as a middle-income country, was ranked 110 out of 187 nations in the 2014 UNDP Human Development Index.
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