Dr. Uche Igwe looks at Nigeria’s landscape of social investment programmes and questions whether it can help the country overcome its current overwhelming poverty burden.
That there are many poor Nigerians is a fact known to many. Sadly, Africa’s biggest economy has been struggling to put her acts together despite being one of the largest producers of crude oil in the continent. It has come to epitomise the paradox of plenty or the curse of the endowment of natural resources. When former Venezuelan oil minister, Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso, exclaimed that oil is the devil’s excrement, it appears he had countries like Nigeria in mind. Unsurprisingly, the country has become host to the largest number of poor people in the world. According to Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) about 40 percent of the population or almost 83 million people live below the country’s poverty line of 137,430 naira ($381.75) per year. The unemployment rate increased to 33% percent in the last quarter of 2020. With a Gini-coefficient of 35.1. Nigeria is in the top eight countries with the highest inequality in income distribution in the world. Simply put, few people have much while the majority of others have too little. The country also has a scary public debt profile of 32.915 trillion naira and the second highest burden of stunted children in the world. With 42.5 percent youth population, the unemployment rate is now around27 percent as of 2020 and the number of out-of-school children hovers around 6.95 million, according to official sources.
The mounting urgency to protect the poor and vulnerable
Expectedly, incidents of violent conflict, kidnapping for ransom, student abduction, armed robbery and terrorism are increasing across the country. The security agencies appear overwhelmed. Cries of marginalisation and demands of secession spread within the country from citizens and groups who feel a deep sense of exclusion. There is growing interethnic intolerance, mutual suspicion and tension within groups who hitherto co-existed in harmony. Street gangs and cult groups continue to brazenly kill, rob and rape innocent citizens in urban slums, especially in but not exclusively in Lagos and Port Harcourt. Criminal herdsmen, unknown gun men and bandits appear to be on a national rampage. Proliferation and stockpiling of small arms and light weapons continue in many communities. ‘Ungoverned’ spaces thrive where informal forms of authority supposedly provide conducive breeding grounds for these illicit activities. During the recent #ENDSARS protests, young people across the country expressed anger against police brutality which quickly snowballed into tragic dimensions culminating in massive looting and arson. As a result, many lives were lost and properties worth billions of naira were destroyed. Observers insist that these disturbing incidents may be unrelated to the rising population and growing poverty. The situation appears to bet a ticking time bomb waiting to explode and submerge the West African sub-region.
A glimpse into the social protection arena in Nigeria
Social protection has been widely acknowledged as a multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary approach to poverty reduction through focusing the priorities of government towards sustainable development. It appears to be one of the paths through which President Buhari’s administration wants to fulfil its promise to Interestingly during his 2021 Democracy Day speech the President affirmed that 32.6 million poor persons identified through the Nigerian social register across 708 local governments are already benefitting from the National Social Investment Programme (NSIP) while 10.5 million individuals have already been lifted out of poverty in the last two years. Many Nigerians insist that there is little evidence to justify the President’s claims. Findings from the International Centre for Investigative Reporting suggest that about 105 million Nigerians lived in poverty from the third quarter of 2019 and according to World Poverty Clock these numbers have been far exceeded due to the pandemic. Rising poverty levels in Nigeria have been attributed to what many describe as President Buhari’s largely inconsistent and unimpressive economic policies.
Will a new social protection policy deliver hope?
Although social protection has been discussed in government circles in Nigeria since 2004, with a chapter dedicated to it in the Vision 2020 document, little has happened to materially advance it. Apart from sporadic programme interventions that were implemented, there was no serious policy commitment on it until 2016. According to the policy created that year, social protection is a mix of policies and programmes designed for individuals and households in order to reduce poverty and socio-economic shocks by promoting and enhancing livelihoods, life and dignity. That policy has since expired and a new one is said to be in the making.
Reportedly, the recently introduced National Social Investment Programme focused on a more equitable distribution of resources to vulnerable demographics including women, youth and children. So far, the government claims to have implemented the skill acquisition scheme for unemployed graduates (N-Power), the micro-lending programme otherwise known as the Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme (GEEP), the Conditional Cash Transfer Programme and the National School Feeding Programme. Official government sources insist that 12 million households have so far benefitted from the programme in the last five years. However, many critical voices including the wife of President Buhari herself contend that although the programme is lofty in design, it was poorly executed in many states. Independent monitors including select civil society groups like the African Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ) based in Benin went around the country to track some of the funds to ensure that those who claim to have benefitted from the programme are real and verifiable.
Fragmented efforts and political differences may hinder progress
Despite these well-meaning efforts, programme interventions remain fragmented as political differences and competition between federal and state governments remain a barrier. Poor donor coordination and the existence of multiple actors might have also contributed to hinder the pace of social protection programmes. Popularity-seeking politicians tend to get involved only when it advances their political interests while citizens consider what they get as their own share of the national cake. Many of these interventions that come as loans are rarely refunded, making the sustainability of such programmes unlikely. Furthermore, the timing of the cash distribution in 2019 just before the election was perceived by critics as a ploy to influence voters to support President Buhari’s re-election bid. At the end, transparency and fairness are often compromised, further eroding the trust between government and citizens. The criteria and process of selection of beneficiaries remain foggy and there are valid complaints that the distribution pattern may be skewed to benefit some regions and not others. Few civil society groups have developed the requisite capacity to monitor these disbursements to ensure that the poorest of the poor are the ones who benefit from them.
Can social investment programmes lift Nigerians out of poverty?
Despite the emerging faith in social protection initiatives, some observers dismiss it as mere western orthodoxy with little evidence of results. They insist that cash distribution to the poor ($11 monthly in the case of Nigeria) is mere window dressing that cannot provide the poor with the opportunity to participate productively in economic life. At best, these critics insist that recipients will benefit for a few days or weeks only to fall back into their original situation. Those who support the idea claim that it raises the standard of living of beneficiaries alongside giving them a genuine sense of inclusion. Countries like Ghana and Tanzania that have recently witnessed decline in their poverty rates continue to implement social protection programmes as part of their poverty reduction measures. However, the most recent Chinese example of how the number of poor people dropped from 98.99 million in 2012 to 16.6 million in 2018 is worth studying. The Chinese government reportedly introduced a cocktail of policies that continuously lifted 10 million people out of poverty for seven consecutive years in order to move from an agrarian backwater to an industrial powerhouse.
Policy landscape needs to be fortified with an enabling legislation
The provision of an enabling policy landscape to guide social protection programmes in Nigeria is a useful indicator of positive political will. In addition, a budgetary provision of 765 billion naira has been made for the programme in the 2021 fiscal year. These efforts, though bold and commendable, do not appear sufficient to enable the country to overcome its current overwhelming poverty burden. With widespread conflict, fears that any rupture in Nigeria could devastate the sub-region are real. The country needs to urgently bring together the right partners to do more. There is a need to back ongoing efforts with an enabling legislation in order to insulate them from political reversal. Positive efforts have already been initiated but need to be consolidated. Furthermore, evidence of fair, equitable and transparent allocation of these resources across the country should be publicly provided to counter the allegations of likely political interference. Mechanisms for mutual accountability should be taken seriously to rebuild public confidence. These are critical to ensure that citizens regain a sense of inclusion and trust the government’s sincerity and actions. Social protection programmes are useful, but they may not be the magic wand that single-handedly eradicates poverty.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.