By BOLARINWA ONAOLAPO
Poverty, in all its forms, is a sad and prevalent reality in Nigeria. The issue goes beyond monetary deprivations and lack of productive resources needed for sustainable livelihoods. It encompasses deprivation of fundamental freedoms that the “better-offs” in the society often take for granted. Impoverished people are also more vulnerable to the effects of negative social issues. These include gender inequality, ethnic prejudice, forced labour, human trafficking, and many forms of discrimination.
Addressing the issue of poverty requires actions at different levels of society, cutting across governments, civil society, and the private sector. The 2023 general elections have been concluded and new administrations will emerge at federal and state levels on the 29th of May. The expectation that many governments are gearing up to roll out policies and programmes to fulfil electioneering campaign promises is reasonable. In this regard, the imperative to position poverty eradication as the focal issue on which governance agenda should be built around is more critical than any other time in our history.
However, there are clear manifestations of “urban” and “elite” biases concerning government attention and distribution of public services. Currently, the dominant logic in political circles appear to minimise the negative implication of social exclusion, one of the key factors responsible for widespread poverty in Nigeria. While this socially insensitive and discriminatory tendency is common to both state and federal governments, state governments are by far more guilty. State governments often devote considerable resources and attention to mega- infrastructure projects in urban centres. While some of these projects have their benefits, oftentimes the impact on poverty reduction is minimal.
However, a new paradigm may be emerging! Before the 2023 elections, political leadership was usually derived from processes that do not require the input of many marginalised and systemically excluded groups. However, times have changed. Courtesy of technological integration, election rigging, which is the default mode of operation of the political class is now a lot more difficult.
While it is not yet “uhuru”, the magnitude of improvement appears to be sufficient to force a change of attitude of the political class towards the low-income electorate. Going forward, the deployment of governance models characterised by social and economic inclusion that will reduce multi-dimensional poverty is now a strong political imperative.
So where do we go from here? Tackling the issue of poverty requires bold and visionary leadership, the type that has not been seen in Nigeria since the 50s and early 60s, courtesy of Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the Western Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello in the Northern Region and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe in the Eastern Region. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson of the USA envisioned what he called the “Great Society”. This was operationally translated into an ambitious series of policy initiatives, legislation, and programmes with the main goals of ending poverty, reducing crime, abolishing inequality and developing the economically depressed regions of the country. Before Johnson’s “Great Society”, there was the “New Deal”, a series of programmes with nearly similar objectives under President Roosevelt in the 1930s.
However, embarking on such an ambitious policy agenda within the context of Nigeria’s current macroeconomic condition and medium-term outlook demands urgent and inevitable fiscal and monetary policy reforms. The incoming administration at the federal level will face the challenge of securing public support to sustain the proposed fuel subsidy removal. Other challenges include financial adjustment imperatives associated with the management of the ever-growing debt and budget deficits. On the monetary policy side, the incoming federal administration will also contend with the implications of exchange rate reform while reversing the negative fallouts of the self-inflicted social and economic injuries arising from the cash swap policy of the CBN. Therefore, due diligence must be undertaken to ensure that the poor and low-income earners do not bear the burden of macroeconomic policy reform disproportionately, as is usually the case. On the contrary, deliberate measures should be taken to battle the monster of corruption. This is to ensure that financial gains of economic reform are channelled to the poor in a transparent manner in form of social protection, humanitarian support and economic empowerment. To some extent, such actions will compensate for years of neglect and social exclusion that induced their poverty in the first instance.
In pursuing the humanitarian and social protection objective, the incoming administration will benefit from one of the legacies of President Buhari’s government, the establishment of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development. The ministry currently manages the National Social Investment Programme that includes the National Social Safety Nets Programmes. Recent developments regarding the enactment of legislative backing for the establishment of the National Social Investment Agency is equally gladdening as it potentially represents a further integration of social protection into our governance approach.
However, justifiably, or not, several sceptics and analysts are not yet convinced about the effectiveness and transparency of the government apex humanitarian and social protection institution and its programmes. Another concern is the level of involvement of the Federal Government in the operational aspects of social protection. Many observers are of the opinion that social protection and humanitarian effort at the grassroot level is better handled by state and local governments, given their proximity to the people. However, this is without prejudice to the important role of the Federal Government in co-funding and general oversight of the initiative.
The second objective enables a consolidation of the short-term humanitarian necessities with medium-term economic empowerment and development imperatives. This requires a second look at the current approach by state and federal governments towards realising Sustainable Development Goals, especially those that have direct implications on multi-dimensional poverty.
Currently, SDG-related policies and activities are coordinated at the national level by the Office of the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Sustainable Development Goals (OSSAP-SDGs). The office works closely with the Federal Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) through the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs Disaster Management & Social Development to mainstream the SDGs into the sectoral policies and plans of the MDAs. However, a different approach that will ensure adequate traction is gained in realising SDG Goals and Targets that are critical to multi-dimensional poverty reduction is required. It may involve domiciling the OSSAP-SDG at the Ministry of National Budget and National Planning. This is to ensure that fiscal policy instruments such as the Medium-Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) are informed by SDGs.
Beyond MTEF, the National Assembly needs to adopt poverty reduction as a major criterion for screening appropriation proposals from government agencies. This may require establishing the implication of policies, plans and budgets on the achievement of poverty related SDG goals and targets in quantitative and measurable terms. In this regard, the National Assembly needs to establish or engage the services a think-tank with the mandate of performing roles similar to that of the Congressional Budget Office in the US. The agency is expected to provide an independent analysis of budgetary and economic issues to support the National Assembly in the appropriation process. Another option is to expand the mandates of existing think-tanks in the country, provide them with institutional support, and link them with foreign national or intergovernmental agencies performing similar roles for technical assistance, where necessary.
However, desirable social outcomes are realised through diligent, transparent, and inclusive execution of well thought-through policies and programs. This is where the “rubber meets the road”. Government at all levels must learn from community and rural development models that were deployed in the past, especially during the structural adjustment period of the late 80s to the mid – 90s. A review of these programs may serve as an important source of perspective that can be integrated into emerging contemporary models of poverty reduction, leveraging advances in knowledge and technology.
On of the mistakes of the past that undermined the sustainability of grassroots development programs was the lack of inclusive and participatory approaches in their design and implementation. The Government must find ways to include beneficiaries in the design and implementation process by leveraging existing institutional arrangements or “structures”. Politicians have always shown great capacity to develop and mobilise socio-political structures for electoral purposes. The time has come to show the same mobilisation dexterity by developing, harnessing, and deploying grassroot social structures to deliver positive sustainable development outcomes.
In conclusion, it is clear to the blind that pet and window dressing projects are not reliable sources of political goodwill, so also is the penchant to toy with people’s lives with insensitive policies of socially disconnected leadership. The political backlash of elite bias is real has proved to be consequential. Politicians should note that recent improvements in the electoral process has resulted in a “power shift” to the people”. These times require visible engagement and extension of public services to the marginalised citizens in rural areas and neglected urban slums. This is a win-win situation, as it generates political capital for the political elites, uplifts a vast majority of the poor while incrementally contributing to overall societal well-being over the long term.