Efem Nkam Ubi, Acting Director General, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs
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Nigeria needs a post-Covid-19 poverty alleviation strategy 15 May 2020
The outbreak of Covid-19 has affected virtually all the countries and territories on the globe. But the socio-economic effects of the pandemic are most devastating for weak economies in the global south. Across Africa, poor and vulnerable populations have been the most hit, having lost incomes and the means of supporting their marginal existence due to lockdowns imposed to control the spread of Covid-19.
Nigeria, a country with the distinctive paradox of being both the largest economy in Africa and the poverty capital of the world, is facing the same predicament. Covid-19 has shown the extreme vulnerabilities of the Nigerian economy. Unlike much of the advanced countries that have said they would do whatever it takes to cushion the impact of the pandemic on their economies and vulnerable people, there is no effective response by the Nigerian government to mitigate the longsuffering of the poor.
Covid-19 pandemic has bared some problematics in Nigeria’s poverty alleviation policies. Clearly, the Nigerian government needs to re-strategize and reformulate a new and workable poverty alleviation policy. Poverty in Nigeria has been rising over the years. And due to lack of effective policies by various administration, poverty incidence has continued to rise to where it is today.
Official statistics shows that less than 20 million people (or estimated 27 per cent of the Nigerian population) lived in poverty in 1980. But latest data by the World Data Lab's Poverty Clock shows that over 95 million Nigerians (or 48 per cent of the population) are living in extreme poverty, defined as those who live on less than $1.90 per day.
Poverty levels vary across the country; the north-western part of the country has the highest incidence of poverty, whilst the southeast has the lowest. A majority (63 per cent) of the poor live in rural areas. The causes of poverty also vary. Some people have fallen into extreme poverty because of natural disasters (such as droughts and floods). Others live in makeshift camps for internally displaced persons due to terrorism, herdsmen attacks and communal conflicts in the country. Health problems, lack of access to credit, unavailability of economic opportunities, human rights abuses and discriminations on the grounds of gender, ethnicity, race, disability, etc, have all contributed to extreme poverty.
Every poverty alleviation programme showcased by successive governments has failed. Scholars and experts have advanced many reasons for the failures. Mike I. Obadan, a professor and former Director-General of National Centre for Economic Management and Administration (NCEMA) in Ibadan, Oyo State, is among experts who have bemoaned the ineffectual nature of Nigeria’s poverty alleviation schemes such as cash transfers. When well targeted and in combination with other programmes, unconditional cash transfers have helped lift people out of poverty. Evidence has shown how China’s rural minimum living standard guarantee programme (dibao), the largest social safety-net programme in the world, has yielded poverty reduction gains.
The amount of cash that the Nigerian government gives, while it can help meet some needs, is too meagre to be invested by the recipients. For instance, beneficiaries receive N5,000 under the National Cash Transfer Programme of the current administration. Apart from the small amount, there are various reasons that are responsible for the failure of this scheme as well as many others that have been designed by the current and past administrations. The following discussion could also serve as a guidepost for more effective poverty reduction policy responses post-Covid-19 and in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
1. The first and most important factor that has hindered the development of a credible poverty alleviation programme in Nigeria is the lack of a population census since 2006. Available figures on Nigeria’s current population are estimates based on projections. In other words, the government has been working with speculative population data.
Unfortunately, even the estimated figures have not led to well-informed policy decisions. Writing for the Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa (CSEA) last month, Dozie Okoye, a CSEA Visiting Fellow, and Adedeji Adeniran, Senior Fellow at the think tank, said, “With over 90 million Nigerians living in extreme poverty, the social registry covers only about 2% of the poor, excluding many households given the enormous financial requirement for universal social protection.”
Apart from the lack of seriousness that this shows, the government does not know with exactitude the number of poor people/households that are vulnerable within the various demographic and geographic segments of the society.
Armed with an up-to-date population and household census data, the government can plan properly and determine the type of poverty alleviation programmes to implement to achieve meaningful impacts across the different regions. One of the lessons the government must learn from this crisis is the urgent need to conduct a census post-Covid-19 for data-driven and impactful poverty interventions.
2. The next factor is the partisanisation of poverty alleviation programmes. Schemes to reduce poverty in Nigeria are often distributed based on party lines. States that are under the rule of the central governing party are favoured in the implementation of so-called poverty alleviation programmes. States that are under the rule of opposition parties are given secondary consideration.
Sometimes, the programmes even target recipients in a state who are members of the ruling party or supporters of leaders in the ruling party. The programmes are sometimes used to “settle boys” as the local expression goes. The distribution of the interventions could also be based on ethnicity.
Government should realize that poverty has no race or party affiliation. For poverty alleviation programmes to be successful, the interventions have to be broad-based and far-reaching.
3. Another factor that militates against the success of poverty alleviation programmes in Nigeria is that they take a “top-down” approach. This means the interventions are established by mere policy pronouncement by the federal government. The schemes are then implemented without recourse to the peculiarities and socio-cultural dynamics of people at the grassroots who are most affected.
“Bottom-up” approaches in the design of poverty eradication schemes are more effective. Such strategies are inclusive in the sense that they involve the most affected populations in formulating the schemes to be implemented. For example, the government can involve cooperative societies in setting up schemes that would support members of the cooperatives.
4. The final factor is a derivative of the above three and constitutes my prognosis for the actions to be taken by the Nigeran government following the end of the Covid-19 pandemic. Strategies to achieve poverty gains must add value to the recipients’ lives. As the saying goes, “don’t give a man fish; teach him how to fish.”
To achieve this, a targeted poverty alleviation approach must be considered through the following process: a) identify the poor population by taking accurate census of households and poor people; b) analyse the cause of poverty; and c) keep track of progress being made with resources provided to every household/individual. This third element will enable the government to make adjustments to its programmes where they are not yielding appreciable gains.