Taking on Poverty – Again

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Dan Agbese

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By Dan Agbese  |

POVERTY is a messy problem. Dealing with it is a despairing problem. And it remains the most universal challenge the world has ever known. Rich nations battle it; poor nations throw pebbles at it. Ironically, poverty is that one intangible thing that fires the imagination of many a politician to offer himself to serve his people. In a positive sense, therefore, poverty is an instant manufacturer of local and international champions of every hue in every clime. The world has never been in short supply of politicians turned knights ready to do battle with poverty. So, why does poverty continue to ravage every land, snickering at every effort expressly intended to wrestle it to the ground?

I will tell you. To begin with, the number of the poor is a nightmarish problem. No country knows exactly the number of its poor. Part of the problem here is that people are not uniformly poor. The poor have grades just as the rich do. You have the poor, the very poor and the desperately poor. Unfortunately, economists, anxious for a short hand means of measuring poverty, settled on the unhelpful statistical formula that lumps the poor into one category, as in those who live on $1.50 a day. Under this universal formula for judging the poor, their number in our country is put at 100 million out of a projected national population of 150-170 million. We have enough poor people to fill more than half of all the African countries. This country is not big for nothing, you know. Yet, come to think of it: N390 is the Naira equivalent of $1.50.  The life patrons of Mama-put would be reckless to spend that much on food daily.

Lifting 100 million poor people out of the morass of poverty must be a more complex problem than you thought. I find it scary. And I am also intrigued by the fact that the one man who, given his universally-acknowledged miracle-working power, could have banished poverty by a mere pronouncement, did not. Jesus the Christ told his followers, ‘the poor you will always have with you.’ We have no single recorded instance of his ordering a homeless, poor man on the pavement to leave his tattered mat right there because he had become rich. Not to worry. He had the good heart to tell the poor they would inherit the earth. I imagine the earth inherited by the poor would be the philosophical model of Animal Farm.

In his first term, 1999-2003, President Obasanjo hit on a formula that would eradicate poverty in our oil-rich but poor nation. He called it Poverty Eradication Programme. Under this programme, he paid N3,500 monthly to some selected men and women throughout the country to sweep market squares and motor parks. By the time his second term, 2003-2007, rolled along, Obasanjo found, as indeed was inevitable, that poverty showed no signs of being eradicated. He moderated his stance and renamed it Poverty Reduction Programme. I think by this time it had occurred to him that it was more pragmatic to talk of poverty reduction rather than its eradication. He applied the same formula. I have not come across a report on those efforts but my educated guess is that both programmes had the same disappointing result: nothing achieved, yet so much wasted.

Now comes President Muhammadu Buhari’s response to the growing poverty in our dear country. His minister of information, Lai Mohammed, calls his new programme social intervention. When I first heard that the government had hit on a poverty reduction formula I perked up my ears. Then I learnt that under the programme, government would pay “vulnerable Nigerians” N5,000 per month. I thought it was a joke in the nature of our national politics. Apparently, not. It was not a joke; it is not a joke. Mohammed told Vanguard newspaper editors last week that the primary objective of the programme was “…to move millions of Nigerians out of poverty.” Millions? How long would it take the N5,000 to achieve this feat? When politicians are not sure of their facts, they rely on imprecision.

The government has voted half a trillion Naira to prosecute the programme. I wonder how many rooms half a trillion Naira would fill. I do not know what it could do in practical terms, as in how km of roads it could fix or how many units of modern houses it could build or even how many boreholes it could sink in our rural areas. The prospects of this colossal sum of money ending up in the pockets of consultants gives me goose pimples. Perish the thought.

Mohammed is worth quoting at length. He said: “Part of what we intend to do with the half trillion Naira is to train market women women, artisans and unemployed graduates in the art of management and also give them loans to start their own businesses. Part of our social intervention also includes the transfer of N5,000 to the most vulnerable people.”

I find the meaning of all these slippery and disturbing. Is this a social welfare programme, a social intervention programme (whatever that means), a training programme or a feel-good programme? I cannot put my finger on it. There is nothing new in what Mohammed said here. We had been there and done it over the years under different administrations. Two such programmes introduced by the Babangida administration come to mind. One was the National Directorate of Employment. Its mandate was to help train young Nigerian artisans and in other disciplines and give them loans to start their own businesses and become employers of labour. The second was the Peoples Bank. It was intended to cater for the vulnerable Nigerians who did not need major bank loans but something as little as N1,500 to get on with the business of frying bean cakes by the road side. Policy mortality destroyed both programmes.

My own take from what Mohammed told the newspaper editors is that this programme may merely be the poster child of intriguing populism. I cannot see that it has been properly thought through and thus backed up by law. Without an enabling act of parliament, it would not be uncharitable to suggest that the federal government has put the cart before the horse. It is not in the natural order of things to make the horse push the cart. Its business is to pull the cart.

An expensive social welfare programme such as this in the face of dwindling revenue, requires hard headed thinking, not prayers and goodwill. I fear that the Buhari administration is about to saunter down the beaten path by throwing money at poverty as was done by Obasanjo. Problems do not fear money. They consume it. I believe it is possible to “move out millions of Nigerians from poverty,” if we are truly honest about it and are committed to it long term. Given the nature of poverty, a programme aimed at reducing it would be long term divided into short term windows. Transferring “of N5,000 to the most vulnerable people” (whatever that means) just does not cut it.

— Jan 4, 2016 @ 11:30 GMT

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