(OPINION BY HARRISON MMERENU) Poverty Alleviation Programmes in Nigeria

Nigeria is now regarded as the poverty capital of the world, and disputing the intention or integrity of the institution that released this overwhelming verdict will not dismiss the fact that many Nigerians are facing punishing poverty each day. Curiously though, it is not the fact that most Nigerians are poor that is worrisome alone, but the fact that political leaders have shown remarkable cluelessness in combating poverty and ensuring a shared prosperity.

In 2016, for example, the Katsina State Governor, Aminu Masari reportedly purchased 3000 metal coffins at the rate of N40,000 each and distributed them to 3000 mosques in the state as an expression of government support to religious houses. This was at a time when salaries were being owed to workers and grinding hunger pervaded the land. Had he given up on the poverty level in the state and was preparing an easy passage to the next stage of existence for the poor?

In another attempt to show his goodwill, the same governor purchased 4500 goats in an ingenious scheme tagged ‘goat loan’ scheme. The scheme involved the distribution of three goats (two females and one male) to three women each from the 316 wards of the state. It was financed by a N2bn loan the state governor obtained from the Central Bank of Nigeria. The Jigawa State government also implemented a ‘goat loan’ scheme for women.

In the long line of poverty alleviation and youth empowerment pageantries, Governor Ayodele Fayose of Ekiti State is perhaps the greatest abuser in this contest with his serial stomach infrastructure road shows that cast a question mark on the dignity man.  Also, it will be a matter of over flogging the issue if we add the distribution of shoe shining kits to the list of abuses against the common man as witnessed in Borno State or the distribution of wheelbarrow in another state.

Most of these empowerment schemes, which deserve the appropriate term ‘poverty elevation programmes’, do not plan for the long haul.  And while many state governors have their teeth biting their nails when it comes to poverty eradication, the Federal government does not seem proactive either.  Under the watch of this administration, unemployment has worsened; grinding poverty and insecurity have enjoyed a close confederacy, and the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan of this administration has afforded no palliation to this distress.  It is in the light of the failure of the Buhari government to lift the teeming impoverished Nigerians out of breadlines that necessitated Bill Gates’ criticism of Nigeria’s development plan earlier this year when he was asked to address the expanded National Economic Council. Without mincing words, he pointed out critical areas in need of re-evaluation.

He said, ‘the Nigerian government’s economic recovery and growth plan identify investing in our people as one of three strategic objectives. But the execution priorities don’t fully reflect people’s needs, prioritising physical capital over human capital. People without roads, ports, and factories can’t flourish. And roads, ports, and factories without skilled workers to build and manage them can’t sustain an economy’.  When criticisms trailed his comments, the billionaire restated his conviction about the flawed foundations upon which the plans are anchored. ‘As a partner in Nigeria, I am saying the current plan is inadequate. Nigeria has all these young people and the current quality and quantity of investment in these young generations; in health and education just isn’t good enough. So, I was very direct, if they can get health and education right, they will be an engine of growth not just for themselves but for all of Africa” he told CNN.

Clearly, combating poverty in Nigeria requires initiating policies and actions that ensure that economic growth is not only strong, balanced and sustainable, but also inclusive. As a result, state governments, as well as the Federal government, need to put on their thinking caps in order to come up plans that will impact positively on the conditions of the masses and birth inclusive growth. Growth is said to be inclusive when the poorer segments of a population do just as well as the overall population.

According to a 2008 policy research work of the World Bank supported by the Commission on Growth and Development, the building blocks for inclusive growth over a long-term include creating and ensuring macroeconomic stability, investing in human capital and physical infrastructure, facilitating structural transformation from agriculture to manufacturing, and from rural to urban, as well as strengthening the financial system. Others include adopting modern technology, spurring innovation and building strong and effective institutions.

 Without a doubt, Nigeria is strongly behind in most of the areas touched by this policy research. For instance, poor human capital development has been linked to high levels of poverty, as they both walk hand in hand in creating underdevelopment. Any nation seeking to rise from the pits of penury cannot jettison the importance of investing in human capital development. Therefore, instead of the charity shows being enacted by many governors in the name of empowerment, they can start thinking deeply about investing in education and vocational training, as this will inexorably lead to long-term empowerment rather than the ephemeral soothing of the pangs of hunger. Also, instead of distributing shoe shining kits to youths with the energy to drive industrial growth and development, why not train them in skills acquisition that will satisfy the demand for technical skills by industries.

Likewise, introducing structural reforms in the agricultural sector will create more reliable means of livelihoods than that of the volatile ‘goat loans’ to poor women in rural areas. Providing farmers with access to land, better seeds and credit facilities has the potential of lifting more Nigerians off the doldrums of despair than distributing hand-outs to the poor as if they had recently been hit by a high magnitude earthquake.

Above all, both the Federal and state governments should initiate plans to drive entrepreneurial growth. With the general unemployment rate at 18.8% and youth unemployment rate at 52.2%, giving a boost to entrepreneurial growth and providing a conducive atmosphere for small businesses to thrive is a critical step in combating poverty in the country. This is not the place to lament the difficulty in accessing finance to set up a business or the importance of power supply, but government should do better in these areas too.

No doubt, even the grandest of policies will come to nought if Nigeria fails to reform its twisted budget process which ensures the implementation of capital projects is always dead on arrival. Also, with the terrible poverty in the land, maybe the time is long overdue to end the mysterious constituency projects of our beloved senators, as it is clear that the vast majority of the funds go into the constituency of their private pockets.

 Harrison Mmerenu is a public affairs commentator and lives in Lagos.