Poverty and Kpakol’s welfare palliatives

Casmir Igbokwe

Published Sunday, 16 Dec 2007

Two mythical babies had different experiences during their birth in Lagos. One was delivered at Ikoyi, a highbrow area. The other chose Ajegunle, a slum, as his birthplace. The Ikoyi baby first brought out his head from the birth canal. He looked round and saw a beautiful environment. The air conditioners were humming. The flowers glowed even as the doctors and nurses looked so cute. The baby was eager to come out. Hence, the delivery was smooth. The one from Ajegunle brought out his head and looked round. What he saw were women tying dirty wrappers, goats and fowls. Nothing in the vicinity enticed him. He refused to come out. “Puuush!” the wrapper-tying midwives told the woman in labour. The baby said, “No way! Please take me back. I can’t live here.” I am not sure if this baby was delivered safely. Perhaps, the priest at St. Peter’s Catholic Church Ejigbo, Lagos, who narrated this story last Sunday, should know better.

This tale shows the reality of existence in today’s Nigeria. About one per cent of the population enjoys 85 per cent of the oil revenue. The rest of the people live from hand to mouth. The situation is such that the United Nations’ Development Programme, in a report in 2006, noted that the standard of living in the country was low. According to the report, less than half of the population had access to improved sanitation. Those with access to clean water dropped from 48 to 46 per cent in the last 14 years. Average life expectancy was put at 43.4 years. The UNDP may not have reckoned that a lot of people do not also have access to toilet. That is why some bush paths and pedestrian bridges are littered with faeces.

In a similar report recently, the World Bank said the country’s macro-economic successes were at variance with the standard of living in the country. Infant and maternal mortality rates are still high. People go to bed without electricity. They sleep halfway and spend the rest of the night pursuing mosquitoes and wiping heat. And this is a country that has about $50 billion in external reserves and rising Gross Domestic Product.

In an apparent bid to salvage the situation, the Federal Government plans to launch a welfare scheme to help poor families. Recent media reports indicated that these poor families would get monthly payments for one year. After one year, the beneficiaries will receive a grant to enable them to establish small businesses. The condition is that they will send their children to school and have them immunised against childhood diseases. The National Poverty Eradication Programme, which will administer the programme, has reportedly set aside about $70m (N9bn) for it. The BBC quoted the National Coordinator of NAPEP, Magnus Kpakol, as saying that it is un-Nigerian for anybody to be left in misery.

Kpakol and his team deserve commendation for this initiative. In a country bereft of social welfare schemes, this programme looks wonderful and interesting. Recall that this same NAPEP gave out tricycles called Keke NAPEP to some individuals a few years ago. Under its Capacity Acquisition Programme, NAPEP had trained thousands of unemployed youths as tailors or fashion designers. The agency had also given small loans to some poor Nigerians. What this means is that NAPEP leaders are constantly thinking of how to eradicate Nigeria’s poverty.

However, a cursory glance at Nigeria’s past poverty alleviation experiences paints a disturbing picture. For instance, the military government of Olusegun Obasanjo introduced Operation Feed the Nation. The programme died with the exit of that regime in 1979. When Shehu Shagari came, he introduced Green Revolution. The emphasis was on food production. By the time Shagari left, poverty level had increased to over 40 per cent.

Ibrahim Babangida’s government introduced Peoples’ Bank mainly to provide soft loans to prospective entrepreneurs. That government also initiated the Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure. DFRRI was mandated to open up rural areas and, thus, enhance national economy. The same government set up the National Directorate of Employment in 1986 to fight the scourge of unemployment in the country. Today, only the NDE is still in existence. Its impact, though, has not gone beyond training soap makers and such miniature achievements. Babangida’s wife, Mariam, came with her Better Life for Rural Women programme. This was later transformed into Better Life for Urban Women.

Sani Abacha came up with the Family Economic Advancement Programme. This empowered his own family and a few other cronies. By the time Obasanjo came back the second time in 1999, Nigeria had taken a prime position among the 25 poorest nations in the world. Today, about 52 per cent of the population lives in abject poverty.

Obasanjo started his second leadership journey with the establishment of Poverty Alleviation Programme. His government gave N10 billion to PAP to help Nigeria’s poor. That money was squandered. NAPEP arrived in 2001 apparently to remedy the situation. Yes, it gave out Keke NAPEP. But at what cost? Was the price not allegedly inflated? It dished out some poverty alleviation funds to people. But how many Nigerians benefited from that? How many used their money to set up sustainable businesses? And how are we sure that the current efforts will not be mired in corruption?

In a recent survey, Transparency International noted that bribery hit the poor the hardest. The report observed that poor people mostly pay bribes in order to obtain basic public services. This year, 42 per cent of people in Africa reportedly paid a bribe to get a service. In a country of 140 million people, NAPEP, initially, will concentrate on 12 out of 36 states and 12, 000 people. What will likely happen is that some people will feed fat on this initiative. Many would-be beneficiaries may likely be cronies and relations of the powers that be. The real people who need this assistance may never get it. I wish Kpakol proves me wrong.

Ultimately, the best poverty alleviation scheme involves the provision of the enabling environment for businesses to thrive. The more these businesses employ people, the less people will go for poverty handouts. A barber or hairdresser or welder may collect this money to set up a business, but without electricity, the business will die. In the United Kingdom, unemployment rate has been on the decline. The number of people seeking jobless benefits reportedly fell by 11,100 in November to 813,000. This is said to be the lowest since June 1975. And because the number of the unemployed is low, it is easy for the government to pay unemployment benefits.

In Nigeria, the number of people waiting for NAPEP’s largesse is greater than those with gainful employment. This gives room for the ultimate failure of the programme. But if a baby in Ajegunle pops out his head from the birth canal and sees electricity, clean environment and tarred road, he will be encouraged to come out and face life squarely. He may not notice any inequality in the system because what is there in Ikoyi is also there in Mushin.

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