It’s not yet social protection

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Kayode Komolafe

The federal government has proposed to spend N863 billion on social investments and poverty eradication in the next year budget. This represents 5.3% of the whole budget.

About two months ago, the secretary to the same government, Boss Mustapha, declared: “This administration commits over N400bn annually on all National Social Investment Programmes of government aimed at empowering our people and lifting millions out of poverty,”

The funds are devoted to micro – lending intervention, cash transfers, skill acquisition, enterprise and empowerment and school feeding programmes. With a proposal of N863 billion, it should be expected that the coverage of these programmes would be doubly expanded if the federal government could achieve its projection for social investments in the next year budget.

However, only four months ago the government’s announcement that 10.2 million people were lifted out of poverty appeared to be contradictory to the World Bank data that the seven millions more Nigerians had been pushed below the poverty line about the same time. It is certainly a more serious matter than to say that this is a mere case of “different folks, different strokes.”

This is because in another dimension, the quantitative disputes among the experts seemed to bear no relevance to the quality of life observable on the streets. Non-experts can only tell only the real stories of hunger, joblessness and squalor regardless of the official figures of misery.

The point of divergence is as follows: while in measuring poverty some experts reckon with the volume of cash put into the pockets of people by way of social investments, others seem to be gauging poverty by the access to basic needs – food, potable water, healthcare, education and housing. The former is closer to the position of the federal government while the latter appears to be the position of the World Bank.

However, there is a perspective that in terms of real impact there may be no substantial difference between the data pushed out by the federal government and that of the World Bank.

The corollary of the above reflection is that Nigeria is still far from achieving social protection for the most vulnerable segment of the population despite the remarkable efforts at social investments. After all, you don’t talk of social protection in a system that is abysmally lacking in policies scientifically formulated and implemented for poverty reduction and against the risks arising from the disruption of incomes on which families depend. Women, children and those with disability are particularly affected when social vulnerability is heightened.

As it is universally the case, the matter is worsened by the chilling impact of the socio-economic disruptions caused by COVID-19.

In other words, Nigeria is confronted with the huge challenge of social protection like many other countries. This much is captured in the World Social Protection Report 2020-22 with the theme: “Social Protection at the Crossroads- In Pursuit of a Better Future.”

Significantly the document is the flagship report of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the United Nations agency responsible for the World of Work.

For instance, one portion of the report that may interest policymakers and the public alike is this: “Countries are at a crossroads with regard to the trajectory of their social protection systems. If there is a silver lining to the crisis, it is the potent reminder it has provided of the critical importance of investing in social protection, yet many countries also face significant fiscal constraints. (The) report shows that nearly all countries, irrespective of their levels of development, have a choice whether to pursue a ‘high road’ strategy of investing in reinforcing their social protection systems or a ‘low-road’ strategy of minimalist provision, succumbing to fiscal pressures. Countries can use the policy window prised open by the pandemic and build on their crisis-response measures to strengthen their social protection systems and progressively close protection gaps in order to ensure that everyone is protected against both systemic shocks and ordinary life -cycle risks …”

The import of the foregoing is simply that in many respects Nigeria can learn from the experiences of other economies.

The anarchy that followed the peaceful #ENDSARS protests a year ago could partly be explained by the unmasking of the gross inequality in the Nigerian system by the coronavirus pandemic. The period of the lock-down exposed the extreme vulnerability of the poorest section of the society. Those who live on daily incomes were left with no incomes. Those without incomes even before the outbreak of the coronavirus found themselves in more desperate situations. Despite the palliatives from governments, private organisations and public-spirited individuals, hunger was manifest on the streets. Warehouses were looted and foodstuffs were gleefully “liberated” by hungry and angry folks.

It is now little remembered that the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development was implementing the feeding aspect of the programme in poor homes even during the lockdown.

So apart from cash transfers, social protection would be achieved when the appropriate mix of socio-economic policies could result in massive job-creation, universal health coverage, access to quality public education among other elements of the common good.

There seems to be a consensus now across the ideological spectrum that the worsening insecurity in the land is a consequences of deepening poverty of the majority of the people. It is a proof that physical security cannot be sustained in a socio-economic atmosphere devoid of social security. For decades, broadly progressive opinions have been raised in vain to establish the dialectical link between physical security and social security. For example, there is a link between the high population of children out of school and the ease with which terrorists and other criminals recruit their foot soldiers to wreak havoc on the society.

Besides, the implementation agencies should be better institutionalised. Take a sample. There should be something to borrow from the Peoples Bank idea in implementing the empowerment and enterprise component of the policy.

It is, therefore, welcome that Social Development Minister Sadiya Umar Farouk spoke last month about the efforts to review and restructure the National Social Investment Programmes (NSIPS). An example is the expansion of the Government Enterprise Programme (GEEP) and the N-Power. The number of the N-Power beneficiaries has been raised to one million. The GEEP is also being refocussed. TraderMoni, MarketMoni and FarmerMoni are being targeted exclusively at the helpless youths, disadvantaged women and peasant farmers. The GEEP 2.0 has also been restructured to provide soft loans and skill acquisition to additional one million beneficiaries. There are other innovations which would require partnership with other agencies in the health and education sectors so as to widen the coverage of the schemes. One of such is the National Social Investments Management System (NASIMS). A USSD short code *46665# is also being introduced improve communication in the system. Providing timely information to the beneficiaries is doubtless central to the success of the schemes.

Yet in many informed quarters the output of the ministry may still appear as tokenism in the light of the massive poverty in the land. Even the camps of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are still plagued by hunger. The World Food Programme warned last week that unless a lifeline of $197 million is provided, about 4.4 million people may face starvation in the northeast of Nigeria by July next year.

The structural deficiencies of the social investment programmes are traceable to its ambiguous origins as a policy. Important members of the administration initially treated the concept of social investments especially cash transfer with contempt. At the initial stage, the administration was seemingly ambivalent about the policy and this affected the implementation. It was only two years ago that the omnibus ministry was created and Hajia Farouk was appointed as the first minister.

Doubtless the policy still suffers from severe disarticulation. The government should further explain the concept and operations to the people. After years of implementation, even public intellectuals still appear on television to either deny the existence of the programme or pooh-pooh it. The challenge of articulation is, therefore, quite clear in this regard. The government should engage not only with the beneficiaries, but also the larger public on the workings of the programmes in the search for improvement.

Furthermore, there should be a more inclusive deployment of technology to make the implementation more efficient. Special consideration should be given to those in the rural areas.

Above all, the implementation should be fraud-proof. The officials should be wary of those who may like to corrupt the process even at the lowest point of implementation. Honesty of purpose is the greatest asset the programme should aspire to acquire

As attested to experts of various hue, social protection is undeniably central to any credible poverty reduction strategy and curbing inequality.

That is why the worsening inequality in the system should be decisively addressed as part of the efforts towards economic development.

To be sure, social security and other poverty reduction steps are veritable means of empowering the people to be real economic players. The man given N5, 000 a month would at least embark on some effective demand. This would be impossible without any income at all. Social protection should, therefore, be a yardstick for measuring the success of economic recovery beyond the abstract statistics of growth rates and Fitch ratings. Economic growth should not be viewed in isolation of the burgeoning inequality in the land. It is suggestible that our economic thinkers should reflect more on it.

It would not been surprising if our ever cynical neo-liberals dismiss the budgetary allocation to social investments as another case of “throwing money at problems” or merely putting people on the dole. Such a facile proposition should be proved wrong by the right policy steps. The challenge before the Buhari administration is to tread the path of social protection by making well-structured and institutionalised social investments as part of its legacy.

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