COVID-19: Palliative without database by Nigeria Guardian Newspapers Editorial

Concerns expressed the other day by various stakeholders on the seeming failure of the government’s social investment programme are already in the public domain. This newspaper, in fact, commented on the failure the other day. Interestingly, these allegations of failure of the programme are coming from key players within the ruling party.

The concerns from the First Lady, Hajia Aisha Buhari, the President of the Senate, Senator Lawan Ahmed and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila cannot, in all good conscience be wished away, since these prominent individuals have every reason to desire a successful implementation of the programme, which is part of the government’s flagship economic blueprint, the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, (ERGP). Were these allegations coming from the opposition elements, they may well have been easily dismissed by many, as the rantings of “wailers” who are still suffering from the pangs of “electoral defeat.” Invariably, thus, the “investing in the people” objective of the ERGP, through the social inclusion programmes of conditional cash transfers and the home-grown school feeding programmes, among others are simply failed projects. They need to be reengineered. 

One remarkable way of doing this is through the provision of reliable data to address its effective implementation such that relief packages for the poor get to them. Hence the expediency of generating reliable data to enhance the successful implementation of the social investment programmes cannot be discounted. 

The method used in determining beneficiaries in the programme, prior to the advent of COVID-19 appears to rest in the realm of voodoo than reality. It appears to be a case of “the more you look, the less you see.” Beneficiaries in the programme appear to be determined simply by political party patronage or close relationship means, using the primitive knowledge base of the operators.  It is curious that up and until now, the government has not been able to provide convincing arguments on how the list of beneficiaries for the programmes is generated, particularly for the conditional cash transfer scheme, which was designed for the most vulnerable Nigerians. This lack of a reliable database actually played itself out clearly with the distribution of palliatives during the current lockdown across the country in response to the hunger effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Quite recently following from complaints from the various stakeholders, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Mrs. Sadiya Umar Farouk, in defence of her portfolio, asserted that going forward, the programme would generate its data from three sources namely, use of their social register, use of bank balances of less than N5,000 (monthly), using bank verification number (BVN) data and finally use of data on persons who recharge their mobile phones with values of less than N100. Various stakeholders have highlighted these points over time and so it is pleasant to note that the ministry is listening and thus seemingly making effort to revamp its ineffectual social investment programmes. While the minister should be commended for “eating the humble pie” and accepting to implement the recommended changes by basing their work on reliable data, it must be pointed out that policy implementation is a different kettle of fish from policy formulation. 

In generating the required data based on these three stated criteria, the ministry needs to engage the sub-national governments, namely the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA), the 36 states and 774 local governments in collating data that would feed into the national data bank of the poor and vulnerable persons across the country. Doubtless, the people at the grassroots would have better information on “who is poor and who is not” than the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development.

First, the use of the so-called social register appears to be the most questionable of the lot. How will the social register be generated? Who generates it? Is it generated “top-bottom” or “bottom-up”? This so-called social register is a veritable conduit through which vested interests pad the list with their kith and kin to the detriment of other poor Nigerians who may not have anyone to include them in the scheme. To address this seeming anomaly, the state and local governments, as well as community leaders, would have to be engaged to ascertain who they deem fit, by some predetermined standards, to be classified as poor and vulnerable. The compilation of this social register can benefit immensely from studies on the incidence of poverty conducted by various scholars as well as multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, DFID and USAID, among others, across the country. The register can also benefit from periodic reviews to guarantee relevance, reliability and utility.

Second, the inclusion of persons with bank balances of not more than N5,000 (probably monthly), would presuppose that those persons already have bank accounts. What can be done is to merge the social register with this bank balance criteria, by compulsorily opening bank accounts for these poor persons in nearby microfinance banks through which they can receive their monthly stipend. This will also enhance the financial inclusion programme of the Central Bank of Nigeria and thus assist its monetary policy functions. 

Finally, the inclusion of persons who charge their phones with N100 or less, in the programme also has its value in that it captures the urban poor who must of necessity have some form of mobile telephony to enhance their business and general survival in a hostile urban environment. The data on this category can be harvested with proper collaboration with the mobile telephony networks.

In the main, there is an urgent need to rewrite the profile of the social investment programme (SIP). The deployment of technology to achieve the desired outcomes is a desideratum. Meanwhile, the authorities should work intentionally to correct corruption perception index usually associated with the programme. It is hoped that the flip flops manifested by the ministry during this COVID-19 pandemic era would not be repeated going forward. Nigeria’s place in the world is far greater than the mediocrity and shenanigans being manifested in the implementation of social investment programmes. The most populous black nation in the world deserves something better.

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