So, How Do We Measure Progress?

02 Jan 2013

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Not a few Nigerians must have probably looked askance on receiving the President’s   New Year Message. In the ritualistic statement from the seat of power, President Gooodluck Jonathan said inter alia :“We have in the last year achieved a lot in terms of the positive transformation of vital sectors of our national life such as public infrastructure, power supply, oil and gas, transportation, education, health and agricultural development.

We will continue to work diligently in 2013 to ensure that our efforts in these areas are carried forward to full fruition in fulfillment of our promise of better public services and improved living conditions for all Nigerians”. This  bright picture of the Nigerian condition, in a way, encapsulates the response of officialdom to  the intensified criticisms of the government’s performance coming from the public that wears the shoes and so should know where it pinches. The upbeat mood of government is certainly at variance with the  deafening groaning on the streets by the poor.

As a matter of fact, in line with the Jonathan’s optimistic projections, those whose legitimate job is it to defend the record of the administration’s performance  have  all been telling the nation that the Jonathan administration is not doing badly at all.  And for a good measure, they have statistics to back it up. According  to them, it would amount to “destructive criticism”  if one fails to acknowledge the half of the glass that is full while focusing relentlessly on the other empty half.

They chastise the “opposition’” of being “ mentally indolent” not to have read the progress being made with the “transformation agenda” of government. Listening to the administration’s defenders  on one side and some articulate voices in the public  on the other side you would think that we are talking of two different political economies. This is  simply because apart from the negative readings of the political economy by many   policy-literate  Nigerians outside  government, the perception  from abroad is hardly complimentary.

Towards the end  of last year,  the rightwing journal, The Economist of London, rated  selected 80 countries on the basis of looking for the best place to be born. Nigeria was adjudged the worst. The usual indices of infrastructure, security, social development and fighting corruption were used. You may, of course, dismiss such external ratings as being prejudiced if you elect to do so. After all, some years ago,  in  another  rating Nigerians were curiously described as the “happiest” people in the world amidst excruciating poverty. But it would be more difficult to dismiss the observations of  the millions of  jobless Nigerians, workers, anti-poverty activists, manufacturers,  artisans,  professionals, hospital patients, students and their parents who are  daily confronted with the deteriorating economic condition.

Yet, between the contradictory claims of the government on the one hand and the burgeoning army of  critics on the  other hand, there must be a straightforward answer to the question: Is Nigeria on the path of progress? Doubtless, the two sides to the debate cannot be right in this instance. The dialectic of a half full, half empty glass may not also apply here  because there is a serious problem with the measurement of the volume of the liquid content of the glass. For clarity, the problem with measurement of socio-economic progress is not peculiar to the countries of poor people such as Nigeria.

Despite the timely stimulus package, opponents of President Barack Obama insist that his performance in managing the American economy is still poor. Even though the coalition of Prime Minister David Cameron and his  partner, David Clegg,  are deepening inequality in the United Kingdom by their savage attacks on welfare, the liberals and conservatives insist they are doing the best job on the economy. The Nigerian situation is certainly not identical with  what obtains in those developed countries. But there  are  similarities.

Take a sample. The nation’s economic managers brandish a growth rate of 7.1% as one of the indices of good performance by the Jonathan administration.  We also recollect that the other day, former French  President Nicholas Sarkozy had to  set up a commission of eminent economists to interrogate  such statistical claims. Two Nobel Laureates in economics with a reputation for humanising  economic thoughts - Professors Amartya Sen and  Joseph Stiglitz - were in the commission. So even the conservative French President was no longer satisfied with periodic reeling out of growth figures that bear no relevance to  the people’s welfare Interestingly, the  committee was set up few months before the global crisis of capitalism was finally unveiled in late 2008.

The submission of the panel was aptly entitled “ Report By the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress”.  The kernel of the report is that  sustainable well being of the people should be the primary measurement  of socio-economic development.  So the quality of life is the issue. Economic management should aim at fighting poverty.  You may also  say, and rightly so,  that we do not need to go so far to make this point; after all,  the Nigerian Constitution  unambiguously defines the purpose of government as the “ welfare and security” of the people.

And as many patriots have emphasised over the years if the Chapter II of the Constitution could be  the guide to governments at all levels, there would be no argument as to what exactly constitutes progress. It is worth emphasising in this important debate that the question of measurement is never superfluous. For as it is noted in the  report cited above “ what we measure shapes what  we collectively strive to pursue - and what we pursue determines what we measure...” Therefore, the commission posits that the “ the report and its implementation may have a significant impact on the way in which our societies look at themselves and, therefore, on the way in which policies are designed, implemented and assessed”.

Yes, there has been  a steady lowering of the bar in the way  performance of governments at all levels is  assessed.  Average performance is rated as excellent out of frustration with governance. As a result,  governance has been reduced to tokenism. Hence, when a government official manages to perform what should be his or her routine job, there is sometimes a suggestion that the lady or  the gentleman deserves an award. On a more ridiculous occasion, a tape-cutting ceremony may be organised to celebrate the filling of potholes on a  kilometre road constructed even before  the government official was born.

Talking about measurement, is  the government’s  declaration of  progress in the power sector  meant for the ears of industrial and domestic consumers who still rely on generators for power supply across the country? In any case, the measurement should be something like this: Nigeria aspires  to be one of the 20 biggest economies in seven years time; how many of the present members  of the League of 20 operate their  economies with less than 5,000 megawatts of electricity? It is tragic that  the government and the people are getting used to policy implementation as a token to the extent that no one is thinking big anymore.

The President says he is making progress on  infrastructure, yet movement from one region of the country to another is becoming history that parents now relate to their children. This is   simply  because the supposed highways have collapsed. The road leading to the premier port of Apapa in Lagos has collapsed.  The bridges deserve attention. Here we are talking of a port from where the government earns over one  trillion  naira  in revenues  yearly !  In the process, the once beautiful port city of Apapa has been ruined by traffic congestion caused by stranded trailers and fuel trucks.  Yet, those who choose live or work in Apapa are expected  to  applaud  the “progress”  being made on  infrastructure.

The good news is that this is still 2013, a whole year that could still be devoted to  serious and honest policy implementation before the 2015 politics eclipses everything in the national horizon. If the optimistic streak in the President’s New Year Message is a resolution for 2013, he should be nudged towards making the dream come true in the interest of the people. This is important so that by this time next year, he can look back and present a progress report that an overwhelming majority of the people  would accept as a true reflection of the Nigerian condition. He should, however, bear in mind always  that ultimately the measure of progress made by his  administration will be  how much he is able reduce the poverty ravaging this land.

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