Of Poverty and Cash Transfers


THE HORIZON BY KAYODE KOMOLAFE,     kayode.komolafe@thisdaylive.com

It is astonishing how some members of the Nigerian elite find the idea of giving money to the poor revolting. The more charitable ones among them would say it is impracticable or non-sustainable. It is also a philosophical riddle that the same members of the elite belong to the great religions in which alms -giving is ordained.

More weapons were inadvertently provided to the arsenal of the elite by President Muhammadu Buhari last week.  He said in Saudi Arabia that he would rather empower the poor by funding infrastructure and developing agriculture and mining than giving N5, 000 monthly to those “who don’t work.”

In a clime where informed policy-making process reigns supreme the least that could be said is that the President’s declaration would be eminently suitable for a rigorous policy debate. Unfortunately, there is now a rash of out- –of- context amplifications of the President’s statement.

To be sure, the President has not deleted from the budget proposals before the National Assembly the N500 billion allocated to social intervention from which the cash transfer is expected to be drawn. So the discussion should be on what is to be done to make the programme achieve its purpose.

Even the President has not denied that it is a programme of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the party in power. Of course, on the Election Day it was APC’s name that was on the ballot paper. Who knows how many   of those who voted for the party might have been attracted by the cash transfer element in its manifesto? However, the perception in some quarters is that cash transfer to the poorest and the most materially vulnerable is a brain wave of some policy do-gooders.

The other day, someone called the proposed programme a “poisoned chalice” and advised Buhari to be wary of it. There are those who just loathe the idea of a dole. Some commentators   talk as if cash transfer is a Nigerian invention. Yet this is a poverty-alleviation   programme that has been implemented in some countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa to the applause of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and even the World Bank.

In fact, the right-wing London newspaper, The Economist, made a case for cash transfer in a July 29, 2010 editorial simply entitled “Give the Poor Money.”  This is how the journal aptly put the matter: “Celia Orboc, a cake-seller in the Philippines, spent her little stipend on a wooden shack, giving her five children a roof over their heads for the first time. In Kyrgyzstan Sharmant Oktomanova spent hers buying flour to feed six children. In Haiti President René Préval praises a dairy co-operative that gives mothers milk and yogurt when their children go to school.


These are examples of the world’s favourite new anti-poverty device, the conditional cash-transfer programme (CCT) in poor and middle-income countries. These schemes give stipends and food to the poorest if they meet certain conditions, such as that their children attend school, or their babies are vaccinated.

Ten years ago there were a handful of such programmes and most were small. Now they are on every continent—even New York City has one—and they benefit millions”. That was the picture as seen by this highly influential organ of global capitalism six years ago.  And to our neo-liberal elite, all that can be said is simply this: you cannot be more market forces-oriented than The Economist.

For the debate to be helpful in policy-making, the question should be properly framed. The argument should not be about which constitutes a priority – funding infrastructure and agriculture or social intervention.  The government should assiduously implement its programmes in   infrastructure, agriculture, mining and other important areas. The poverty situation in the country demands that the government should implement programmes of social protection for the poorest segment of the society as envisaged in the budget.

Instead of cavalierly killing the idea of this   humane programme by saying it is impractical; policymakers should face squarely the challenge of policy comprehension, articulation and implementation. This challenge is evident in respect of other programmes of the administration. You don’t solve the problem by dropping the programme.

 Cash transfers have been implemented successfully in countries as far apart as Brazil, Philippines and South Africa. In fact, in Africa health-related cash transfers have been implemented Ethiopia, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho and Tanzania among other countries. With proper policy comprehension and articulation, it would be determined which is suitable and implementable given the Nigerian condition  – conditional cash transfers or unconditional cash transfers? The conditions could be making poor parents in remote areas   play their roles in keeping children at school or ensuring immunisation of babies.

If conditional cash transfer were the choice of the policymakers, then the challenge would be   how to ensure an accurate targeting of the beneficiaries. This is probably the greatest basis of the skepticism about the programme. But then it is really a matter of developing the capacity for policy   implementation.

The perennial question of data and management of figures would be thrown up again. As the Chairman/Editor-in-Chief of this newspaper, Nduka Obaigbena, often remarks: Nigeria still faces the challenge of counting its people, counting votes and counting money. It is not impossible to prepare the database for those who are deserving of cash transfer.

It is quite practicable   to keep the statistics of the poorest. You should not kill an idea because of the fear of shoddy implementation of the programme or the corruption that it could engender. Census would   still be conducted periodically despite the controversy that trails every exercise just as elections still take place notwithstanding the bloody activities of electoral offenders.

What serious nations do is to tackle these problems headlong as the programme is implemented. Brazil, which has implemented the biggest and one of the most accomplished cash transfers, has demonstrated the national passion for this programme. The result: poverty has been significantly reduced.

Social protection should be central to the socio-economic agenda of this administration because of the enormity of poverty in the land. Issues of social protection are not to be discussed glibly. When a nation does not make social protection a central issue of development, inequality worsens.

Widening inequality is a social scourge afflicting mankind with all that it portends. Cash transfer is just one-minute aspect of social protection. Those who perceive Nigeria as a Darwinian garden where only the fittest materially should survive cannot possibly imagine the great difference N5, 000 can make to the monthly real incomes of some families.

The challenge is how the administration can competently design a programme of cash transfer that could be targeted at the poorest segment of the society without corruption and other leakages.