The Horizon By Kayode Komolafe

0805 500 1974

As the Buhari administration grapples with the challenges of economic management there is the urgent need to explode some myths surrounding policymaking. Policies do not serve all class interests equally; that is why there are trade-offs. President Muhammadu Buhari has to choose what should be the trade-offs of his policies. Given the import of his ascension to power, the President’s policies must be deliberately being in favour of the poor who are in the majority. The rich can take care of themselves. But the poor, especially the most vulnerable, would require state intervention to survive in the present economic climate.

Economic problems do not mean the same thing to all classes of people. For the rich it may mean inability to acquire another private jet; but for the very poor it may mean uncertainty about their next meal today. If Buhari makes the choice of focussing on poverty reduction and tackling inequality he would be acting genuinely democratic. Here we are not talking of liberal democracy that the Nigerian elite is enamoured with, but social democracy, which legitimises socio-economic rights of the citizens. Come to think of it, it was the poor people who massed in Buhari’s huge rallies across the country this time last year and not the technocrats and other elitist elements now influencing policies.

Policymakers are not saying anything new when they lecture us ad nauseam about diversification of the economy, revamping infrastructure, industrial development, shifting emphasis to agriculture for the purpose of food security and job-creation and other things in their worn-out rhetoric. There is hardly any fresh idea on the table anymore. This should rankle policymakers themselves and their publics alike. In at least the last 40 years, there has been no period that a government (with the elite influencing policies) has not fed the poor with this rhetorical diet.

You would find the diet in the budget speeches, the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), the various programmes endorsed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Vision 2010, the National and Economic Empowerment Development Strategy (NEEDS) and several other documents. In fact, before the neo-liberals took over the centre stage of policy to the peril of Nigeria, the better structured Development Plans of the 1960s and early 1970s were more visionary and programmatic in articulating these policies.

The only new thing that can happen is to implement the myriad policy prescriptions. However, instead of proving to the public that the prescriptions work in improving the quality of lives of the people, policymakers and technocrats trumpet their achievements in announcing increasing rates of jobless growth. The technocrats are happy that the economy is the largest in Africa, whatever that means to the tens of millions of kids in the streets missing out in the race for basic education.

The experts are obsessed with Fitch rating as if it is an economic creed. The policymakers lose their sleep over the endorsement of their policies by IMF and World Bank, but they don’t get distressed by the fact that millions of the people have hunger, ignorance and disease as their lot in the political economy. The policy wonks are satisfied with crunching figures that, for practical purposes, are abstract to the challenges faced daily by the homeless families, the illiterate children and the hungry persons. The politicians focus on awarding big contracts while the social sector –basic education, primary healthcare and social housing – suffer criminal neglect.

The politicians and their technocrats revel in abstraction while the socio-economic contradictions get compounded. The thing to worry about is that some persons in government and outside who are influencing the policy choices of the Buhari administration belong to this school of (under)development. If Buhari wants to make history as a development president (as the poor who voted for him expected) he should not listen only to these policymakers who live in a world of their own. Buhari should ask his advisers to come up with a solid antipoverty agenda.

That is the only new menu that can come from the policy kitchen in Nigeria today.
If you want the evidence to back up the foregoing charges in the court of public opinion against our elitist policymakers, you would readily find it in their rhetoric. They reduce economic management to random execution of projects. Globally, poverty and inequality are issues at the centre of policy discourse; but in Nigeria all you hear is about projects and award of contracts without relating them to how it solves the urgent question of poverty and inequality.

For instance, the important magazine of the American Council on Foreign Relations, Foreign Affairs, devoted its January/February 2016 edition to Inequality: What Causes It; Why It Matters; What Can Be Done. In searching for what is to be done, the Managing Editor of the journal, Jonathan Tepperman, discussed “Brazil’s Antipoverty Breakthrough” in a very illuminating chapter.

It is an analysis of the stupendous success story of conditional cash transfer called Bolsa Familia (Family Grant) in Brazil. The programme has moved over 55 million persons out poverty and has reduced inequality by honestly integrating the poor into the economy. This feat was performed by the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a labour leader who won election at the fourth attempt. During the campaign in the 2002 presidential election, Lula promised radical antipoverty programmes.

The experts at home and abroad became jittery and scoffed at the promised experiments. For instance, Goldman Sachs reportedly began to warn investors of risks in Brazil in a “Lulameter” in case Lula won the election. Lula won. He experimented with the cash transfer, which has gone down in history as the biggest and most successful cash transfer among over 40 countries that have implemented the policy.

Reflecting on the prospects and challenges of implementing the programme later, Lula reportedly said; “When millions can go to the supermarket to buy milk, to buy bread, the economy will work better. The miserable will become consumers.” Our own experts and technocrats who scorn the idea of cash transfers cannot imagine that many families especially in remote rural areas are effectively outside the economy of which they are celebrating its Credit rating and brandishing its size and jobless growth rates.

The extremely poor are just incapable of effective demand. In fact, as reported by Tepperman in Foreign Affairs, Lula put the matter more graphically: “It sometimes bothers my educated friends when I say this… but the number one teacher in my life was a woman who was born and died illiterate: my mother.

With all due respect to experts and academics, they know very little about the poor. They know a lot about statistics, but that’s different, sabe? To an intellectual, putting $50 in the hands of a poor person is charity; an academic has no idea what a poor person can do with it. But that’s because at university, they don’t teach you how to care for the poor. And it’s because most experts have never experienced what the poor go through every day. They’ve never had to go to work without breakfast. They’ve never lived in a flooded house, or had To wait three hours at a bus stop.

To experts, a social problem like inequality is only numbers.
Lula does not claim to be an expert or a technocrat, but the cash transfer programme he fought for politically has been described by a political scientist as “the single largest ten-year change to a country’s class structure since Japan after World War II.” And at least 63 countries have reportedly sent their own experts to Brazil to see how Lula did it. So it is not enough to dismiss the programme as mere hand-outs to the poor. And by the way, the elite should learn to answer the pointed poverty question by at least respecting the dignity of the human person of the poor.

The poor are fellow human beings as the rich and powerful with equal rights enshrined in the constitution. Buhari may have one or two things to borrow from Lula in how make government honestly work for the poor; antipoverty programmes should be a priority.

The context might be different, but the Brazilian experiment is replete with useful lessons for Nigeria. Take a sample. Sceptics say cash transfer will be unworkable in Nigeria because of lack of capacity for implementation, corruption and politicisation.

Now, hear Lula’s reported answer to these legitimate worries: “Part of the reason Bolsa Família has been so successful is because the money is paid directly, with no intermediary. It is the beneficiary who goes to the bank with a plastic card to withdraw the money. So this person doesn’t owe any favours to the president, to their governor, to their congressman, or to their mayor.”
So the challenges of implementing antipoverty programmes are actually surmountable. That is the basic lesson from Brazil.