Social Security as Focus

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

It might be a timely warning to tell the ruling party and those in opposition that democracy in this land should not be reduced to electocracy. It is simply indecent and insensitive to the public mood to give the impression that elections are the only things that happen in a democracy. That would be a grossly cynical view of politics. Beyond fielding candidates in elections, political parties have the important duty of also mobilising the people around their policies and programmes among other institutional tasks. The government in power should articulate its policies while those in opposition should educate the public on alternative strategies and policies. The government should be kept on its toes by the public’s insistence on robust policy articulation.

There is even the need to worry about the virtual absence of policy articulation in some instances. Unfortunately, while the government could be accused of poor policy articulation (or sometimes lack of policy) the opposition is also guilty of glibly dismissing whatever is putting on the table. The opposition should be more rigorous in its interrogation of the Buhari administration.

For instance, it is worthwhile pondering the statement made by Labour Minister Chris Ngige in Panama the other day to the effect that the federal government in its policy would capture 50% of the population in the social security net. The minister spoke at the World Social Security Summit in Panama City, Panama. Dr. Ngige told the international meeting that social intervention is at the heart economic strategy of President Muhammadu Buhari. However, not a few would wonder if the Buhari administration has sufficiently mobilised people at home towards this socio-economic goal through an effective articulation. Well, Ngige is acting true to type; it is said that important statements about the direction of the Buhari administration are often made abroad.

Those responsible for policy communication in Abuja should reflect on this unhelpful trend. Pray, how many members of the public are aware that social security is a focal point of the administration? This is despite the valiant efforts to put in place the structure for the administration of the national cash transfers of N5, 000 monthly to each of the most vulnerable persons. How would the policy register in the public consciousness when just a meagre amount out of the N500 billion budgeted for the programme has been released? The discussion on economic recovery should also focus on the weight given to social intervention in the Buhari economic agenda. For the poor, economic recovery means the provision of social safety net.

An efficiently administered social security system has been universally acknowledged as a potent instrument of poverty reduction. According to Ngige, among the components of the poverty reduction agenda is the creation of jobs for the millions of unemployed youths. He cited the employment of 200, 000 graduates by the federal government. Those employed would serve in the education, health and agriculture sectors. Some other components claimed by Ngige at the global forum include rural healthcare schemes, National Health Insurance Scheme, National Pension Reforms and the enhancement of the National Social Insurance Trust Fund.

From Ngige’s presentation at the Panama gathering, it is obvious that if the government has a social security agenda it is far from being clearly articulated. The articulation is a measure of the seriousness of purpose an administration applies to a policy or programme. This is why this administration should popularise its strategy of development if one indeed exists. For instance, the most populous country, China, has won the 2016 Best Social Security Nation Award for putting 100 million people yearly into the social security system. In the last decade, a billion people have become part of the social security system.

This should not be a surprise to any keen observer of the Chinese development process. The last congress of the Chinese Communist Party focused on social security as a weapon in the resolute anti-poverty war by China. It was a matter of scientific discussion and planning at the party level. So the Chinese government has no choice than to implement the party programme. Similarly, poverty reduction was made a strategic goal of government in Brazil with remarkable results. Millions were lifted out of mass poverty.

Is it, therefore, a tall order to expect that 80 million Nigerians would be captured in the social security net by 2019? This may seem over-ambitious in a country where political parties only meet mainly to discuss candidates for elections. No policy debates. No ideology. It is all about power. All the crises plaguing the parties are not derived from disagreements on policy conception and implementation. At least for the next 20 months or so political parties should engage the public sphere with debates of policies and programmes and not merely indulge in speculating about candidates for the 2019 elections. It is important for the government to clearly articulate its social security goals for the public to examine.

The corollary to the foregoing is that greater attention should be given to the poverty and inequality plaguing the socio-economic system. When you listen to our economic managers and the experts rationalising for them, you could get a wrong impression. You would think that the economic problems facing the majority of the people would suddenly end when the negative numbers the expert’s crunch turn into positive ones. That is to say the problem would be automatically over with increased Gross Domestic Product (GDP), higher price of crude oil, better Fitch Rating, more complimentary remarks from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, historically this has not always been the case. There were poor who could not afford basic needs when the economy was assessed to be growing impressively. The hunger, illiteracy and disease of this class of people did not begin with this recession. Before recession, they faced misery. Recession might have worsened their condition. That is why the worsening inequality in the system should be addressed as part of the efforts towards economic recovery.

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 safety net should, therefore, be a yardstick for measuring the success of economic recovery beyond the abstract statistics of growth rates. Economic growth should not be viewed in isolation of the burgeoning inequality in the land. Our economic thinkers should make this part of their preoccupation. If not, tomorrow Finance Minister Kemi Adeoshun may declare, based on the statistics at her disposal, that the recession is over and that the GDP has expanded phenomenally while the conditions of the rural poor and the urban wretched remain unchanged if not worse. That is another reason for making an effective social security system a yardstick of economic success.

Arguing in the context of America, Nobel Laureate in Economics, Professor Joseph Stiglitz, puts the matter like this: “The good news is that our thinking has been reframed: it used to be that we asked how much growth we would be willing to sacrifice for a little more equality and opportunity. Now we realize that we are paying a high price for our inequality and that alleviating it and promoting growth are intertwined, complementary goals.” It is far from drawing an undue parallel to say that Stiglitz speaks to the Nigerian economic situation in some respects. It doesn’t take an erudite sociologist to know that if a workable social security system were in place, the problem of physical security would be more manageable by the law enforcement and other security agencies. The price of social inequality is enormous. It is worrisome that this seems not be so obvious to policymakers.

An intriguing dimension of the problem is the tremendous pressure put on the elements of the middle class upwards and any one with some stable sources of incomes by the expanding constituency of the poor below. Virtually every middle class person has been turned into a one-man social system by the less endowed relations, friends and acquaintances making desperate demands on him or her. Things are better organised and more sustainable when a well-structured social security is in place at societal level. Since the days of Napoleon Bonaparte in France when the welfare state emerged, the extremely rough edges of capitalism have been smoothened by social safety net. That is why the National Health Service (NHS) has become such a formidable national institution in the United Kingdom that is identifiable with the country just like the Union Jack, the national flag.

It is the duty of genuinely progressive organisations and individuals to sustain the pressure for increased funding of public education, primary healthcare, mass transit, social housing etc. in the budgetary process. Left to the neo-liberal epigones in our midst, the state has no role in promoting social security. In a clime such as Nigeria, the success of any admiration should be measured by the percentage of poverty reduction it could achieve above other considerations.