Of Critics and Human Development

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The Horizon By Kayode Komolafe  kayode.komolafe@thisdaylive.com   0805 500 1974

It was grim news again recently when the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched the 2016 Human Development Report.  On the table of Human Development Index Nigeria is ranked 152 out of 185 countries surveyed for the indicators of progress.  Relatively, Nigeria was even better rated in 2014 to be in the 151st position. The country is, of course, in the unenviable league of other poor African countries. Nothing illustrates the fact that Africa is being left behind in the global journey of development more than the ranking in which those in   the 170th to 185th position, the last, are all African countries. Norway is rated to have the highest human development index in the world while Burkina Faso has the lowest.

This report is eminently worth pondering in the light of the legitimate criticisms of the style and substance of   economic management of the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. It is also instructive that prominent among the critics are those who once had the opportunity to shape policy for public good but failed to do so because of their ideological orientation and other reasons.  When some of the trenchant critics were in the saddle, their policy orientation did not suggest that they would agree with the director of the Human Development Report Office (HDRO), Selim Jahan, when he posited at the launch of the report that  “ every human being counts and every human life is equally valuable.” To overcome Nigeria’s development delay, the strategy of development that should be embraced is the one that is informed by this HDRO’s simple credo.

The indicators used in the latest ranking   include healthcare, education, jobs, human security, gender, environment, communication, mobility and poverty in general terms.  The issues remain the basic ones – school enrolment; girl-child education, communicable diseases  (such as the recent outbreak of meningitis); air pollution; sanitation, potable water etc.

Inequality markedly defines the access of members of the population to those things that count for human development. And policy choices determine whether a majority of the population would have access to these necessities of good life. The negative trend has been there for decades now. The present condition is actually the cumulative result of not taking a pro-people path to development.

The paradox of the Nigerian situation is that the critics are not in any fundamental disagreement with the government on the strategy of development that Nigeria has pursued (or failed to pursue).  The consequence of taking this path of development is this shameful rank in human development. Basically the same ideas informing policy today were the same ones that informed governance when some of those critics were in charge of policy conception and execution.  That is why most criticisms focus on selling of assets, exchange rate, growth rates, size of the economy, endorsement of International Monetary Fund etc. The critics are concerned about how far the   government can go with privatisation or liberalisation. They are worried about   how the government should proceed in that direction. The critics are not focussing on the trend in which quality healthcare and education are increasingly becoming commodities that only a few could afford. For instance, the education sector is becoming a big industry where market forces are expected to   allocate quality education to the children of the poor and the rich. This does not feature prominently in the mounting criticisms of governments at all levels.

A nation cannot be said to be doing well in human development when a majority of its people lacks these basic services in the social sector. That is an index of inequality. Universally, inequality has been identified as a social plague. Nigeria continues to be rated low in human development because as a matter of policy social spending is not a priority. But hardly do you hear that   from the economic experts criticising the government. Yet the government has to increase social spending to reverse the trend of inequality. In fact, an intellectual attack on the festering inequality is not a favourite theme of the critics. It is as if the critics are oblivious of the consequences of unchecked inequality on the overall economic development as well as social justice.

Perhaps, the criticisms themselves deserve a critique so that the critics are also held accountable.  This could help in focussing the criticisms on why economic management has failed to enhance human development. The critique is to draw attention of the critics to a troubling question:  why can’t poverty eradication be the focus of governance at this time? Take a sample.  After eight years of opportunity to reshape the political economy for “the greatest good of the greatest number,” a former president struts all over the place admonishing that youth unemployment “is a time bomb.”  Meanwhile, there is no addendum   of the millions of jobs created as a result of the strategy of development he adopted while in power to accompany this pontificating.

Yet no one bothers to ask this leader if the bomb that he has just identified was planted in the social space only last night. Former Central Bank governors are warning against the risk of economic collapse. But they fail to tell us how monetary policies during their tenures energised the real sector to create jobs in millions. These former public office holders   get away with their grandstanding because here is a nation where no one bears responsibility for why development has remained a dream in this land when it has become a reality elsewhere.

People who have held public offices should be held accountable for their record of performance especially when they elect to lecture us on the same problems they failed to solve. Besides, the criticisms do not get to the root of the problem. Critics attack consequences of a wrong approach to development. They do not question the strategy of development itself. The problem at hand requires more radical questions to be posed on why things remain the way they are at present. Some honest liberal observations have been made about the nation’s socio-economic problems. They should be commended. However, only a radical probing would get us to the root of the matter.

Remarkably, the 2016 Report emphasises the element of “national policy matrix” for human development.  An element of the matrix in the Nigerian context is the outlook of policymakers who are to design and implement a strategy of development. The greatest worry should be that fundamentally nothing has changed in terms of a strategic approach to development.

All told, socio-economic debates should also focus on human development.