Poverty Rates and Social Protection

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    THE HORIZON

    By KAYODE KOMOLAFE; kayode.komolafe@thisdaylive.com; 0805 500 1974

    While experts may quarrel on statistics of poverty, the poor themselves are never in doubt that their condition is getting worse.

    In the last few months, some international organisations and foreign think tanks have made grim projections about the poverty rates in Nigeria. The World Bank has said that Nigerians are getting poorer. Subsequently, the Brookings Institute released a report indicating that 87 million people live in extreme poverty at the end of May.  Nigeria is now the home of the largest number persons living in extreme poverty. India used to be so described. According to the think tank, about six persons get into extreme poverty every minute in Nigeria. The report is, of course, disputed by government.

    However, with a few months to elections such observations should trigger robust policy debates. The report should make poverty a focus of politics at least in this season. As this reporter has pointed out on this page several times, in tackling poverty the strategy should include a comprehensive policy of social protection. The elements of social protection in the social investment policy of the Buhari administration such as cash transfers to the poorest in the community, school feeding and empowerment should provide a substratum for   rigorous debates on anti-poverty strategies of the government and those in opposition.

    In other words, the government should be sharper in policy articulation while the opposition should offer coherent and plausible alternatives.

    Doubtless, social protection should be central to the socio-economic agenda of any party seeking to govern Nigeria at this time because of the enormity of poverty in the land. It is also important to admonish politicians that issues of social protection are not to be discussed glibly. A nation that fails to make social protection a central issue of development will be blighted by worsening inequality in its social landscape.

    To be clear, widening inequality is a social scourge afflicting mankind with all the social and political consequences.  For instance, cash transfer is just a minute aspect of social protection. It is, of course, an ideological matter because those who perceive Nigeria as a Darwinian jungle where only the fittest materially should survive cannot possibly imagine the great difference N5, 000 could ever make to the monthly real incomes of some very poor families.

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

    It is the insistence of the public that   issues of protection should be given attention by those seeking or wishing to retain power that would prevent the ruling party and those in opposition from reducing democracy in this land to electocracy.

    The current trend now is highly insensitive to the public mood; politicians   give the impression that elections are the only things that happen in a democracy. This is 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. It is the business of government in power to 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.

    That is why another worry should be 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 without any articulated alternative. The opposition should be more rigorous in its interrogation of the Buhari administration employing sound ideas as weapons and not political tirades.

    Such an interrogation would show, for example, that if efficiently administered, social security system could be a potent instrument of poverty reduction.

    Examples of successful poverty reduction strategies abound globally. The most populous country, China, 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.

    The organising principle to this trend should be obvious 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. There was a 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.

    As a matter of projection, is it, therefore, unrealistic to expect that 87 million Nigerians would be captured in the social security net by 2019? You may say this seems over-ambitious in a country where political parties only meet mainly to discuss candidates for elections. They don’t engage in policy debates. They are bereft of ideologies.  Politics is all about seeking power. The crises plaguing the parties are not derived from disagreements on policy conception and implementation. At least for the next five months or so political parties should engage the public sphere with debates of policies and programmes and not merely indulge in abusing and insulting opponents. It is important for the political parties to clearly articulate their social security goals for the electorate to examine.

    The point at issue is that greater attention should be given to the poverty and inequality plaguing the socio-economic system.  This reporter once observed in this column that when you listen to our economic experts in and out of power, 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 experts crunch turn into positive ones. In other words, 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). The sad lesson, however, is that historically this has not been the case. There were poor people 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 the period of the poor statistics. For example before the last recession, the poor people faced misery. Recession might have worsened their condition. Now that the statisticians say that recession is over, the misery of the “wretched of the earth,” as Franz Fanon describes the poor in the title of his celebrated book, continues.

    That is why the worsening inequality in the system should be addressed as part of the efforts towards economic recovery.

    To be sure, 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. It is suggestible that our economic thinkers should make this part of their preoccupation. If not, tomorrow our experts may declare, based on the statistics at their disposal, 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.

    Even liberal economists in the West are paying attention to the question of inequality. In making this point, Nobel Laureate in Economics, Professor Joseph Stiglitz, was once quoted on this page on 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 a professor of criminology 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 politicians.

    It is also important to stress that 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. The consequence is the reality many people live with as the less endowed relations, friends and acquaintances making desperate demands on him or her, have virtually turned every middle class person into a one-man social system. Things are, of course, bettered 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. 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.

    As politicians peddle their wares in this electoral season, it is the duty of genuinely progressive organisations and individuals to sustain the clamour for increased funding of public education, primary healthcare, mass transit, social housing, social security, access to potable water, sanitation etc. in the budgetary process. Left to the neo-liberals and free market fundamentalists in our midst, the state has no role in promoting social security. Yet, the performance of any administration should be measured by the percentage of poverty reduction it could achieve above any other index.

    Social protection should be made an issue for the 2019 elections as one of the battles in the war against poverty.