Martins Ifijeh

Co Chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda Gates has called on the Nigerian government to invest in youths if it is interested in addressing problems around data gathering in the country.

She said Nigeria’s young population has the biggest stake in good data, and that they do not only bring in fresh ways of thinking, but uses data to hold their leaders accountable.

Sharing her thoughts during a teleconference with select journalists recently, she said the BMGF was excited to be working with young Nigerians who were pioneering low-cost approaches to collecting higher-quality data.

She said: “Young people not only bring fresh ways of thinking, they also use data to hold their leaders accountable. They are often the first to speak up when government is not making good on its promises. Data in the hands of those whose lives it impacts is one of the most powerful tools we have to improve things like healthcare and education,” she said.

“I am amazed at how little data we have on the lives and experiences of women and girls in Africa. Missing data is just harmful because data really should guide all the decisions that we make, and it should inform policy. So, if we are going to make progress in meaningful ways for women and girls, we have got to collect and analyze date and then act on it.”

According to her, lack of available data has also played a role in the maternal and child health issues currently experienced in the country, adding that there exists a huge gap in what was known about women’s lives due to lack of data.

She said: “This huge gap includes areas of their health and access to care, education and career trajectories. Maternal health in Nigeria is one example. We know that only about half of births in Nigeria are delivered by skilled birth attendants, and that there is a big difference depending on which state women live in – from 90 per cent in Anambra and Imo to around one quarter in Yobe, Zamfara, and Kebbi. We need to understand women’s experiences in different health centers and different parts of the country, so that we can close these gaps. But this data is collected infrequently and isn’t reliable – which means we are using anecdotal evidence and best guesses even when the job is protecting the health of women and children,” Gates explained.

On issues around family planning and correspondent high population in the country, she said the country presently hangs in the balance, adding that there was an incredible generation coming up that has the chance to transform the country, and that that generation has already been born.

“So, we need to look at the fact that 70 per cent of the population is under the age of 30 and this wave of youths, their dynamism, their energy, their potential is one of Nigeria’s greatest untapped natural resources.

“So, for me, it is all about how do we invest in the potential of those people? The reason family planning is so important is because it empowers people and it in particularly, empowers women. When a woman understands about her body and she can have access voluntarily to family planning, to contraceptive, she can time and space the birth of her children.”

She said women who have access to family planning at the early stage stay in school longer, noting that an educated girl transforms society and families; a reason why women and girls must be informed about their bodies.

“Having access to contraceptives available in the public and private sector is vital in moving forward. We know that for every dollar you invest in family planning, it is a $6 return and so this is really a crucial area for Nigeria to literally tap into the potential of its people in the next decade,” she said.

On healthcare financing, the philanthropist said the foundation was working closely with governments across Africa and particularly in Nigeria to explain to them why financing their healthy systems, particularly the primary healthcare system was vital to improving peoples’ lives.

She said primary health centre is where parents go with their children; but that it needs to be financed properly otherwise these families will find alternative care.

Gates said: “So, Nigeria’s federal government consistently moves money to states and then the states moves money out to primary healthcare and collecting the data about how they are actually doing in primary healthcare. This is one of the most vital things that Bill and I advocate the most when we are in Nigeria or even from afar talking about both the federal and the state level.

“When you see other African nations making progress on maternal mortality or child mortality, it is because they have invested in that primary healthcare system. Quite frankly, Nigeria has a long way to go particularly in the North and they need to fund it consistently so the medical staff will actually show up there and know that they can do a quality job,” she said.

Gates, who along with her husband writes annual letters every year, said this year, they chose to focus on things that surprise them, adding that five of such were worthy of note.

She said: “Some of these surprises show us that we need change, and others demonstrate the transformation is already in progress. First off, Africa is getting younger while the rest of the world grows older. This can be either a source of instability or a huge asset. It really all just depends on young peoples’ access to education and good health.

“The second thing about Africa is that we have little data on the lives and experiences of women and girls in Africa. The third is that it is also surprising just how transformative access to toilets can be for women and girls. We know better toilets and sanitation helps keep girls in school, they expand women’s economic participation and they protect them against violence.”
She said another surprise was on mobile technology, noting that the technology was growing across the continent and creating new opportunities to fight inequity and to lift women up.

“Finally, the fifth thing about Africa is the rise of nationalism in donor countries, as this could have a direct impact on Africa’s most vulnerable communities. Bill and I have been spending a lot of time talking to donor nations and Africa, everybody sees that Africa is stepping up its efforts to domestic health financing but the aide from donor countries is still essential. So, over the next 18 months the entire world really needs to recommit to global health as the critical health fund needs to get replenished like the Global Fund in the next 18 months and then like Gavi behind that and others and so Bill and I are spending a lot of time on that issue with donor countries,” she added.