The Path to Social Protection



In the eyes of some neo-liberal experts, the abysmal lack of social protection for the poor is hardly an issue.

Poor social protection is not often made the topic of discussions because those adversely affected lack power. It is, of course, in the nature of the unjust system to distribute power grossly to the disadvantage of the majority.

The interests of the dominant class are substituted for the interests of the whole society. That is why you search in vain for the genuine interests of the people in most of the crises in which the same poor people end up as victims.

However, there is a noticeable tendency that should be encouraged.
Discussions are being deepened on physical insecurity, the issue of the moment, by linking it to the vulnerability of those the system has denied social protection.

Security has been largely conceived in physical terms. Not enough investments have been made in social security and other aspects of the larger social protection. This neglect of the social basis of security has proved costly in human and material terms. The chickens have come home to roost , as they say.

The import of the foregoing is that an effective social protection policy is usually a product of socio-economic planning. Nigeria should take deliberate steps towards the social protection of the poor people. That is why this theme has been emphasised even at the risk of repetition in this column in the last few years.

Regrettably, it’s part of the poverty of the contemporary politics in Nigeria that elections take place without defining the issues on the basis of which the electorate is asked to vote. For instance in the last year elections there was no robust debate on social protection in a country that some think tanks rated as the home of the largest number of poor people on earth. Even if you dismiss the soul-depressing ratings of the foreign experts, the official and non-official figures produced at home indicate that poverty is a scourge in the land.

Yet the government in power could not even articulate in conceptual and practical terms how to expand social protection. For instance, the “restructuring” in the implementation of the social investments and the merger with disaster management efforts by way of creating another ministry was not even mentioned during the campaigns.

The other political parties had nothing better on display except to allege that the implementation of aspects of the programme amounted to “vote buying.” That was really no policy debate.

There are also legions of politicians and experts who out of ideological prejudice insult the poor people by saying that social protection programmes would make them lazy. Meanwhile, they have no veritable conceptual alternatives of how to improve the condition of the poor.
Ironically, these same middle and upper class elements who pooh-pooh social protection programmes are forced by the system to operate virtually as one-man social security outfits. Demands on them by their less endowed relatives, friends, neighbours and acquaintances for financial helps are a daily affair. In a more structured way, non-governmental organisations of various sizes (including notable foundations) are carrying out a lot of poverty-alleviation activities in urban and rural areas.

Despite all these official and non-official efforts, social protection is still considered low in Nigeria as a recent World bank report indicated.
Therefore, specific programmes of social protection (especially social security schemes ) that would traverse the formal and informal sectors should be central to the socio-economic agenda of all political parties at this time. Politicians should not discuss issues of social protection glibly. Even parties out of power can popularise alternative policy strategies to achieve the same purpose.

Take a sample. Cash transfer is just a minute aspect of social protection. Yet, it is, an ideological matter because those who perceive Nigeria as a Darwinian jungle where only the materially fittest should survive cannot possibly imagine the great difference N5, 000 could ever make to the monthly real incomes of some very poor families. Here we are talking of the most vulnerable segment of the society.

How can a government design a programme of cash transfer that could be targeted at the poorest segment of the society without corruption and other leakages? That is a pertinent question for the political parties in power at all levels as well as those not yet in power. It can be done.
When members of the public insist that issues of social protection should be given attention by those seeking or wishing to retain power the trend to reduce democracy to perpetual permutations for elections would be halted.

This trend of power-mongering 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 beyond the electoral season. 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.

To be sure, there are examples of successful poverty reduction strategies 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 its unyielding anti-poverty war by China. There was a scientific discussion and planning at the party level.

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 100 million Nigerians would be captured in the social safety net in the next 10 years as President Muhammadu Buhari said? 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.

Listening to our economic experts you could get the impression that the economic problems facing the majority of the people would suddenly disappear when the negative numbers the experts crunch turn into positive ones. In other words, the problem would be over automatically with increased Gross Domestic Product (GDP), higher price of crude oil, better Fitch Rating and 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 poor continues.

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

Since the days of Napoleon Bonaparte in France when the welfare state emerged, the extremely rough edges of capitalism have since 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.

Even outside the electoral season, the clamour should be intensified for increased funding of social security, public education, primary healthcare, mass transit (not Okada!), social housing, access to potable water, rural electrification, sanitation etc. in the budgetary process.
The performance of any administration should be measured by the percentage of poverty reduction it could achieve above any other index.
In order to achieve social protection especially for the most vulnerable segment of the society, government must make efforts to bring about social protection at levels of policy conception and implementation.

Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development Hajiya Sadiya Umar Farouq has her job well cut out for her in this respect. So are the respective officers in the states coordinating social protection programmes.
Social protection should be put at the centre of a national development strategy that Nigeria direly needs at this time.

“Nigeria should take deliberate steps towards the social protection of its poor people”