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Published On: Wed, Jul 16th, 2014

How to handle mass poverty in the North

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By Gilbert Alabi Adachie

Mass poverty in the North (as elsewhere in the country) cannot be solved merely by altering the revenue-sharing formula. There have to be significant changes in the region, particularly in the social mindset of the people as well as in the reduction of corruption level. Women’s potential contribution to the economy has been widely recognized worldwide. Therefore, more women in the North should be liberated and allowed to participate actively in the economy rather than being secluded in purdah. Also, the more educated they are, the less likely they are to marry early and have large families. Regarding corruption in the region, it can be argued that were there transparency and accountability in leadership, the enormous resources that politicians literally stole from state coffers would be more than adequate to make life relatively comfortable for most of their populations.

Many local government councils in the North spend less than 30% of their monthly subventions on workers’ salaries, and yet cause considerable hardship to their workers for non-payment of salaries, sometimes for months on end. Where has the remaining 70% gone? The usual answer is that the chairmen are busy embarking on “development projects” to benefit non-workers; but we know that a project that would genuinely cost N50 million to execute would be assigned a N200 million or more price tag; since the subvention cannot take care of this artificially inflated sum, the LGC chairman is compelled to take out a bank “loan” from which he enriches himself and his cronies, sometimes leaving a huge liability to his successor, who leaves behind an even bigger liability, and on and on like that.

Poverty is thus endemic in the country because of the greed (and wasteful manners) of our politicians. Take the case of a former governor’s N15 billion misappropriation as an example. Assuming there is an element of truth in this allegation, what could this vast amount, which can build twice Pastor Adeboye’s auditorium, do for the people of Nasarawa state? With a population of only 1,869,377, according to the 2006 national census, spread over 13 LGAs, each person in the state, from the youngest to the oldest, would have received over N8,000; or N64,000 per average household of eight persons, a huge sum in rural Nigeria.

How can the poor be assisted? There are several ways. I believe that in cases where embezzled public funds have been recovered, direct cash transfers of such funds should be made to poor households, rather than using them for infrastructure development, which invariably is another way of misappropriating the same money. We have enormous numbers of widows struggling to cope with daily life with their children. We have even larger numbers of unemployed youths and disabled people. We have old and sick people to care for. And, of course, there are those who are genuinely poor for no fault of theirs, those who have been trying all their lives without ever “making it”.

We have a moral obligation to help them directly. Academic economists of a capitalist bent may dismiss this approach as a “Father Christmas” sort of solution likely to make people lazy, but I don’t think so. After all, that’s essentially what is being done by the federal government in the Niger Delta to pacify the former insurgents as part of an amnesty deal. Each year, billions of non-refundable naira are spent on them. There is evidence that direct-cash approach has worked elsewhere in the world.

Nigerian women are particularly adept at managing family resources, and could transform a little cash into a self-sustaining source of income. In a special report published in The Economist of 26 October 2013, giving poor households direct cash had a salutary effect on communities in Kenya, Uganda and other countries where it was attempted. In one version of this approach, called “conditional cash transfers” (or CCTs), households are required, for example, to send their children to school or take them to clinics for immunization in return for cash which would not be repaid. This is the method that would probably work best in northern Nigeria, where there appears to be widespread apathy towards formal schooling and opposition in some quarters to the immunization of children. In another version, called “unconditional cash transfers” (or UCTs), championed by a project called Give Directly, to which Google and Facebook are major contributors, there are no strings attached to cash given to the poorest of the poor. Identification of the poor (as in the Kenya experiment) is by means of census data and physical inspection of their dwellings on the ground using GPS and other high-tech equipment. For example, a rudimentary pack of thatched circular huts would indicate a poorer household than a corrugated-iron-roofed rectangular house.

Any part of his/her income found to have been misappropriated should be seized and returned to public coffers for distribution directly to the poor in the form of CCTs or UCTs. After all, state resources embezzled by politicians are often embedded in the annual budgets for the welfare of the people rather than for the material benefit of a tiny clique. Direct cash transfers to the poor would not make them lazy, any more than giving welfare benefits to the unemployed in the UK made them complacent about seeking jobs. Statistics on the poor is not too difficult to compile, given the political will. We must drastically reduce the level of corruption and poverty in this country. Only then can we begin to build a truly just society.

Gilbert Alabi Diche via gilbertdiche@gmail.com

 

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