TACKLING POVERTY THROUGH RECOVERED ASSETS: THE EMERGING NIGERIAN EXPERIENCE
By Rev David Ugolor & Dr. Ayibakuro Matthew
At the start of this week, a total of 724 field monitors were deployed across 19 states and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja for the second phase of the monitoring of the use of the $322.5 million Abacha loot returned from Switzerland in 2018. By the end of the monitoring exercise, they would have confirmed, from a representative sample, if 329,963 poor households across Nigeria currently enrolled in the National Cash Transfer Programme (NCTP) are being paid basic monthly sums of 5,000 Naira from the Abacha funds.
This second phase follows from the first monitoring exercise undertaken by a network of civil society organisations led by the Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ) in December 2018. The report of that exercise, which was released earlier in the year, showed that over 90 percent of the poorest households that were enrolled in the NCTP were receiving the stipulated monthly sums.
Beyond the significance of this monitoring framework, the utilisation of the recovered Abacha funds to finance targeted cash transfers to the poorest Nigerians signifies a departure from previous experiences in Nigeria with regard to the utilisation of recovered assets. Whereas recovered funds have previously been allocated to fund infrastructural projects in the national budget in an opaque manner with negligible monitoring, the current framework has the potential of tackling the enormous challenge of poverty in the country through recovered assets.
The Impact of the Funds on the Poorest Nigerians
At the commencement of the NCTP, there were dissenting voices who questioned the rationale of paying a paltry sum of 5,000 Naira monthly to poor Nigerians. Unfortunately, these arguments were built on a perennial lack of trust in government intervention programmes based on past experiences. Beyond this, attacks on social investment programmes reflect a poor understanding of the state of poverty in the country and the role of such social safety net programmes in safeguarding people against the extreme adversity and hardship that poverty entails.
In a country where an estimated 87 million people, representing about half the population, live in extreme poverty and about a quarter of the population is either unemployed or underemployed, programmes like the NCTP could not be more timely.
Hence, away from the numbers, the most significant revelation of the monitoring exercise was arguably the testimonies of the positive impact of the Abacha funds on the poorest Nigerians: providing food, safeguarding shelter, assisting the sick with medication, ensuring children remain in school, enabling small-sale businesses and providing people with livelihood skills. The fact that these results are being achieved through funding from looted funds provides room for optimism.
Challenges and Room for Improvement
There is also room for improvement. The monitoring exercise revealed that officials involved in the implementation of the cash transfers, especially at the local government and community levels were deducted parts of the funds meant for the beneficiaries. These revelations, which came to light through the monitoring exercise, were duly passed on to the relevant government agencies for appropriate action.
In furtherance of this, the National Social Investment Office (NSIO) has just established a strategic partnership with the Independent Corruption Practices Commission (ICPC) to ensure that persons involved in such illegal practices are duly prosecuted. A toll free hotline was also launched for this purpose.
Emerging Best Practices
The emergence of pockets of corrupt practices in the implementation of the NCTP demonstrates the inherent problem of corruption in Nigeria. And it is for this purpose that the continuing monitoring of the use of recovered funds by civil society is crucial. This is not just to ensure the success of this programme but for the bigger picture of the emerging potential best practices in this area.
In a country where successive governments have struggled to mobilise public support for the age-long fight against corruption, demonstrating that the proceeds of corrupt practices can effectively contribute to addressing poverty can be transformative. To achieve this, all stakeholders must continue to play their strategic roles individually and collectively. The experience with the use of the Abacha loot in funding the NCTP and the monitoring of the process by civil society already demonstrates discernible good practices in this regard.
There are three important elements that have enabled this. The first is the relative transparency demonstrated by the relevant government agencies such as the National Cash Transfer Office and the National Social Safety Nets Coordinating Office in sharing programme information with civil society. The role of this in facilitating the monitoring process was duly acknowledged in the report by ANEEJ.
The second factor is the approach of collective action adopted by all stakeholders from the point of signing the MOU for the return of the Abacha funds to the current stage of its use and monitoring. Both government actors and civil society have demonstrated a disposition for qualified cooperation with the ultimate objective of ensuring the success of the model of using recovered assets to address fundamental development challenges.
Finally, the move to institutionalise the social investment programme of the government is commendable, especially in the light of the poverty trajectory of the country. World Poverty Clock projects that Nigeria will be home to about 110 million people living in extreme poverty by 2030. Hence, moving the social investment office from its erstwhile domiciliation under the Office of the Vice President to the substantive Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development will ensure that the programme does not suffer the fate of similar programmes in the past. Whilst its initial location under the Vice President’s office, arguably, provided the needed political will for the programme to thrive, the current move would, no doubt, ensure that it would outlive the present administration.
Going forward, the Nigerian Government has to intensify, rather than reduce its commitment to social investment programmes. A recent World Bank study on social safety net programmes in Africa highlighted the need to scale such programmes in the continent through increased funding and focusing on addressing political, institutional and fiscal barriers to their effectiveness in combating poverty. The study showed that African countries devote, on average, 1.2 per cent of GDP to social safety nets, compared to a global average of 1.6 per cent.
The current administration in Nigeria made a bold commitment to fund social investment programmes with 500 billion Naira allocated to fund such programmes annually from 2016 to 2019. However, just about a third of that budget was released to the social investment office in the three-year period. Unfortunately, the government has allocated only a meagre 30 billion Naira, representing 0.3 per cent of the total budget, to fund social investment in 2020. This is a discouraging development at a time when the government is supposed to be consolidating and scaling work in this area by leveraging alternative sources of funding like recovered assets to aid its mostly poor population.
On its part, ANEEJ and other civil society organisations have to sustain their advocacy and monitoring role to ensure that recovered assets – and public funds generally – continue to be used to address the country’s enormous development challenges.
The Rev David Ugolor is executive director, ANEEJ & Dr. Ayibakuro Matthew is Senior Research and Social Norms Advisor, ANEEJ.