Monday, May 25, 2009

Tackling the scourge of poverty

Recent economic forecasts by the World Bank indicate that the ranks of Nigerian citizens below the poverty line would swell by 18 million in the current year, as the global financial crisis persists. On the African continent, where a total of 90 million people are potential victims of the economic downturn, it is predicted that that number would sink into poverty, in a year when projected growth rate (two per cent) would be surpassed by birth rate.

Forecasts of this nature, based essentially on global trends, hardly reveal the complete picture for individual countries within a definite period of time. In other words, the decline in standards of living could be worse, with higher numbers than predicted falling into poverty, depending on the peculiar circumstances of countries.

Nigeria, specifically, could face grimmer scenarios, with the near-collapse of basic infrastructure, widespread shutdown of manufacturing companies, job losses as well as high inflation in prices of foodstuffs and other basic essentials. Revenue inflows, too, have shrunken sharply, with the implication that government spending may grow leaner as the year progresses.

These forecasts must be appreciated for what they are – a wake-up call to all tiers of government to put in place appropriate mechanisms to minimise potential adversities. After, a full decade into democratic governance, the standard of living of citizens has been on a steady downward slide. Among initial intimations of the systematic deterioration was the 2004 report of Britain’s Department for International Development. That report read in part: “Our findings show that in the last five years the poverty level in Nigeria is on the increase. From less than 50 per cent living below the poverty line in 1999, more than 70 per cent are now living in absolute poverty.”

Nigeria has had the National Poverty Eradication Programme and similar initiatives under the Nigeria Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy as official measures to reverse the trend. Unfortunately, the various poverty alleviation programmes failed to achieve set targets as they soon became part of an elaborate system for party patronage. A few privileged individuals cornered the budgetary allocations, from year to year, to the utter exclusion of target beneficiaries.

With this gloomy picture, the government has to take a critical look at its management of available economic resources with a view to initiating measures that could engender a fairer distribution of same, in accordance with the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy, as set out in Chapter II of the Constitution. Section 16 (1) (b) enjoins the State to “control the national economy in such manner as to secure the maximum welfare, freedom and happiness of every citizen on the basis of social justice and equality of status and opportunity.”

A situation where 32 per cent of disbursements from the Federation Account is paid out to 17, 474 public functionaries as salaries and allowances, as was the case between June 1999 and May 2007, is indeed most scandalous. It points to a fundamental flaw in national economic planning and resource allocation, and is in clear breach of the nation’s Constitution. The Federal Government, in conjunction with the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission, could redress such anomaly and ensure that cost of governance does not constitute an impediment to national development and the general well-being of the majority of citizens.

Mass poverty is a threat to society as a whole and must be prevented at all costs. The unprecedented crime rate today, especially armed robbery, kidnapping for ransom purposes, human trafficking, prostitution, especially among teenagers, is a clear result of an economy gone awry.

Top among policy options available to government is the revamping of the country’s productive base. The most urgent action to be taken is rehabilitate the nation’s infrastructure. Electricity supply has to be improved to boost industrial operations as well as productivity among small businesses. All plans to embark on massive rehabilitation of roads and modernize the railway system should be implemented speedily. Education should be made accessible to all citizens, especially at the primary and post-primary levels, as it will enhance individual capacity for productive work. To create wealth and alleviate poverty there must be a sustained improvement in the economy’s global competitiveness.