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Palliatives as ATM by another name

There must be something uncanny about one of the youngest ministries in Nigeria: The Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation. This ministry was created…

There must be something uncanny about one of the youngest ministries in Nigeria: The Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation. This ministry was created to help the needy in society, but it seems those who need no help are the ones now helping themselves.

The ministry was created to alleviate poverty, but it could end up entrenching poverty. The emphasis on palliatives is already crowding out the consideration of better options for tackling poverty than just doling out cash. Indeed, by its nature, the ministry is designed to be awash with cash that can easily be handed out to the needy. This liquid nature of the ministry makes it a gold mine that can easily be exploited by itchy fingers. Palliatives have thus become the latest ATM in town, readily available to the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation.

We might just have called this ministry the Ministry of Palliatives! After all, all it was created to do is to offer palliatives. In this regard, the ministry through its officials could be dealing with IDPs – including victims of the various bandits’ attacks or those affected by flooding or some other natural disaster. They could also be dealing with those who allegedly have been identified as economically vulnerable Nigerians.

Whichever group of Nigerians this ministry is dealing with at any point in time or place in the country, the truth is that this method of tackling poverty is itself vulnerable to manipulation. And this truth is gradually unfolding. Current reports of irregularities in expenditure claims by the ministry’s officials regarding their activities are clear justifications for the caution many Nigerians have called for in talks about palliatives as policy instruments.

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Interestingly, on July 19 last year, this column carried a piece under the title: Attention Advisers! Tell Tinubu Palliatives Won’t Work. That piece warned, among others, that: “These cash-based palliatives, as fashionable as they sound, cannot give any relief to Nigeria’s poor. Instead, they will simply add to the list of funds thrown away in the name of helping the poor”.

It also noted that “The trouble with the kind of programme being planned by the president is that the human factor will compromise its effectiveness”.

That warning came on the heels of coordinated and determined efforts within the new administration to present palliatives as the silver bullet to tame poverty in Nigeria. It became the song on the lips of every official of the incoming administration, obviously taking a cue from the disastrous experiment of the Buhari administration. The failure of palliatives and the so-called poverty alleviation was never admitted by that administration. Instead, they kept insulting the sensibilities of Nigerians with spurious claims of non-existent millions of Nigerians who had been pulled out of poverty as a result of money handed out to them.   

Now, the facade has been blown open. All along, it was a case of dressing mutton as lamb. It cannot work. Today, palliatives and poverty alleviation are in the news, but not for good reasons. We have not pulled anyone out of poverty! We have not alleviated the pain of poverty- in the real sense of the word.

Those who support palliatives as a solution to Nigeria’s recursive poverty know what they are driving at. And that is why they refused to tell or convince the president that palliatives work best in theory and on paper. They know that palliatives cannot bring even a temporary relief to the Nigerian poor due to the peculiarities of our environment. Or, put another way, for palliatives to produce a semblance of a positive impact on the vulnerable, then those who are in charge of the programme would have taken so much unto themselves and their cronies.

This government must strive to move Nigeria away from this false socialist garb.  What we have is not even a reformed socialist state. Yes, the government must provide a social safety net for those truly vulnerable groups, especially in a country that over the years has not had a defined welfare programme. This is perhaps the argument in support of what the government is trying to do through these measures.

Yet, a policy badly conceived and equally poorly or even fraudulently implemented cannot be justified based on necessity. What we are witnessing now is a disconnect between a policy and its implementation environment.  There is no denying the fact that ours is an environment where public officials can hijack a system to their benefit.

This is why the market, despite its imperfections and occasional failures, it is still the best mechanism for rewarding economic agents or allocating resources. 

To practise the market system, Nigeria must return to a growing and producing economy that creates jobs. The trouble with our economy right now is that we have too many unemployed resources. Our land is not put to optimal use in part due to banditry that has chased many farmers away from their farms. We have for a long time been a “generator economy” as individuals and companies generate their power to do business.

Therefore, with the quantum jump in the price of both petrol and diesel, everyone has been forced to cut down on their power generation. And with this unemployment has risen. Right now, we cannot even say what our jobless rate is because of the strange methodology adopted by the National Bureau of Statistics for calculating the unemployment rate.  

All said palliatives cannot make a dent in poverty or inequality in Nigeria. So, if the government goes ahead with it as it’s done now, that will simply amount to a deliberate act to waste our resources.


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