Again, we are back at this conversation about the conditional cash transfer scheme. If you have been engaged in a bit of social listening since the announcement of a proposed payment of N8000 to the most vulnerable in form of conditional cash transfer was announced, you could not but have noticed the talkdown about it.
What a paltry sum! How much is it in dollars? How will it get to the poor when we do not have a database? What are the criteria for selecting the 12 million? It is just money for the boys!
Indeed, there is nothing new or unusual about this. Once it gets to schemes for alleviating poverty targeted at the most vulnerable, it is the privileged who usually take the lead, assuming upon themselves the responsibility to determine the appropriateness of what is on offer for the bottom of the pyramid.
The poor do not have a voice. It is their advocates on social media that we must listen to. They are the ones that must be pleased. The same advocates who all along had been clamouring for something to be done to help the poor.
Now, they have turned around to argue, on one hand, that what has been offered is belittling and on the other that giving money directly to people is wasteful. They are lost to the contradiction. They are lost to the condescension on their part that the poor, who can even be more resourceful, will only apply such money to wasteful consumption. They are lost to what impact, however little, this makes in the economy of buying and selling at the bottom of the pyramid.
It is an interesting, even if it is an old, worn-out debate. It is an encore of that which started sometime in 2015 when the Buhari Administration launched the Social Investment programme under the supervision of then Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, with different components such as Tradermoni, Farmermoni. N5000 was deemed then not to be good enough to give to the poor.
While proponents of laissez-faire economics, holding on to the trickle-down philosophy, disagreed with the idea itself, many of those who ridiculed the idea did so more on grounds that appear founded more in ignorance, garnished with mischief, with no thought or consideration for the thinking behind the project or possible impact in the lives of the beneficiaries.
Such was the level of ignorance/mischief about the scheme that a fictional account of the then Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, distributing cash to the people was concocted and passed around even till the last days of the administration, with some of those acting as advocates for the new scheme now guilty of propagating the lies to disparage Osinbajo, who supervised the social investment programme in the first 4 years of the administration.
It is to Osinbajo’s credit that with the support of the World Bank, a National Social Register was developed, which has a database of about 50 million vulnerable Nigerians. That Register is an aggregate of State Social Registers, which was developed through a bottom-up approach with direct participation by Nigerians from all the wards in the different communities in all the local governments of the federation.
Each individual captured in the register is said to have 138 indicators attributed to them, ranging from biodata to vocation, educational qualification, access to social amenities in the community, access to roads to the communities, access to drinking water, access to toilet facilities, dwelling places, disability status. It is that register that has been used over the years for effecting electronic transfer of money to beneficiaries of the different schemes under the Social Investment programme.
With the challenges triggered by Covid-19, a ‘Rapid Response Register’ was also developed. That further enriched the National Social Register, which has been described as the first scientific targeting mechanism in Nigeria and one of the first and most comprehensive in sub-Saharan Africa. The Register has been well received by international development Institutions and has served as database from which organisations such as the UNDP, Tony Elumelu Foundation, Save the Children, UNICEF and other international NGOs have mined data, at different times, for their intervention programmes.
Apparently, many of those who posture as Expert Commentators on TV and social media platforms do not put in the necessary shift to acquire appropriate knowledge on the issues they take on, otherwise we won’t have so many of them hammering on non-availability of data, obviously unaware of the existence of this National Social Register. I doubt that what we currently have is error-proof, as every database does need constant update, but the fact is that the Register is there. Perhaps we can start with interrogating the data to see how representative it is of the demography targeted and plug identified gaps.
Only a few weeks back, under this new administration, 12,337 poor and vulnerable households in Ondo State, through electronic means (debit cards), received a backlog of the N5,000 monthly stipend, which had piled up for between 6 and 20 months for some beneficiaries due to what was described as “operational issues”. The point, however, is that the Buhari administration left behind a register and a model for electronic transfer of cash to the category of people being targeted under the new scheme, which the Tinubu administration has now plugged into, for the execution of the new scheme.
The argument that N8,000 is too little reminds me of the debate we had back in 2015. One Newspaper columnist had dismissed N5,000 as money for mere recharge cards. I remember taking him up then, arguing that for him and the privileged class, N5,000 might be nothing, but it was indeed a lot of money for my friend, Bala. “The total value of goods in his wheel-barrow is less than two thousand naira, so five thousand cannot be recharge card money for him. For Mama Efe who sells ‘Boli’ and roasted yam down the road, she will definitely thank God for a monthly five thousand naira to help increase her stock. Chinedu who moves in between cars in traffic, hawking handkerchiefs, understands what five thousand naira can do, seeing that his total stock is valued at less than three thousand naira. He has friends who started out with only a fifty-naira bag of sachet water, gotten through credit facility from the distributor. Many of our mothers trade with less than five thousand naira, yet miraculously manage to put food on the table for their families.”
I went further to argue then that “one of the challenges we have today is not simply that of policy makers being too far away from the people, opinion moulders are sometimes too distant to be able to feel the pulse of the people…” On the argument that government should not be making such token payments to the poor, but rather concentrate on creating an enabling environment for job and wealth creation, I asked: ‘’Are we saying the two cannot be done together? Where were the commentators when government bailed out banks and other sectors with trillions of naira from our commonwealth? What is wrong with bailing out the poor? We have not talked about the impact such direct payment will make on the economy of the poor. We have not even considered the sense in the conditional cash transfer that links payment to maternal and child healthcare.”
As I argued in 2015, so do I now. Conditional cash transfer to the most vulnerable Nigerians, which I hope can be linked to certain expectations or specific outcomes for those in applicable categories, is one I support in principle. Any scheme targeted at alleviating the plight of the poor, irrespective of the quantum, will always have my support. The suggestion that it is too little, which is valid on the face of it, but not when situated within the contextual realities of revenue challenge, source of funding the scheme and possibility of sustainability, cannot be an argument against it.
Indeed, some have argued that a cash transfer scheme is not a viable pathway to the stimulation of the economy. But I am not aware that this was ever presented as a single-dose stimulant for the economy, even when it should be obvious that, even in its imperfect form, the scheme has the potential of being a catalyst for the ‘’buy and sell economy’ at the bottom of the pyramid, at least in the short run.
Everywhere the Conditional Cash Transfer Scheme has been deployed around the world, and especially here, it has been as palliative for the poorest, to keep them afloat at a time of grave economic circumstances and help achieve related outcomes to enhance their quality of lives.
In the current instance, I see the scheme as a short-term token to help the most vulnerable cope with the pressures triggered by the increase in cost of power, transportation, food and other essentials on account of the hike in fuel price and the attendant rise in cost of living. That the World Bank would advocate for it and go further to provide facility to fund the scheme, given its track record on the opposite track, speaks to its recognition of the fact that the poor have their backs to the wall more than at any other time.
There is a whole lot of other fiscal and monetary measures that are (should be) designed for the purpose of stimulating the economy that I believe the government must be working on. I struggle to see the point seemingly being suggested by some critics that we cannot do more than one thing at once, as long as one does not run contrary to the other.
In 2019, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, Husband and wife, both Economists, were announced winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics, for their “experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”. The argument in their body of work is that the poor is largely misunderstood on account of poor economics, as they have been reduced “to a set of cliches”. Querying the whole argument around human beings and rational choice theory, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo argue that the poor aren’t going to stop working just because you have given them some ‘free money’, as some of our experts argue. If anything, they may work a little more.
Their argument resonates with some of us. I see their argument. In part, as a philosophical plank for the social investment programme, which has now been institutionalised with the signing into law of the bill setting up the National Social Investment Programme Agency by the Buhari administration.
As I argued in 2015, the idea of a conditional cash transfer linked with compulsory school enrolment and immunisation is one I endorse. We must find a way to link the new scheme with such initiatives that can help further our chances of realising some of the related Sustainable Development Goals.
Simbo Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian communications consultancy and publisher of Africa Enterprise. Email: Editor@enterpriseafrica.ng