We’re Committed To Eradicating Poverty – Gbeneol, SSA To Jonathan On MDGs

Q: As we count-down towards 2015, what are the investments you look forward to in the area of reducing extreme poverty, especially bearing in mind it is the first MDG’s target?
A:Like you may well know, the Office of the Senior Special Assistant to the President on MDGs was established in 2005 as part of the robust mechanism for coordinating the efforts and executing the initiatives targeted at attaining the MDGs in Nigeria. The funding, which is drawn from the Debt Relief Grant is appropriated in the annual budget to scale-up existing high-impact MDG-related interventions. It is meant to supplement capital expenditure, not to pay debts, salaries or other recurrent expenditure.
Since my appointment, I have brought my passion to innovate and execute high impact projects on the vulnerable to bear and as we count down to 2015, we are scaling up investments in a bid to reducing extreme poverty.
The fight against poverty in Nigeria is an on-going task and I can however confirm to you that a good percentage of the MDGs fund has gone into the fight against extreme poverty and we are still making more investments towards eradicating poverty in the country. These are evident in the projects executed and spread across the country. Also in addition to the direct intervention from the MDGs office, we have been supporting other sister agencies with funds aimed at reducing poverty.
POVERTY MAPPING
As a take off, we have carried out comprehensive poverty mapping, needs assessment and baseline studies to tackle the problem of lack of statistics. This has given us an idea and the statistics of spread of poverty in each state in Nigeria, drilled down to local government and communities. We are using this Atlas of poverty to allocate MDGs resources for initiatives aimed at reducing poverty in order to obtain maximum impact.
 
DEVELOPING THE AGRICULTURAL SECTOR
We are also taking steps to accelerate the growth of the economy through a stable macroeconomic environment. As well as address infrastructural gaps and create an enabling environment necessary for a market-based, private sector-driven economy with policies that ensure pro-poor economic activities.
Growth recorded in Nigeria economy in the past 10 years, particularly in the agricultural sector has led to a remarkable reduction in proportion of underweight children, from 35.7 per cent in 1990 to 27.4 per cent in 2012.  Government at federal, state and local government levels have continued in their efforts to develop agriculture and create jobs. This include creating an enabling environment for agro-business, including building critical infrastructure, making regulatory services transparent and providing sustainable access to enterprise finance.
 
SUPPORT FOR THE DRG IMPLEMENTING PARTNERS
In bid to improve food security, OSSAP-MDGs has increased support to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development: In 2011, the sum of N541 million was provided for agricultural investment targeted at improving food security. In 2012, the sum of N5.1 billion was allocated while in 2013, the sum of N4.73 billion was appropriated in the Federal Budget to foster food security. The increased allocation in 2012 and 2013 was done to support Government’s Agricultural Transformation Agenda.
 
OSSAP-MDGs has in the past years supported the Federal Ministry of Agriculture in three principal areas which include training of youth and women in agricultural practices, funding of extension services, and construction of rural feeder roads. With the support, Federal Ministry of Agriculture has been able to train 5,000 youths in ten different value chains and provide start-up packages for 6,000 youths including access to credit and other inputs through the Growth Enhancement Scheme (GES); training of 2,500 women in poultry, bull fattening, sheep and goat production, bee keeping, crop value chains and extension.
Also, loans were provided to trainees to purchase starter packs, access GES and other necessary inputs; re-invigorate Extension Support Services through the training of 22,500 farmers, procurement of 5,000 portable pesticide sprayers, amongst other activities; construction of surface dressed roads to staple crop-processing zones, and the rehabilitation of rural feeder roads in crop production clusters.
 
Through the 2013 DRGs Budget, OSSAP-MDGs is supporting the Federal Ministry of Youth Development to train youths to start agricultural enterprises. These enterprises span the areas of aquaculture, livestock rearing, fabrication, repair and maintenance of agro-equipment and crop value chains. In addition to this training, startup capital is being provided with access to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture’s GES, to increase fertilizer provision, amongst other avenues of input support.”
 
Under the 2013 DRGs-CGS line item of the Federal Budget, an agricultural component has been included in the Local Government track. This component will engage agricultural cooperatives in 250 LGAs across the country, as part of the third round of the CGS to Local Governments. The intervention is structured to address the parts of the respective targeted value chains in the different regions that demonstrate the greatest marginal return in both output of produce and monetary value. The execution of this intervention will likely be through an on-going credit scheme within this area. The aim of this new area of intervention is to create capacity at the local government level to maximize the productive capacity of local cooperatives, to augment the interventions made by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
 
CAPACITY BUILDING
OSSAP-MDGs recognizes that the human person is the most important factor in development and in its conviction to ensure the human capacity necessary for the delivery of services aimed at the achievement of the MDGs is present within OSSAP-MDGs and implementing agencies and levels of government. The office in collaboration with other state actors and international development partners regularly organize capacity building programmes for senior, middle level and junior federal, state and local government employees to enhance their capacity to deliver on various initiatives and projects targeted at achieving the MDGs. 
 
In addition, the OSSAP-MDGs has also supported upgrade of facilities at major training and capacity building institutions across Nigeria to enable them deliver on their mandates in a bid to further invest in the human factor.
 
YOUTH EMPOWERMENT
With youths constituting well over 60 per cent of Nigeria’s population and declining opportunities in paid employment, one of the major challenges confronting Nigeria is how to provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of this segment of its population that graduated from school annually. 
 
In accordance with target 16 of the Goal 8 of the MDGs, the OSSAP MDGs in collaboration with the Ministry of Youth development has constantly since 2006 deployed funds from the DRG budget to organise economic empowerment programmes targeted at making young school leavers become self-employed and even become employers of labour especially in the area of agro-enterprises.
 
Also, working through the Main Ministry, National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and the Citizenship and Leadership Training Centre (C&LTC), OSSAP-MDGs has engaged in organising annual workshops and seminars geared towards behavioural change in the youths on issues that bothers on health, education and ethics in the six geopolitical zones of Nigeria. The programs of OSSAP-MDGs have also sought to create awareness of amongst the youth population on the MDGs and government policies and programs aimed at achieving them.
 
CONDITIONAL CASH TRANSFER
There is also the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) scheme, which entails the provision of grants to targeted poor households on the condition of investment in human capital development and it consists of two main components of payment: the Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) and the Poverty Reduction Accelerator Investment (PRAI).
 
In terms of our future investment, we are looking at Consolidating on our poverty reduction efforts such as strengthening our CCT mechanism, scaling up CCT to include many more households beyond our current reach of 56,500 households in 2012. In 2013, we are reaching 113,000 households and so on until 2015 and beyond, ensuring more investment in agricultural skills and infrastructure through the federal ministry of agriculture. We are scaling up the conditional grants scheme to more local government areas, hoping to cover the entire 774 LGAs before the 2015 deadline.
 
Q:What initiatives has the MDG’s office designed towards the attainment of this particular goal?
A: MDG 1 is the responsibility of government at all levels, ranging from the federal to the local government. A large chunk of our national budget is aimed at tackling goal one either directly or indirectly. Construction of roads, investment in healthcare, trade, agriculture, power are all geared towards reducing poverty. My office exist to fill the gaps and advise policy makers on the areas where more attention is needed at any given time.
To tackle poverty effectively, there is a need for a robust approach. Increasing economic participation by majority of the populace in a diversified economy (for instance in an agriculture-based economy that provides employment for most Nigerians that live in the rural areas) is a sine-qua-non to bring people out of poverty. The place of quality basic education followed by some sort of skill acquisition to reduce employment poverty is well known.
Other factors such as access to quality health care, good infrastructure, security, access to capital by the disadvantaged in the form of Social Safety Nets like Conditional Cash Transfers and micro-credit to boost Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (SME) are imperatives that must be in place to win the fight against poverty. My office provides access to some of these but the Transformation Agenda of Mr. President is aimed at leveraging all the resources of Government in the areas highlighted to bring the ordinary Nigerian out of poverty.
 
CONDITIONAL CASH TRANSFER
Like I said the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) scheme is one of the major initiatives we have put in place to address the challenges of extreme poverty. The objective of the scheme is to leverage on conditional cash transfer mechanisms as incentives for extremely poor families to use available education and health services for children and pregnant women while increasing household consumption.
 
Originally implemented centrally under NAPEP, the implementation strategy of the scheme was reviewed in 2009 and OSSAP-MDGs began the implementation of the scheme under its Conditional Grants Scheme to tackle identified problems.
 
This change of strategy has resulted in greater states buy-in, increases in funds available to the programme through the payment of matching grants by the states and enhanced prospects for sustainability and sustenance of the scheme.
 
It has also led to greater, result oriented flexibility as states now have the opportunity to modify conditionalties according to a particular goal of MDGs they want to advance with the scheme.
 
Another review of implementation strategy of CCT has led to abolishment of use of paymasters to dispense cash to beneficiaries. To tackle problems of non or short payment, delay in payment or short payment as reported in some States, all payment are now done through e-mobile banking services. OSSAP-MDGs in collaboration, EcoBank, a leading financial institution in the West Africa is implementing the e-transfer system modelled on experience of successful deployment of CCT programs in Brazil, Mexico, Kenya and South Africa. The scheme is also the first contact and use of financial institution by many of the beneficiaries.
 
A suite of financial services is provided to beneficiaries, including a savings account automatically opened at no cost for each recipient and access to credit of up to N100, 000 at the end of the 12-month cycle, to supplement the N100, 000 cash transfer they are to receive during their enrolment. Beneficiaries were given Sim Cards and mobile phones after undergoing e-registration and are consequently issued ID card with which they withdraw money from the system. Each selected households has also been registered electronically to ensure that adequate baseline data of each household is kept for subsequent evaluation.
 
In 2012, the scheme was scaled up to 24 states with federal government contributing N5billion which the benefitting states matched up with their counterpart funding of N5 billion.
 
A total 56, 000 households benefitted from 2012 CCT round.  Each of the households received a monthly grant of N5, 000 and N100, 000 in lump sum at the end of one year to start a trade.
 
SPECIAL PROJECTS UNIT
The MDGs Special Projects Unit in my office recorded remarkable success within its short period of existence. The Project deals with the execution of particular interventions in Constituencies with the interventions aimed at addressing development gaps. The span includes education, health, water supply, small scale power supply, and skills acquisition centers. Completion rates for the 2012 budget year approach 98%.
 
SCALE UP OF CGS TO 250 LGAs
This is yet another effort to placing the sub-national government, which is the closest level of governance at the driving seat in the implementation of pro-poor interventions for the eradication of poverty.
 
Q: Take us through some of the responses or reactions of Nigeria’s rural poor, particularly with regards the initiatives set up towards the achievement of the goal?
A: The responses have been encouraging. Though we are not where we intend to be, it is however evident that lives of the rural poor are been impacted daily. A good number of them are taking advantage of the various schemes implemented by the office to move out of poverty. There are numerous reports of some of these people who got little grants from the office and have successfully turn it into big investment in the areas of fisheries and others.
Also most of the enrolees in the conditional cash transfer scheme are also saying good bye to poverty already. Recently, I was in Ekiti State to flag off the scheme in the state and you could see the jubilant crowd of beneficiaries. Our intention is to take many lives as possible out of poverty before the deadline.
Poverty reduction (MDG 1) is the foundation for the other MDGs. Success with this Goal enhances the likelihood of attaining the other Goals. If you look at it critically, if a community is empowered, the community will construct hospitals and will have access to good nutrition, quality healthcare services as well as quality educational facilities.  I can say that the sum total of the MDGs is embedded in Goal 1. Everything revolves around poverty.
It is pertinent to point out clearly that the eradication of poverty is not the sole preserve of OSSAP-MDGs. Poverty has multiple causality which should be addressed as such. All hands must therefore be on deck to effectively deal with this problem.
Q: What have been some of the challenges in trying to scale-up initiatives that will support the achievement of the goal?
A: First of all, we must accept that funding is never enough to do all that we would have loved to do, so we prioritize. Nigeria is a massive country. For you to make impact across the country, you need mega sum, but our budget is limited. In the same vein, counterpart fund has also been a major challenge. Since development is the shared primary responsibility of government at all levels, most of our projects or programs are counterpart funded by the sub national governments.
This synergy between the federal and sub national governments have helped the country to move faster on the MDGs track, however, we sometimes experience delays in release of counterpart funds and this could reduce our speed. Although funding can never be enough in the course of development, the political will demonstrated by the President and judicious use of the available resources is however making up for this gap.
 
Another issue is trust. Because of previous failed promises, citizens tend to be skeptical about the genuine intention of government interventions, hence ownership and buy-in is hampered. However, over time, people have come out of their shells to support our programs and projects. We are calling for more support for the MDGs because all hands must be on deck for us to attain the goals.
The is also the problem of vandalism, lack of ownership, security and maintenance of projects by the communities, acceptance and usage of the projects already executed due largely to cultural considerations as well as challenges of executing projects in some difficult and ‘hostile’ terrains
 
Q: Will Nigeria achieve the number one MDG’s target by the year 2015?
A: The fight against poverty cannot be won overnight. It requires concerted effort from all stakeholders including federal, state, local governments, private sector and individuals. Everyone must display commitment if the battle must be won. Already, things are looking up and the hunger target has already been met.
THE FAO RECOGNITION FOR MEETING HUNGER TARGET
 The progress recorded by Nigeria in goal has received international recognition with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) honouring Nigeria for meeting the hunger target well ahead the 2015 deadline.
Government efforts have led to the reduction of the number of Nigerians suffering from hunger from 19.31 million in 1990 and 1992 to 13.38 in 2010 and 2012. There has also been a decline in the prevalence of under-nourishment in the country from 19.3 per cent in 1990/1991 to 8.5 per cent by 2010/2012. This is below the MDG target of 9.7 per cent that was set for 2015.
 
The implementation of the CCT Scheme has helped Nigeria attain Goal 1 of MDGs by preventing over 100,000 basic school aged children from dropping out of school. It has also helped indigent beneficiaries especially widows and the aged realise the dreams of sending their children back to school and access to primary health care. The scheme has also encouraged utilisation of basic health service infrastructure in the rural areas because of addition of health component to the conditionalities for under-five children to access basic health services of immunization, vaccination before households receive cash transfers.
 
Overall, Nigerian CCT programme have helped increased school enrolment and retention while at the same time increasing household food consumption with improved living conditions of those concerned. CCT has also helped in the improvements of gender parity since they provide funds to girls incentivising them to stay in school. Nigeria investment in CCT is expected to lead to significant changes in women empowerment and increased socio-economic inclusion for vulnerable groups.
 
OSSAP- MDGs projected that all the 36 states of the federal including FCT would soon be benefitting from the CCT under the Conditional Grants Scheme. This milestone will immensely go-along- way to further reducing poverty and social exclusion currently evident in many parts of the country.

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