Revamping the Social Protection Programmes to minimise the impact of COVID-19

By Mercy Christopher

COVID-19 and its socioeconomic impacts have been and will, for a period of time after the virus, continue to be of serious consequence to the poor and vulnerable in Nigeria. The virus which infects people regardless of their economic and social status poses a greater threat to the poor.

Nigeria has since 2018 remained the country with the highest incidence of poverty in the world. According to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics, more than 82 million Nigerians are trapped in extreme poverty, living on less than $1 a day as of May 2020. This figure is expected to increase as the COVID-19 outbreak is expected to push more people further into poverty. World Bank estimates that COVID-19 will push 49 million people globally into extreme poverty in 2020 (World Bank, 2020). In that figure, Nigeria accounts for 5 million people who will be pushed into extreme poverty according to the estimates. This is excluding the number of struggling people living on the verge of poverty, on $3.20 – $5.50 per day. According to the World Bank projections, 100 million people in this class will be pushed into poverty. With the dispiriting projections, it has become apparent that the Nigerian government will need to act strategic and fast in protecting a majority of its population who are most vulnerable to the shocks occasioned by COVID-19.

The hardship experienced by most Nigerians whose sources of livelihood were severed as a result of the lockdown measures in the earlier months of the pandemic highlighted the need for social protection in Nigeria. With a good number of the workforce especially in the informal sector lacking savings to facilitate self isolation and most people lacking basic necessities to survive a lockdown, the public’s attention was drawn to existence of a social protection program in Nigeria under the name National Social Investment Programme (NSIP). The programme since then has undergone a heightened public scrutiny and criticism by politicians, Civil Society Organisations, the public and the government itself. The National Assembly have, in recent times, had cause to question the impact and implementation of the Social Investment Programme. During a meeting convened by the leadership of the National Assembly with the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, on Federal Government intervention initiatives aimed at reducing the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on vulnerable Nigerians, the Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives faulted the scheme for being inefficient in its delivery and for failing to reach its target audience. These criticisms are not out of place.

The National Social Investment Programme which was established in 2016 to tackle poverty and hunger has from its inception given rise to a several lines of questioning. The first is based on the demographics of the country and how to ascertain the actual number of poor people who are the beneficiaries of the programme. The statistics of people living in poverty in Nigeria are based on projections and speculations. A good example of this is the recent publications of the number of poor people by the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics and the National Social Safety Coordinating Office (NASSCO) which shows a huge discrepancy. According to NASSCO, 9.45 million Nigerians in 35 states of the federation are living in poverty as of January 2020. NSB in May 2020 placed its own figure of poor Nigerians at 82 million. With such discrepancy in the target group of the programme, the implementation of the programme will definitely be hampered.

Another aspect of the programme that has been criticised is how the funds earmarked for the programme are being utilised. The NSIP is funded through a $500 million credit granted by the World Bank in 2016, $322.5 million Abacha loot recovered from Switzerland in 2017 and the yearly appropriation of N400 billion after the initial N500 billion appropriated in the 2016 federal budget. The Nigerian government have been unable to provide a comprehensive data of how these funds are expended. In an independent monitoring undertaken by CSOs under the Monitoring of Recovered Assets through Transparency and Accountability (MANTRA) for August/September 2018 phase of the conditional cash transfer, the report indicated a number of flaws in the programme (Africa Network for Environment and Social Justice, 2019). According to the report, staff of NSIP had no official documentation of total persons paid and not paid in the August/September round of payment in some LGAs and communities. The report also noted that data provided at the national level oftentimes varied with that provided at the state level for households enrolled in the programme, the total funds disbursed and the total number of persons paid. Some beneficiaries enrolled in the programme are also not paid and some community leaders who are part of the programme noted that it was unclear how the selection criteria for beneficiaries were developed.

A major setback of the programme is the fact that the administrators of the programme have continuously failed to share timely information of the operations of the programme to the general public. This has created public distrust about the programme as many Nigerians now see the NSIP as a front to siphon money. The Special Adviser to the president on social investment, Mrs. Maryam Uwais (who supervised the programme from 2016 to September 2019) in an attempt to defend the programme after several days of public backlash, provided some information to the public. She asserted amongst other things that the programme as of September 2019 benefited 1,491,296 poor and vulnerable households comprising of 6,056,872 individuals in 33 states. Assuming these figures are factual, the reach of the programme is still limited when compared to the number of people living in poverty, so is its efficacy is reducing poverty in Nigeria.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Nigeria has witnessed reduced economic activity that has increased the socioeconomic pressures of most Nigerians. Workers in some sectors are being laid off, non essential businesses have been on a halt, restriction on movement also affects the income generating capacity of most and the prices of essential goods and services have been on the rise. With the pandemic still at its peak and the hardship not near its end, the government need to be more strategic in prioritising and implementing social protection programmes in the country. The Federal government has recently turned to borrowing to finance the federal budget which scarcely captures the new reality and the eminent socioeconomic needs of Nigerians.

Rather than plunge the country in debt to cover projects whose impact will not be felt by a majority of Nigerians, the government could revamp and channel funds into social programmes which will not only address poverty and hunger but will also grow businesses and develop capacity especially for persons in the informal sector. This approach will go beyond minimising the impact of COVID-19 to actually promoting inclusive growth and diversification of the economy. As emphasised by the International Monetary Fund, the poor and middle class matter the most for growth through economic and social channels as an increase in the income share of the bottom 20 percent (the poor) is associated with higher GDP growth (IMF, 2015).

The NSIP has the potential to tackle the emerging socioeconomic challenges Nigeria is faced with as a result of the pandemic. The programme was designed to address hunger, poverty alleviation, employment creation, child education, agriculture, local production and promotes small and medium businesses. All that government needs to do is prioritise the programme, perfect its method of delivery, adequately fund it and ensure its transparency and accountability.