She is one of the women in the President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan administration. Appointed almost two years ago from Gombe State, Mrs. Sarah Pane, Special Adviser to the President on Social Development and Special Duties, told Saturday Vanguard in Abuja that her office has taken major steps to alleviate the plight of the physically challenged and other vulnerable persons. Excerpts
What do you do as a Special Adviser?
Like the name suggests, I am Adviser with particular reference to Social Development. This means that while the Ministries, Departments and Agencies, MDAs, of Government perform the function of executing government programmes and projects, I am supposed to raise questions and give suggestions wherever necessary.
So, it means that my observations can affect policies and programmes. I know that people have been expecting that actually, we should be doing some executions of programmes.
Well, maybe sometime in the past Advisers did that. But, largely, my role is advisory – even though for most Advisers, we also want to be part of affecting the system. We normally look for pet projects. We partner here and there and do one or two things. For example, right now, I have a lot of concern for the vulnerable group, especially people living with disabilities.
I have entered into partnership with Nigerians in the Diaspora. We negotiated that for quite some time and I am happy to tell you that right now, I have cleared a container of 550 wheel chairs that have come to me as a donation from the US and very soon, I am going to be distributing them.
There are also a few other things, but most of them have not really materialised yet. I know that in a short while, there will be lots of activities and people will see exactly the benefit of what we have been doing.
Specifically, what is your mandate?
My mandate, specifically, is to keep a view on social development as it is being implemented in Ministries, Departments and Agencies, and at the end, advise government in terms of policy drive.
Which way should the policy be going? Right now, we are in the process of evaluating social development in all the states. That involves looking at what the government has done, what the state governments have done, what the local governments have done and weighing how far we have gone and then preparing government for the next direction.
I am also expected to look at the NGOs and Cooperate Organisations that are contributing to social development in the country and aid them where possible to facilitate their getting assistance.
I know they are opening abroad. So I am supposed to look into where those openings are and make it possible for NGOs and the Social Development sector to be able to draw from whatever funds that will be made available to the country.
Apart from the wheel chair assistance from the Diaspora, don’t you have plans to ensure the NGOs get assistance from Oversea Partners?
We are arranging a forum which is supposed to have held in the US but because of cost we are shifting it to Nigeria.
We are going to organise many of the prominent NGOs here. We are in the process of compiling them. We are also bringing in Foundations from outside that are interested in social development and we are going to facilitate discussions between the funders and NGOs.
NGOs will be able to showcase what they have done, what they intend to do, where their areas of interests are so that at the end, instead of writing proposals and sending them out, there will be an interaction and it will be easier for them to source funds. Perhaps, straightaway, some of the Foundations from outside will be able to say, ‘Ok, we are interested in these areas.’
Do you include the blind on your list of vulnerable persons?
Yes, but so far you know that wheel chairs are for the cripples. We are still exploring how we can help the deaf, the dumb and even the blind. We are looking for people who have a heart for them and are ready to give us what they need so that they can operate quite normally like everyone else. As soon as we are able to source anything for them, we will also distribute.
Is your office also involved in the welfare of flood victims, especially the children?
My silent prayer is that the flood will not repeat itself this year. The whole thing gives me nightmares. I read an article that already, there are warnings that the Dam in Cameroon which caused the flood last year is about being released and there are fears. Definitely, nobody would like to see a repeat of what happened, and my fear is that there may be a repeat because I don’t think people have been resettled yet. I am aware there are efforts to build houses for those that were displaced. But that will take quite a while and the flood is already at the corner.
So, that will give cause for anxiety. I was just discussing with the Minister of Special Duties, and we saw the need to go out and see what is going on. You know that there is a Committee that has been working. Let’s hope that much has been achieved. As we go round, if there is a need to raise an alarm, we would. But my fear is that maybe not much has actually been achieved.
Do you encounter challenges running your office?
Most of the challenges are financial. The office does not have a budget and even movement; there is no way you can move if you cannot foot the cost of your movement. That has been the major challenge, and it has limited our ability to do much.
So, how do you cope?
It has really slowed me down. But whatever I can spare from my own earnings, I put it to work.
Prior to now, there used to be this decline in the girl-child education. Do you think the situation has improved?
There is improvement because people’s awareness iscontinuously on the increase and they have realised that in the past, there was this notion that it is the boy that carries on the name of the family, it is the boy that marries and takes care of the family and if they have to make a choice when they cannot educate all of the children, they will obviously educate the male children and leave off the girls who are going to be married. But over time, people have realised that the girls are as good as the boys in terms of parents getting what to fall back on at old age.
Anyway, on its own right, more and more, people have discovered that for you to amount to any thing, you have to be educated and if the men are educated and the women are not, it affects their prospects for marriage also because no person who is educated and has the prospects of really climbing the social ladder will go for a girl that is not educated. So, for, many reasons, there is greater commitment to girls’ education.
What other concerns do you have about your office?
I think we have a basic problem when we talk of social development. I know that at the creation of this office, the expectation of many Nigerians was all the goodies. You know, when government talks about social development and transformation, people tend to feel that there will be largesse that will be shared and it will get to everybody. But it doesn’t work that way.
So far, what government has been doing is creating an enabling environment so that people can be useful to themselves.
If government constructs roads into the rural areas, it means that farmers or even people into transportation and all kinds of areas of engagement can do it better and earn a living. Or if government is sinking money into power, that is also creating an enabling environment for people to do small businesses better. And so, we need to re-orient Nigerians.
There are many Nigerians doing nothing at all. I wish to encourage people to start something no matter how small. We have heard of stories of people that are millionaires, billionaires today.
The way they started, you will just be fascinated. So for those that are doing nothing at all, especially the youth, I don’t think it is possible for government to employ all that are qualified to be employed now.
So, education has to been seen as necessary and making us function better in whatever we are doing. We have to encourage our youth to have a small start on something. I am sure it will grow.