By Vivien WEHWEH
Dr. Magnus Kpakol, National Co-ordinator of the National Poverty Eradication Programme needs no introduction. Before he became the arrow head of NAPEP, he was the Chief Economic Adviser to former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Before that appointment, Dr. Kpakol was a Professor of Economics at the Dallas University, USA, and an Adjunct Professor of Economics at the University of North Texas. He has also served as the Principal Consultant to VIJON International, a business and management consulting firm in Carrolton, Texas, USA.
Kpakol has also worked with JC Penney, one of the largest retail companies in the world as its Principal International Economist, managing the companyâ€™s international economic and business research. Before that, he was the companyâ€™s Regional Economist.
The Rivers State born economist is a member of the board of trustees of John Brown University in Arkansas, USA, and a member of various international organisations. The petit economist is recognised as an authority on global economic issues and is quoted on the Wall Street Journal.Â He is a recipient of the prestigious Kwame Nkruma Africa Award for Leadership.
You seem to have taken the fight against poverty quite personal. Why?
I appreciate the question. I have never been asked this question before. I guess you asked because of the passion I put into the job. I would say that my training and background probably prepared me, in some way, for some of the things I have done in the fight against poverty. As you know, I have a degree in Economics and Political Economy. My primary focus was Economic Development and, of course, International Economics. I taught Economic Development in the United States, for about 13 years, at the highest level. My focus all that time was on the situation in Africa and obviously my home country. I have always paid good attention to the issue of poverty and how developing countries can compete on the global scene in international business and commerce.
I realise that the reason people are poor is because they are not able to compete in trade. So, if we are going to raise the standard of living for people anywhere in the world, we have to be prepared. We have to be ready to give them capacity to compete. This is so important to me because I think every human being should be accorded due dignity and we should all be treated on the grounds of equal rights; rights in terms of the economy and rights in terms of politics. So, if it comes across that I take a personal perspective in the fight against poverty, it is because it is an issue that means a lot to me. I always tell people that I will be doing this kind of work even if I were not working with government. My life and passion is all about contributing to economic development and the well being of people.
In 1999, when you founded the Economic Growth and Development Centre, did you envisage that you were going to work or be doing the kind of work that you are now doing at NAPEP?
Well, I didnâ€™t but I knew â€“ like I said â€“ I would be doing this kind of work. Itâ€™s an area I view with passion; thatâ€™s why I founded the Economic Growth and Development Centre to pursue economic development, especially local economic development. Like I said, it is an area of great interest and passion for me. I presume that I will be involved in it for as long as I can see.
Your work at NAPEP has to do with empowering women, youths and people. In a country like Nigeria, with a lot of challenges, how has it been at NAPEP and is everything going as you would have wished?
There are always challenges to any endeavour and there are certainly very visible challenges in this particular one. When I was asked to do the job, first by the former president and, of course, reappointed by President Yarâ€™Adua, I knew that the task will be daunting. The task is daunting; not because I am supposed to end poverty in Nigeria but because I feel I have to be amongst the chief contributors for changing the way we approach economic growth and development in Nigeria.
The reason we have the (level of) poverty we have is that our approach for spreading economic growth and development has not been proper. My challenge is, therefore, in working to change that situation. You know, making policy makers and the generality of Nigerians to see a different approach that must be taken is challenging.
For example, people believe that to end poverty in Nigeria today, you have to give people micro-credits; that if we only had a lot of micro-credits to give to people, we will be able to end poverty. But, thatâ€™s not how poverty is going to end in Nigeria. People also believe that if we have strong economic growth in Nigeria, we will end poverty; that somehow, if we are growing the upward kind of lead, we will end poverty. But, that is also not correct.
So, how are we going to end poverty?
We will end poverty when we have strong economic growth; the kind of economic growth that involves a lot of job creation. And, job creation must pervade the entire economy; not just in Lagos or Abuja or Port Harcourt or Kano. It is not just in the oil industry; economic growth must take place in our villages and communities.
If you look at the way we grow our economy, our economy grows fast when the oil industry does well. Also, when we have good rain fall and agricultural harvest is good, we say the economy is doing well. That kind of approach cannot take us to the very competitive levels of the global market place today.
How do you think we are going to stop Nigerians from buying imported goods and services and start buying locally produced goods and services?
If we are to replace those goods and services with our own goods and services, then our people would have to be competent enough to produce them. Nigerians would not just feel sorry for local producers and buy from them and abandon products from Japan even when the local products are bad. No Nigerian would make that decision. That means that we have to equip our own people â€“ in terms of the education they get, in terms of the skills they posses and we have to equip them with infrastructure â€“ electricity, for instance. After electricity, there has to be good roads so that the people can evacuate their goods. Then the people will need to be healthy enough. So, basic health care facilities have to be put in place.
Are you saying that the reason why a lot ofÂ Nigerians are poor is that first because, they have allowed the environment to overcome them and secondly because they are not competitive enough?
We are not competitive enough. Thatâ€™s a clear fact. We want to be competing but wanting to be competing is not the same thing as being competitive. The truth is Nigerians want to compete (with the rest of the world) but we donâ€™t have the tools with which to compete; most of which should come from the public sector.
Part of your job at NAPEP is to work with grassroots people. Would you throw more light on that?
Actually, there are three principle challenges that must be overcome. One is the challenge of lack of access to capital; infrastructure that I have been talking about â€“ refrigeration, power, roads, schools etc. We need access to capital, including financial capital, to be able to get the machinery needed to run our businesses.Â That challenge has to be overcome and our job at NAPEP is to advise the federal, state and local governments, the private sector and individuals to do all that needs to be done individually and collectively to overcome that challenge.
A second challenge is the challenge of lack of access to information. People donâ€™t have access to information. Often times, you donâ€™t know that they (organisations) are hiring somewhere because, you are back in the village and so, obviously, you did not go there to avail yourself of the opportunity.Â You donâ€™t even have the skills needed so you are not part of the people selected for the job.Â So, we must overcome the challenge of lack of access to information. People have to know what government and others want to do to be able to get involved properly.
A third challenge that must be overcome is the lack of stable markets. Our markets must be stable .
You said that part of your job at NAPEP is to make suggestions to the federal, state and local governments.Â In the few years that you have been here, how have they taken your suggestions?
I think our suggestions have been taken, speaking modestly.Â When we started off, no state had a poverty alleviation office. Now, literally every state has a poverty alleviation office. That shows that they are paying attention.Â We also have meetings with state commissioners, advisers and special assistants in charge of poverty alleviation on a regular basis to share ideas.
Under your programme, there is something called the Village Solutions. Could you tell us about that?
The Village Solution which is an abridged form of â€˜Village Economy Development Solutionsâ€™ was introduced to enable us bring poverty solutions to villages; the work has to start at the village level.
How does that work?
We want villages to be involved in the fight against poverty. The chiefs in the villages, leaders of churches and mosques in villages â€“ all the elements in the villages should be involved to make it easy to put a handle on it. We believe that some money should be provided as a loan; whether itâ€™s from us, micro-finance banks, commercial banks or from any individual like yourself as an anchor-driver.
Everything that will succeed and advance has to have an engine to drive it.Â If you see something that is just moving and doesnâ€™t have a driver, be cautious because, it means that it is not being
controlled properly or itâ€™s some spirit or something.
I recommend that every village in Nigeria should have a village trust fund. They may borrow the initial money or contribute from their income to start the trust fund.
And, what will this trust fund be used for?
The trust fund will be supervised by a trust fund manager. The manager may be from anywhere but it has to be somebody that has competence in running a trust fund. The proceeds from the investment will be used for sanitation, building of public toilets. I believe that (public) toilet systems that flush could be introduced in villages so people just pull the string and it flushes.Â Then, they can build schools and provide chairs (and desks), etc.Â The trust fund will do all that and people can invest in it.
People now say we should not talk about poverty eradication anymore but focus on wealth creation.Â But I wonder if these people really understand what they are talking about. What is poverty eradication and whatâ€™s wealth creation? First of all, a personâ€™s wealth is basically his net worth.Â That is the difference between his assets and liabilities. The way you achieve that is by making contributions from your income, for instance your savings â€“ if you have a savings account.Â Thatâ€™s a part of your wealth; you earn an income because youâ€™re a part of this value-chain that I am talking about. You are either an anchor activity or a feeder activity person.
You said that they will appoint someone to run the trust fund. Arenâ€™t you concerned that the person might one day gather the whole money and run off?
Thatâ€™s very unlikely to happen. We are not that different from the rest of the world. I mean, thereâ€™re times when we misjudge Nigerians. That sort of thing happens everywhere in the world but the person so chosen must be a qualified person; a well known, successful person in the business of managing funds.
So, the persons going to manage the funds are meant to be people who are quite successful?
Absolutely! They are the ones we will be working with alongside the villagers. We are in the process of selecting people for that role, as we speak. So, the Village Trust Fund is a component of the Village Solution scheme and even our COPE â€“ the Conditional Cash Transfer Programme will be in their care.
Thatâ€™s the one you do with the First Lady, right?
Yes. Thatâ€™s correct. Thatâ€™s the one that we are giving money to the poorest of the poor â€“ in terms of households â€“ on theÂ condition that they keep their children of primary school age in school and that they take advantage of available free health care services.Â That way, we can raise community champions. When I referred to them as local champions, people felt that it was a bad thing (to say). Community champions can contribute to this programme by supporting very poor households to keep their kids in schools.
Last year, when we started the pilot phase of the programme in only 12 states, we recorded over 30,000 kids that stayed in school that would have been out without the programme; not to mention the dramatic improvement in the living conditions of the affected households.
In the seventh month of the programme, they received a lump sum of N84,000 to start a business. So, theyâ€™ve become like any other citizen of the country and in 12 months, they graduated from the programme.Â In effect, they are not left on welfare forever. Itâ€™s not a dependence programme; people actually graduate from it so, you have a NAPEP that is taking the issue of poverty in a very comprehensive sense and, basically, trying to enlist the support of all Nigerians.
The physical challenge is: how do we sell the ideas to Nigerians? Nigerians are already a can-do people. We are creative. We are ingenious but we have to wean them off dependence on government
You left teaching to come and work with the Federal Government. How has it been for you so far? Do you, sometimes, miss teaching and after serving in government, do you plan on returning to it?
I miss teaching, in a way, because with that, you share your ideas with people. I like sharing my ideas with people and I still try to incorporate a little bit of that into my job now; sharing information with people at the community, local government, state level and federal level. In a sense, we are still trying to do that and I really appreciate it.
I have tremendous respect and regards for teachers across board, especially university professors that are out there â€“ trying to make sure that we have capacity in our country; to drive the process.
After I am done with government, you know, you donâ€™t typically work for government forever. We will take a recess and see what happens; whether one goes back to teaching or not because, other options are going to be open at that time. So, weâ€™ll see.