Tonye Princewill

January 6, 2012

Unemployment: The devil is in the details(2)

By Prince Tonye Princewill
IMPLICITLY, the policy initiatives enunciated in the President’s 2012 Budget address reflect similar reasoning. Instead of simply funding pre-existing programmes, the Jonathan administration appears to be formulating its own distinctive approach to the unemployment problem.

In the 2011 Budget, for example, the Federal Government introduced the National Job Creation Scheme and seeded it with N50 billion. Now, the President assured legislators, “the implementation of this programme has commenced in earnest”.

Provided for in the 2012 Budget as well, is the Youth Enterprise With Innovation In Nigeria (You Win) Programme. You Win was launched in Abuja last October, the President reported, and has since been commissioned “across the six Geopolitical zones.” It is expected to create about 100,000 jobs.

These programmes are timely and crucially important. The unemployment crisis is deepening daily. So any effort the Federal Government makes, deserve vigorous applause and unqualified support from all sectors of the society.

But while these measures are impressive, they are also very conventional—cut more or less from the same mould as those of previous administrations. If the advance of this social hydra is to be halted and the monster ultimately slain, the Government will have to expand its horizons.

First, I am uneasy with the figures of the National Bureau of Statistics. I don’t have evidence to the contrary, but I doubt whether the picture they paint is statistically accurate. I’m not sure anyone in Government knows how many unemployed Nigerians there are—not to mention who they are.

The “who” in this equation is critical, because it determines specific content of programmes and projects designed to alleviate unemployment. There ought to be a very comprehensive assessment of skills in the labour force, for example, among Nigerians both at home and abroad.

These, in their turn, will need to be matched with the skills and technical training that are required, not only in the public and private sectors but also over a projected period in the future—based on Nigeria’s mid-term and long-term economic and industrial objectives.

Having made this suggestion though, I must also  hasten to stress that the time has long past for debating statistics. While accurate census data is vital for the formulation of effective policy, there are certain givens in the equation that must form the basis for urgent action.

We know, for instance, that there are hundreds, no  thousands of Nigerians  living abroad who have capital, intelligence, insight and experience that could contribute substantially to national economic and industrial growth. These sons and daughters need to be called home.

It is also beyond debate, that agriculture must be central to any serious employment strategy. But at this juncture, I must depart radically from conventional wisdom, as reflected in the President’s Budget Speech: That the solution lies in “mechanization”.

“Mechanization” refers to the use of machines, such as tractors and motorised harvesters, to sustain agricultural activity. We will obviously have to do this eventually. But policy makers should be reminded that machines are labour-saving devices: And we are deeply mired in a crisis of unemployment!

Instead, Government needs to encourage and support subsistence agriculture. Only subsistence farming, based on manual labour and elementary machinery, can make any appreciable inroads into the unemployment problem. We have countless engineers, who can design simple farm implements.

Remember, our traditional agricultural methods have been with us for many centuries, during which they supported huge populations—millions of which were sent to North and South America where, ironically, they produced agricultural surpluses, often using traditional African techniques.

Secondly, almost all of the industrialised nations were producing food surpluses before tractors and other modern machinery were invented. They used simple farm implements, such as animal drawn plows, hoes and and hand-held reapers.

There is no reason why we cannot do the same, at least until our industrial sector can manufacture farm machinery and thus absorb some of the workers mechanisation will uprooted and displaced.

Another given that policy makers should incorporate into their strategies, is the “informal sector”. Ishola Akintoye, writing in the European Journal of Economic, Finance and Administrative Science, describes this sector as “unorganised, unregulated, mostly legal, but unregistered”.

In Nigeria, he says, the informal sector accounts for about 70 percent of total industrial employment. Consequently, policies aimed at this segment of the labour force—such as making easy credit available—would have a major impact on unemployment.

Finally, I also urge Government and private employers to consider shift-working. This, as Ozioma Unegbu recently explained in Business Day, entails working employees fewer hours and rotating schedules—so that establishments can absorb more workers.  The government can review each case and consider deploying incentives – where essential. Nigeria needs jobs and we need them now.