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What Bill Gates knows about human capital that we don’t

By Obadiah Mailafia

WE Nigerians can be a prickly lot — particularly our men in power — who tend to be oversensitive to anything that smacks of criticism. If we lived in a perfect world ruled by infallible philosopher-kings, the question of dissent in opinion might not arise.

But we live in an imperfect world governed by infallible men and women – the best of all possible worlds, according to Leibniz. There are no angels here, as Machiavelli and Hobbes would remind us. A democracy worth its name must welcome criticism as a necessary accompaniment of the ideal of the opening society. It is perhaps for this reason that the philosopher of science Karl Popper underlined the role of “conjectures and refutations” as the foundation of scientific progress and of civilisation itself.

Bill Gates

Last week’s controversy surrounding the remark reportedly made by American billionaire-businessmen and philanthropist Bill Gates was a storm in a teacup. In the course of an address to the Council of State in Abuja Gates remarked that the execution of the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, ERGP, does not reflect the real needs of the majority of the Nigerian people. He was not referring to the technical adequacy of the plan itself, but rather, on the framework of its execution as it relates to human capital development.

He was quoted as saying: “…the execution priorities don’t fully reflect people’s needs, prioritising physical capital over human capital. To anchor the economy over the long term, investments in infrastructure and competitiveness must go hand in hand with investments in people. People without roads, ports, and factories can’t flourish. And roads, ports and factories without skilled workers to build and manage them can’t sustain an economy.”

Gates, who is reportedly investing US$1.6 billion in our country, went on to note that “Nigeria is one of the most dangerous places in the world to give birth, with the fourth worst maternal mortality rate in the world ahead of only Sierra Leone, Central African Republic and Chad. One in three Nigerian children is chronically malnourished”.

Bill Gates urged our government to seek a creative balance between physical and human capital in a manner that would spur growth and common prosperity for all: “The most important choice you can make is to maximise your greatest resource, the Nigerian people. Nigeria will thrive when every Nigerian is able to thrive…If you invest in their health, education and opportunities, the human capital…that will lay the foundation for sustained prosperity. If you don’t, however, then it is very important to recognise that there will be a sharp limit on how much the country can grow.”  He estimates that failure to have a balanced approach could rob the country of more than of US$30 billion in lost revenue annually.

I believe the man was giving the government constructive advice on macroeconomic policy implementation. I therefore don’t see why those in authority have become so defensive, as though they were being confronted with political anathema.

In a swift reaction, for example, Planning Minister Udoma Udo Udoma was at pains to show that the EPRG does indeed emphasise human capital in its priorities and execution through its crosscutting pillars: restoring growth, investing in people, and building a competitive economy.  The Planning and Budget Commission reeled out statistics showing how much they had increased expenditure to education and health. Capital allocations to education, including Universal Basic Education, UBEC, were said to have been increased from the 2015 budget allocation of N91.903 billion to N112.543 billion in 2016, N152 billion in 2017 and N170.79 billion in 2018. Similarly for the health sector, while N22.676 billion was provided in the 2015 budget for capital expenditure, N28.65 billion was allocated in 2016, N55.61 billion in 2017, and N71.11 billion in 2018.

But this does not answer the question. The spokesman for the planning minister did not quite explain how they would do things differently to ensure that higher budgetary allocations translate into higher outcomes. It is presumptive to imagine that we would get better outcomes simply because more money is going into a particular sector.  Gates is right: the devil has always been in the details of implementation.

Governor Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai of Kaduna State took umbrage with the comment attributed to the founder of Microsoft. He insists that it is not the ERGP – a federal government initiative – that is at fault but human capital expenditure at sub-national level of state and local government: “The plan has enough provision for human capital…what is needed is for states to have similar plans as well as adequate provisions for healthcare and education because the bulk of the burden…really rests won state governments.”

Predictably, the opposition PDP has cashed-in on the controversy by claiming it all a polite commentary on the “abject failure” of the APC-led administration of President Muhammadu Buhari.  According PDP National Publicity Secretary Kola Olongbondiyan, “the Buhari administration is the worst in the history of our nation…it never had the interest of the people at heart (and) has been lying to Nigerians with false performance indices and cosmetic appearances, while its agents continue to siphon funds meant for the welfare of the people…What Gates did not tell President Buhari and his team was that their administration is so incompetent, disorganised and confused that it could not develop any functional economic policy direction….”

The truth is somewhere in the Aristotelian middle. The EPRG is a well-crafted policy document. It went through several processes of validation by several key stakeholders; benefitting from inputs of some of our brightest and most experienced minds. Yours sincerely was involved in that process. I had occasion to raise issues with the implementation process, which I believe to be the Achilles Heel of our national development efforts. I also prepared a policy note on a viable framework for implementation. Our views were, I believe, taken on board. I am sure there is now greater awareness of the imperatives of execution. The issue, which goes well beyond what happens in the planning and budget office, is that the entire machinery of government is a hovel of incompetence and Byzantine sloth. Expecting such a machinery to deliver what it does not have is perhaps asking for too much.

Instead of getting so worked up with what Bill Gates said, we should humbly listen and learn. If there is anyone who knows a thing or two about human capital, that person is Bill Gates. Microsoft has a market capitalisation of US$700 billion, with analysts forecasting it to reach the magic figure of US$1 trillion in the near future. He has a personal net worth of US$90 billion, coming second only behind Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, whose wealth is estimated at a staggering US$112 billion.

William Henry Gates, a Harvard dropout, set up Microsoft in his parents’ home garage in Seattle. He built it into a global software empire by recruiting and nurturing the best talents he could find without discrimination as to race, nationality or gender. We should humbly learn from this genius on how best to invest in our people so that our country will fulfil its promise of greatness.

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