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Covid-19 and Conflict of Palliatives: Evaluating Poverty Reduction Policy Options

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By Victor Ikem

The word ‘palliative’ has become a commonly used word in recent times just as the efforts to slow the spread of novel coronavirus remain on the top of the global and national agenda. This is amidst measures such as social distancing, lockdown, and the likes, all geared towards improving public health safety.

While palliatives have been used repeatedly to suggest an effort by governments and well-meaning individuals to support the less privileged, the vulnerable and poor, the term has also acquired some unfortunate connotations.

An aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic that has not been sufficiently emphasized is the implication on the rate of poverty. It is evident that with the growing rate at which the economy has declined over the past three months, on account of this pandemic, there will be a heavy impact on citizens in terms of a drop-in household income resulting from job losses which will negatively affect the overall wellbeing of families and individuals, as much as it does to the national wellbeing.

Combating poverty has remained top on the national agenda for many years with several past governments in Nigeria either genuinely pursuing policies to reduce poverty or paying lip service to the aggravated cases of the rising annual poverty rate.

Reckoned as the poorest country in the world, according to data released by the Brookings Institution in 2018, Nigeria currently has over 90 million citizens living below the poverty line. This translates to individuals living below two dollars per day.

There are visible and most often shameful pieces of evidence of poverty across Nigeria regardless of the geographical or ethnic divide. Although Nigeria is rich in human and material resources, its wealth has not been translated to meaningful gains for the vast population of ordinary people. Instead, its vast wealth has been hijacked by the elite, a ruling class that feeds on corruption, denial, ignorance, and myopia.

The poverty situation in Nigeria did not need the COVID-19 to reveal its true extent since without this health crisis the nation is already suffering heavy consequences as a result of growing poverty rates. The COVID-19 pandemic has merely made it worse. Global poverty rates are projected to rise from this pandemic.

For instance, researchers from the Columbia University project about 15.4% of Americans will fall into poverty for the year 2020 regardless of whether the economy recovers quickly or not, suggesting that the level of poverty will exceed the peak of the Great Recession and add nearly 10 million to the poverty pool by end of 2020. It is expected that the numbers may well exceed that in the case of Nigeria.

The Nigeria Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in its report on Poverty and Inequality in Nigeria 2019 stated that 40.1 percent of Nigeria’s population is classified as poor and this translates to 4 out of 10 individuals and overall, about 82.9million people. This is expected to rise post-COVID-19.

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Why Nigeria’s poverty crisis has yet to blow open and translate to the mass revolution is because Nigerians, on the average, are hardworking, determined and self-sacrificing with layers of family and friends support systems (palliatives) to fall back on during periods of intense crises such as the COVID-19. Take this away, and Nigeria would have seen more instability and political conflicts would have been greater than the pockets of crimes such as armed robbery, kidnapping, and banditry recorded daily.

This is so because the government seems not determined to solve the problems that have continued to force people into poverty. The various poverty alleviation programs by governments in Nigeria, past and present, have often turned out to be insufficient in addressing the real causes nor indeed, prevent an eventual crisis of poverty.

This current government led by Mr. Mohammed Buhari, a retired army general and former military head of state, has introduced several schemes such as the conditional cash transfer, the school feeding program and other social welfare schemes which follow the same model as the National Poverty Eradication Programme (NAPEP) which was launched in 2001.

The previous NAPEP program was aimed at poverty reduction, in particular, reduction of absolute poverty in the country but instead added to the poverty problems because of poor implementation emanating from corruption backed by fraudulent data of beneficiary and no measurement of impact.

Citizen’s data are crucial to fighting poverty. But without a comprehensive national population census data, without a reliable and verifiable household and income data, it becomes a matter of serious concern of how Nigeria intends to embark on a serious journey to reducing poverty. It must, of course, must not be left to just deliver foods and cash to ‘ghosts’.

The country has to adopt the right technology for citizen’s data generation and analysis as well as utilizing other data sources such as Bank Verification Number (BVN) and mobile phone data backed by comprehensive national Population data and internal migration trends which are all fundamental tools to poverty reduction.

All these will dovetail into a comprehensive national poverty reduction policy that is different from the previous attempts that ended in disappointments. Nigeria’s poverty crisis is adding to global instability and has further been heightened by this pandemic.

To revise the ugly trends, global efforts may also be required to force the Nigerian government to rethink its poverty reduction policies, seeing that some Nigerian citizens are forced daily out of their country to seek greener pastures in other developed economies.

Victor Ikem is a Public Policy analyst, write from Lagos


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