In February 2020 I enrolled in the MicroMasters program in Data, Economics, and Development Policy designed by MIT’s Department of Economics and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). This semester I joined the MIT 14.73x class, The Challenges of Global Poverty, taught by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences and pioneers in the field of development economics. You will recall that last Fall, I shared reflections and lessons from the 4-month Executive program I joined at Harvard Kennedy School taught by the legendary Marshall Ganz, and this is a practice I hope to continue all through my virtual learning journey including the business degree I’m working towards at Nexford University. In the same vein, the purpose of this paper is to share reflections from the Spring semester applying lessons from class to advise the development of the National Social Register — a database of poor & vulnerable households — by the National Social Safety Nets Coordinating Office (NASSCO) in Nigeria.
A few days ago, Duflo was quoted saying, “There is no trade-off in poor countries between helping people sustain themselves financially and getting the health conditions to improve; the two have to go hand in hand. Because if you cannot assure people that they will be able to eat in the future, then it’s going to be impossible for them to stay home…” Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, on March 29 directed the payment of cash to “the most vulnerable” Nigerians by May 2020 as the country battles the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. His directive, which is also in synch Duflo’s advice, is a great step to give “the most vulnerable Nigerians” something to hope for. Let’s not forget that in 2018, Nigeria overtook India to earn the very sad title of the ‘World’s poverty capital’ with 86.9 million Nigerians now living in extreme poverty representing nearly 50% of its estimated 180 million population. If nothing is done, the World Data Lab projects that by 2030 about 111 million could be living in poverty in Nigeria.
With this sad data as a baseline, how can this important demographic — the most vulnerable — be identified without corruption and nepotism? NASSCO shared the mechanism it uses as follows; Using a poverty map across States, having local community heads identify who the most vulnerable within their communities, and ranking of households based on pre-determined criteria. This is not a bad mechanism at face value but after learning under two pioneers of evidence-based social interventions for three months, you surely begin to see things differently.
A few questions come to mind. What informs the design of the poverty map that forms the basis for the classification and participation of communities? How do we eliminate bias on the part of community heads who send the primary data to NASSCO? What indices make up the criteria that are used to rank households from the poor to the poorest? Taking the MIT 14.73x class opened my eyes to what these indices are and what policymakers could do to break people out of poverty traps. Here are three indicators, out of the many shared in class, to consider when identifying those living on the margins.
They are stuck in Traps
A poverty trap makes it very difficult for the poor to escape poverty. In their award-winning book, Poor Economics, Duflo and Banerjee put it this way, “There will be a poverty trap whenever the scope for growing income or wealth at a very fast rate is limited for those who have too little to invest but expands dramatically for those who can invest a bit more.” This means that, according to Investopedia, these traps are created when an economic system requires a significant amount of capital in order to earn enough to escape poverty.
In Nigeria, a good example of a poverty trap is the oil spills that have been left to ravage land and water sources for over 40 years in Ogoniland and other parts of the Niger Delta (southern Nigeria) trapping the communities whose major source of survival is fishing and farming. Nigeria’s North-East is also another example caused by the Boko Haram insurgency. Homes, businesses, and schools have been deserted with many of its occupants living in camps across the country trapped as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) with no idea of when they would go back. If an empirical study is conducted, both groups cited above will be treated objectively as opposed to the current targeting system employed by the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs which might be misleading.
They mostly don’t have jobs
In the first class, Esther Duflo told us the story of Pak Solhin whom she met at a small village in Indonesia. “When we met him, he was all alone at home. The older of his three children, a 13-year-old, was working as a construction worker in the nearby city. Until that summer of 2008, Pak Solhin was a farm laborer, but after losing his job he had no money to feed himself or the kids. His wife and the older kid went to the city to work but even with their salary, he cannot pay for the food for the younger ones and himself. He eats about once a day when he gets subsidized rice, or he catches a fish on the bank of the river. He is very depressed and negative about the future. He almost cries during the interview…”, Esther narrated.
Depression and a feeling of helplessness are two things that come with unemployment. The last Unemployment and Underemployment numbers that came out of Nigeria (Q3 2018) reveal that: Akwa Ibom State reported the highest unemployment rate (37.7%), followed by Rivers State with (36.4%), Bayelsa State (32.6%), Abia (31.6%) and Borno State (31.4%). The top 5 states with the highest unemployed population are Rivers (1,673,991), Akwa Ibom (1,357,754), Kano (1,257,130), Lagos (1,088,352) and Kaduna with (940,480).
I’m trying not to jump the gun because the numbers represented in the infographic above by the ICIR are as of April 9th, 2020. However, using unemployment as one of the major indices, how come in the South-South which has the most unemployed people in the country have only about 67,000 beneficiaries of the Conditional Cash Transfer program so far — more than 600% less than the North-West? Or what about the North East that is threatened not just by coronavirus but also by insurgents having 400% less than the North West?
Lagos State has the 4th highest number of unemployed people and, as we know, it currently has the highest number of Coronavirus cases in Nigeria as well. So far, only 37,904 have been reached in the entire South-West. Also, is there a record that shows what has gone to the IDPs so far? I wonder how many more Pak Solhins are in these numbers sitting idle and depressed. I strongly urge the Ministry of Humanitarian affairs to act fast to remedy the current beneficiary spread. Again, I believe these are issues an empirical study could have addressed in the design of the National Social Register.
54,000 People to 1 Doctor
The World Health Organization (WHO) has promulgated the desirable doctor–population ratio as 1:1,000. Yet, over 44% of WHO Member States reported less than one physician per 1,000 population and one of such countries is Nigeria. In fact, according to this data by the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics represented by Statisense, as of 2017 all states in Nigeria, including the Federal Capital Territory, do not meet this requirement. It gets even worse as you go upward, the ratio in Rivers State is 3,788 people to 1 doctor, in Kaduna State 4,634 people to 1 doctor, in Imo State it is 11,683 people to 1 doctor, and in Katsina State — where the Nigeria President hails from — 54,897 people to 1 doctor. To make matters worse, the very few available doctors are not rewarded commensurately for their efforts and always have to go on strike before their demands are considered. The same sector that supports life in the country is often relegated until there is a pandemic!
Although the doctor-population ratio cited above wasn’t one of the issues discussed in class as an indicator of poverty, but data from a documentary we watched in class — shot in Udaipur — shows that there are a number of reasons why preventative care is under-utilized. Some of these include; Closure or unavailability of Primary Health Care Facilities, poor understanding of biological concepts of vaccination and preventative treatments, and also the fact that people tend to procrastinate going to hospitals.
I believe the National Social Register is a living document thus should be open to modifications as the need arises at any given time. I implore the Nigerian Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs to give these thoughts I have shared another look and consider seeking advice on ways to conduct empirical studies across the geopolitical zones when the pandemic ends to ensure that the data recorded in the register is representative of the actual issue on the ground without bias and sentiments. J-PAL Africa has some good resources that might be useful in this regard. Get in touch with them.
Thank you for reading and sharing in my experience from MIT 14.73x. I will be writing the Proctored exam for this course in a bit, and I hope it comes out well. Wish me luck and see you at the end of the Summer semester.
Ebenezar Wikina is the team lead for Policy Shapers