Misconceptions about social interventions are common around the world especially in developing countries were programme visibility is poor and idea’s around poverty are one dimensional. Attitudes towards the poor are often based on prejudice; and relationships between beneficiaries and implementors tend to be uneasy. Even so, these misconceptions are better managed in developed countries where social programmes are extensive, dynamic, transparent and better communicated to the public.
Naturally, these misconceptions are exacerbated in developing countries such as Nigeria, where citizens have already pre-existing, general distrust for government and non- governmental agencies due to the citizen’s low standards of living, high infant mortality rate, low life expectancy rate and high-income inequality. Therefore, when the general public are not carried along consistently and social efforts are not well publicised these misconceptions prevail.
According to our findings, there are 5 common misconceptions rooted in the misalignment between programme delivery and their desired impact. In this article we will attempt to debunk some of these misconceptions and shed some light on social intervention delivery.
The most popular misconception about social intervention efforts in Nigeria is that they are mostly used as a political ploy. It is believed that government-led social intervention measures are designed and implemented to further political careers, establish administration legacy, or used to garner votes for the next election cycle. These programmes are then abandoned after a change in administration or when the administration has achieved their political aim.
Regardless of how these programmes were conceived, their sustainability and impact should be of utmost importance. The truth is, the linkages between politics and social interventions are multi-dimensional and inevitable. One cannot simply exist without the other. Different forms of politics and political actors shape different dimensions of social programmes. For example, the forms of politics that lead to conception and creation of social policies may be different from those required to implement the programmes and different again to those required to sustain them. For programmes implemented by international organizations, Political institutions provide significant support for, and barriers to, action.
Political will and support are required to drive and sustain social interventions, but the level of influence should be curtailed. Creating a neutral coordinating office with the right structures and processes for accountability, institutionalized by an act will protect social programmes from political manipulation and help them survive beyond an administration.
It is believed that social interventions are geographically biased, only favouring beneficiaries in the northern parts of Nigeria. International donors and government entities have focused their efforts in that region, implementing interventions with health, education and financial outcomes. While this misconception is rooted in factual evidence, it is important to understand why these efforts are geographically skewed.
In the last few years, the Northern part of Nigeria has suffered from humanitarian crises with increasing susceptibility to environmental shocks as well as serious safety concerns. Literacy rates are lower, there are less hospitals and people a more susceptible to famines and draughts. As a result, millions of Nigerians in that region are displaced and vulnerable, living in extreme, multidimensional poverty. In order to mitigate these risks and raise the standards of living for all Nigerians, increased efforts have been targeted towards that region.
On the other hand, Social interventions select beneficiaries using generalised means of targeting, in order to save cost. These include geographical, community-based or household targeting which usually highlight rural poverty more in Northern Nigeria due to their large population.
An effective way to solve for this misconception is to ensure that targeting of beneficiaries is more evidence-based. More robust research should be incorporated into programme design to effectively identify the areas of need. Lastly, a consolidated social registry, where beneficiaries from all geo-political zones are captured, will allow programmes to be focused more on the people and less on the region.
There is wide-spread concern that social interventions, especially social safety-net programmes that give cash to the extremely poor, cultivate a culture of dependency and enables the beneficiaries lose any inclination to improve their circumstances as a result of it. The belief that social interventions make people dependent on assistance is deep-rooted. It transcends beyond dependency and reveals an underlying attitude towards the poor and vulnerable. When the poor and vulnerable are viewed as lazy, resentful of work and unable to fend for themselves, it gives the “dependency” argument more conviction.
This reflects a general lack of understanding about social programmes that, in the long run, should be addressed through public education and sensitization. The aim of social safety net programmes is to raise the standard of living of the extremely poor and prevent them from slipping into further poverty. Extreme poverty, as defined by the World Bank, is living under $1. 90 (NGN 648) a day. The cash transfer enables the beneficiaries to meet their immediate needs and gradually stimulate a habit of saving. These safety net programmes are usually part of a portfolio of programmes that also provide loans and training for technical and vocational skills.
Well-designed social programmes build “exit strategies” into their programmes to help beneficiaries wean off assistance and prepare them for re-entry into the economy. An effective plan is to redesign existing programmes that do not have effective exit strategies.
It is important to note that there is no empirical evidence that supports the notion that social safety nets promote dependency. In fact, an assessment carried out by Poverty Action Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on the effects of seven cash-transfer programmes in Mexico, Morocco, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Indonesia, shows “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programmes discourage work”.
While the short-term effects of social programmes are indisputable (increased school attendance, dips in unemployment rates, improved financial inclusion) their long-term benefits remain disputable. Social interventions implemented in Nigeria have yet to tie their programme outcomes to national and global impact, in the long term. In spite of numerous pro-poor activities, Nigeria has become the country with largest number of people living in extreme poverty, with an estimated 87 million Nigerians (approximately 50% of country’s population), living on less than $1.90 a day. Nigeria also has the highest population of out-of-school children in the world. Increasing population, existing coverage gaps, funding shortfalls and central monitoring and evaluation of these efforts have weakened the impact of social programmes.
This misconception is very valid and can be attributed to one simple reason – poor visibility. According to the United Nations database (IATI), over 105 current programmes (2019) are being implemented in Nigeria by international and local entities and this does not account for government-led programmes but the visibility into all these efforts is extremely low. They barely carry the general public along or communicate to them effectively. In addition, these programmes are being run in silos with little to no synergies and collaboration.
Several countries have addressed this concern by creating a structure that centrally coordinates all social programme activities, centrally monitoring and evaluating all strategic investments and programme activities against their desired outcomes and national impact. Harmonization of all individual interventions and measurement of these harmonized efforts should show an overall significant impact.
Social interventions implemented in Nigeria in, the last decade, have been seen as a waste of public resources and tax-payer’s money. This concern was birthed in the era of the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Program (SURE-P) and has followed through to the National Social Investment Portfolio of programmes (N-SIPs). Concerned citizens believe that the money can be reinvested into more economically viable efforts for tangible impact.
It is interesting to note that pro-poor expenditure only represents a very small percentage of our gross domestic product (GDP). According to the World Bank, Nigeria spends just 0.43% of its GDP on Social Assistance Programmes. Compared to International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) recommended social spend of 5% of GDP for developing countries, Nigeria’s average spend on social programmes ranks in the bottom 10th percentile globally, compared to average spend in comparable countries, which is 1.35% of GDP and 3.31% of GDP in Brazil and South Africa respectively. As at 2016, funds for social interventions were at an average of 7% of Government Budget Expenditure, compared to 29% in India and 47% in Ghana.
What makes this marginal spend seem wasteful are the inefficiencies associated with programme delivery. When the cost of delivering an intervention is more than the benefits to the poor and vulnerable, due to leakages, this raises a major cause for concern. Proper financial management and transparency of processes, made possible by the use of technology, will help prevent wastage.
While every stakeholder of social interventions would like nothing more than to see the investment in any sustainable human capital development and poverty reduction intervention result in immediate solutions to the issues at hand, this is never the case. Unfortunately, the sustainable results from interventions manifest in a number of years. This requires continuous investment to ensure that through consistency, the underlying and structural drivers of deprivations, such as social norms, institutions, and agency, are addressed. This is not to say that all programmes irrespective of their design and delivery will result in significant impact.
The impact of a programme is not wholly dependent on the consistent delivery of protection, the design, implementation and continuous evolution of progrmmes are a pre-requisite to success. Once these boxes have been checked, while the immediate/short term evidence of success may seem superficial, where rural economy is consistently bolstered the long-term impact of investment is felt over time.
A lot of programmes fail to achieve this in Nigeria because there is no continuation of protection across the life cycle of individuals; programmes are fragmented; the design and implementation of programmes does not take account of the changing environment and its environmental impacts; and even more worrisome is the fact that too often than not funding is limited and recurrently cut in times of economic contraction.