Nigeria: A Takeaway Not to Be Ignored

3 June 2020
column

Experts and non-experts now freely talk of the takeaways in the discussion of the harsh lessons that the novel coronavirus is teaching humanity.

As nations, private organisations and individuals grapple with the socio-economic consequences of the virus one of the obvious takeaways is that ultimately development is to be measured by the quality of the lives of all the human beings in any geo-political space.

You will notice if this takeaway is being ignored when you examine the priority being given to the worsening inequality in the land.

Taking a global look at this big issue before humanity recently, Nobelist Amartya Sen observed as follows: "In the policies against the present pandemic, equity has not been a particularly noticeable priority." This, of course is characteristically a weak point of capitalist economic management anywhere in the world. In making a case for the consideration of equity in the recovery efforts, the eminent Indian economist strikes the same chord as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in its 2020 Human Development Perspectives.

In the report, a link is established between COVID-19 and human development like this: "The pandemic was superimposed on unresolved tensions between people and technology, between people and the planet, between the haves and the have-nots. These tensions were already shaping a new generation of inequalities--pertaining to enhanced capabilities, the new necessities of the 21st century, as defined in the 2019 Human Development Report. But the response to the crisis can shape how those tensions are addressed and whether inequalities in human development are reduced."

The approach adopted in the report is to assess the capability of poor people to be part of the development process. For instance, the report examines the ultimate impact of the current school closures on development of children from various backgrounds.

Nigeria is ranked 158th out of 189 countries surveyed in the 2019 Human Development Index.

This ranking should not be a surprise to the government and the people alike. The indices of poverty and inequality are glaring enough in the socio-economic landscape.

This crisis has certainly brought to the fore the centrality of equity to human development.

At least, one chilling fact thrown up by this crisis is that even when all "the fundamental of the economy" look fine in the eyes of the experts, the political economy remains vulnerable in the absence of policies that could bolster human development. Experts will measure progress in terms of growth rates, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), ratings, and what is happening at the stock exchange. On a more insensitive note, some would even interpret recovery to mean the restoration of the conspicuous consumption of the elite - increasing the fleet of private jets and luxury cars, building more uninhabited mansions and importing more choice wines and spirits.

However, you cannot seriously talk of human development when millions of the population have no access to potable water and open defaecation is still a serious issue because elementary questions of sanitation are yet answered.

It is worrisome that the nation seems to be missing the takeaway from this crisis on a central question of development. There is the urgent need to rethink policy in respect of human development beyond tokenism. This point could be distilled into practical terms when you scrutinise the policy emphasis given to the social sector as huge contracts are awarded for "landmark projects."

So, the point at issue here is the prioritisation of education and health, two major components of the social sector. It has to be so if ignorance and disease are to be fought squarely in the war against poverty and crippling underdevelopment. This is the greatest project any government can ever execute in the present of context of mass poverty and misery in Nigeria. For you cannot be talking of making progress in human development in a population that includes millions of illiterate and unhealthy people.

All the aspects of the problem of the social sector should, therefore, be given attention in the current recovery efforts. Funding the sector remains an ideologically controversial issue globally. The consequences of the budgetary neglect of universal healthcare are already on display even in the advanced capitalist countries.

In Nigeria, the coronavirus crisis is "superimposed" on the age-long crisis of the social sector, to borrow the word of UNDP. A meagre 0.3% of the country's GDP is reportedly budgeted on health while some of the figures for education were said to be unavailable for the global survey.

The coded message of the report is that funding is crucial to provide the sorely needed infrastructure and facilities for healthcare and education as the basis of development.

However, an aspect of the problem often ignored is the condition of the engine on which the healthcare and education systems operate. The systems cannot operate to ensure good delivery of service when the engine is increasingly threatened with knocking. Here are talking of the workforce - school teachers, professors, doctors, pharmacists, nurses, technologists, scientists, auxiliary staff administrators etc. This system simply does not care enough for the well-being of the human beings whose duty it is to operate the system for human development. There is a tinge of irony in this situation, you would probably say.

Take the intangible first. The government and the society in general do not accord enough respect to those who labour day and night to keep the system running. This is a symptom of a perverted value system. The idea of success and relevance itself is highly upended. It is not just happenstance that the health and education professionals mentioned in the foregoing are among the greatest targets of brain drain. Countries elsewhere value the services of these workforce as gold to sustain their respective health and education systems. Here, their labour is viewed as iron that could rust. The conditions of service in the social sector

are utterly disabling.

In elementary moral terms, the very rude language of officialdom when addressing professionals who still sustain healthcare and education in Nigeria is simply unacceptable. The jobs of professors and doctors used to be viewed as exemplars of distinguished careers to inspire the youth. Not anymore! The definition of a lucrative career has since changed as the society itself gets disoriented.

If funding healthcare delivery and education is paradoxically controversial, the remuneration of the workforce in the sector is tragically treated with levity. Governors and ministers gleefully threaten the workforce in the social sector on television with mass sack. You wonder if these men wielding transient power ever remember that they were once treated by Nigerian doctors and taught by Nigerian professors.

Sheer official braggadocio is what is unfortunately offered instead of workable policies to improve the skills of the workforce with decent remuneration so that the sector would be optimally and capably staffed.

Agreements reached with the unions and professional associations in the sector are routinely ignored by governments at all levels as they claim to be "moving the nation forward." The other day, a member of the House of Representatives, Professor Julius Ihonvbere, commendably told his fellow lawmakers the truth about the lingering dispute between the federal government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU): the government treats agreements negotiated for years with contempt.

This official disposition has been at the root of the crisis bedevilling the Nigerian university for decades. The state capriciously jettisons meaningful engagements and opts for raw arrogance of power. Over a dozen ministers of education in successive administrations in the last 30 years have been talking down on university teachers. It has hardly occurred to the ministers, many of whom are products of Nigerian universities, that their imperial approach would not solve the problem. Yes, ASUU has committed a number of tactical errors in its legitimate strategic struggle to save the university education from total decay. The government and its policy advisers are also right in challenging ASUU and other stakeholders in the society to be creative in answering the knotty question: how can universities be adequately and sustainably funded? Yet, the official mantra that "government cannot fund quality university education alone," is hardly an adequate response to the crisis. A government that can budget N37 billion to renovate the parliamentary building in the midst of economic crunch while claiming that government cannot sufficiently fund university education is not on the path of human development. Imagine N37 billion shared equally among the six oldest universities to finance specific projects to enhance academic excellence!

There is something wrong with a culture of development in which paralysing strikes in the health and education systems are no more perceived as a matter of emergency by either the government or the people. News of strikes in schools and hospitals hardly hit the headlines in the media nowadays.

This societal culture of perceiving disruptions in public hospitals and schools as normal is socially retrogressive. It is even more morally reprehensible on the part of the elite in power and outside power: they make private arrangements at home and abroad for their own healthcare and the education of their children while public health and education systems are left to collapse. It is a feature of a selfish society. Little wonder, not a few observers of the current crisis have described coronavirus as an equaliser of sorts. The poor and the rich are now bound to face the consequences of an abysmally neglected health sector.

The truth that those in power hate to hear is that the problem of the social sector will not be solved until those who work in the sector are happy and fulfilled

When will it be said that it's a new day for human development?

It should be a day when development is measured, among other things, by the happiness and job satisfaction of the workforce that could promote excellence in public hospitals and schools.

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