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– Assessing FG's Protective Efforts in COVID-19 EraTHISDAYLIVE – THISDAY Newspapers

Ugo Aliogo examines the protective efforts of the federal government during COVID-19 era
Social protection is a right for the federal government and not a token or favour. The last 18 months have been difficult for families and communities across the country as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The vision of equality and inclusion as explained in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has become blurred. Social protection programme coverage in Nigeria has remained low during the COVID-19 crisis.
Between mid-March and July 2020, about 4.9 per cent of households received assistance in the form of cash from institutions including the government and about 3.6 per cent in kind assistance. The COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed the weakness of the current global economic model and social protection system. More than four billion persons, about 53 per cent of the global population, are completely unprotected against economic shocks. With about 17.4 per cent social protection cover, Africa has the least social protection coverage for its citizens leaving most Africans vulnerable to economic shocks, poverty, hunger, huge sickness burden, illiteracy, and destitution.
There is also the argument from experts that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the weak state of existing social protection systems.
Decades of broken promises and policies that prioritize financial obligation over social and environmental responsibility through austerity programmes have damaged social protection programmes and essential public services.
According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) a combination of debt burdens, inadequate health systems, largely informal economics, rural-urban migration, pre-existing medical conditions gender and socio-cultural disparities make the crisis especially acute particularly in the developing countries where the UN estimates that about $2.5 trillion rescue funding will be needed to avoid an economic and health catastrophe.
A civil society expert and the Executive Director, Nigeria Network of NGOs, Babatunde Oyebisi, who is passionate about the issue, though commended the federal government’s response to tackling the COVID-19, but lamented that there were shortcomings that didn’t mitigate the magnitude of the problems faced by citizen, for instance proposed stimulus bill aimed at providing 50 per cent tax rebates to businesses that are registered under the CAMA 2020.
His standpoint is that while international funding and technical support is important, it does not replace the responsibility of national and local government to establish and finance right-based, and national social protection floors.
He urged government to ensure that financial support should be given to those who need it most, including excluded and marginalised communities, migrants, refugees, older persons, parents on parental leave and Persons Living with Disabilities (PLDs).
He hinted that social protection should not be politicized because it is a right and public good. Oyebisi posited that there is need to use technology to track rations of food distribution, leakages which would help reduce corruption.
Providing another context to the discourse is the President Nigeria Labour Congress, (NLC), Comrade Ayuba Wabba, who stated that it is firmly established that the crisis of physical insecurity in Nigeria has very strong ties with human insecurity especially as marked by the dearth of social protection cover for the poor and vulnerable in the society.
He opined that social protection is essential for human security and social justice, adding that it is the foundation for peaceful societies committed to shared wealth and prosperity.
Wabba remarked that the United Nations over a decade ago endorsed social protection floor for fair globalization, stating that International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 102, ILO Recommendation 202 and the SDG Goal 1.3 on social protection systems for all by 2030 give credence to the centrality of social protection to stability and progress.
According to him, “A social protection floor such as basic income security including cash transfers where needed, pensions, disability benefits, unemployment benefits and support, maternity protection, child benefits. Also, universal access to essential social services such as health, education, water sanitation and housing makes a lot of difference.
“Social protection is a fundamental human right intended not only to set a minimum social security floor but also plays an important role in alleviating poverty and providing economic security for all. The universal declaration of human rights and the international covenant on economic social and cultural rights recognise the right of all to social security. As a human right and component of decent work, social protection allows working conditions that are safe, fosters family values, provides for compensation in case of lost or reduced income and permits access to adequate healthcare.
“Before the advent of COVID-19 pandemic, there was a gross underestimation of the deficits and gaps in global social protection cover especially in developing countries including Nigeria. The pandemic has exposed deep-seated inequalities and significant gaps in social protection coverage, comprehensiveness and adequacy across all countries. Furthermore, pervasive socio-economic challenges such as high levels of economic insecurity, persistent poverty, rising inequality, extensive informality and a fragile social contract have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and the failure by governments of the world to deploy social protection cover for all.”
The President, Society for Family and Social Protection, Dr. Abiola Thompson Tilley-Gyado, supported the views of the two experts, noting that the national social protection policy provides a social protection response around four main themes which are social assistance, social insurance, child protection and the labour market, “however, only a few components of these are included in the first national implementation plan.”
FG’s Efforts
In 2016, the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari embarked on an effort to institutionalise social protection programme by setting up the National Social Protection Policy (NSPP).
The policy explained that social protection is a mix of policies and programmes designed for individuals and households throughout the life cycle to prevent and reduce poverty and socio-economic shocks by promoting and enhancing livelihoods and a life of dignity. Among the overarching goals of the NSPP are reducing poverty among persons vulnerable to being poor and empowering persons vulnerable to economic shocks.
One of the key mandates of NSPP includes developing a database of a national social register for poor and vulnerable households. A key component of the policy is the National Social Investment Programmes (NSIP) which is coordinated through the National Social Investment Office (NSIO). The NSIP consists of programmes such as the N-Power, National school feeding programme, cash transfer programmes, and others.
As part of federal government efforts to support vulnerable families cushion the effects of the COV19-pandemic, they embarked on major strategic response such as the emergency economic stimulus bill 2020 passed by the House of Representatives on March 24, 2020, to provide support to businesses and individual citizens of Nigeria. There was also the Credit Cash Transfers (CCT) which government announced that it would make transfers of N20, 000 to poor and vulnerable households registered in the National Social Register (NSR). After President Muhammadu Buhari imposed the lockdown in Lagos, Federal Capital Territory (FCT), and Ogun States on April 1, 2020, the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs Disaster Management and Social Development announced that it will provide food rations to vulnerable households in these States.
Tilley-Gyado argued that though the federal government took numerous health, social and economic measures to cushion the impacts of COVID-19, however, those policy measures had weaknesses and when put together don’t commensurate with the magnitude of the problem, “too little too late as did not springboard from a familiar programme.”
Corroborating the point earlier made by Oyebisi, Tilley-Gyado laudedgovernment’s proactive response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but noted that there were many businesses in the informal sector that are unregistered so it will be difficult for them to get these benefits, “these businesses are often supported by microfinance facilities.”
The NLC boss remarked that the state of social protection cover and standard of living indices is unsatisfactory.
He disclosed that as at 2020, data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) shows that about 83 million Nigerians representing 40 percent of the total population live in abject poverty, pointing out that as at March 2021, 33.3 percent of Nigerians are unemployed, “we have never had such high numbers of the army of the unemployed in the country.”
He affirmed that most of the unemployed and under-employed in Nigeria are caught in the web of perpetual misery as they lack the basic skills and training to break forth from the stranglehold of poverty.
He shared the view that in the absence of any modicum of sustained social protection cover, the only available alternative is to resort to a life of crime, adding that it is the reason many young people are involved in terrorism, kidnap-for-ransom, rural cum urban banditry, armed robbery, militancy, prostitution, thuggery, and other forms of violent crime.
According to him, “The fate of Nigerians who are fortunate to have jobs is not any rosier. Many workers in Nigeria including those in the public service are not covered by any form of social protection cover making their work highly precarious. While most of the federal government employees are covered by the Contributory Pension Scheme, the lot of workers in the employment of our states and local governments leaves very sour taste in the mouth. Out of the 36 states and the FCT, only five states have been consistent in the payment of pension benefits under the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS). These States including those on pension schemes different from the CPS have been very consistent in the payment of pension to retired workers. Only five states have group life policy and sinking fund on pension. Only six states are funding accrued rights. Only seven states have made provisions for Retirement Benefits Bond Redemption Fund Account.
Only eight states have concluded their actuarial evaluation. Only 10 States are consistently remitting both employee and employer contribution.”
United Nations’ Position
The International Labour Organization (ILO) social security (Minimum Standards) Convention Number 102 of 1952 lists the nine branches of social security to include medical care, sickness benefit, unemployment benefit, old-age benefit, employment injury benefit, family benefit, maternity benefit, invalidity benefit, and survivors benefit. The minimum objectives of Convention 102 include population percentage protected by social security schemes, level of minimum benefit to be secured to protected persons, as well as to the conditions for entitlement and period of entitlement to benefits.
Recently, the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres called for accelerated action on social protection and jobs as an escape door from uneven global recovery and future crises.
The UN Scribe called for measures to achieve job-rich recovery and a just transition to a sustainable and inclusive economy.
Guterres appealed for jobs and social protection cover that would create at least 400 million jobs and the extension of social protection cover to 4 billion women and children currently without coverage.
The UN Secretary General also recommended a number of policy measures to achieve the goal of jobs investment, social protection, poverty eradication and sustainable recovery.
He said: “There is need for the development of integrated national and inclusive recovery strategies for decent job creation, especially in the care and green sectors, universal social protection, and a just transition, and ensure they are aligned with macro-economic and fiscal policies which are underpinned by sound data. There is need to expand investment in social protection floors as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in national budgets; and design policy measures to extend social protection to workers in the informal economy, and to foster the progressive formalization of enterprises and employment.”
PWDs and Social Protection
A new survey conducted across four States in the North-west, revealed that persons with disabilities (PWDs) are the least benefactors of the various national social protection programmes in these States. This is in spite of the fact that the PWDs are among the most vulnerable and neglected set of people.
The survey, which was conducted in Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano and Zamfara States, was aimed at determining the level of inclusion and participation of PWDs in social protection policies, programmes and processes.
The Inclusive Friends Association (IFA) piloted the assessment with support from Save the Children, Action Against Hunger (AHH) and Child Development Grant Programme (CDGP).
The survey released recently, the ‘situation analysis’ conducted within four months reflected the widening gap of social inclusion for PWDs in the country.
The survey mainly focused on providing insight into PWDs’ awareness and accessibility to social protection. While about 90 percent of PWDs across the four States have little or no knowledge of social protection programmes, leaders in disability movements in the state claim less than one percent of PWDs are benefiting from both state and national social protection programmes, the report found.
The solutions
Oyebisi called on the federal government to accelerate action on the development and passage of social protection bill to help strengthen poverty eradication through social investment programmes.
He espoused that adequate investments should be made to capture more people in the social register, noting that there is need to introduce measures to bolster diversification of the economy with emphasis on agriculture and manufacturing sectors.
Continuing, he added: “Government should urgently fix critical infrastructure, particularly electricity, roads and railway. There is need for properly fund health and education at all levels to boost health, education, research and innovation. There is need to introduce sound medium and long-term monetary policy to boost the economy. We encourage government to intensify the war against corruption and block all avenues of financial leakages as well as step up assets’ recovery efforts.
“All tiers of government are encouraged to take urgent steps to cut cost of governance by reducing number of political appointees and overhead costs to free more resources for social protection programmes. International community should consider debt relief for Nigeria and provision of grants in aid rather than more loans. Such support could be in the areas of supporting the provision of Covid-19 vaccines for the poor in Nigeria.”
On her part, Tilley-Gyado revealed that more effective measures such as direct bank transfers need to be strengthened.
She affirmed that citizens need a Bank Verification Number (BVN) to open a bank account and obtaining a BVN requires a valid national ID or international passport, which many Nigerians do not have, “currently, only about 40 percent of the Nigerian population have bank accounts.”
Tilley-Gyado remarked that government needs to develop a more transparent and accountable system in the food ration distribution by ensuring that middlemen do not have excessive control.
She appealed for better use of technology to track rations of food distribution, leakages which would help reduce corruption.
In her words: “Universal health coverage to be vigorously pursued to assure access to quality, essential health care, including maternity care which are important content of social protection. There should be income benefits for children to promote access to quality education and nutrition. There should be cash transfers for people who are unable to earn sufficient income, including the unemployed, people living with disabilities and individuals on parental leave. There should pension payments for older persons. There is need for introduction of sound medium and long-term monetary policy to boost the economy.”

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