In this exclusive interview with Franktalknow.com, Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Farouk, provides answers to questions many Nigerians have been eager to ask.
An average Nigerian believes there is still much hunger and poverty in the land. What do you think?
The truth is that every nation has a significant segment of the vulnerable. Nigeria is not unique and governments all around the world are providing cash incentives for their poor and vulnerable. That is what we are doing here with the conditional cash transfer, the home-grown school feeding programme and other social interventions. A number of reports have been released that have projected the increasing levels of poverty and diminishing incomes of Nigeria and Nigerians as a whole. The global pandemic and the shock to supply chains have only served to deepen the vulnerability most Nigerians are feeling in terms of opportunity and income at the moment.
COVID-19 brought your ministry to the limelight again especially with regards to distribution of palliatives and conditional cash transfers to the vulnerable. What can you say about the Nigerian situation from your experience?
President Buhari in his vision created the Ministry in August 2019 to institutionalise the social investment programmes and strengthen Nigeria’s disaster resilience and responsiveness to occurrences such as the Covid-19 pandemic. The global pandemic was an abrupt and deep shock that affected all economies of the world. No one really grasped the enormity of the disruption that would be caused by it and to this day all nations are grappling with the crisis and what a Post C0VID-19 global and national economy would look like. However, the immediate response of government was to leverage the existing interventions and resources to provide palliatives and conditional cash transfers are aimed at providing assistance to the most vulnerable. The CCT programme has been going on for the last 3 years; Mr President only directed the advance payment of two months be released at the same time.
The Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development can aptly be described as a three in one ministry. Managing one ministry alone is tasking. Don’t you feel overwhelmed managing a ministry as big as this?
I am rather humbled and delighted to be given the opportunity to preside over activities of this Ministry. The different thematic areas supported by the ministry are very much interrelated, and Mr. President in his wisdom saw the need to ensure the coordination and the prudent application of government resources. So, you could say we started from scratch but that is what has made this a challenging as well as an interesting journey. The Ministry was intended to foster collaboration between the humanitarian and peace development nexus. By this we mean, previously humanitarian, disaster management and social development activities happened in isolation of themselves.
However, since the inception of this ministry we have been gradually and systematically building the systems required to build the synergies to achieve this. We believe once the processes have been put in place, the efficiencies that would be generated would be immense and ensure prudent application of government resources.
With all modesty, I like to think of us as the development hub of Nigeria or to find a close approximation, the Department of Homeland Security tasked with not just mitigating the impact of disasters but proactively strengthening the social protection ecosystem. To this end, we are instituting Early Warning Systems, sensitising and advocating against migration whether forced or chosen, and institutionalising social safety nets to enhance Nigeria’s disaster risk resilience.
We have had to start from scratch by setting up everything from the establishment of the ministry, getting the office to work, developing structures and plans to help us achieve our mandate, then accommodating the programmes and agencies in line with the mandate.
My experience as the Federal Commissioner for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons amongst others has come into play. I also want to commend my colleagues at the ministry who have been committed and dedicated. Together we are setting up an institution that Nigerians are beginning to trust and rely on as we make impact. We are thankful for the leadership provided by Mr. President and the support of other MDAs, Donors and partners actively working to position the ministry.
All the major components of your ministry are critical and require lots of attention. What are your coping strategies?
Our coping strategy is to focus on the roadmap to achieve the strategic vision of the Ministry to create sustainable and inclusive social systems that promote human dignity in Nigeria.
We will achieve this by fostering partnership and capacity within the Ministry. We have entered various patronships with line MDAs and Development Partners to pull shared resources to achieve our objectives. The important thing is to listen, gain insights, accept feedback whether positive or negative and constantly review and grow. For example,
upon assumption of office, recognising that people living with disabilities are critical and important to our humanitarian endeavours, I appointed a Special Adviser on Special Needs.
Six Months into my appointment I convened the HUMANITARIAN POLICY DIALOGUE FORUM, an informal think tank made up of internal and external stakeholders that are helping shape our strategies. I did that cognizant of the fact that collaboration and consultation are key to success.
The National Social Investment programme which is part of your portfolio was established in 2016 to tackle the problems of hunger and poverty in Nigeria, how will you describe its impact on Nigerians so far?
As you are aware the programme was established in 2016 and is made up of four programmes (N-power, GEEP, HGSFP, and NASSP). The programmes were created as interventions to help stem the recession Nigeria was experiencing at the time. So, to an extent, the programmes were designed to serve as a stop gap measure to enable Nigerians to get a footing and to address the rising poverty. As we move forward, we are looking at improving the programmes to ensure they can reach more people and ensure impact across the nation. This would mean that there would be improvements as to how the programmes operate by focusing on life skills and support around that, so as to accommodate more beneficiaries and place them in the productive sectors of the society.
How will you describe the impact of this programme on Nigerians?
We have beneficiary testimonials to underline the impact that even a few thousand naira can make to a vulnerable person made more so by the devastating effects of Covid-19 which has caused and is causing unprecedented humanitarian crisis. The social investment programmes
have had impact in many ways: increased school enrolment and improved dietary conditions of pupils enhanced through the home-grown school feeding programme; 500,000 N-Power beneficiaries – These two programmes alone inject average of N24bn monthly with attendant impact on the economy. The GEEP suites of programmes, Trader moni, market moni etc have uplifted small business, opening up businesses across the country. In addition to the social investment programmes are the National Social Safety Nets programmes which include components of building enduring structures for social safety nets, building the social register of poor and vulnerable and paying cash transfer to a million poor and vulnerable across the country. The cash transfer has so far injected about $300m in the economy with again attendant economic impact on our economy.
Your ministry was said to have shared billions of naira under 48 hours. How did you achieve that feat?
This is not accurate. The ministry provides strategic oversight to programmes including the conditional cash transfer to its beneficiaries for the programme which is being implemented in partnership with the World Bank since 2016 with established global best practices and Structures for disbursement in 26 states.
The amount of money shared has been a subject of controversy. In specific terms, how much did you share?
The conditional cash transfer has injected in excess 10 billion naira to the economy to 729,817 households covering the period of January to April 2020.
Why did you decide to distribute cash when government is trying to encourage a cashless economy? Any special reason for following that particular path and not going through the banks?
Like I mentioned earlier, the Cash Transfer is a pre-existing programme and we are gradually digitising the programme as banking infrastructure allows in the rural areas and communities that we operate around the country.
What are your thoughts about level of poverty in Nigeria?
Nigerians are facing enormous challenges as are many others across the world. But from my experience I can tell you that Nigerians are proud, resourceful and very resilient people which is why I am big advocate of palliatives because with palliative you are not saying “take because you are poor.” You are saying “take because we see the efforts you are making. So, I don’t like to say poor, I prefer the vulnerable and economically challenged.
The latest absolute poverty figures released by NBS puts the country at 40% which translate to an average of 80 million Nigerian living below the poverty line. The Government of President Muhammadu Buhari has prioritised the lifting of 100 million Nigerians out of poverty by putting in place the building blocks for sustainable strategy of poverty alleviation; the creation of the Ministry to institutionalise programmes and efforts directed at this agenda including social investment programmes, social protection programmes, and strengthening Nigeria’s disaster resilience etc. We are approaching this through a broad-based human capital development agenda in collaboration with other MDAs.
How soon can the Federal Government get a proper register of the poor based on known broad factors or do you intend to continue with the one you are using?
The Federal Government has a proper Register of the poor and Vulnerable – the National Social Register, developed based on global best practice and targeting systems. You will recall that the president ordered an expansion of the register from 2.6m to 3.6 m; that exercise is ongoing and at the last count, we had crossed the 3m mark.
Some people have accused your ministry of concentrating efforts in the north. How do you arrive at beneficiary states and what are the factors used to determine beneficiaries?
This is an inaccurate assumption and I will give a quick example. On May 14th we flagged off the modified school feeding programme in Abuja which is in the North. On May 21st we flagged off the programme in Lagos, which is in the South West. Shortly, we will flag off the programme in Ogun State which is also in the South West. Some of these programmes have been planned over time while many are executed based on the preparedness of the States.
With regards to the Social Register where beneficiaries of the Cash Transfer are taken from, it is developed by the various State Governments through their Ministries of Planning and it is the responsibility of the States to grow their registers.
A major controversy in your ministry now is this home-grown school feeding programme for pupils who are not in school. Why do you want to give food to children that are not in school?
The President in a nationwide broadcast of March 29th, 2020 directed the ministry of humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social development to work in collaboration with States to identify a modality to continue feeding school children while at home. After examining global trends and considering many options, we adopted Take Home rations as a viable model. At last count 17 countries are using that option. In Africa the countries that favour Take Home Rations are Liberia, South Africa and Nigeria. So, it is a globally accepted option. I believe the question to ask is how we can support families with young children who are facing hunger? It is all about hunger. COVID-19 has clearly highlighted that people are making a choice between staying safe at home and staying hungry. Our goal is to try to support these families so that they do not have to make that difficult and terrible choice.
How do you intend to do this?
The modified home grown school has commenced in FCT and Lagos by providing Take Home Rations of uncooked food items to the households of these children. Recall that the school feeding is implemented at State level and that is the same structure we are using,
with the Federal Government providing funds to the states. Though we have decided to deploy several monitoring mechanisms to ensure funds released to the states are used for the intended purpose-that is, food is bought, and it is distributed with equity to the intended beneficiaries.
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Some people think this is all about stealing money. How do you convince Nigerians that it is a programme borne out of sincerity?
Absolutely not, Take Home Rations are not unique to Nigeria, 17 other countries have adopted the use of Take-Home ration in response to COVID- 19 and it has been endorsed by the World Food programme. Let us frame this in another way. Are we saying as Nigerians, that the households of these children do not deserve government to make an effort to provide them with food during this very difficult time? Recall that the school feeding programme is solely for primary school children 1- in public schools.
The majority of public-school children come from vulnerable households. No Government can fold its hands without at least trying to address the fact that there are households out there with these very young children who are facing hunger and rising malnutrition.
The current crisis has also highlighted the paucity of data and reaffirmed why Government must invest in better data management.
The school meal programme is supposed to create jobs for farmers and support women as cooks, how do you intend to achieve this when children won’t be getting cooked food?
For a start, let us consider the level of impact on poultry farmers. The programme is targeting 3,131,971 beneficiaries. Each beneficiary gets 15 eggs. Do you realise what it means to buy 15 eggs multiplied by the number of beneficiaries? That is income for poultry farmers which they would not have earned otherwise. Cooks have been brought in to assist in the distribution process and are to receive a stipend so that they can remain a part of the programme and will be paid a stipend. You can see examples all the way down the
value chain. It is true that the pandemic has slowed down economic activities. But the aggregation system through which the programme operates is still used in this modification, meaning State aggregators are expected to collate the food supplies from various suppliers including producers.
How do you intend to monitor implementation of this programme?
The Ministry has a robust Monitoring and Evaluation protocol but from day 1 and leverages the formal assistance from other agencies of government including the DSS, EFCC, ICPC, Code of Conduct Bureau and a host of NGOS and CSOs to help us monitor and ensure that the programme is implemented in a transparent manner. There are plans to deploy our monitors at the zonal and state level to be part of the planning process with the states. They are to monitor that supplies are made, and that food is distributed. We are also working with other agencies to ensure that this intervention actually reaches down to the beneficiaries.
Is it too late in time to suspend this programme or wait for the children to resume school before taking it off?
We are working with the State Governments because success also depends on the level of planning and preparedness of each State. We are also having continuous consultations with various stakeholders to enhance the delivery model. The people who have begun to receive this intervention are being tracked to monitor the impact of this intervention. We will carry out our assessment and that will give us a real feel of the impact of this intervention.
How much is your ministry spending on this feeding programme?
Each food pack is placed at 4,200 naira. And we plan to reach 3,131,791 households which comes up to N13.1bn across the 36 states and FCT.
How did your ministry award contracts for the school feeding programme?
As previously mentioned the school feeding programme is funded by the Federal Government and implemented by the State Government appointed aggregators who are responsible for sourcing the food supplies.
Some people still think the social investment programme worked better under the VP’s office, what is your take on this?
The President directed the institutionalisation of the social investment programmes for sustainability and expansion so that more Nigerians can benefit. The Ministry is ensuring that Government mechanisms are put in place to achieve a satisfactory level of confidence that the programmes are being delivered as intended.
What plans do you have in place for tackling the persistent complaints of hunger and poverty in many IDPs in the country?
The Ministry will keep evolving strategies both proactively and in reaction to crisis for alleviating their impact on the vulnerable members of our nation through the lead agency under the Ministry, the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons with the overarching objective to institutionalise social safety nets that will be sustainable into the future. One of my key priorities is to kick-start the process for early recovery, which will include sustainable home-grown models for rehabilitation, Recovery and reconstruction. For us to achieve these, trust must be established between the people, government and non-governmental actors.
The more the level of insecurity and disaster in the country, the more the activities of your ministry, how do you feel when you hear news of one disaster or the other? Are you always worried?
No one likes to hear bad news and it is worse for me when it affects the poor and vulnerable. I am a woman and mother before a Minister, so I empathise and focus on building an early warning system alongside NEMA to ensure strategic disaster mitigation, preparedness and response; and manage the formulation and implementation of fair focused social inclusion and protection programmes in Nigeria.
What message do you have for Nigerians desperate to feel the impact of your ministry on their welfare and living standard?
My message is simple. We will not relent in our efforts to find ways to reach Nigerians in need with meaningful interventions.
How are you planning to be remembered when you leave office?
I want to be remembered as a public servant who was given a mandate by the President and who delivered to the best of her ability. I am confident the collective efforts will result in the actualisation of the President’s goal to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty.