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INTERVIEW: We’ll use Abacha loot to fund cash transfer to Nigerians, says Maryam Uwais

INTERVIEW: We’ll use Abacha loot to fund cash transfer to Nigerians, says Maryam Uwais
January 29
18:29 2018
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Maryam Uwais, special adviser to the president on social investment, is at the centre of President Muhammadu Buhari’s social protection programmes, such as N-Power, cash transfer and national school feeding. The legal practitioner and human rights activist graduated with an LL.B from the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria in 1980 and was called to the bar in 1981. She is a 2014 laureate of the John P. McNulty Prize. In this interview with TheCable’s contributing editor, Yunusa Abdullahi, the presidential adviser explains the bolts and nuts of the social protection programmes.


TheCable: There are various interventionist social programmes, such as N-Power, cash transfer, school feeding programme and Government Enterprise Empowerment Programme (GEEP). How do they relate?

Uwais: We started a lot of programmes and realised that they are useful and beneficial to each other. For instance, now we have the N-Agro and N-Teach and the N-Health in every local government. We also have the school feeding going on in over 30,000 primary schools around the country. So what we are trying to do is to get the N-Agro to enumerate the farmers around the primary schools, take down the coordinates, the size of their farmland, the nature of soil, what they are growing so it feeds into what the cooks feed the children with.  We arelooking at what the menu is, trying to make sure that the cooks are able to buy directly from the farmers.

With the N-Teach, we want to make sure that the N-Teach give us feedback on what is happening in primary schools. We had stories of some of the teachers reducing the ration of the kids and sometimes taking part of the food home or all of that and the issue of hygiene. That is where the N-Health comes in. Besides, we need constant interface with the cooks in terms of how to preserve the nutrients during cooking, so we feel N-Health will be able to support us on that. That is the new phase we are embarking on and we just got a technical assistant seconded from the Ministry of Agriculture who had hitherto helped us in developing the models in the devices for the N-Agro project. Again, the cooks have to buy cooking utensils because what we are seeing now are random bowls and the measurements are not equal so we are trying to secure suppliers who will supply us standard bowls, through the small loans provided by the GEEP program, for the cooks.

You didn’t talk about GEEP…

While some States are providing utensils for the cooks at no charge, some States are insisting that the women provide the cooking utensils, the coolers and feeding bowls themselves, so the cooks are being encouraged to take the GEEP loans for that purpose. The cheapest loan available in Nigeria today is the GEEP loan because there is no interest element, just a minimal 5% admin fee because we have to pay the agents that go and collect the repayments at intervals. All they need to do is form cooperatives so members put pressure on each other for repayment; they don’t need a collateral. So we are asking these women since they have a consistent stream of income, they should form cooperatives and take these loans from GEEP. GEEP will now pay the suppliers and the suppliers will supply the utensils that are standardized to these cooks so that we have a fairly good idea if the children are being fed the same quantity across the country. So if we can arrange that, GEEP can also support school feeding.

What is your relationship with the World Bank on these projects?

The world bank had had a specific focus on cash transfers so they are giving us $500 million for conditional cash transfer and for livelihood support. They also have two other programmes — the youth empowerment support programme and the community support development programme. The World Bank entered into agreements with some of the States to develop a credible Social Register during the last administration and eight states were able to create a register following the community based targeting method. We merely dusted that register, validated it and hosted it after we commenced the program and those eight states were the first cash transfer beneficiaries. World Bank has always been focused on cash transfer, but just last week they organised a meeting of all donor partners including AfDB, GIZ, DfID, ONE CAMPAIGN to rub minds and see how they can provide support to the other programs. Prior to this, the World Bank had written to relocate their YESSO and CSDP programmes from the ministry of finance to our Office because they are happy with our efforts and the transparency in our activities.

Let me also tell you here that the recovered funds from the Abacha loot would be applied to the cash transfer project. The decision of the Swiss court is that the World Bank must help in monitoring the disbursement and use of that money. It was a precondition for the release of that money. The World Bank was not even privy to this decision so the World Bank said to the FGN that wherever you want to channel this money, please let it be on a platform that we have already monitoring processes and structures so it is not an added expense. Government now says the cash transfer programme is transparent, efficient and impacting on our people therefore we shall channel it to cash transfers for the beneficiaries on the social register.

Government has signed an MOU with the Swiss government that all the restituted funds will be channelled to cash transfers. The money involved now is $321 million. The Swiss want the money to be judiciously used and past experience has shown that the monies released could not be accounted for, and they don’t want that to happen again and they also trust in the credibility of the World Bank. That is why the both the government and the World Bank are in this partnership.

What is happening to the Cash Transfer?

Right now, we have cash transfer offices opened in every State that has commenced the program and so the N-Power graduates who are in this new batch, with ICT qualifications, are to be assigned the role of assisting with our MIS (management information system) needs. We are set to deploy two N-Power volunteers to each of the cash transfer units so they can support those offices.

How do you really create the level of participation for this project with people you don’t know and have not met?

For our cash transfer beneficiaries, if you remember and recall the process, we actually go through states to build capacity. We train officials with specific expertise in the ministry of planning of each state, we train local government facilitators and we also have community facilitators. The most important thing is to build capacity within the states to drive the programme. For us at the federal level, we have deliberately retained a lean team because we don’t want to create tensions between where the money is coming from and where the citizens are. You know we have this issue that comes between the federal and state and we have seen it in past programmes. Measuring accountability for sharing, monitoring and evaluation, our strategy is to compel the states to embrace the programme and this is precisely why the two programmes that we are slower on are the programmes we expect the government to buy in. Where the citizens can apply for the programs directly (N-Power and GEEP), we already have a presence in all the States.

Acting President Yemi Osinbajo during a visit to the N-Power Response Centre in Abuja in July 2017

What are the programmes?

The Home Grown School Feeding and the Cash Transfer, both of them the states need to sign MOUs with us, which terms set out the guidelines for roles and responsibilities. The way we have designed all our programmes, money goes directly to our beneficiaries. In the first batch, we had instances where the applicants actually engaged in our programmes on a platform by applying directly like the N-power, a few states attempted to change the names of the successful volunteers, but you see when they apply, they put in their BVN, their name, their phone numbers, and all of that, the first step for us was to verify with NIBSS because all our beneficiaries are hosted in a BVN server at NIBSS. For the first batch, out of the 200,000 successful applicants we had selected online and informed by text, NIBSS came back to us and said 93% of those we have selected actually exist because they could check with their bank accounts and their BVN. The next step was to send the lists to the various states, asking the states, working with NOA (National Orientation Agency) and NYSC, to deploy them to the various places of work, as they had indicated was their interest, in every local government area.

You see, for us in Abuja we don’t know the primary schools, we don’t know the teacher/student ratio, only the States know the places to place them. It is the states that determine where their primary places of assignment is, although payment is direct to the volunteer. All we require is at the point of verification, we need somebody to confirm to us that they are unemployed, that they are within that age range  of 18 and 35 that their qualifications are genuine. They then get deployed. So that is why we ask the NOA to work with the state officials in verification and deployment. When they finish deploying them, they send the list back to us and we send to NIBSS to start paying. When protests arose, we confirmed that a few of the states had replaced the original names with people who were not captured in our lists, but because we have the original list with their names and BVN, we couldn’t pay to the new names on the state government list as the BVN details did not match the given account numbers. I personally visited one of the states and realised where the error came from, and then had to explain to the protestors that the payment is for only those who have been captured and sent text by us, while advising that the others should just wait for another opportunity to apply.

You see, a few of the states want only their own indigenes selected but that is not really the idea. The idea is wherever you are you can apply so if you are an indigene of Kebbi but you apply in Lagos and you meet the requirements, you will be selected as successful. The federal government is not employing for the state, it is addressing unemployment and also addressing the needs in the various sectors. This is a FGN social investment programme and the beneficiaries may live in a particular location that might not necessarily be their states of origin. After all their own indigenes are benefitting and working as N-power volunteers in other states too. So long as they can live anywhere in Nigeria, they can work there. So we needed to explain this to those states that adopted that position. Besides, we only pay the volunteers N30,000 per month. Where they live far from their primary place of assignment, they would not be able to afford accommodation and transportation to and fro.

But the states might be right in their position, so what are you doing to get their buy-in?

From the outset, the states were carried along and explained to what the programme was all about. The president and vice-president told us we have to create a level playing ground and so we asked applicant to apply on an accessible portal. We then asked the state to give us one official representing the state who we can engage with to coordinate the various activities, Ministries and Agencies within the State and also brief the state government regularly on progress. Someone we can relate with directly so as to avoid the communication gaps and to ease understanding on the processes of the programme. The focal person we felt should be educated and computer literate but unfortunately a few of the people the states presented didn’t have that level of education to do the kind of work we want. They were just politicians and they couldn’t make progress in the state. At the very minimum, this job is purely computer-based so certain skills were required. So we explained to the governors and they have changed the few non-performing focal persons. We clarified that the federal government is fuelling their local economies by paying cooks a minimum of N400 million for the school feeding in ten days and at least one billion for N-Power to help youths in your state, so they now appreciate the need for more attention to be given to our activities in their jurisdictions. That is a big investment for the state no doubt and the focal persons have been very supportive.

The federal government is fuelling the economy of the states and working in rural areas and communities, working with the whole families by feeding the children, empowering the mothers who are cooks and the fathers, who are the farmers who provide the local foodstuff. The school feeding programme is a family-oriented programme. For the cash transfers, the women are the beneficiaries, they are the (care givers) and these women are selected by their own community who identify them as the neediest among them. The governors have keyed into the project because the federal government is providing all the funding and all the states need to do is to support by providing logistics and I can say here that we are happy with the cooperation the states are giving us.

I can single out Borno for their support without deference to the other states because of the sheer logistics in the state due to the insurgency. For the N-Power, the Governor, his team and the legislators helped with downloading the of the forms in hard copy in Maiduguri where they had internet service, distributing the hard copies in the remote LGAs and communities, then thereafter uploading the completed forms of the applicants back in Maiduguri again. We found that really supportive I must say.

But to be fair to the governors why would the state not provide the beneficiaries?

Well, I understand the politics and the sentiments but we have to go beyond those issues and look at the purpose of the programs and the impact in your state and economy. Our youth are spread across the country irrespective of their states of origin and when they apply, they apply because they believe they are Nigerians and we enrolled them based on those parameters once their qualifications and other details match our criteria. To address the challenges and ensure the stipends provided are sufficient for the beneficiaries to survive, they must work close to where they live so that they don’t spend the money on transportation and other logistics.

Our devices, given to all the N-Power volunteers, are also configured to geo-locate all our beneficiaries so if they don’t go to the farm or to school between 8 and 4pm we shall know. We have been striving to insulate the programs from politicisation and also been trying to curb the pranks of a few of the beneficiaries, such as  attempts by the N-Teach volunteers who play truant because they get paid by the FGN directly. We have tried to engage UBEC to help handle the N-teach volunteers, to ensure that if they don’t go to teach, they won’t get paid. To only get paid for work done, we are also looking at other avenues for monitoring, through civil society and whistle blowing. We have also engaged a few of the traditional institutions to co-opt their structures for support as monitors. We are working harmoniously with the states now we are okay with their commitment and support. We are therefore happy with the progress made. Our N-Power beneficiaries are going into farming, setting up small businesses, some are doing lessons teaching students etc. In fact we have a lot of success stories. For instance, we have a visually impaired who is transcribing chemistry and physics to braille after saving from his token amount to buy a laptop.

So are you saying the governors/states are fully on board this programme?

Oh yes oh yes, except maybe one or two states and we are working to resolve the grey areas. But states like Jigawa are very supportive because they have very many poor people and they have seen what we are doing with our cash transfer there and they have seen the impact of our interventions. We are collating data from the remote communities we are working in, for the cash transfer program. We now have information relating to the nature of access road, nearest primary and secondary schools, nearest primary health care centres, payment service provider and connectivity issues. In one state we realised from our data that 60% of the communities that we go to don’t have primary schools within 3 kilometres. Since it is not within the FGN constitutional mandate, we spoke to the governor and advised him to build primary schools within reach of this communities so as to encourage their children to go to school. Far distances are a disincentive for the kids, so the government must incentivise the ability to go to school especially in the local communities. So it has become a close and mutually beneficial partnership because our volunteers go to even where the state government and their officials don’t get to.

Yes, we continue to have some challenges where for example, the state officials attempt to engage their friends to cook in some primary schools in communities even where they are unknown to the people within that vicinity. We have instances where the communities rebelled so we have insisted that the cooks be replaced with those who live within the benefitting communities. Secondly, we continue to remind the politicians that the children being fed are not politicians and they have begin to appreciate that point and provide us access to feed in those schools. So, now almost everyone is on board and we are working hand in hand with everybody.  We are also working with the SSS as our ‘invisible eyes’ to report infractions to us and give us progress reports each month.

What are you doing in terms of the quality of the food?

Our menu profile is designed with a nutritional team led by a professor from IITA. Each state has a food chain so working with the state ministries of health and agriculture, the team agrees on the food type that is readily affordable and accessible, able to provide the essential nutrients for the children. Our ceiling for each child is N70 but some are even doing it for N50.

How do you select the schools?

They are all state government primary schools, primary 1-3. No private school is involved in our programme. When the focal persons, working with the SUBEB Chairs from the states, send in the names and locations of the schools, we go in and enumerate. Each cook is assigned between 70 and 150 children to cook for so we can track the feeding. We also train the selected cooks on hygiene, basic financial skills and other issues like allergies before the BVN is generated for them and accounts opened to enable us pay them directly. During enumeration we have found numbers that are less than those provided by the State, but because the school feeding program is boosting enrolment, the numbers increase very rapidly. We are keeping a watchful eye on the process to assure of positive outcomes.

The cooks are paid directly so it is difficult to circumvent the system since all of them are paid through their BVNs and we have monitors in every State. Of course, people try to take advantage of the levels of literacy, but we continue to address the evolving challenges, as they emerge. We also encourage the public to engage with the process for updates. We want the kids to be properly fed so when we enumerate, we also check their weights their arms/biceps so that we have a baseline and we will compare those numbers after a year to know the impact on the feeding on the children.

Osinbajo Uwais at the N-Power response centre in Abuja

What happens after two years of N-Power? Do you just say to the participants bye-bye?

Well some of the states are writing us and asking us to write them off our register because they are employing them. Some have got jobs and have written to say take us off your register. Many others have embraced agriculture full time. In fact we have several N-Power beneficiaries who have written to say they want to refund a few months’ allowances collected because they now have jobs.

We are working with different portfolios of ministries and agencies to engage the youths. We have signed an MOU with the Primary Health Care Development Agency to get a sense of the needs for the content of our devices given the N-Health volunteers and for training. The NOA is providing support on verification at community level. The Federal Ministry of Agriculture provided content for the N-Agro device and trained our N-Agro beneficiaries. NITDA is supporting our technology hubs, NBS with skill sets and surveys. Even the NESG is about to commence a close collaboration towards improving outcomes in the field. BOI is supporting with our GEEP program as they have the agents and the wherewithal to recover loans. The NADDC and CORBON are also involved for  our non-graduate beneficiaries to be interned after being trained in the skill centres around the country and provided with tool boxes. The NSCDC is also supporting us with civil defence. The N-Power program is not designed for government to absorb the graduates. From the onset, it was made clear to the participants that the program was about enabling and facilitating them to take ownership of their lives and we believe within the period of two years that they are serving, each individual would have decided what he or she wants to do after the programme. Nevertheless, we have engaged NIRSAL and BOA to give them an exit plan, and the discussions are very encouraging. The support has been overwhelming and we continue to leverage on existing capacity around the country to save costs and improve on efficiency.

What does GEEP do?

Here we try to work with groups under the banner of a cooperative. So in the place of a collateral, we encourage each interested applicant to form cooperatives of about 20 people. Payment is done to the individual group member but the group will act as the ombudsman to pressure each member to fulfill its financial obligation otherwise the whole group suffers. The BVN has proved to be revolutionary for our programs. So you cannot take money and run away and want to access more money from another community so it’s a wonderful arrangement. Essentially, we use peer pressure as the collateral and the BVN to ensure transparency and no duplicity. BOA holds our fund so they do the due diligence and enumeration because they have presence in all the states, which we don’t have. We do have defaulters but our people are learning and it is a process. We are working on the messaging to improve on the opportunities for people at the bottom of the financial pyramid to get the opportunity to access these loans. Telling them the importance of repayment is what we are working on now. It’s a new programme and it’s catching up. The loan of N50,000 is for six months and it comes with a repayment fee of N52,500. The N2500 is the administrative fee you pay to the agent. But the ceiling for the loan is N100,000. When you repay, you get another loan. That is the way it works.

I learnt there is a data bank been created by your team. Take us through that please

Well, it’s actually a side effect of these projects. We asked for people to apply online for our programmes and we ended up with a data base of over 2.5 million young graduates with their names, states, ages, gender and disciplines, phone numbers, bank accounts and BVN, as well as interests. This information is now available for anyone in private or public sector that wants to employ to access this data bank. Now both FIRS and ministry of finance utilised this data bank for the selection of their N-Tax liaison officers, working with the joint tax boards across the states.  They are being paid from the N-Power funds. They believe the system is transparent and the enrolless are from across the country, so it makes the job of selection for both FIRS and the Ministry of Finance much easier.

The national social register is, however, deliberately being built and all states will have their own data of the poorest and the most vulnerable, desegregated into various categories, hosted within their Ministries of Planning for obvious reasons. The national social register (comprising data from all the various state registers) is hosted at NIBSS for now. We hope to move to a more permanent host like Galaxy backbone for hosting and safe keep eventually, but NIBSS (through the CBN) has been a pillar of support for our programs so far. This data consists of the biometrics of people who have never been captured or registered on any platform before in any form so it’s a new huge ecosystem which would assist government for planning, for financial inclusion, for enumeration, etc. Indeed, because of the close collaboration between NIBSS and NIMC, all the persons who have a BVN would also have a NIN number generated for them, and that process of integration has already begun.

What is the end goal of this empowerment programme for now and the future?

We want this programme to be permanent and we want to build a structure that subsequent governments can tap into and hit the ground running. My hope is that it is not politicised the moment this particular administration leaves in years to come. My concern is sustainability. If we can sustain it then I will be much fulfilled because I know the work we have put in and the people, the vulnerable people that have benefitted from the program. But I am hopeful because we are in the process of creating structures, mechanisms and programs that any government that wants to help the people can tap into to touch the lives of the people across the country, as well as the class and gender divide.

 

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