Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, was right on target when he told Nigerian policymakers recently to accord greater priority to human capital development to achieve real economic growth. For starters, he wants the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan refocused in favour of stronger investment in health, education and skills acquisition rather than its current emphasis on physical infrastructure. This is yet another wake-up call to our policymakers to reverse the poverty and human misery stalking the land through the right policies. The reality of economic growth is the diversity of tacit productive knowledge − or knowhow − that a society has at the heart of the economic growth story.
The renowned philanthropist and founder of Microsoft, was only reminding us of how, as a nation, we continue to fumble and miss our way. As he told a session of the National Economic Council in Abuja, where he was a special guest, the ERGP did not reflect the urgent needs of the people for health care, education, jobs and skills. Like Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and former chief economist of the World Bank, who once bemoaned Nigeria’s artificial oil revenues-led “growth without jobs,” Gates was brutally frank: just as people without ports and factories can’t flourish, so also “roads, ports and factories without skilled workers to build and manage them can’t sustain an economy.” His reinforcement of long-standing calls for all-inclusive policies that will lift the over 130 million citizens estimated to be living in poverty to an acceptable level resonates across the international development community.
HCD is the aggregate of the skills, knowledge or other intangible assets that can be deployed to create economic value for individuals and the community. Education, training and innovative skills mixed with health care, are highly valued by countries seeking competitive edge. The World Economic Forum’s Global Human Capital Index 2017 ranked Singapore, the city state with a population of only 5.6 million, 11th out of 130 countries compared to Nigeria’s 114th overall; 122th in development and 124th in know-how with its 193 million population.
The federal and state governments would do well to shift their focus from grandiose infrastructure projects alone − that they often borrow for, fail to complete and cannot maintain even when they manage to deliver − to human capital development and massive job creation initiatives.
These are two critical elements missing in our national planning and implementation efforts. Yes, there are lofty targets set out in policy documents, but subsequent financial outlays and poor, aborted implementation demonstrate the preference for white elephants.
In October 2017, the World Bank had made a similar observation, with its president, Jim Yong Kim, declaring that Nigeria spends less than one per cent of its Gross Domestic Product on health, imploring the government to spend more on its people, invest more in HCD than covet vacuous economic growth statistics. The top 10 countries spend between nine and 11 per cent of GDP on health with the United States by far the highest at 16.4 per cent. According to the World Health Organisation, Angola spent 6.5 per cent on health in 2015; Brazil 6.5 per cent; Egypt 3.5 per cent; Ghana 3.1 per cent; India 4 per cent, and South Africa 6.3 per cent. Lancet, the respected British medical journal, in May last year, ranked Nigeria 140th out of 195 countries studied between 1990 and 2015 in access to, and quality of health care.
Education too is suffering. A new report says 35 per cent of school age girls in the country are married, while we have as much as 80 per cent of girls out of school in several northern states. Our universities are also in crisis with none making the top 10 in Africa. In the United Nations Human Development Index that measures healthy life, knowledge and decent living standard, even in Africa, Nigeria did not make either the high or medium development list in 2016, instead it was in the low development status list, ranked 20th out of 48 countries despite having the largest economy.
The Muhammadu Buhari government has another opportunity to lead the charge for real change. This and previous governments miss their way by the unintelligent and wasteful, corruption-fuelling option of funding all major infrastructure and holding on to loss-making commercial enterprises when privatisation and liberalisation would pull in local and foreign direct investments and free public funds for the much needed investment in HCD. This faulty template saw national poverty level as recorded by the World Bank/IMF rise from 54 per cent in 1999 to over 67 per cent in 2010 by NBS reckoning and 80 per cent in 2017, according to a recent African Development Bank report.
To substantially improve public revenues, create jobs, boost exports and free funds for investment in HCD, we should honestly and transparently concession airports and seaports, privatise oil refineries, pipelines and depots and retail outlets run by the national oil company that is shamelessly shopping for another $1.8 billion to waste on yet another turnaround maintenance of its moribund refineries. We borrowed $500 million for airport renovation a few years ago, while the facilities are still the laughing stock of the world. Let private capital fund infrastructure and government provide the regulation.
The resurgence of rice production has shown how intelligent initiatives in agriculture, that employs 42 per cent of the labour force, can save forex and enhance self-sufficiency in food production. The N2 billion voted for the Ajaokuta Steel Company in 2017 that produces nothing, would have been better utilised if put into health care. In rebutting Gates’ assertion that the ERGP was short on HCD, Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State did make the valid point that states should be the main drivers of human capital growth, with the centre supporting. His call for a refocusing of states’ budgets and priorities in favour of the person and away from grandiose projects that have little or no impact on the quality of life of the majority is the sure route to real development.