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NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA: How Nigeria Can Eradicate Poverty

NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA: How Nigeria Can Eradicate Poverty

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At the recently concluded 50th World Economic Forum, which held in Davos, Switzerland, two-time finance minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, gave the federal government the requisite recipe that will enable Nigeria, which has been named the poverty capital of the world, lift its teeming population out of the scourge. Okonjo-Iweala, who granted Arise News an interview on the sidelines of the WEF, also spoke on her recent THISDAY Award of ‘Minister of the Decade’, stewardship as minister, Nigeria’s increasing debt profile and public-private sector partnership. Kunle Aderinokun brings the excerpts:

Congratulations on your recent award from THISDAY to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the newspaper. Minister of the Decade.  Do you ever look back at your stints twice as minister and wonder if there is something you could have done differently?

I am very grateful and honoured for the award and I thank Nigerian people for choosing me and THISDAY for the award. There are always things that one could have done differently. Not everything went perfectly. I think I would have spent even more time to explain policies to people- because when Nigerian people know that policies are serving them, they would come and support. I think a lot of people are seeing the good work that was done under the two administrations I served now, but it’s as if in retrospect, they are seeing this was a good work. Perhaps if we had spent more time explaining to them… I thought I spent bit of time explaining to them, but more could have been done.

I think the second thing would have been to lock down a few more things down in legislation than we did, to make sure that they stay and work for the good of the country. But beyond that I’m just grateful to Nigerians they have been so loving and supportive of me. So thank you.

A cursory look at the Davos summit, one you are not new to. Would you say it’s been a bit more action-oriented compared to that the ones you have participated in the past?

Generally, globally there is a bit of pessimism, uncertainty and worry in the air. So you sense some of that here in Davos. But you also sense the need to act. The theme and focus of what is going on has to do with the sustainable development goals that the world has agreed on, and some vital elements like climate change. There, I see a lot of coming together and a lot of working together on the part of top CEOs who are here. Many of them are making pledges on sustainability on what they’ll do to get to zero carbon emissions by 2050 and how they’ll align their businesses, so it’s not only about profit by about people and delivering for people. So I see that as a positive sign. I think what we need to do absolutely in developing countries and in Nigeria and Africa , is to harness that to make sure that  this wave means  that  they invest in our countries and help us create jobs because we are really concerned  about is how to create jobs for our youths and our people. So, if people are concerned, let them invest in us.

Many say the GAVI model provides a template of standard in public-private sector partnership that accelerates progress in basic healthcare service for the vulnerable especially in developing economies. Can you tell us more about this model?

I think GAVI is a success story and that is why I’m so proud to be chair of the board. Everybody here is talking about it because this is the 20th anniversary and it’s one of those stories everyone, our country, the developing countries can all claim a success as well as the private sector and civil society because GAVI works in partnership. It believes you cannot deliver either in access to vaccines to children in developing countries unless you partner with the private sector so that vaccines can be made more affordable and innovate in the supply chain. You cannot succeed unless the developing countries themselves take charge of their destiny eventually. GAVI wants to work itself out of a job and we graduated 15 countries and 10 on the way, so there are also part of it.  The other part is raising the resources. So right now, GAVI has immunised 760 million children since inception 20 years ago and it has saved 13 million lives. 64 per cent of GAVI’s resources are spent in Africa. It’s really working for our country. We are trying to raise $7.4 billion for the next five years and I’m happy to say we are getting a lot of support and success.

Nigeria needs faster per capital economic growth for over seven per cent to dent poverty and suffering of millions. Is this a problem of population control or more of gaps in monetary and fiscal policies?

As a former finance minister I’m no longer there, so I try to enjoy the work I’m doing elsewhere globally so I don’t comment too much. But I think we can say that we need to step up on the continent of Africa as a whole and as a country in Nigeria, because Nigeria, South Africa and Angola are more than 50 per cent of Saharan Africa’s GDP and therefore they bear the very big burden of responsibility that they have to grow and perform not just for themselves, but to carry the rest of the continent.  But luckily we have very good examples on the continent. We’ve got eight countries that are among the 15 fastest growing countries in the world. We’ve got Ethiopia, Senegal, Rwanda, Ghana, Cote D’Ivore and Tanzania to name a few. And it shows that if we do the right policies and push on some reforms we can indeed grow. Nigeria has the potential to do that. It’s not only about population control; it’s about exploiting the potential we have in the many sectors in the economy and trying to grow faster. No matter what we do, we have to grow. If we do not grow at a faster pace, we will continue to accumulate larger numbers of poor people. Right now, we are experiencing negative per capita growth and we need to turn that around and have a positive growth. So we should just work harder and make sure we do it because it’s good for our young people and the whole continent.

Drawing from you experience as a former minister, does Nigeria have a debt problem or a revenue problem? And what is your take on the increasing debt profile which some have described as alarming?

On the issue of growth, I’ve always said as finance Minister that growth is not sufficient so I’m not trying to imply that if you are just growing that solves all the problem. To grow is to have quality growth, which is what we were trying to push when I was in government. That is growing in sectors that create jobs. We have to do more in Agriculture, services, creative industries and technology which employ a lot of young people. Our young people are really clever at trying to create jobs for themselves and support entrepreneurship like many of our philanthropists are doing. So it is growing in quality sectors.

With respect to revenue, I think we need to absolutely do more. When we were in government, we had to push harder to improve our revenue and we tried to do that. Nigeria has to increase revenue like other countries. We started it, and so I think we have to continue to do that.

China and India are said to have made significant progress in the eradication of poverty in recent years, whilst in Nigeria, poverty has increased and gaining traction. Many Nigerians are worried. What did China and India do to succeed in this regard and why can’t Nigeria emulate that which we have seen work?

China is phenomenal in eradicating poverty. India has now done so well, so most of the poverty problem has shifted to our continent. I think it goes back to the things that I’ve said. You have to invest in those things that help to create jobs. You also need to invest in human development, physical infrastructure, human infrastructure, education and health.  Education has to be the type of skills that are need to make people think about creating jobs for themselves and others, not just the skills that make people look for jobs. Those days of looking for people to create jobs are gone. If you go to China, the level of entrepreneurship is very high and they’ve invested a lot in education of the right type and quality so that those two things combined make a huge difference.  One aspect of what China did was investing in infrastructure of all kinds, because once you lay that foundation of infrastructure for your industries, small and medium scale enterprises, then that makes things much easier. Those are some of the things we need to do to concentrate on creating jobs.

On our debt issue, we just need to make sure that we have the capacity to service. It’s not only debt to GDP ratio we have to watch, but revenue to GDP. And most of these things I’m saying apply to most of our countries on the African continent. I’m always an optimist about my continent and my country. Being an optimist means we have to work hard, because if we don’t do those things that are necessary we will not move. I believe so much in our young people and their abilities to move things, so I’m looking to them.

In your book, you wrote of your many battles against corruption. What is your advice to many Nigerians in public office facing resistance as a result of a corrupt ecosystem?

Far be it from me to say I’m the fountain of wisdom. I captured my  experience or what I went through; it was a pretty traumatic time. It didn’t just end while I was in office, it continued even after. But we thank God. My message is not really for people in office, it’s for young people, who are trying to make their way and who we depend on to lift the country to the next level. It’s for them to know that you should have principles, stick to doing the right thing, have principles, values (because values matter) and lift your head up high. If you have brains you don’t have to be corrupt.

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