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Brazil’s Bolsa Familia: Nigeria rolls out its 1st social welfare program

Features & Reports

Nigeria is rolling out its first national social-welfare program modeled partly on Brazil’s Bolsa Familia in a bid to boost a weak economy and curb poverty by giving cash to its poorest citizens and ensuring their children go to school.

The government of Africa’s most populous nation is investing 500 billion naira ($1.6 billion) in the initiative this year and is talking to the World Bank about a $500 million loan, Minister of State for Budget and National Planning Zainab Ahmed said in an interview in the capital, Abuja. Launched in December, the program is initially targeting about 1 million households starting in eight of Nigeria’s 36 states. The government hopes reducing poverty will have a knock-on effect for the rest of the economy, she said.

“It increases money in the hands of people,” Ahmed said. “It means they are contributing towards consumption and an increase in consumption is desirable because it now encourages producers to produce more and as producers produce more it means they are able to employ more people.”

As in Brazil, Nigeria’s plan requires cash-transfer beneficiaries to fulfill two conditions: keep their children in school and immunize them. It also includes providing school meals, short-term job training for graduates, below market-rate loans to 1.6 million potential entrepreneurs, grants for science and technology students and low-cost housing. President Muhammad Buhari’s administration seems committed to make it a success, said Esili Eigbe, head of Nigeria Equities at Exotix Partners LLP.

“Other administrations tried to do this before, but not with the kind of determination of Buhari’s administration,” Eigbe said by phone from the commercial capital, Lagos. “The enormous political will and a strong partner in the World Bank shows their determination to do it.”

The program is still in its infancy compared to similar schemes in countries such as Brazil, which started Bolsa Familia in 2003 and will probably increase its social security budget to 83.3 billion reais ($25.3 billion) this year, according to the Planning and Budget Ministry. South Africa, with a population about a third of Nigeria’s 180 million people, plans to spend about 180 billion rand ($13.8 billion) on social assistance.

Nigeria’s drive to set up a social welfare program comes at a time of economic strain, and analysts such as Magnus Kpakol, director at Abuja-based consultancy Economic and Business Strategies, doubt whether the country can afford it now.

Tight Money

“I am afraid that a day will come, they will strand these people,” said Kpakol, who a decade ago led a welfare pilot program featuring the nation’s first conditional cash transfers. “They will just raise their hands and surrender and say we don’t have the money.”

The decline in production and price of oil, Nigeria’s biggest export, crippled West Africa’s largest economy, which shrank 1.6 percent in 2016, the first full-year contraction since 1991. Dollar shortages pushed the inflation rate to the highest in more than a decade in January.