BusinessDay
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Giving and misgivings

(Sixth in the series of an address delivered at the Rotary Foundation dinner/dance at the MUSON Centre, Marina, Lagos on 8th February 2020)

Again, we have Gambo Pori to thank you for showcasing a first-class candidate for membership of the Rotary Club of Maiduguri.

“On Friday 24th January Governor Babagana Umaru Zulum of Borno State was to meet with members of the Mega Schools Committee for an update.  The Mega Schools, a conception of Governor Kashim Shettima, are purpose-built public schools, with all the modern appurtenances for conducive learning, targeted to admit mostly orphans and other deprived children particularly from IDP camps.  Though the schools were inaugurated by President Muhammadu Buhari in May last year, they were billed to start operating at the beginning of the school year in September.

At the Government House, the same scenario of hope and cheerfulness pervaded the atmosphere.  The Governor was not only meeting with the Mega schools’ committee but was also inaugurating the State Education Trust Fund – ceremonies that were clearly a thumbs down to the Boko Haram ideologies that propagates that education is evil. The meeting with the Mega schools’ committee was routine and therefore brief.  Many of the schools have gone into operation with the exception of some teething problems that were raised and thrashed.  It is clear that the Governor is bent on keeping the legacies of his predecessor alive and well.

Many bad misgivings on how the state with the problems confronting it would run such large number of schools for the exclusive use of orphans and street children with consistency.  These are schools that were well built with boarding facilities, air-conditioned classrooms, dedicated electricity lines with solar inverters on the side with the best available teachers.  However, from the briefings and the interchanges that followed, I realised that many of this misgivings were misplaced because there is a robust financial plan in place. Once these schools succeed they are bound to become beacons to the rest of country and I foresee a rush to emulate them in many states of the federation.”

In a rare display of humility the Nigerian Government invited Bill Gates to address the Federal Executive Council, presided over by President Muhammadu Buhari. Anyone who has ever heard Bill Gates speak will attest to the fact he makes no claim to being the greatest orator on earth. However, on this unique and epochal occasion, he surpassed himself.

This is the blunt message he delivered in his quirky intonation:

Bill Gates did not become the world’s richest man by looking the other way when his money or investments are at stake. It doesn’t appear he will start doing so in Nigeria.

Last week, while giving a speech during a visit to the country, Gates delivered some harsh truths to Nigeria’s leaders, including President Muhammadu Buhari. Gates called out the government’s failings and was broadly critical of Nigeria’s health system (he called it “broken” and “not adequately funded”), the struggling education sector and chronic malnutrition among children. The government’s priorities, Gates said, “don’t fully reflect people’s needs.”

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that tech mogul and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates views the world mathematically. When it comes to making change, for instance, he watches metrics like child mortality to spot improving health and school attendance to track access to education

Gate’s bluntness in front of Nigeria’s ruling class (the president, vice president, senate president and house speaker were all present) was jarring as most tend to address these issues more subtly, at least in public. But, during his presentation which came complete with charts, Gates came off as an investor reviewing a start-up’s progress rather than a philanthropist with bottomless pockets of aid money. And he had a solid basis for that approach: so far, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed over $1.6 billion to Nigeria, he said in his speech.

His criticisms and proffered solutions were backed up by data unlike usual government rhetoric that are often lacking in specifics. Gates pointedly broke down each issue with numbers and arrived at the same conclusion: Nigeria’s government must do better.

The good news though is Gates’ data-based approach of demanding more accountability and pushing the government to plan and deliver better on its targets has a better chance of yielding more dividends than delivering platitude-laden speeches. In his words, “it may be easier to be polite, it’s more important to face facts so that you can make progress.”

The approach also ensures that the Gates Foundation gets more bang for their buck as they commit more money to Nigeria. Much of the foundation’s work has been around public health and most notably, the foundation has recorded major success in the fight against polio. Last year, Nigeria recorded no new polio cases in stark contrast to 2012 when Nigeria accounted for more than half of all polio cases globally.

In January, the Gates Foundation also took the unprecedented step to say it will pay off a $76 million loan Nigeria took from Japan for the fight against polio. Unlike, typical national debt forgiveness programs, this repayment was based on conditions which the government met including “achieving more than 80 percent vaccination coverage in at least one round each year in very high risk areas across 80 percent of the country’s local government areas.” It wasn’t simply about a financial arrangement but ensuring that Gates’ ambitions to completely eradicate the disease have better chance.”

He did not need to add the following vignette by Albert Einstein:

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”

Rather than dwell on those who criticised Bill Gates for adopting kid gloves instead of the sledge hammer, we should now take stock on how Nigeria has fared as regards the “SDG’s” [Social Development Goals]:

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that tech mogul and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates views the world mathematically. When it comes to making change, for instance, he watches metrics like child mortality to spot improving health and school attendance to track access to education.

As a philanthropist, he’s obsessed with seeing those averages improve because they boost what he calls “human capital”—people’s ability to lift themselves up despite adversity. But he’s also focused on how they can be deceiving.

Take the following statistic: 99 percent of people in low and middle-income countries are seeing year-over-year improvements in child mortality and schooling. That sounds great, but the world is a big place and improvements happen unevenly. Roughly one in 15 people don’t have access to basic healthcare or educational services. They’re usually clustered in areas already experiencing poverty with women especially marginalised.

Gates wants to see more investment in the places that are falling furthest behind, and more efforts to empower women, especially in those spots. To do that, he’s open-sourced his math: The Gates Foundation has publicly released these findings in its 2019 Goalkeepers Data Report to coincide with UN General Assembly Week in New York. It’s the third year for the report, which tracks global progress toward the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, a series of statistical benchmarks that the world’s countries planned to hit by 2030 (and toward which progress has somewhat stalled).

This year’s report from Gates focuses on these spots of inequality. On the most basic level, there are still large gaps between countries in the developed and developing world. In Chad, for instance, there are more children dying per day than die in Finland over an entire year. The average kid in Chad won’t ever finish primary school, while the average kid in Finland will go to college. In the coming years, countries along the equator are likely to be hit hardest by climate change, even though many rely on subsistence farming and didn’t contribute “in any meaningful way” to that problem in the first place.

“Where you live shouldn’t determine the life you lead,” adds Sue Desmond-Hellmann, the CEO of the Gates Foundation. “We say that nobody’s life should be a roll of the dice.”

“In some ways it’s very impressive to see that in almost every location, not just to the country level, but even down within the country—at the sub-national level or what we call ‘districts’—we are seeing progress on two of the most important metrics, which is reducing childhood mortality and increasing the number of years of schooling,” says Gates.

But zoom in closer and there are more complications. In the report, districts serve as a proxy for what the US calls counties. Even in some countries that should be lauded for improvement, there are massive disparities between districts that can be ignored when you look at country-level stats. Gates says to look at Nigeria and India, where, he says “the districts that are the worst off are some of the toughest in the world, and the districts that are well off are actually almost exceeding developed country success.”

In India’s Kollam district, in the state of Kerala, the average person received 14 years of education and had a mortality rate for young children of just 1 percent. In India’s Budaun district in the state of Uttar Pradesh, most kids get just six years of schooling, and their mortality rate shoots up to 8 percent.

Things are equally bright and bleak in Nigeria, where the residents of the thriving Ado-Ekiti district receive more than 12 years of school. In Garki, which is located in a different state, they get five. “Even within countries, spreading best practices is going to make a big difference,” Gates says.

As part of the report’s push toward getting closer to hitting the SDGs, the Gates Foundation suggests countries refocus on society-improving concepts like primary healthcare, digital inclusion, and climate adaptation. In Ethiopia and Rwanda, for instance, the government has been prioritising the creation of a universal healthcare system that offers some basic services to all communities. While these countries have very little to spend, they thought about how to maximize their efforts by training thousands of women to be community healthcare workers, who help people when they’re sick, but who also push for better hygiene practice and encourage immunisation.

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