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Infinite expectations versus finite financial resources

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President Muhammadu Buhari presenting the 2020 budget at the National Assembly on October 8. Photo: Twitter/Presidency

Leaders of developing countries face the huge and mind-boggling challenges of infinite demands chasing finite resources. The vista of these huge challenges stretches in every direction and in the horizon: the challenge of keeping the people from foraging for food in refuse dumps; the challenge of educating the people; the challenge of keeping the people away from herbalists and re-directing them to modern health facilities; the challenge of security of lives and property; the challenge of lifting the people above the poverty bench mark one dollar a day; the challenge of unemployment; the challenge of roads that are necessary so civilisation could follow them; the challenge of justice so the weak are protected from the strong and the poor from the rapacious rich; the challenge of expanded opportunities so individuals and groups could plant their feet in the churning sea of life’s unrelenting challenges and demands. I could go on.

All these challenges demand money. There is thus so much to do in every country aspiring to join the exclusive and protected club of the developed and settled nations. But the financial resources needed to make them history can only fill a small breadbasket. The love of money may be the root of all evil, but its lack makes all the difference between a country moving forward and one running fast in a dreamland. To put it another way, while a leader nurses the ambition to move his country from point A to point Z in terms of modern development in the time it takes to hail him as God-sent, the national treasury is unable to support his do-gooding ambition.

There is not enough money in it to do the possible, let alone the impossible. Projects reflecting the ambition of a leader against the background of the people’s expectations, are often caught up in various stages of uncompletion when the fund develops an unfriendly habit of imitating a seasonal stream – drying up at critical times. Check our national landscape for some evidence. Well, the Nazarene fed a multitude with only five loaves of bread and two smoked fishes. If he could do so much with so little, I guess the political leaders too can. Except that this is more than the challenge of feeding a multitude. Political leaders are under pressure to perform miracles because it is inherent in the nature of politics that promises must be made. And the people expect them to be kept.

My guess is that political leaders wrestle with one huge question: with so many areas competing for attention and so little fund available to take on the challenges posed by them, what to do? Actually, the answer is always there, staring at them from their ornate official desks. It is this: put all the demands in a basket of quota allocation. This practice, considered fair and just in a world that is always crying for fairness and justice, has hardened into a convention such that no matter how little a country expects to earn in a given year, its annual budget proposal must reflect justice and fairness in the allocation of the available and expected resources. No sector must be left out. This development paradigm has served developing countries with mixed results because the resources are thin and spread thinly. Let me confess that I do have a lot of sympathy for third world leaders in their endless struggle to strike a reasonable balance between resources and the expectations that translate into huge demands.

I have just skimmed through President Buhari’s 2020 budget speech on his budget of “sustaining growth and job creation” to the joint sitting of the national assembly. The 2020 budget is the biggest the country has ever had. It shows our forward movement, moneywise.

I find three things worth noting in the 2020 budget proposal. The first is that our national economy is no longer on autopilot. There is some evidence that its management is being taken more seriously than before. The second is that our national economy, warts and all, is still reasonably solid. It has to be so for the government to confidently budget what cub reporters like to call a whopping N10.33 trillion. I find it heart-warming that the government expects to earn N1.81 trillion from non-oil tax revenue and N3.7 trillion from other revenues. Combined, it means that crude oil may be losing its commanding height in our national economy. I hope I have not spoken too soon.

The third is that the government would still spend more on what is technically called “non-debt recurrent expenditure” than on capital votes. In non-technical terms, this is what would go into the payment of salaries and allowances of federal civil servants and public officers. This comes to a mouth-watering N4.88 trillion. Capital vote trails behind with a generous N2.14 trillion. This is a lingering problem dating back to the long winter of military dictatorship inherited and improved upon by the agbada men.

The capital vote is the more important block vote because it is the window into the mind and the ambition of a country’s leader. It is what reflates the economy and ensures that everyone can have a piece of the scarce pie. It also shows the leader’s developmental priorities in a given year. This too, is the area of my interest.

I like to see government priorities in the face of competing plethora of priorities, not least because I want to see to whom I would dash my generators, apology to former President Jonathan. From what the president calls “key capital spending allocations” it would be safe to suggest that his priorities are works and housing, with N262 billion; power, with N127 billion and transportation, with N123 billion. I looked for education and health and found them at about the middle with N48 billion and N46 billion allocations respectively. These are, to be sure, generous votes, each of which is higher than what it was in the current budget.

The president has done the conventional thing. Every sector has a generous vote in billions of Naira. How far would they take us in the coming year? How many federal roads could the generous N262 capital vote for works and housing fix?

Or, take education. At a retreat organised by his ministry in November 2017, the minister of education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, said the country needed to spend N1 trillion annually to pull education out of the dungeon of its current rot and reposition it to serve the fundamental needs of our human capital development. The president, who attended the retreat, chipped in by saying that we must get education right if we are to make headway in our national development. Adamu said we needed the will to make the commitment to adequately fund education. If that elusive will were found in the 2020 budget proposal, the president would have been left with only N1.14 trillion of the total capital votes. If a ministry requires N1 trillion annually and gets only N48 billion, it would not be its fault if by the end of next year, we are unable to notice any radical changes in this very critical mover and shaker of our national progress and development.

I write this against the deafening noise of my generator because the good book says I should beware of darkness. What the country has spent so far on the power sector remains remarkably opaque. We have heard of some $16 billion expenditure since our return to civil rule. But all we know is that the generator merchants have not been thrown of business. We remain now as we remained then at their mercy. Buhari has budgeted N127 billion capital vote for power. It seems to me that this handsome sum of money is much less than the $16 billion allegedly spent so far. If $16 billion did not fix it, can N127 billion? My goodness, I am not about to dash my generator to any one soon, if ever.

My point is that we need an urgent re-think on our conventional system of fund allocations for capital projects. I suggest that instead of the general and inadequate allocation to every sector every year, the president could pick only one critical sector annually on which to spend the bulk of the capital vote. You can have only one priority, not a plethora of priorities. He could, for instance, find the will to fund education with N1 trillion to start it on the road to recovery. A minor a paradigm shift such as this would free the president from spreading scarce resources among the myriads of competing demands. The problem of infinite demands chasing finite resources is an endemic human problem. The solution does not lie in taking on so much only to achieve so little in every budget circle. That is a clear recipe for national disappointment and frustration.


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