The Executive Director of the United Nations Fund for Population Activity (UNFPA) Prof. Babatunde Osotimehin speaks with Damilola Oyedele on the potential of hosting the World Economic Forum (WEF) and other issues
Is Nigeria’s population of 171 million, according to UNFPA figures, an asset or an albatross?
Given what government’s position is on the matter of population and what investments the country has started to make for the issues of young people; their education and health, then it is an asset. But that is space to watch because more needs to be done to make sure that the asset potential is realised. The UNFPA is working with the Nigerian government on a programme called demographic dividend to make sure Nigeria can continue to make that investment. Nigeria today subsists on its natural resources, its extractive industries are what sustain its economy but the people are the greatest asset the country has. Young people would be Nigeria’s greatest and most sustainable asset going forward, so government is making efforts to ensure that young people between the ages of 10-24 years have what they need to become productive agents of change within their communities. We are putting together a programme with the World Economic Forum (WEF) to demonstrate Nigeria’s potentials and how they can be harnessed.
What is the demographic dividend programme all about?
It is a situation where when you look at the structure of a population, and the number of people who are dependent on the adults is so much larger than those who are producing, then there can be no prosperity. It means what you are doing is bearing the children, having to send them to school, feed them, clothe them and they are not productive. But when you are able to basically ensure that you have between say 20-24 entering the work place, they go to 30, 35 and are productive. Then they stimulate the economy, they are agents of change, they are economic units in their own rights, then the economy grows. That is where the demographic dividends come from. So the individual becomes that agent of change, and so the dividend is dependent on that individual.
If we do not push our population in that direction, we would end up with building schools, hospitals for people who are dependent, and we would have a small number of adults who would work their bones to sustain them. That is not sustainable; even if you have all the natural resources in the world, there is still the need to have a critical mass of people who would manage those resources. That is why the demographic dividend is important for the growth and prosperity of any country.
What opportunities are available for Nigeria to leverage on from the WEF?
There are many, Nigeria is full of potential. Nigeria must understand that the WEF coming here is giving different opportunities to different sectors of the economy, be it capital markets, in the extractive industry, and even in the human development resource. Today, we are in the most digital phase of development: Nigeria is so digital, has millions of cell phones, and the internet is one of the biggest development Nigeria has seen in the last few years. We can develop on this, and take the country to a different level if we take advantage of the various partnerships that can result from this encounter with the WEF.
Given the high rate of unemployment among the youth who are regarded as the nation’s greatest asset, what panacea would you recommend for the country to harness this asset?
What I see and what I have learnt, and what the Nigerian government told me at a meeting with the Coordinating Minister of the Economy/Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, on this is that Nigeria proposes to take this and create a social protection floor to enable all people to take advantage. That means they would have quality education, skills development, entrepreneurship training, ability to access credit and access to health services. If you want to change the profile of a population, people must have access to information about how to control their fertility because if the population continues to grow at the rate at which it is growing, you would not be able to maintain it or have that demographic transition that you are looking at.
The recent rebasing of Nigeria’s economy as the largest in Africa has been described as hollow by several critics. How can we build on our comparative advantages to ensure an inclusive economy?
It’s about ensuring the rights of everybody to access what they need to be who they are and attain their full potentials. Nigeria is not alone in that, there are many economies in the world, including those which are emerging economies which basically can be classified as high middle income, where the gap between the rich and the poor is really wide. In fact in the last 10, 15 and 20 years, only the top five per cent of the world has gained from the growth of the economies of the world. So the issue of inequality is global, but Nigeria needs to address that within its own framework, particularly for young people, because if you have 60 per cent of your population below the age of 35, you need to do something creative in terms of engaging them. Let us be honest, the public sector would never be able to employ everybody, the private sector would also not be able to take the excess that the public sector cannot accommodate, so we have to encourage creativity and innovation and we allow them access to credit. We should also make sure that even in failure, they are congratulated, some of them would succeed, and some would fail: that is what happened in South East Asia; making sure that the innovation which young people bring to the table is celebrated. In that sense, the economy can be grown.
For example, Nigeria has no business today importing food; we have enough land, enough technology and enough entrepreneurship among young people to do this. They need to be empowered, and be assured of the markets. We have no business importing several of the things that we use; some of the things we import can come from the petrochemicals. We need to encourage small scale and middle scale industries to ensure that the large population base would actually turn out to be our major asset. Then consumption can be encouraged.
Nigeria has not achieved any of the eight MDGs. Do you think there is still a chance for this, especially as regards maternal health?
There is always a chance. I have always been impressed by Nigeria’s commitment when it wants to do something, and I have no doubt in my mind that the government is committed to do this. We have been part of this; there was Save One Million lives project at some point. Nigeria, as a country, has invested so much in saving the lives of women and children. We at UNFPA, working with our partners are also committed to ensuring that we do this acceleration of the last 600 days of the MDGs to make sure that we reach as many communities as possible. That in itself requires us to work with communities. One of the assets we have (I want to say this with modesty), because I have worked in Nigeria, because I know Nigeria and have been to all the 774 LGAs in this country, we know what works and how it works. We are poised to engage with local Governments, community leaders and religious leaders to make sure these issues are taken on board. There is no community in the world that would like to see children die. There is no community that likes to see women die at childbirth and we can make that happen. Let me give an example of what is going on with our partners in USAID. They are working today in Sokoto and Kebbi and trying to provide very cheap simple methods with life-saving commodities. They give it to the mothers at birth, and these commodities ensure that they do not bleed after giving birth. Bleeding causes about 30-40 per cent of maternal deaths. If we can do these things, we can actually save lives. Another thing that is heartwarming for me is that with what we are doing with the USAID, we are catalysing that process. Today, six state governments are buying those life-saving commodities to distribute to their own people. So we can do it; we just need to be focused, and be out there working to ensure that they understand.
To what extent is the work of the UNFPA being affected by the insecurity in some parts of Nigeria?
To the extent that it is affecting everybody else. If you cannot be sure that your staff members can go to places and feel safe, that is an issue. Also to the extent that you need the people, if the people are not there, it becomes a problem. But the UNFPA also has a responsibility in these kinds of situations. We work around the world trying to make sure that women and girls in conflict areas are protected. When there is conflict and disaster, people tend to look after their houses, water supply, food security, but they do not look after security of girls and women. In those kinds of circumstances, rape and sexual violence go on. UNFPA is the agency that goes out to ensure that these do not happen. Secondly women have special needs which nobody thinks about. A pregnant woman cannot stop her pregnancy, she would have to deliver when she is due, and we at UNFPA ensure that we provide the services to look after that pregnant woman and her baby when she delivers. We also look after women because they have needs on a monthly basis. These are things nobody thinks about because there are no pharmacies and shops to buy the sanitary things that they require. We provide those things and ensure that women have dignity.