Ultimately, all available information point to the fact that when you give cash to the poorest people who need it the most, their lives improve considerably and when combined with skills development and training, they are better able to lift themselves out of poverty.

A spectrum of reactions has trailed last week’s announcement by the federal government of the intention to disburse the recovered $322 million Abacha loot to 302,000 poor households in 19 states through Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT). Predictably, critics of the Buhari administration have not held back their impetuous dismissal of the CCT initiative, while admirers have expressed their appreciation for the thoughtful move. It has, therefore, become pertinent to bring the CCT under the microscope of public analysis and seperate the wheat from the chaff.

For starters, whichever side of the divide you belong to, one thing we can agree on is the fact that there is reasonable guarantee that the $322 million Abacha loot in question will indeed get to the 302,000 households as proposed by the Buhari administration, rather than it being re-looted as used to be the case under previous administrations. Taking that out of the way allows for focus on the what, why, how, when and where of the CCT initiative.

The Conditional Cash Transfer is an initiative under the National Social Investments Programme through which poor and vulnerable persons in Nigeria are identified, documented, and given a sum of N5,000 monthly. This money is paid every two months to the beneficiaries who are also trained on life skills, savings and business development. By all standards, the disbursement of $322 million recovered Abacha loot to 302,000 poor households in 19 states through the CCT qualifies as an investment, the kind that is not only effective, but also timely, in reaching a major segment of the Nigerian populace – the poor and vulnerable masses at the grassroots.

Currently, the CCT is touching the lives of 302,000 poor and vulnerable Nigerians fully documented in the National Social Register (NSR) in the following 19 states: Niger, Kogi, Ekiti, Osun, Oyo, Kwara, Cross River, Bauchi, Gombe, Jigawa, Benue, Taraba, Adamawa, Kano, Katsina, Kaduna, Plateau, Nasarawa, Anambra and Internally Displaced Camps (IDPs) in Borno. The beneficiaries in these states are identified through community-based targeting, thereby ensuring that the initiative reaches the poorest people within each community. States and local governments are tasked with deploying the staff needed for the operations side of the programme, ensuring that as little funds go into overhead costs as possible, so that the initiative can reach as many people as possible.

In addition, as part of efforts to further save costs, the disbursement of the money to the identified beneficiaries is done bi-monthly. Thus, the beneficiaries get N10,000 at every disbursement session, and the programme is able to save the cost of logistics to the barest minimum. Furthermore, households with pregnant women, infants and children of school age get an addition N5,000 monthly to cater to their unique needs. With this, pregnant women are able to go for antenatal care and take children for immunisation, thereby reducing infant and maternal mortality in those communities.

Apart from the fact that the Conditional Cash Transfer reaches the most vulnerable people in Nigeria, what also sets it apart from other such interventions in the past is that it is not just a poverty alleviation scheme. The CCT is a vehicle for lifting economically disadvantaged Nigerians out of poverty by addressing human capital and personal skills gaps. The training component of the programme is mandatory for all the beneficiaries. The long-term goal here is to train the beneficiaries and build their capacity to have a sustainable livelihood to the point that they no longer need the monthly cash transfers.

There’s also the question of transparency, bearing in mind that one of the cardinal manifestos of the Buhari administration is the fight against corruption. A clear indication of how transparent the CCT initiative is the fact that the announcement on the disbursement of the recovered Abacha loot was made by Tukur Rumar of the National Cash Transfer Office (NTCO), in the presence of civil society organisations at a roundtable on asset recovery organised by the Swiss Embassy. This puts the CCT at the focal point of the attention of CSOs who are best placed to x-ray the entire process and keep those in charge accountable for every kobo spent and every Naira disbursed. In addition to this, the programme is being implemented in conjunction with credible development partners like the World Bank, Department for International Development (DFID), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, African Development Bank and UNICEF.

This leaves the last but most important question raised by the critics of the cash transfer initiative: is N5,000 (or N10,000 in some cases) monthly enough to make any difference in a country like Nigeria where there are an estimated 50 million people? Or is the $322 million Abacha loot, and indeed other funds earmarked for the CCT, better spent on other projects capable of commensurate return on investments vis-à-vis improvement in the living standards of the poor and vulnerable people in our communities.

The CCT initiative has been running for a little over a year now, and in that period, testimonies abound from the beneficiaries on how much difference the cash they receive has made a remarkable difference in their lives. From Agaje to Iseyin, from Inisa to Bukuru, beneficiaries of the CCT over the last one year have narrated stories of the revival of small businesses and agricultural activities through savings made from the cash disbursed to them.

And their testimonies mirror reports of similar cash transfer programmes implemented in other countries. In 2003, President Lula launched a cash transfer initiative in Brazil called Bolsa Familia. The programme was initially met with considerable scepticism, and one harsh critic even said throwing money out of a helicopter would be just as efficient. However, by 2013 extreme poverty in Brazil had reduced by more than half and income inequality decreased considerably. Bolsa Familia had reached 50 million people in 14 million households, with women accounting for 90 per cent of the beneficiaries, becoming a global success story, a reference point for social policy around the world. Similar results have been recorded from cash transfer initiatives in Kenya, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, India, Malawi, Yemen and even the United States.

Ultimately, all available information point to the fact that when you give cash to the poorest people who need it the most, their lives improve considerably and when combined with skills development and training, they are better able to lift themselves out of poverty. We have seen times and again that its possible to prepare, pass, and execute budgets in trillions year after year and yet see poverty levels increase. This is why credible social safety measures like the conditional cash transfer programme of the Buhari administration are vital to reaching people at the grassroots directly. That being the case, I would rather see the $322 million Abacha loot end in the hands of the beneficiaries from the over 300,000 households captured by the CCT than it being tied up in some fancy project that benefits far fewer people who already have enough.

Ashton Dagana, a Quantity Surveyor writes from Port Harcourt. (ashtongana@gmail.com).