Change, Politics

Nigeria’s War Against Holistic Planning

The iconic painter, Pablo Picasso, is acclaimed to have said that “Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” If there is any validity to Picasso’s claim that a properly implemented plan is the only route to success, what then do we say to individuals and institutions that act like planning is anathema to success. Maybe such persons know something the rest of the world is ignorant of, or maybe the ignorance, wilful or accidental, is in the other direction.

Holistic Planning is a terminology commonly associated with the financial services industry. Within the context of wealth management, it refers to a philosophy where duly qualified financial advisers ensure that clients are provided with comprehensive financial planning to match their specific needs—present and future—with the right kinds of financial products. Outside finance, the Durham Workforce Authority defines holistic planning as “a multi-service approach to acquiring the widest possible breadth of information to orient a programme’s activities towards high quality outcomes”. Since this definition resonates with my intentions for this article, let’s take it as our working definition.

What business does Nigeria have with holistic planning? I recently had a discussion with someone I will call Mr X, who works with a donor agency that is actively engaged in Nigeria. Our discourse began with appreciation of his office’s relaxing view overlooking one of the waterways in Lagos. As we took in the views, he wondered why he had to labour in road traffic everyday when he would rather just take a boat that would stop him close to his office; however, such a convenient option does not currently exist. Waking from his dreams, Mr X asked why the newly built jetties were not synchronised with the existing road transport system. That is where our talk on holistic planning began.

If you take a random city in a developed country, for example, London, you would notice that land, sea, and air transportation appears to work in tandem. You can take a taxi or a bus to a train station, drop directly at the train station and hop into a train. As you leave a train station, there would be a bus stop dedicated to that station to ensure you do not have to walk a long distance to catch a bus. If you were to ride a bicycle to a train station, there would be parking spaces for you to secure your bike before hopping on a train. The same applies with going to an airport, a sea port, or even some random, small jetty. Cities with waterways like Venice or Amsterdam have incorporated their streams and rivers into the local transportation network, bringing convenience to their populations.

Let’s come back to Nigeria. Can we say that the transport system in any state was designed with convenience (for the users) in mind? Do we even have truly functional water transportation systems in states that have inland waterways? What we tend to have are non-complementary projects—a road here, a jetty there, and a bus stop on the other side—built by different administrations without a guiding masterplan.

Leaving the transport sector, we can look at education for another instance of Nigeria’s belligerence towards planning holistically. The education sector is commonly seen as comprising three (or four) distinct parts, namely primary (and nursery), secondary, and tertiary schools. When we hear of government interventions in education, it is usually in one of the three components taken individually, and even when there are concurrent interventions, it is hardly clear how they are linked. For example, if we choose to invest, say X naira in primary education, do we consider how that investment will affect the demand for secondary education? Hence, do we plan a complementary programme to ensure that if we were to produce “better pupils” from the primary level, they would have the right secondary schools, teachers, curriculum, and learning environment to build upon the improvements in the primary level? If the intervention is in tertiary education, do we consider whether we even need to boost secondary education to ensure the tertiary level receives “qualified students” for training? Extending this, if we improve tertiary education, do we consider the impact on the workforce in terms of the available employment (and entrepreneurial) opportunities, and maybe consider if an intervention in industry is required to fully harness the benefits of better tertiary education? Do we even consider population and urbanisation trends in determining priority areas and guiding investment decisions to ensure that in ten, twenty, or fifty years’ time, our educational system will “still” be robust enough to meet the needs of the society?

I have simply used education to highlight the breadth of thinking that holistic planning demands. Unfortunately, the political system does not enable the kind of long-term thinking that we actually need to move Nigeria forward. Seeing we run a four-year cycle, many politicians only think in terms of what projects they can quickly execute in order to derive the greatest return on investment (for themselves!) Factoring the electioneering campaigns, there are barely three years available to any political leader to design and implement sustainable policies and programmes that consider as many important and interlinked issues as possible. This short-termism is a crucial driver of half-baked, parallel and sometimes mutually-antagonistic government policies.

How do we get our leaders to plan holistically for the present and future needs of Nigeria and the constituent states? We cannot (realistically) get away from the short political cycles; many countries that plan long-term also have similar cycles. I think one workaround could be for the Nigerian citizen to demand for policies to be designed through real consultations with frontline and ancillary stakeholders, and the resulting Master Plans to be enacted as legislation. In addition, we will need an effective Civil Service to dampen the highs and lows of different administrations by ensuring we have competent people who understand what it will take to deliver on a Master Plan, and very importantly, are not subject to four-year election cycles.

Citizen-led advocacy can then ensure that if we have, for example, an Education Master Plan, then, we will ask campaigning politicians questions about how they would ensure the Master Plan remains on track should they assume their targeted offices. We also need an effective anti-corruption ombudsman with strong prosecutorial powers to deter government officials from undercutting a Master Plan in favour of “profitable” quick-delivery projects.  There are likely other ways we can achieve a Nigeria where proper, wide-reaching plans are made, and diligently implemented. Whichever route we choose to follow, the most important takeaway is that we need holistic planning across all levels of government, else, we will continue to throw scarce money at bad projects and earn poor quality outcomes.

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