The Economic Recovery and Growth Plan represents the Federal Government’s blueprint to position the economy on a path of sustainable growth. By 2020, it is hoped, Nigeria would have become a well-diversified economy with its multiplier benefits of more jobs and improved standard of living for the ordinary Nigerian. It goes without saying that the successful implementation of the ERGP requires effective stakeholder participation. Sadly, more often than not, the discourse on economic recovery in Nigeria chiefly revolves around what the government has to offer. As the country meanders through a tortuous recovery path, what role can religious institutions such as churches and mosques play in fast-tracking the implementation of the ERGP?
Indeed, the role of religious bodies in fostering sustainable inclusive growth has since been recognised. Speaking in Bolivia sometime ago, the Roman Catholic Pontiff, Pope Francis, urged people in authority, including religious leaders, to put the economy at the service of the people. In the words of Pope Francis, “Human beings and nature must not be at the service of money. Let us say no to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules, rather than service. That economy kills. That economy excludes. That economy destroys Mother Earth.” Pope Francis’ charge speaks to the need for churches and mosques to be concerned about the material welfare of their members much as they care for their spiritual needs. Over the years, religious institutions have proved to be major partners with government in the delivery of health care and other social services including the fight against diseases such as HIV/AIDS. These institutions are equally visible in the provision of education with many faith-based private universities helping to transform the educational landscape of Nigeria. In view of the ongoing efforts at revamping the Nigerian economy through the ERGP, religious bodies need to step up involvement in economic activities in support of speedy economic recovery.
It is a fact that given the strong presence of churches and mosques in virtually all parts of the country, religious institutions possess a good knowledge of local communities and their social needs. This provides an opportunity to enter into strategic partnership with the government in helping to deliver welfare programmes that target the poor. One of the cardinal objectives of the ERGP is “investing in our people” including through the provision of quality education. The government can partner religious bodies to rebuild the public school system with emphasis on technical/vocational education. Churches and mosques can organise training programmes for people who are interested in learning a trade or to equip members of the youth organisation with computer skills. Relatively affluent ones can come up with a self-reliance initiative that assists members to find a job, start a business, or get the education they need to do any of these.
The government should take advantage of the respected position that religious institutions occupy in the society to actively involve them in the design and implementation of programmes that facilitate job creation and poverty reduction. For example, in the area of education and social inclusion, some of the strategies enunciated in the ERGP include “to establish best-in-class vocational and technical institutes, prioritise education for girls, implement and increase social safety net programmes targeted at the vulnerable as well as introduce social programmes for the aged and physically challenged.” Religious institutions, given their reach and influence in the society, are best suited as partners in the execution of these strategies.
A major priority of the ERGP is the achievement of self-sufficiency in food production. Nothing prevents religious institutions from registering special purpose vehicles with a view to undertaking large-scale farming involving crop production, livestock and fishery that will provide jobs for the teeming youth. The state governors can assist by making land available for farming. Big churches and mosques can pool resources together in partnership to establish agri-businesses, housing projects, shopping malls, hotels, printing press, transport services and a whole lot of other business ventures at affordable prices to customers. They can actually leverage crowd-funding opportunities provided by their numerical strength. The population of Christians and Muslims in Nigeria represents a significant market for goods and services produced by faith-based business enterprises. Big churches and mosques that have idle structures and huge open spaces should be encouraged to convert them to productive use. Religious institutions can equally champion the campaign for Nigerians to embrace locally made products especially with respect to basic items such as school uniforms, textiles, footwear and food. This will not only reduce importation but also increase foreign exchange earning while also supporting development of local industries. Doing so will be in furtherance of the ERGP goal of driving industrialisation through Small and Medium Enterprises.
In light of their proven track record of delivering basic social services, religious bodies have a critical role to play in sustainable development. When such developments take place in low-income areas, they increase property values, attract new residents and become magnets for diverse businesses. In fact, studies have shown that faith-based business enterprises help rebuild a community’s social infrastructure. In pursuit of this however, a major challenge that religious institutions face in undertaking socio-economic projects is access to funding. Many depend on donations, tithes and offerings and most often these are not enough to cover their operational and capital budget. This is the more reason for churches and mosques to work together and pool their limited resources in undertaking major socio-economic projects. Special purpose vehicles set up by religious institutions can leverage the religious bodies’ reputation to access funds from development finance institutions such as the Bank of Agriculture and the Bank of Industry or even take advantage of the numerous intervention schemes introduced by the Central Bank of Nigeria to channel funds to the real sector.
Religious bodies in Nigeria must not relent in advocating a job-oriented economic growth and should continue to call on government to allocate more resources to projects that facilitate an enabling environment for job creation and poverty reduction. Periodically, they should issue statements on the state of the economy, the national budget and allocation of national resources to create awareness about the high level of poverty and social exclusion in the country. Umbrella bodies such as the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs should provide leadership in this direction and actively engage government in addressing the socio-economic challenges facing Nigeria including the seemingly intractable farmers/herdsmen clashes which pose a serious threat to the realisation of the ERGP targets in agriculture.
All said, churches and mosques should not only be concerned about the spiritual needs of their members but also their material welfare. Therefore, like never before, they should rise to the occasion and partner the government in the implementation of the ERGP.
Credit – Uche Uwaleke (The Punch)