Adanna Chukwuma: We need to rethink education financing in Nigeria (Y! Policy Hub)

by Adanna Chukwuma


….where is private philanthropy for education in Nigeria? Everyone seems to be funding a few primary schools here and there.  What happens beyond primary school? Does primary school give you the skills you need to become a programmer, treat diseases, run a company or invent a machine?….

Three months ago, almost to this day, I ran into a wall. I had been granted full funding for a doctorate degree anywhere in the world by President Goodluck Jonathan through the NYSC Presidential Scholarship in 2012. It was an elaborate ceremony, graced by “eminent personalities” from the length and breadth of the country. I actually flew into the country in spite of the fuel subsidy crises, burning hard-earned money, to receive this award. Confidently, I applied for and accepted admission into Harvard School of Public Health, assured that I could spend the next few years understanding the theory of health systems and applying analytical methods to forge a way out of disadvantage for those excluded from health care in Nigeria. You can imagine my shock when with a brief informal call I was informed I would not be funded, without plausible reason. The university was even more bewildered. What can I say? It is Nigeria after all! For months thereafter, my thoughts have not only been preoccupied with funding for my study, I have also been re-awakened to what must be the reality of millions of young people in Nigeria.

In a world where knowledge and skills are the currency for the purchase of livelihoods and the pathway to innovation and leading change, Nigerian youth often find themselves torn, in the face of learning opportunities that we would jump at all things being equal. This is not anecdotal. Nigeria has 10.5 million children out of school, the highest number in the world, higher than even China and India, countries that with a billion people each should at least beat us in terms of numbers if not proportions, had they had the same approach towards learning. Think of school in its broadest sense though, throughout the rest of this brief essay, as the formal acquisition of skills and knowledge to enable functioning in and contribution to society. I choose to assume that a good proportion of that number would be in school if they had the means to fund their way. I imagine the millions of youth and adults that were once children, and were excluded from the opportunity to be equipped to become as productive members of the Nigerian society as they could have been. The key question is this: how can we make sure that money is not the principal deciding factor when the Nigerian is faced with this decision to pick up an essential skill or to be immersed in the theory within an area of expertise? My implicit assumption of an educational system that works to give us the skills and knowledge we need is of course fallacious. Does anyone have any idea when ASUU and the government will deal with their issues? I will reserve my thoughts on that discussion for another day.

I think the ultimate aim of rethinking financing mechanisms of education should not only be extending the reach of education, but building in incentives to retain the talent that is trained via these resources. First on the list: conditional cash transfers. I recently read a working paper from the Center for Global Development on an ‘oil-to-cash’ mechanism, designed for oil-rich countries like Nigeria to ensure the delivery of social goods, such as education. I believe that it is similar thinking that inspired the fuel Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme (SURE-P). The idea is that cash transferred to the poor will enable the purchase of goods and that this resource can be gleaned from returns to the exploitation of our mineral reserves, establishing a means for redistribution to defeat the resource curse. There are already (unsubstantiated) rumors of the misappropriation of SURE-P funds. Thus setting up a cash transfer program is insufficient: it is essential to ensure that it gets into the hands of those who need it most and is used to deliver on high-return investments.

I propose therefore that cash transfer programs be mediated through mobile money systems which are currently being deployed extensively in East Africa. With 100 million mobile phone subscribers including rural dwellers, means-tested fund transfers in this way can eliminate (some) corrupt intermediaries, and be disbursed conditional on expenditure for schooling. A closely related second: government loans for education. Loans are tricky: I have witnessed the debt that my friends who have completed studies in the United States are saddled with. On the other hand, it is interesting to note how this keeps talent either within the country or working with US-based organizations for the most part and the potential implications if this same effect held for Nigeria.

I was in Kampala a few weeks ago when the Ugandan government announced the launch of a loan scheme – financing education is something that should be on the agenda of a responsible government, and Uganda does not even meet that cut. Graded loans based on financial need could increase access to education and through moderate interest rates ensure an additional revenue stream for the government.  Do the administrative bodies within the educational system have the capacity to manage this? Your guess is as good as mine.

So on to simpler things. We need to increase the range of government grants and scholarships available for study locally and abroad. The Federal Government could condition state and local government allocations on proportional educational funds for underrepresented groups. For all the billions in allocations that are not used to improve the livelihoods of Nigerian citizens, if just a small percentage were allotted to funding skills training, grants for formal education or for teacher retraining, we would potentially make significant progress. Funds which are part grant and part loan also provide a means to support education while tying beneficiaries to come obligation of service for loan forgiveness or debt repayment.

Finally, where is private philanthropy for education in Nigeria? Everyone seems to be funding a few primary schools here and there.  What happens beyond primary school? Does primary school give you the skills you need to become a programmer, treat diseases, run a company or invent a machine? We cannot allow our priorities to be dictated entirely by international agenda (I say this to the retort pointing me to the Millennium Development Goals!). In countries we consider our peers, and others whose greatness we aspire to attain, primary school education is not the primary focus.

It is just interesting to look at funding opportunities in Kenya, South Africa, India or China: there is an avalanche!! Private foundations, corporations, individual endowments, and the list goes on. Let us not even talk about the United States!!! It is almost considered a given in that country that the rich find some way to contribute to the development of the society in which they prospered: from the Gates Foundation to the Open Society Foundation to the hundreds of others, there are opportunities that encourage young people to acquire skills and knowledge that will enable them contribute to society. I can count on one hand, the funding opportunities available for the Nigerian towards graduate study. Five fingers (Ten at the most) and I would exhaust government and private sector funding agencies that give grants for university-level education at scale. I doubt anyone is even thinking about technical schools, teacher training colleges, and skills-based training. Something has to change.

Are these fool-proof recommendations? In complex systems it is difficult to answer that question: that is the question about effectiveness of interventions across contexts. However, the most successful policy reforms are often iterative: they are grounded in an accurate understanding of the picture, and we can continually modify and adapt this process to suit the needs of our educational system. What everyone should be able to agree upon is the idea that we cannot continue to let millions of Nigerians stay excluded from education when we have the resources to enable them to learn.  If we have the highest-paid legislators on the planet (see here), we can certainly afford to send our children to school.


Adanna Chukwuma trained as a Medical Doctor in University of Nigeria, graduating with several distinctions. Following medical practice in a variety of settings, She spent a year in one of the most deprived states in her country involved in health promotion and paediatric clinical services, for which she received community service awards from both the Nigerian President and the Executive Governor of Yobe State. She decided to further my understanding of health disparities and accepted an ExxonMobil International Scholarship to study for a Master of Science in Global Health Science in University of Oxford, graduating with distinction.

Adanna firmly believes that avoidable disparities in the experience of health can be addressed by multi-sectoral collaborative action on the social, economic and political factors that shape the environments in which people live. She just completed a Health Policy Fellowship with Global Health Corps,  a non-profit organization led by Barbara Bush, and was placed with the Division of Strategic Health Planning, in the City of Newark, New Jersey. Among other things, she served as technical lead on the 2010 – 2012 process evaluation of “Let’s Move! Newark”, the local adaptation of First Lady Michelle Obama’s childhood obesity prevention campaign.

She is currently a doctoral student in Harvard School of Public Health within the Department of Global Health and Population concentrating in health systems. She is also a Research and Communications Associate with Institute for Advanced Development Studies, recently ranked the top development think-tank in Bolivia. On completion of her doctoral education, Adanna aims to work throughout sub-Saharan Africa strengthening the capacity of national health systems to meet the need for care equitably.


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

Comments (2)

  1. Well done…critical issues raised.

  2. well done Adanna, we need goodwill, we need to do our part.

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