INTERVIEW: Why we agreed to help Nigeria pay $76 million debt to Japan – Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Paulin Basinga is the Country Director of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Nigeria, a major international donor supporting development in several sectors in the country.

As the head of the operations of the Foundation in Nigeria, Mr. Basinga works in close collaboration with government at the federal and state levels, and development partners in civil society and the private sector.

In this interview with Bisi Abidoye and Ayodamola Owoseye of PREMIUM TIMES, he speaks on the activities of the Foundation, how it has been assisting in tackling development challenges in Nigeria and the future of international support for Africa.

PREMIUM TIMES: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is active across West Africa. What is the primary goal of the foundation in these countries and how will you assess that progress has been made in the pursuit of this goal?

Basinga: The Gates Foundation has several development grants throughout Africa.

We have investments and grants across 45 countries in Africa but the biggest ones are really in Nigeria, Ethiopia and some in South Africa.

In West Africa, we have significant partnership with the government and private sector in countries like Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Niger.

We are currently planning what we call the Ouagadougou Partnership, which is a partnership with many other donors to support family planning in the West African region.

However, in the whole of West Africa, if you look at the size of our investment and support, Nigeria accounts for the biggest. We have support across three areas – that is health and nutrition, which happens to be our biggest support and focus; and Agriculture, where we assist in uplifting the small farmers. This we do in collaboration with the various agricultural ministries in the regions and the African Development Bank across the regions.

The third focus is financial inclusion – that is providing financial services for the poor by ensuring that the poorest of the poor have access to financial means and access to banks and development money.

PREMIUM TIMES: How would you assess the progress of your efforts in most of these interventions, especially in health?

Basinga: Our progress can be assessed by several indicators and one of such indicators is that which helps track development across the world and that is child mortality.

We at Gates Foundation see ourselves as catalysts, we see ourselves as partners with government, private sector and donors to advance most of the programmes that we support.

Looking at the significant decrease in the rate of child mortality in the past decades, you will note that there has been a progress. Child mortality has been cut by half in the last 10 years and we are very happy and optimistic about the progress we are making.

Though there are still challenges, we at Gates Foundation are very optimistic because when you look at the trend in terms of maternal mortality, child mortality and uptick of services, we are very happy with the way things are going.

PREMIUM TIMES: What is your understanding of the major factors responsible for some of the challenges your Foundation is intervening in in African countries?

Basinga: There are several factors. The issue of making sure that people have access to these services, that the services are available and making sure that we get the people who really need the services get them are a lot of challenge.

Also, making sure that the government put enough money into health, especially in terms of providing enough money for health sector. There are lots of recommendations on how much money the government needs to put into health and to put in place a stronger primary health care so that people can access services.

The issue of equity is also a big challenge, because even across many countries you see that access to services is sometimes only higher in the urban areas, not in the rural areas. So we are really tackling those issues, access and equity among others, and those are kind of one of the biggest challenges.

PREMIUM TIMES: Do you have the impression that you are making impacts, especially with how government responds to these challenges?

Basinga: Definitely. Because we choose to tackle some of the toughest challenges. It takes time and we are here for the long haul. And we are seeing incremental improvement and we are very happy about that.

PREMIUM TIMES: In the health sector in Nigeria, for example, can you tell us how much in figures you have invested in the last ten to two years?

Basinga: It will be quite challenging to give a figure of how much we have committed in the past ten years, but we can provide you with all those information.

But just to give you a sense of it. In the past ten years, starting from 2010 up to 2020 for example, for the past ten years and the remaining, the way the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports the programmes we support through our headquarters in Seattle, and we have different strategies across health, agriculture and financial inclusion, we create a strategy in partnership with global institutions like the World Health Organisation, GAVI, Global Funds, among others and also partner closely with countries.

In Nigeria, a lot of funding we support will come either from the global community or contribution given to Global Funds or GAVI and this will come to Nigeria in terms of purchase of commodities like vaccines, etc.

We also have specific funds that come directly to Nigeria. If I can give you a sense of how much money the Gate Foundation will be contributing to Nigeria, for now up to 2020 for example, it is close to $1 billion across health, agriculture and financial inclusion.

The bulk of that money will go towards supporting the Nigerian government finishing the work on polio, as we are very close to eradicating polio.

The second biggest one is providing support toward vaccines, building stronger primary health care and supporting nutrition, agriculture and financial inclusion.

Those are all kinds of the investment we will be making in the next three years.

PREMIUM TIMES: What are the mechanism for ensuring that there is value for money spent in Nigeria especially through government, knowing that we have the challenge of corruption in Africa?

Basinga: We take the issue of value for money very seriously and we do due diligence in terms of who we work with and how we work with all our partners.

We provide our money through grants, those are grants that people need to apply for, and we try to work very closely with partners that are reputable and have clear financial due diligence mechanism in place.

We work very closely with them and we have staff that are based here that work very closely with those partners.

When we work closely with the government, we sign MoUs with specific states for example, where we put in our money on condition that the state put in their own money too, then we co-fund some of the programmes that we do and we work very closely to ensure that they are executed.

PREMIUM TIMES: The Trump administration has been calling for cut in International aids. What will be the likely implication of this on international donor organisations, knowing U.S is one of the major humanitarian donors?

Basinga: This year has been a tough year for the global community and we have been following very closely the position of the U.S. government in terms of the international aids.

We have also been providing a lot of data to show how the money the U.S. government has been spending in international development has been so impactful.

One of the questions that you will see that Bill and Melinda in their annual letter this year talked about, is their B Plan. Because our support to development is catalytic.

With the U.S government being the biggest contributor to development aids, we are working very closely with them to provide catalytic funding and help their money to go further.

It is a true challenge when the U.S. government will cut funds to very important life-saving interventions. We will continue to provide any technical assistance and advocate to make sure that the U.S. government continue their strong assistance to continue saving lives.

PREMIUM TIMES: Nutrition is one aspect that your Foundation has been strongly focusing on. What has been the underlining factor for this challenge and what do you think is the long term solution to malnutrition in the country?

Basinga: Malnutrition is a huge problem, where you have more than 40 per cent of children stunted. In the long term it is going to have a huge impact on their intellectual ability.

Nutrition cuts across health, agriculture, economic development, among other things. There are many factors that contribute to malnutrition and we are working closely with the federal government to make sure that the first 1000 days of any kid is effective, starting by promoting breast feeding as much as we can.

We also encourage the right fortification of food. And that is coupled with all the support and initiatives that the government is putting in place to lift people out of poverty to make sure that there is food for everyone.

The mothers are also educated about the healthy diet they should give to kids. It is a multi-sectoral approach and a long term approach that we are a small part of, and we are really excited that the government is partnering with us on that.

On how much we are committing to nutrition this year, I cannot give specific figure now, but we are happy to share with you all our grants that are supporting nutrition.

In terms of transparency, we provide every six months (twice a year) the list of all our grants to the Ministry of Budget and Planning and it is live on the web and you can see who is getting money from the Gate Foundation to do what and all descriptions are available. We are happy to provide you details.

PREMIUM TIMES: The federal government and states are doing a school feeding programme. Do you think that can also help in addressing the issue of malnutrition?

Basinga: On the school feeding programme, there has been a lot of evidence that providing food to kids at school really increases participation at the school level and it is impressive how the government is pushing that forward.

We are not providing specific support on that, although we provide technical support to the Ministry of Agriculture in that space. But it is a very exciting programme and we are following closely to see the long term impact that will have.

PREMIUM TIMES: How do you think the international community can help build capacity to tackle the challenges affecting the continent?

Basinga: I think for sure, there is a role for the international community, but the first role is really from Africa.

The African governments through the African Union and its specific governments are making huge efforts and commitments toward building local institutional capacity for African prosperity. But for sure, the international community has a role to play in terms of partnership and providing technical assistance.

But in term of response towards challenges, the African government is the way forward. This is why in terms of transparency for example, Bill and Melinda this year just published the tenth annual letter just to make sure that they are transparent and they are open to partners, especially for any government in Africa.

We make sure that we are open to suggestions on how we as international community can partner to solve the toughest question as seen by the African governments and not as defined by the international community.

PREMIUM TIMES: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged to help Nigeria pay the Japan government a $76 million debt. What informed the step and when do you see Nigeria winning the fight against polio?

Basinga: Referring to the loan we agreed to pay off to the Japanese government, this was a very clear sense of government ownership and commitment towards polio eradication in the country. That was many years ago when we agreed with the government that if they are able to continue the polio eradication effort and see the numbers going down, we will pay back the loan.

We have agreed to pay back the loan because we have seen the progression towards polio eradication, which has been impressive. It has been more than 12 months now that we have not seen any case of polio in Nigeria.

This is through strong commitment with the government and the Nigerian people bringing their kids out for vaccination.

There is a strong commitment and we are in the last mile. The last one percent is the hardest one, because we have close to 200,000 children stuck in the north in an insecure region which is very difficult to reach them.

But if the government can continue providing their technical support and funding, we don’t having reason to believe the government is not committed. We are all hoping that we are very close to eradicating polio in Nigeria.

PREMIUM TIMES: Nigeria as a country has been largely dependent on international donors for funding health interventions such as Immunisation, HIV and malaria, among others. Have you been discussing with the government to increase funding in this aspects and what has been the response?

Basinga: There has been a lot of discussions with the government of Nigeria and one of our top priorities this year at the Gates Foundation is to provide technical assistance and some funding towards the implementation of the Basic Health Care Provision Fund.

As you know, in 2014, the government signed the National Health Act which provided an opportunity to put in place a basic health fund so that the one per cent of consolidated fund will be put to health in order to increase the budget that goes towards supporting primary health care.

Yes, we have been discussing with the government, they have been pushing forward and we hope that it will happen in the coming year.

But definitely there is a need for more government money towards health. But we have seen some very good movement in some specific states where the states allocation of fund towards health is increasing significantly.

PREMIUM TIMES: How can we get more local private inventors to support the fight against health challenges in Nigeria?

Basinga: In Nigeria there are good Nigerian citizens who are providing a lot of support in the private sector and also supporting in the health sector.

We work very closely with Mr. Aliko Dangote and the Dangote Foundation where we are partnering with some states with MoUs, where the Bill and Melinda Gates put in the money, the Dangote Foundation put in money and the state government too also put in good money.

We also agreed on how to move the health sector, especially the routine immunisation programme forward.

There are also other private sector investors who have been contributing their quota. However, I think there are lots of opportunities for private philanthropist in Nigeria to invest in Nigerian health sector and we will be very happy to provide any technical support.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided what they call the Giving Pledge, where they have asked the majority of wealthiest people who are willing to give their wealth back to the community to do so.

Warren Buffet, one of our partners, had suggested that Bill and Melinda should write an annual letter to the world so that people can understand their philanthropy, their giving, how is it going and this has encouraged other philanthropists who have signed the Giving Pledge, which is social contact in which they have decided to give back their fortunes to the world.

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