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    Bill Gates To Fund Child Nutrition Programme In Nigeria – Tejuoso

    The Chairman, Senate Committee on Health, Senator Lanre Tejuoso, in this interview with SUNDAY ABORISADE, explains the outcome of his recent official trip to the United States, the specific challenges confronting his committee, and how to improve the nation’s health sector

    What do you do in your committee?

    The Senate Committee on Health is saddled with the responsibility of ensuring that the health sector in Nigeria is improved to ensure that the vision of the ruling All Progressives Congress government for Nigerians as regards the sector is achieved. We cannot work in isolation of the executive and we thank God that we have a very good working relationship with the two ministers in charge of health in Nigeria. Our first assignment with them is to ensure that we have a practical budget, a professionally produced fiscal document that would satisfy all the visions that the ministry of health have for Nigerians. Although we have a very short time to analyse the budget based on all the constraints associated with the 2016 budget, we were able to overcome the challenges. We thank God because it is now good work in progress as all the anomalies have been positively reviewed and a clean budget as far as the health sector is concerned, has since been presented to President Muhammadu Buhari. There would be no excuse whatsoever for us not to improve the health sector based on this budget.

    Are you satisfied with the allocation to the health sector in view of the great challenges confronting the sector?

    First of all, I am not satisfied with the various areas of allocation. For instance, in the area of personnel; the health sector cannot survive without the people who would see the patients and the people that would operate the equipment. If you look at the different sectors of the economy, the health sector comes first in terms of the need for personnel. We need certified personnel to manage the lives of human beings, those who are emotionally okay to partake in the healing process of patients. So, if we have a nurse for example that is having challenges paying the school fees of her children and such a person is saddled with the responsibilities of monitoring a dying patient, you can see that there would be a conflict of service because inasmuch as the nurse would want to put in her best, the psychological problems she is having with her domestic issues may affect even the treatment of that patient. That is why it is very important to get the personnel issues right in the health sector. We cannot afford all these incessant strikes. We should make sure that there is prompt payment of salaries. We should ensure that the budgeting for the personnel in the health sector is not toyed with at all. Secondly, we have some international agreement that Nigeria is party to. For instance, we have the Abuja Declaration that stipulates that 15 per cent of the national budget must go to health. It is called the Abuja Declaration because it is on the Nigeria’s capital city that all the African countries converged and they all agreed, many years back, that 15 per cent is what is ideal. It is highly unfortunate that the agreement was named after Abuja and Abuja is not implementing it, whereas other countries that are as not as rich as Nigeria, are already fulfilling that Act. Last year, we have maybe about five per cent of the budget of the previous government allocated to health and out of the five per cent, only about 2.5 per cent was implemented. So, in effect, we can say that we have 2.5 per cent. This year also, I think we have over four per cent but because of the honesty of this government, we will fulfil what is in the budget.

    How does your committee plan to resolve situations where health issues meant to be addressed at the primary health level are being attended to at the tertiary health level?

    After the review and presentation of the national budget, the next work of the committee is to ensure that our oversight functions are perfect.

    We will ensure that all the promises of the executive as implied in the budget are implemented to the letter.

    This year, the executive promised to introduce 10,000 functional Primary Health Centres across the country. At the moment, we are still expecting the supplementary budget for that. The Federal Government plans to establish 5,000 PHCs this year and the remaining 5,000 next year. We have non-functional PHCs currently in the country which we believe would be reactivated. Where we don’t have at all, new ones would be built. In having functional PHCs, we also need to talk of personnel. The well-educated and trained personnel to handle the PHCs are vital to having successful primary health care centres. In the outbreak of any major disease, the first port of call should be the PHCs. It is when adequate care cannot be provided there in the PHCs that patients would go to secondary or to the tertiary health care centres. Since we have a promise now that we will reactivate all our PHCs, as a Senate, we will ensure that we monitor the progress and ensure that whatever that is budgeted for the health sector is used judiciously and we get the answers that we all need to have our health sector working.

    What are the challenges of your committee now?

    Our challenges are similar to the type of challenges confronting everybody in Nigeria today and this is funding. For example, we have close to 130 institutions under the health ministry and if we have to do oversight on every institution, you can imagine making about 130 trips across the country? So, who is going to fund that? But we need to go to the major institutions to ensure that they are doing what they are supposed to do. Oversight functions are very important to keep them on their toes. Without funding, there is no way we can achieve our oversight functions.

    What informed your trip to Washington DC where you had a private meeting with Bill Gates in company with the Minister of Health?

    I was in Washington DC for a World Bank sponsored programme. It was not a Bill Gates sponsored event. But during that week, there was a sideline meeting which we were invited to. The meeting was organised by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and at that meeting, Bill Gates was trying to inform Africans that he was going to change his focus on how he wants to use his funds for Africa because the problem of nutrition is becoming a major one in Africa. He said he would now focus on investment in nutrition for the first 1,000 days of a foetus which starts from the day that the mother gets pregnant up to two years. He has tagged the theme of the intervention, “1,000 Days”. They want to be concerned with the nutrition of the pregnant mother, the nutrition of the baby, from age zero to two. They want to focus on the quality of the food that the mother takes during pregnancy and the quality of the food of the baby within two years because there are certain ingredients of food that are very important for the child to have a normal growth. They realised that the percentage of children that are having problems with growth is increasing at an alarming rate. We have stunted growth of children. We have children who are malnourished during their growing years which are a very important period to form the various organs of the body. So, Bill Gates, in his wisdom, believes that this is the time for him to refocus on how he spends his money because he is thinking of what Africa will look like in 20, 30 or even 40 years’ time if these are the kind of children we are giving birth to today. He believes that the brains of malnourished children would not be developed to be able to give the knowledge that we need to impact on the next generation.

    Based on the meeting, how does he hope to implement the programme?

    In focusing on African children’s nutrition, he wants the beneficiary countries to also participate in the funding. If he wants to give Nigeria $50m, he would expect the country to contribute a counterpart funding of $5m. He has notified us to put counterpart funding in our budget to ensure that we have our counterpart funding ready when he wants to start funding the health sector in Nigeria.

    How do you hope to ensure the inclusion of the counterpart funding in the budget?

    I have invited him to come and address the National Assembly. I asked him to come to Nigeria and address a joint session of the two chambers of our federal parliament – that is the House of Representatives and the Senate. This would enable him to further emphasise the importance of the minimum percentage that should be in the budget for health and to further emphasise the importance of we honouring all these declarations like the Abuja Declaration and the others. We also have the 2014 Act that was signed by former President Goodluck Jonathan, which stipulates that a minimum one per cent of the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the country must be dedicated to the health sector. So, we need to start honouring all our laws. So, Bill Gates is coming to Nigeria. He has accepted and has asked me to arrange for him to come to Nigeria to address us officially on this.

    Bill Gates plans to invest $7bn annually on this programme. How much is Nigeria negotiating for out of this amount?

    He owns his money. We cannot negotiate with him. He is the one to decide how much he wants to spend. It depends on how much we are ready to put as counterpart funding. We have not even reached the stage of negotiation or even pleading.

    How soon are you going to arrange the joint sitting of the National Assembly for Bill Gates to come and address the federal lawmakers?

    His office is already discussing with us. So, we are still waiting for a convenient time but since we would need to prepare for the 2017 budget, we need him to talk to us before we start planning the budget for 2017 because we want to start preparations early this year to avoid the situation we experienced this year.

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