On June 21, 2021, Gombe State rolled out the At-Risk Children Programme, the first in the country. Best known as ARC-P, it’s an ambitious and strategically designed initiative of the federal government under the office of the Vice President and led by the Special Adviser to the President on Social Investment, Hajiya Maryam Uwais. The programme is a solution to the prolonged and well-documented vulnerabilities of children who have lacked social protection and the luxury of basic formal education.
ARC-P is endorsed and supported by two sister agencies of the United Nations—UNDP and UNICEF—along with other key development partners and structured to protect children and young persons under 24. With primary and secondary schools being the core responsibility of local and state governments, ARC-P is framed to be managed by state governments while the federal government coordinates and mobilises support and pertinent partnerships.
ARC-P is also benefitting from the United Nations Office On Drugs and Crime (UNODC) which, along with the NDLEA, aids in identifying preventive measures against abuse of harmful substances and training the children on life skills through a programme called LULU (Line Up, Live Up). LULU sets out to empower sports coaches, and deploys sports as an instrument for engaging children and redirecting them away from criminal and violent endeavours.
With defined partnerships that involve financial and development institutions like Africa Development Bank and Islamic Development Bank and non-profits and think-tanks like MacArthur Foundation and Centre for Democratic Development, Research and Training (CEDDERT), the future of Nigeria’s vulnerable children head towards lasting and sustained empowerment and a clear-cut direction.
Nigeria has been in the search of a lasting solution to its nearly 13.2 million out-of-school children, and the danger stares us in the face every day. The North, especially, has been more devastated and 69% of the disadvantaged children are scattered across the region. Only 30% of this scary demographic aren’t absorbed by the long-abused Almajiri system according to a UNICEF estimate, and they have been subjected to cruel social exclusion, chronic poverty and unemployment.
The At-Risk Children Programme, therefore, is a timely intervention and offers a multi-dimensional, broad-spectrum approach to the crisis at hand, and has begun by addressing the conditions of the Almajirai in the northern states of the country. Even though diverse individuals and groups are working to address these issues, there is hardly any coordination for minimum standards, learning and sharing. This, in essence, is to ensure impact at a large scale. So, ARC-P approach is to leverage on central coordination of resources, strategies and monitoring to drive a targeted, efficient and cost-effective solution to the distressing phenomenon.
The guiding principle of ARC-P revolves on wholesome impact on the lives of beneficiaries through the participating states, and based on minimum standards set aside without sacrificing quality. The programme also prioritises building the capacity of stakeholders in the states through commissioned facilitators who shall be deployed to the various community hubs to provide supervisory, advisory and tutorial services.
One of the main targets of ARC-P is engaging with religious and traditional leaders who serve as key partners in the implementation and monitoring of the adopted programmes, and that’s inevitable in such faith-based societies that acknowledge the practices of the Almajiri system. Aside from legitimising the programme, especially within distrusting communities, these stakeholders inspire the communities and parents to embrace the programmes.
One other aim of the programme is ensuring transparency in managing the programme and the sustainability of the funding model. Similarly, the programme advocates the creation of a harmonised and comprehensive database for continuous monitoring and evaluation of the programme and the performances of all stakeholders with the aim of improvement and undertaking research.
In building child alliances and agents within targeted communities to guarantee continuous wellbeing of the beneficiaries through active community involvement, the programme intends to adopt intensive basic numeracy and literacy curricula, civic education, critical thinking, entrepreneurship and life skills; build communal values in children and provide counselling, physical and mental health support while imbibing key values and the attributes of integrity and hard work; and bridge the poverty gap through sports, drama, creativity, agriculture, vocational skills and, very importantly, access to digital technology and skills.
The partnerships that catalysed the realisation of ARC-P were underlined during a joint Zoom meeting between the ARC-P team, the resident representatives of the UNDP and the UNICEF in Nigeria, Mr Mohammed Yahya and Mr Peter Hawkins, respectively, and the Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasiru El-Rufai, and cabinet. During the deliberations, the UN sister agencies reiterated their commitment to supporting the participating states in taking the lead to find lasting solutions to the issues of vulnerable children.
This commitment was activated when the partnering UNDP hired an international consultant, with whom I work closely, along with a local consultant hired by UNICEF to develop an entry point for the UN agencies. While the UNICEF is interested in child protection, social protection, malnutrition and social inclusion and has demonstrated its willingness to drive this, the UNDP focuses on aspects of the programme that deals with livelihoods, data collation and vocations, especially for the young adults.
In a recent study by the UNDP as a prelude to their intervention on the ARC programme, the agency established that “the deeply cultural, social and religious dynamics of the system demand an approach that is firmly anchored in an understanding of these underpinnings,” and that such awareness is designed to ensure “that interventions directly respond to the incentive structures of each of the stakeholders, including the Mallams.” The study validates that any policy framework designed to solve the Almajiri problem must be rooted in an objective that isn’t the abolition of the system, but rather in modernising the structure and ambition. It also underlines the necessity of political leadership that’s acknowledged and trusted by the stakeholders.
Overall, confidence in the Buhari-led government, which has been vastly popular in the political spaces with an overwhelming population of the disadvantaged Almajirai, is a critical driver for the legitimacy of the ARC programme and, indeed, massive political goodwill and managerial foresight are required in modernising the Almajiri system. Interestingly, UNDP’s pilot study established the existence of this political goodwill, noting that aside from the local teachers—the Mallams—Nigeria’s President attracts the highest level of trust ratings among the Almajirai.
It’s however pertinent to note that while the Almajirai and various destitute children are being targeted for the programme, the vulnerabilities of similarly disadvantaged children across Nigeria aren’t overlooked. The ARC programme is designed to protect the girl-child either from street hawking or sexual violence, and social exclusion or lack of access to basic education. Aside from internally displaced persons and orphans, particularly in the terrorism-ravaged north-east and north-west sub-regions, ARC-P has formed a synergy with UBEC and SUBEBS to leverage on an ongoing World Bank-sponsored programme called BESDA to wide access to basic education.
Nigeria’s future rests squarely on the education and empowerment of the next generation, and with the data at our disposal, the certainty of escaping the infamous labels of having the most out-of-school children on this planet would trail us unless a cogent development plan is sustained. Nigeria’s policymakers can’t afford to trivialise the necessity of educating their successors, and the ongoing conflicts across the country are signs of the consequences Nigeria must forestall.
Abdulrahman Usman Leme
Lead, Strategic Communication, Collaboration and Partnership, ARC-P
Facebook: Abdulrahman Usman Leme