Accelerating the Progress towards Universal Primary Education by Empowering Local Level Agencies and Strengthening Government Systems: A Case from Nigeria

Radhika Iyengar, PhD

Director Education, Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development, Earth Institute, Columbia University

Namchi- Ykaegbu Ifeyinwa, PhD

Education Desk Officer, Office of the Senior Special Assistant to the President of Nigeria on MDGs

It is now less than 1000 days to meet the MDGs in 2015. In this write-up we specifically focus on MDG2- universal primary education and highlight some of the pros and cons of the MDG framework. Some guiding questions in this article are as follows:

i.            Should implementing education interventions accompany a focus on strengthening government systems which may end up being a more time consuming activity?

ii.            How much attention should be given to local empowerment as a sustainable approach to meeting the education goal?

iii.            What is the scope of a participatory approach in meeting these inter-sectoral goals?

iv.            Is it possible to rely on local level education planning agencies to create robust action plans to meet the goals?

The Earth Institute, Columbia University is partnering with the Federal Government of Nigeria, specifically, the Office of the Senior Special Assistant to the President of Nigeria on MDGs (OSSAP-MDGs) in its mission to achieving the MDGs by 2015. The approach to meeting the MDGs that the Office has adopted is truly innovative. Nigeria has 774 Local Government Areas, 36 States and the Federal Capital Territory with an approximate population of about 200 million. OSSAP-MDGs managed Conditional Grant Scheme (CGS) for the Local Government Areas (LGAs) is especially targeted to achieve the MDGs at the grassroots level based on ground level realities.

LGAs in Nigeria vary enormously in size and face diverse development challenges. Therefore, OSSAP-MDGs acknowledges that the education gaps and needs of each LGA are different. Hence, each LGA is on a different level in terms of achieving the Education goals but the aspiration to achieving the MDGs is universal. Empowering local governments, equipping them with the technical and financial resources they need and strengthening partnerships between the three tiers of governments (Federal, States and LGAs) will speed-up progress towards the attainment of the MDGs. This is also in alignment with the National Assembly of the Federal Republic of Nigeria’s (2004) mandate on the Universal Basic Education (UBE) Act (2004). The Act requires the States and LGAs to partner in driving UBE in the provision of free compulsory basic education for every child of primary and junior secondary school age.

OSSAP-MDGs requires each LGA to prepare their plans that align with achieving the education goals. This is done with the help of a Technical Assistant (TA) who is assigned to the LGA to create a cross-sectoral plan. To prepare the Education plan for the LGA the Technical Assistant consults a LGA technical committee which comprises of the Education sector experts. These experts are typically the Local Government Education Secretary who is responsible for all education activities at the LGA. The role of the Technical Assistant is not to replace the government education agency at the local level. Rather s/he acts as a bridge between different education agencies at the LGA level. The Office also realizes that MDGs are multi-sectoral therefore local level planning toward the Goals also needs to be multi-sectoral. The TAs consult a Technical Committee at the LGA to create proposals that are finally approved by the Office at the Federal level. The point to be noted here is MDGs require multiple agencies to be working together at the local level since they are closely connected to the ground level realities and contextual variations. Meeting the MDGs doesn’t require re-creating strategies, rather simply joining the jots and bridging the gaps. The consultation process is also rather unique to this initiative, where education experts from the Federal office of the MDGs in Abuja and the local Government education experts are all involved in reviewing and vetting the local action plans based on the overall education needs of the LGA.

To be able to drive this local level planning process, the OSSAP- MDGs along with the Earth Institute, organize multiple rounds of trainings which includes having a common understanding of the Conditional Grant Scheme application, reviewing national education policies and understanding and using education indicators to validate the education demands in the proposals form a large part of the training. To make the application for the CGS funds more robust, OSSAP invested in creating a baseline for all schools in Nigeria. This data was processed and key indicators were displayed on a technological interface for the surveyed schools along with their GPS location. This education database was aggregates at the LGA level to paint a generic picture of the education needs of the LGA. The TAs used this database first to validate its authenticity, but also to share with the Technical Committee to help understand education related gaps for the CGS allocation. For instance, does the LGA need funds to repair and maintenance classroom, buy textbooks and/or to train its teachers.  The Technical Committee is supposed to share its current funding allocations in the education sector with the TA so that the CGS fund could be used for filling in the gaps rather than replicating the funding of the different line ministries such as the Ministry of Education, National Teacher Training Institute and others.

This process that we described above has not been easy. Understanding the Education systems in terms of organization structures and funding lines between different Ministries has been a relentless process. Understanding the inter-linkages between different Ministries, the structures at the federal, state and local levels, their functional powers and funding flow in a decentralized country, took immense amount of time. Integrating education projects at all three tiers is also a priority for OSSAP (OSSAP, 2010). For instance, the State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB) is responsible for funding a borehole at the school premise, however the Water Board at the LGA is responsible for the repair and maintenance. Therefore if the borehole needs repair, this information will need to go to SUBEB and will be communicated with the Water Board who will come and fix the problem at the school. Needless to say that the structures at the federal, state and the LGA level had to be matched by specific policies as well as required detailed understanding of implementation steps at all levels. Given the size of Nigeria and decentralized set-up that exists, it was not surprising to find that each LGA had its own way of doing local planning. Nigeria Vision 20 2020[1], like all policies at the Federal level, provides the framework of where the country as a whole needs to go, however leaves the local planning and implementation to the states. This made sense, since local plans are “local” plans and have to shape the policy framework based on contextual factors. For example, the problem of Almajiri[2] children being out-of-school is not present at the same intensity in the south zone as in the North Eastern zone. Similarly, getting girls to school is not a problem everywhere in Nigeria; this scenario is much more serious in the Northern states while boys have lower enrolment rates to basic education than girls in the Eastern states. As intended, national level education policies provided the framework for specific issues rather than detailing out every step for implementation. Given this background, the OSSAP- MDGs was able to bring the concept of MDGs, link it to specific Sector policies and created actionable plans by using a participatory planning approach at the local level. This is a great example where local level plans are created locally rather than handed down from the Federal level.

While the focus throughout has been achieving the MDGs, there are many other positive externalities to this approach. For instance, this inter-sectoral approach of creating local level plans without instituting new government agencies at the local level deserves due credit. Therefore equipping schools with safe clean drinking water is not just an education issues, but also a water issue. This approach to inter-sectoral planning may hopefully lend itself to a more integrated planning process which looks at the overall for other needs in the LGA. Creating an inter-sectoral Technical Committees at the local level may hopefully become the technical back stopping team for all interventions proposed by other agencies such as the World Bank, International NGOs etc. Empowering the local agencies to create plans, getting funding approved at the Federal level with support from the state agencies show that local level agencies are functional and effective and can be further strengthened to deliver better public services. This entire process has been backed by a data driven approach. Therefore making local government agencies a repository of data for their own LGA gives them the power to use the data for multiple purposes. This initiative showcases the importance of data locally collected and locally made available rather than losing months and years to reach the Federal level. A quick set of indicators made available at the local level is much more powerful. The indicators could be operational process related indicators such as percentage of schools with a functional clean safe drinking water supply, percentage of schools with all classrooms having a usable chalkboard, percentage of schools with all teachers having access to teacher guidebooks are a sample of indicators which are action oriented and easily to understand. Please see Figure 1 for a digital view of a selected indicator. Thus showing the data available nearest to the source is much more useful for it to be used for action in a short duration of time.

The Nigeria CGS LGA program also shows how meeting the MDGS can be taken-up at scale. One third of the total LGAs wrote their CGS proposals within 2 years of the initiative being in place, another 148 were added in the third year with plans for another 250 by the end of the same year. Filling in gaps to attain the MDG2 cannot be leisurely planned and implemented anymore. Time is running out! Still millions of children are out of school. The CGS LGA program has set a platform to ensure that funds reach the local authorities to implement their Education Action Plans. At the same time, the entire process is steadily leaving a legacy of local planning tools, training guides, implementation manuals, education policy briefs, education sector specific international best practices to seep into the system.

The Nigeria case bring a new promise of local level participation and through the TAs creating a cadre of local level planners who will be able to learn from the experience and become a repository of resources for the rest of the LGAs. Meeting MDG2 has its own set of complexities, however along with the interventions or sector specific strategies; this legacy of local level empowerment needs to be nurtured further.


OSSAP (2010). MDG Countdown Strategy Report 2010-2015, Achieving the MDGs, Nigeria Millennium Development Goals

National Assembly of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (2004) Compulsory Free Universal Basic Education Act 2004, May 26th.

Figure 1

[1] For more details on the Nigeria Vision 20 2020 planning document please visit

[2] Almajiri, a Hausa word meaning immigrant child in search of Qu’ranic education. These children travel from state to state to learn quranic education. This trend also becomes a threat to their security and in most cases have to resort to begging to cover their basic living costs.