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Neighbourhoods of change: The missing angle of the change campaign

By Tabia Princewill

THE concept of social mobility is one I have fervently discussed and advocated for in this column: place matters, the neighbourhood where one is born, where one lives, matters disproportionately. As a social sciences and humanities student, this makes my blood boil: that a person is not judged based on their individual talent but rather, sees said talent killed or remaining dormant due to factors beyond his or her control, is the primary injustice done to Nigerians which ensures that neither the brightest nor the best make it into office or positions of authority in Nigeria.

As I said last week, fixing the economy involves a deeper remodelling which tackles how individuals access opportunity in the first place: economies that are monopolies, dominated by a clique of well-connected individuals don’t provide the kind of returns needed to lift the majority out of poverty. Rather than focus on political issues which grant only partisan or ethnically apportioned returns (e.g. restructuring) let’s talk about policies with mass impact.

One of the issues with governance in Nigeria is the lack of coordination across ministries and agencies: public officials seem to work separately on their different portfolios and agendas without an over-arching understanding of how each activity supports or connects to another, increasing the possibility of gaps and of future administrations wiping out whatever they worked on.

Moralistic preachiness

“Change begins with me”, the idea of bottom up transformation wouldn’t have been so criticised if it carefully outlined how individual action is needed to tie into government policies or reforms, or, how the programme itself is related to the new directions government is taking.

Indeed, if it had given cogent reasons for government plans, beyond the moralistic preachiness which 21st century Nigerians find it hard to accept outside of their place of worship, it could have presented itself as something more than the empty shell Nigerians perceive it to be. It had the right idea but as is often the case in Nigeria, proceeded with the wrong execution.

Countries and cities around the world increasingly work with “place-based initiatives”. The Obama Administration used such initiatives to coordinate and increase the impact of separate government programmes, much like the government of Chile (and others in Latin America), which launched an “I Love My Neighbourhood” programme, focusing on 200 of the poorest neighbourhoods nationwide, under a Neighbourhood Recovery Programme which aimed to radically transform not just the face of these locations but their mind-sets too.

The world’s approach to development planning has changed over the past decade or so: it’s no longer, as we do in Nigeria, about releasing statements of intent, or simply building bits and pieces of infrastructure which we hardly maintain, but about cohesive, participatory projects which nurture not only physical infrastructure but the minds of those called to use it, by confronting issues such as the collapse of multi-ethnic, multi-religious social relations in diverse neighbourhoods. We need to strengthen the social fabric in this country—Lagos is the perfect place to start.

The social, ethnic, religious etc. diversity of Lagos is hardly news. A few well-chosen local governments could be used as pilots for a strategy with the potential to revitalise and change Nigeria.

In Peru, where many socio-economic issues mirror our own, community-centric approaches are favoured, not only as an electoral strategy, but because they are proven to work. We too in Nigeria must begin to use “place” to combat poverty at its roots, rather than to emphasise feelings of belonging or adversely, to discriminate, which rather than develop this country, destroys it. The question now is “how”, you might ask?

In 2007, when President Obama launched the “Neighbourhood Revitalisation Initiative” he said: “If poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence; failing schools and broken homes, then we can’t just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community.

And we have to focus on what actually works.” This means creating neighbourhoods of opportunity: a new environment, not just physically but mentally; meaning agencies come together to boost educational, recreational, social and commercial assets in targeted neighbourhoods. Harlem (New York, USA) has become famous for developing craddle-to-work actions which leverage on separate government programmes to make sure, under the US Promise Neighbourhoods program, that every facet of government action is linked, ensuring anti-poverty strategies come together and get results. We can end generational poverty in Nigeria as well as tackle our people’s consumerist, unproductive mind-set, with a coordinated charge against these ordeals.

By making the “places” where Nigerians live and work an object of pride, by helping communities develop their own local identity whereby they can decide, assisted by government, to become local commercial centres (thus decongesting cities like Lagos for example), we would have started our communities on the road to self-reliance.

Going back to the Harlem Neighbourhood initiative previously mentioned, this programme starts by pulling together state and federal resources to improve early childhood care and education, providing a strong foundation for the child’s future success, culminating in family and community programmes to tackle issues children face at home.

I was personally inspired by Obama’s “Responsible Fatherhood Programme”: how is it that Americans consider virtually every facet of a child’s life in their attempt to build a productive, model citizen? To the many government officials currently in the US for the United Nations various summits and activities, a challenge should be issued: beyond attendance at such prestigious events, how do we learn from and replicate the successful strategies presented and discussed by other nations?

 Poverty and under development

In 20 years my own children should not be discussing the same issues surrounding poverty and under development which my own parents already bemoaned decades ago. Recessions are actually the ideal time to think and do things differently, to look inwards and re-strategise. We have many initiatives in Nigeria which donate indomie, milo and other food items—certainly they have their own impact and uses for the less fortunate.

However, to quote Barack Obama yet again, what we need is “an all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck, anti-poverty effort that is literally saving a generation of children”. We need more (and better) policy (not necessarily more charity, although it does help) and that’s the missing angle behind the change which we’d all support, unless of course we benefit from the old order—the old, corrupt way of doing things.

Nigeria Bar Association

THE proposal by the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA leadership stating the Economic and Financial Crime Commission, EFCC, should be stripped of its prosecutorial powers is a disturbing one.

Those who should be guardians of integrity and the common good have often betrayed the same people their job description or any conception of public ethics, should motivate them to protect. It is disheartening to find so many lawyers willing to subvert the course of justice by providing illogical defence to the men and women who have wronged Nigeria.

If we are in a recession today, it’s also because the judicial processes which should have shielded Nigerians from greedy politics and fraudulent business practices never quite did their job. A look at our failing aviation industry or at any banks’ debtors list can easily show you just how much corruption and our current economic condition are intrinsically linked.

Rather than campaigning against the EFCC’s powers which are supported by the law, lawyers should mobilise their energy to defend the average Nigerian whom their clients defraud.

Bureau de change 

WHY are Bureau de Change(s) such big business in Nigeria? According to the CBN, Nigeria spent $66 billion in 11 years, funding their operators. Our current recession is the natural consequence of many interconnected factors. During our “highs”, we hardly invest in productive activities. Later, during our “lows” we wonder why suddenly we find ourselves in such difficulty—yet, some would prefer we return to the way things were, simply for selfish reasons. It’s not about blaming anybody. It is about correcting our propensity for unproductive spending.


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