November 12, 2019

Poverty capital of the world

By Obadiah Mailafia

LAST April the international charity, Oxfam, revealed that the number of extreme poor in Nigeria had skyrocketed to 94.4 million people, with three million having been added to that unhappy lot in a mere span of six months. As some of my gentle readers would recall, in 2017 Nigeria overtook India for the dubious prize of being the world’s poverty capital. India’s destitute poor number some 70 million out of a total population of 1.36 billion. This amounts to 5.124 percent of India’s total population of 1.36 billion. Nigeria’s 94.5 million poor constitute 47.2 percent of our current estimated population of 200 million. Nearly a half of our population is virtually condemned to the nightmare of the Middle Ages.

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In our context, poverty has strong regional as well as gender dimensions. The majority of the poor are women and vulnerable groups. Data from the National Bureau of Statistics shows that the North is the poorest region in the country, with Sokoto having the worst record of 81.2 percent. Adamawa and Gombe both have a poverty rate of 74.2 percent. Lagos and the South fare better. Our commercial capital has a poverty rate of 48.6 percent while Bayelsa has 47 percent.

Poverty in our context is defined in terms of those who live below the threshold of US$1.90 or NGN684 per day. Poverty is not a sign of virtue; it is, in fact, a curse.  Neither is it a situation determined by our destiny or DNA. On the contrary, it derives from the failure of governance and inability of our government to generate those public goods that promote collective welfare for the vast majority.

Nigeria’s current status as the world capital of poverty is a great national embarrassment. We are supposed to be OPEC’s sixth biggest oil exporter and Africa’s biggest economy by far. And we are richly endowed by an embarrassment of natural resources. It is damaging to both our national honour and our external image and standing in the world comity of nations. Poverty is popularly defined as lack of sufficient material resources to live a decent life in society.

Distinctions are often made between absolute poverty, which refers to the complete lack of access to basic needs such as food, shelter and clothing; and relative poverty, which refers to a condition where people cannot meet their own basic needs relative to the minimum standards that obtain within a society. The concept of relative poverty highlights inequality and exclusion as critical elements in the poverty equation. The father of economic science, Adam Smith in his classic work, The Wealth of Nations, underlined the relative nature of poverty in terms of not only those “commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without”.

In our day and age, poverty is not only an economic and financial phenomenon; it has various other dimensions. It includes things like literacy, access to information, access to basic social services such as health, education, social protection and sanitation. The Indian Nobel laureate Amartya Sen drew attention to the role and importance of political empowerment and freedom as essential elements of development and human welfare. Sen conceptualises poverty in terms of lack of access to basic entitlements, defined in terms of the “various bundles of goods and services over which one has command, taking into cognizance the means by which such goods are acquired…and the availability of the needed goods”.

According to the World Bank, other dimensions of poverty include: abuse by those in power, dis-empowering institutions, gender relationships, lack of security, limited capabilities, physical limitations, precarious livelihoods, problems in social relationships, weak community organisations and discrimination. Quite often hunger and malnutrition are among the most visible symptoms of poverty, in addition to diseases, including preventable diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS. There is also the gender dimension, illiteracy and lack of access to education and the politics of exclusion. Linked to this is lack of access to financial services and to public utilities such as electricity, public utilities, health and sanitation.

The poor tend to live in remote villages as well as in urban slums. They are often disproportionately exposed to violence and insecurity and the vagaries of climate change. Grand corruption and poor governance by power elites aggravate the condition of the poor by robbing them of those resources that could have improved their livelihoods while excluding them from participation in those decisions that shape their future and that of their children.

In the Nigerian context, the roots of poverty derive from poor governance, low economic growth, macroeconomic shocks and policy failure, unemployment, urbanisation, lack of investments in human capital and violence and insecurity.

Poor governance is one of the key drivers of poverty. Poor governance as manifested in corruption entails robbing the public of budgetary resources that could have been channelled into infrastructures and economic development. Equally important is low growth and macroeconomic failure. Economic science has established a strong causal relationship between growth and poverty alleviation. Growth stimulates expanding opportunities for jobs and collective welfare. When growth accelerates so does collective welfare. With the recent recovery from recession, growth remains sluggish and uncertain. We would be lucky to achieve 2.0 percent at year’s end 2019.

Under the current dispensation, the incidence of poverty is reaching harrowing proportions, in addition to youth unemployment that is as high as 70 percent in the poorest regions of the North. An estimated 45 million of our youths are either unemployed our under-employed. To make matters worse, rural banditry has been on the increase, in addition to kidnapping and the nightmare of random, nihilistic, violence.

Climate change is one of the catastrophic realities of our world today. Scientists tell us that we have entered a new Anthropocene Age. For the first time in millennia, human activities can independently alter the physiognomy of the biosphere and eco-system of planet earth. Linked to this is the inevitable challenge of natural resource depletion. Expanding population will trigger greater competition for increasing scarce strategic natural resources. In Nigeria, we face the prospect of the drying up Lake Chad and the challenge of desertification which has been encroaching at the rate of 6.5 km per annum. In the South there is the challenge of erosion, floods and massive oil pollution, all of which impact negatively on human livelihoods. Climate change is partly responsible for the Boko Haram insurgency and for the atrocities committed by herdsmen militias in the Middle Belt. Violence and conflict have led to greater poverty and greater humanitarian disaster in terms of millions of internally displaced people.

The good news is that we can do something about it. We can take bolder and more original initiatives to reverse the deepening poverty in our country. The great scientist and sage, Albert Einstein, famously noted that the mark of madness is to continue doing the same things while expecting a different outcome. We need bolder leadership, institutional reforms and more effective governance if we are to effectively tackle poverty in our country.

Much of the current intervention programmes aimed at poverty alleviation are, at best, amateurish; at worst, they are mere vehicles for corruption and rent-seeking. We need a bolder and more visionary approach anchored on peace, the rule of law and social justice. We need to launch an ambitious programme of Hope: rallying our people together while investing heavily in human capital and public works on the scale of the Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1930s America. These programmes must also be implemented without recourse to party-politics and the shameless clannishness that defines public policy in Nigeria today.