By Charles Onunaiju
POVERTY reduction, alleviation or even eradication have been a well-known mantra of successive Nigeria’s governments. Under the current administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, the rhetoric about tackling poverty has been considerably scaled up and even some measures have been put in place to ameliorate conditions of poverty of the majority of Nigerian people.
Yet the underlying conception of poverty alleviation or reduction as a mere humanitarian gesture has hobbled and befuddled the trajectories of the strategy to lift the mass of people out of poverty and consequently enable their capacities and capabilities as aggregate wealth creators who would make enormous contributions to boost the commonwealth.
But because strategies of poverty reduction or alleviation in Nigeria have more or less been targeted at marginally sustaining the poor people in their status, enabling them to barely exist, without shaking off the structural constraints or impediments to raising these capacities and capabilities, such efforts in the past as in the current situation has not really lifted people out of poverty but barely maintained them in subsistence, without the requisite added values to actuate their capabilities and unleash their potentials.
Lack of individual capability is the defining parameter of poverty, so any poverty alleviation or reduction that did not enable capability could be really and just poverty maintenance. The Indian-born Harvard economist, Professor Amartya Sen said that “capability is individual’s capacity to achieve the kind of lives they have reasons to value.”
Basic capabilities, therefore, consist of functions to stave off hunger and disease, satisfy the needs for nutrition, receive education and participate in community and social activities. The loss of these functions is the reason behind poverty as well as the manifestation of poverty.
Therefore, any meaningful strategy to poverty reduction or alleviation must aim to build the capacity of persons living in poverty so that they are transformed into active wealth creators who are not only able to take control of their individual lives but make active contributions in growing the commonwealth.
In 2001, the government of the People’s Republic of China released a document titled: “Outline for poverty alleviation and development in rural China”, whose goals included “to improve the quality of life and comprehensive competence for the poor population, enhance infrastructure in the poor countryside, gradually transform the economic, social and cultural backwardness in poor regions, develop productivity by increasing poor people’s self-accumulation and self-development capabilities.”
China’s poverty alleviation strategies which have culminated in the world’s most successful poverty reduction effort, lifting over 900 million people out of poverty within four decades, featured village-wide project implementation and integrated infrastructure, social services, cultural and training programs will be capped with total eradication of poverty this year, vowed by Chinese government to coincide with the one hundred year anniversary of the founding of the country’s governing party, the Communist Party of China, founded in 1921.
Historically, China’s rural poverty reduction was not confined to mere economic or financial aid.
In 1986, the Chinese government or the state council established the “Poverty Reduction and Development Steering Group”, and clearly stated that poverty alleviation or reduction should reduce poverty through development in poor communities, in order to develop local capabilities to generate income instead of providing financial assistance alone.
The specific nature of China’s poverty reduction strategy is that it has evolved over the years in accordance with its development stages and corresponded in the changes in its demographics and the types of poor people.
More importantly its multidimensional empowerment concept which is manifested in economic environment, job opportunities, equality, human capital and social welfare system, as well as continued policy attention to the poor and underdeveloped groups is embedded in the country’s poverty reduction policy.
From the experience of China, with its world’s most successful policy strategy in poverty reduction or alleviation and now, eradication, it is well established that except structural constraint to poverty is incrementally shaken and removed, such simplistic social interventions as cash transfer, trader money and even such ambitious ones as Anchor Borrowers Scheme are likely to go down as bold and social visionary schemes but failed for the deficit of critical structural compliments that could drive such social agenda on a sustainable basis.
The wife of the President, Mrs. Aisha Buhari, once publicly agonised how a N500 billion Federal Government social intervention fund had barely touched the lives of expected targeted poor people.
However, a triple of such fund will have only marginal or no effect at all, if the strategy of poverty reduction is not targeted at structural transformation of the community landscape that would enable poor people to ride through the inherent constraints on their capacity enhancement and capability improvement.
Rural communities in the Nigerian context can become vibrant and pivotal markets if such rural infrastructures like feeder roads, rural electrification, primary health care centres, rural water supplies are provided and considerably enhanced on a comprehensive scale.
When once, the currently isolated and detached communities can engage in local trade to be made possible through vibrant local or rural infrastructure connectivity, communities can leverage their respective comparative advantages in production and skills to boost wider economies of scale.
These are the imperatives for transformation of rural economies, which are the critical structural foundation for sustainable poverty reduction and a key index for transforming helpless, powerless poor individuals not only to become a net wealth creators but even more rational individuals whose electoral choices and judgments can contribute to widening the democratic space.
The perennial challenge of the electoral process in Nigeria in particular and Africa in general where votes are sold or bought, are fundamental structural variables that cannot be overcome by mere electoral reforms as canvassed by many civil society and advocacy groups. This problem is structurally linked to the existential constraints in capacity and capability linked to poverty and the crisis is significantly worsen as poverty deepens.
Poverty alleviation or reduction is not a humanitarian gesture or a charity to be extended by benevolent leaders but a serious front-line policy arena that must be dutifully engaged with all sense of responsibility. The basic framework for the building and deepening of the democratic process is active popular citizenry living up to the responsibility of not only rationally choosing leaders but holding them accountable and knowing when and how to turf out persons unsuitable for leadership positions.
Poverty is the structural gulf and impediment to the attainment of a functionally inclusive and dynamic democratic process in which the ballot would be worth the thumb on which the vote is cast; otherwise, the ghosts of poverty perennially haunting democracy in Nigeria and the rest of Africa will easily produce its discontents, waiting at the graveyard with a digger.
Onunaiju is research director, Centre for China Studies, Abuja