Crippling poverty and a future under threat
First, the world data lab declared Nigeria the misery headquarters of the planet. Then the Brookings Institution published the report of its study, which showed Nigeria as the country with the largest pool of extremely poor people in the world.
I thought politicians would be running around declaring a state of emergency on this scourge, which does more to crush the dignity of people than any infirmity I know. I expected civil society on the streets protesting the state of the human condition and Thought Leaders dominating the Airwaves on the matter.
Instead, long motorcades continued to escort public officials, and the airwaves were taken up by politicians trading barbs on personality cults as they switched from one party to another, even as remarks that Nigeria was the fastest growing market for private Jets still ring in my ears. This stomach upsetting state of things, leaves me feeling like Prophet Amos, that Prophet of Social Justice that challenged the conscience of Biblical Israel.
In ways the Nigerian condition and a world that looks away from this ticking time bomb, projected into the arena by way of variety of forms of anomie, reminds you that a sensible response should be like what the world did when Terrorists attacked the French magazine, Charlie Hebdoe. Je suis Charlie, we all cried. For the future of Nigeria, and the many poor whose essence is robbed by want and deprivation, I proclaimed that I am Amos. Je suis Amos.
What really does it mean that we have so many poor people in Nigeria? For me it means that many go to bed hungry; that paying for education and health care, the path of the “Great Escape” from the brutish state of nature, is either out of reach or crippling, for many of my compatriots. It also means that they are vulnerable to small shifts in conditions such that as Tawney’s metaphor laments “they are so deep in water that even a ripple can drown them” Yes, I am Amos. Je suis Amos.
One consequence of extreme poverty is that in the desperation to survive, the poor often, unthinkingly, sell off their votes for pittance, into enslavement by political actor’s incapable of the compassion that leadership requires. In many ways these conditions and consequences make our Democracy a farce of sorts.
This probably explains why the fathers of American Independence made voting conditional. We may not have to have property to vote, as there, but reason is troubled by the current pawning of votes. For me, though, the more critical question is not who votes and how conditions make them bend like the crayfish. What matters is how can we watch our neighbours endure the slavery of extreme poverty. I am Amos, I assure. Qui. Je suis Amos.
Display of opulence by some, and wasteful public and private spending may be symptomatic of the culture, but they are not sustainable and may be open herald of the coming Anarchy which Robert Kaplan warned was on the way: So, we must aggressively engage the question of how to eradicate poverty from our domain.
Bearing in mind that there was not much of a gap between peoples in traditional society as the moral economy of the peasant did not allow for many to be left behind, can we not find more concern for poverty today? As Africans, the essence of communal life was Ubantu:- I am, because we are. In today’s Nigeria, it seems “I” has managed to forget “we” in a way that indicates amnesia for enlightened self-interest. Yet we host a French President who in France’s interest keeps troops in Mali when our elite cannot see duty in seriously combatting poverty. I am Amos. I have to be Amos. Qui, qui. Je suis Amos.
As I have tried to explain in the past, my worry about this new narcissism, in contemporary Nigerian elite and political class sense of self, is not staking out some utopian ideal, but a prophetic reminder that in some countries a few committed politicians, Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Deng Xiaoping in China, Inacio Lula Da Silva in Brazil and Mahathir Mohamed in Malaysia, have pulled tens of millions of people out of extreme poverty in the Margaret Mead sense of never underestimating what a few committed individuals can do to change the world, the only way the world has ever changed, in truth. Where are Nigerian politicians staking out a place as warriors against extreme poverty in their actions and words. Yes. Je suis Amos.
How then can we enter into this moral equivalence of war, the poverty battlefield, with tested solutions. We have to create wealth, create Jobs, and reduce the burden of health care costs and what it takes the disadvantaged to educate their children. We also have to create infrastructure improvements to enable moving produce and other output and powering production.
A true war will have to be multi-pronged with the top being a selective industrial policy based on our factor endowments and latent comparative advantage derived therefrom. At another level, we should then draw from Brazil’s experience with conditional cash transfers to stimulate productive shifts in behavior for the poor, to support a campaign for an entrepreneurial people’s capitalism. Yes, I am Amos, and I call for a non-partisan national summits on poverty.
Borrowing ideas that worked elsewhere, will not be adequate without a strong sense for local context! An example would be an idea I gleaned from spending some time at BRAC, a Bangladesh NGO some years ago. They found loans to the category they call the ultra-poor, challenged because the loan is immediately diverted to pressing needs. They then give “assets” like livestock. Organizing to pick up of milk from the asset, like a cow, every morning, assures production and growth for the poor. In parts of Nigeria today there has grown an entitlement mindset in which the transfers are seen as part of the national cake. The conditional element in the transfer in which certain behavior modification is mandated, would have to be policed by passionate agents.
Extreme poverty is now so deeply the way of Nigeria that palliatives will not do, anymore. Leadership is required to end such poverty inducing actions as insurgencies, terrorism, and militancy in such areas as Oil producing regions. Education to stimulate shift in mindset from consumption, especially conspicuous consumption, to production should go with massive investment in the social sectors just as Bill Gates has prescribed, and some of us have canvassed, for decades.
If our politics shifts from power, to purpose, as its essence, and we get policy right, strengthen our institutions more creatively attack the infrastructure deficit, and leaders set a tone for culture of the Common Good and strong work ethic, we may retreat from overtake of India on the misery alley. I am Amos and I cry not just for compassion, but for those who trample on the poor to seek, in their self-interest, thoughtful ideas to end this scourge.
Pat Utomi, Political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship is Founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership (CVL)