Simon Kolawole: We Always Fight Over Population Figures, Of What Use Is A Poor Multitude?

This is simply ironic. I was, recently, at the Harvard Kennedy School, United States, for an executive course on “Global Leadership and Public Policy for the 21st Century”. On the first day of the programme, as dozens of Young Global Leaders mingled to get to know one another, I engaged an Indian business executive in a discussion on economic growth and poverty. “India is making so much progress without any doubt,” I told him, “but still you have millions of poor people.” He nodded in agreement. “That is why inclusive growth is an imperative,” he said. I quickly smuggled Nigeria into the discussion, highlighting the similarities between the two countries. “A lot of Nigerians have got richer in the last 15 years,” I said, “but most Nigerians are still poor.”

Ironically, a few days later, the World Bank President, Dr Jim Yong Kim, classified Nigerians and Indians among the poorest in the world. He said “two-thirds of the world’s extreme poor are concentrated in just five countries: India, China, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and the Democratic Republic of Congo”. It is apparently a game of numbers as these countries are populous. Inevitably, the most populous countries will rate high when you look at the absolute numbers. For instance, if 50% of Nigerians are poor, with a population of 170 million, it means 85 million. But if 90% of Ghanaians are poor, with a population of 25 million, that is just 22.5 million. Nigerians would still rate poorer than Ghana, numbers-wise. But Nigeria ranks high both in absolute figures and percentages ─ and this is worrisome.

We always fight over population figures in Nigeria, but I have often wondered: of what use is a poor multitude? I would rather have a small but prosperous population than a huge but impoverished bunch. That is a discussion for some other day. Nevertheless, I have been ransacking my brain for ages to understand the Nigerian situation. We are so rich, yet we are so poor. So much money has gone into the economy since 1999. But can we truly claim that Nigerians are better off today? And can we also truly proclaim that Nigerians are worse off? The World Bank and National Office of Statistics quantify poverty using the one-dollar-a-day benchmark, while the United Nations Development Programme measures “extreme poverty” by access to the basics: food, shelter, sanitation, education, healthcare and water. The number of Nigerians who do not have access to these basics is insanely high and that is why we will continue to rank among the world’s poorest.

But let us look at the issue from another direction. I want us to be practical now. Let’s examine realities between 1999 and 2014. (I am using this period because it represents a landmark in our history, but we can as well talk about 2007-2014 or 2011-2014). Here are my questions then: can we say there are fewer homeowners today than they were in 1999, 2007 or 2011? Can we say we have fewer hospitals within the same period? Can we say we have fewer kilometres of tarred roads today? Do we have less access to water today than we had in 1999, 2007 or 2011? Are there fewer number of car owners today? Do we have fewer schools today? Are there fewer small and medium scale businesses today? Are there fewer private sector-made millionaires today than before? We certainly cannot ─ in all sincerity ─ answer yes to all these questions.

That is where my headache starts. I go round the country and still see so many poor people. I see children walking barefooted. I see children hawking in traffic, many of them unable to go to school. Take a look at the uniforms of those who go to school and you’ll mistake them for rags. The quality of instruction in public schools is always under scrutiny as candidates continue to record poor results in their examinations. I see people dying because they cannot afford basic drugs. I see people living in shanties and under the bridge. I see beggars in different sizes and classes. So many graduates are out there unable to get jobs. Some who get jobs are paid so poorly it seems better for them to stay at home unemployed. We certainly cannot deny these realities.

What then? These are my random thoughts. One, it is not as if Nigeria is worse off today than it was in 1999 ─ it is just that economic growth is not benefiting a vast majority of the people in a proper, economically viable chain. The billions of dollars we’ve earned have gone mainly into financing the greed, ego and libido of the political and economic elite. There are trickledown effects, sure. When a politician steals money and decides to build a house, the poor bricklayers, carpenters, welders, sand suppliers, cement sellers and electricians will benefit. With those contracts coming steadily, they may be able to save up and buy cheap cars or build low-budget houses. Thus, the number of car and home owners will go up, but the society is not much better off for it. It will not translate to more clean water, affordable healthcare, better public schools and good sanitation.

Two, maybe the country has really improved between 1999 and 2014, but things were so bad before that it is practically impossible for us to feel the impact of the developments here and there. I bear witness that governments at all levels have executed some laudable projects over the years. I have seen these projects with my own eyes. They have built and equipped more hospitals, provided credit to small businesses, built more roads and created jobs over the years but things were so bad before that we just cannot feel the impact substantially. I like to use the example of someone who is dead thirsty. He needs a cup of water. You give him a teaspoonful. There is no way he can feel relieved. Yes, you gave him water. But in reality, it is as good as not giving him at all. Also, our population keeps growing, thereby reducing the marginal gains from economic growth.

Three, our “organised” fight against poverty has been too tokenistic and ineffective. Every state and council will tell you they are into “poverty alleviation”. They have agencies designated for “poverty alleviation”. They give out loans for buses, tricycles, sewing machines, etc. How effective are these initiatives? We need to assess them properly. I believe the Federal Government should bear the biggest responsibility for the fight against poverty because they dictate the key policies that shape the economy. Poverty does not happen or worsen suddenly. Therefore, fighting or reducing it will also not happen suddenly. The three tiers of government must go back to the drawing board and tackle poverty in aggressive and verifiable ways. This is not the time to play politics with World Bank figures. Let’s do that when we’ve put our house in order.

Finally, I would love Nigeria to be grouped along with India and China, but not poverty-wise. Rather, it should be in terms of industrialisation, innovation and human resource development. That would be a good company to keep, trust me.
And Four Other Things…

To tackle worsening power supply in the country, Federal Government has issued a 60-day ultimatum to contractors handling power distribution projects to complete their contracts or be sanctioned. Vice-President Namadi Sambo also announced government’s readiness to assist power companies acquire transformers to enable them enhance power distribution across the country. He then directed the generation, transmission and distribution companies to resolve the problems facing their operations and end the blackout. Big deal. Our real problem is gas. No gas. And some gas pipelines are either damaged or moribund. No amount of ultimatums will resolve that. Fact.

I am a campaigner for alternative modes of transportation as our roads keep getting congested. The Lagos State government has done a lot to promote water transportation and this can be seen in the rise in patronage by Lagosians. However, frequent mishaps are threatening to reverse the gains. Last week, a boat capsized, claiming eight lives. Last month, 13 died in another mishap in Festac. Also last month, 10 persons died as a boat capsized near Navy Town, Apapa. These incidents are bound to have a negative impact on those who are already nervous of water travel. Frightening.

As so, another kidnappers’ den is discovered. While we were still discussing the Soka saga in Oyo State, another den was discovered at Iyana Egbado, Ogun State. And yet another was discovered in Abeokuta, where four pregnant women were rescued after one of them managed to escape to alert the police. At Iyana Egbado, women’s underwear were found, suggesting not just cases of kidnap but also rape. Clearly, this has been going on for a while unnoticed, and the police must now pay particular attention to this incidence. Citizens must be adequately enlightened and helpline opened for victims. Appalling.

Isn’t it amazing that in this age and time, police officers could come all the way from Abia State to Lagos to arrest someone whose offence, at best, could be described as libel? The commando-style in the arrest of Chief Orji Uzor Kalu’s media aide, Ebere Wabara, should be an embarrassment to the security agencies. Wabara was said to have wrongly accused someone of murder in the ongoing dog-eats-dog war of propaganda in Abia, but I would rather think that this should be a case of defamation of character, which can be handled in a civil and civilised manner. Indefensible.
Article written by Simon Kolawole Live!: By Simon Kolawole, Email: [email protected]

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