Book: The Face of Poverty in Nigeria
Year of Publication: 2022
Publishers: Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and Yusufu Bala Usman Institute, Zaria
Number of Pages: 189
Reviewer: Dr Hussaini Abdu
Poverty remained the most daunting socio-economic challenge in developing countries. Since the end of the second World War when development became a global political and economic preoccupation, reducing or eradicating poverty has been at the core of global conversation, even if some of the interventions have served to exacerbate it. Economic theories and political actions have been offered to explain and respond to the situation.
After over two decades of the IMF and World Bank-inspired Structural Adjustment Programme and the consequent escalation of poverty-related crisis development, a global consensus and commitment were reached to halve poverty by 2015. Through eight different commitments facilitated by the United Nations, the MDGs were birthed in 2000.
The 15 years of MDGs failed to meet even what its critics tagged as minimalist goals. The limited success of MDGs led to more elaborate, but less committal Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). This year marked the midterm of the 15 years of SDG. I am not sure any considerable progress has been made. Especially now, that the world is faced with one of the most complex economic challenges in recent history; shrinking economic growth, hyperinflation, escalating hunger and related deprivations occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
To be sure, poverty and exclusion continue to grow despite global growth in affluence.
In Nigeria, since the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Programme in 1986 and the full embrace of the market economy, most citizens have lived in excruciating and escalating poverty. Poverty statistics have continued to grow unabated. Succeeding governments have introduced different poverty reduction programmes, to no effect. This is particularly so because the measures were designed to respond only to the symptoms of poverty instead of dealing with the underlining causes. Policy inconsistency, endemic corruption, and political patronage have exacerbated the situation since the return to civilian rule in 1999. A World Bank report has noted that the number of poor persons in Nigeria will rise from 89 million in 2020 to 95.1 million this year. Meaning an additional 6.1 million will join the category of the poor.
This development contradicts the Nigerian government’s assertion that it has lifted 10.5 million Nigerians out of poverty between 2019 and 2021.
It is in this global and national context that the Face of Poverty in Nigeria was published.
‘The Ugly Face of Poverty in Nigeria’ is a product of a research project supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the Yusuf Bala Usman Institute. The research was an attempt to humanize poverty statistics; putting faces to those numbers that are often bandied. The research method sought to hear the voices of individuals living in difficult circumstances in various parts of Nigeria, clustered across the six geopolitical zones.
The book is divided into two sections. The first section provides contextual and analytical details of the character and dynamics of poverty in Nigeria, including poverty statistics, its different manifestations, and drivers. The second section provided detailed transcripts of the interviews with different respondents. The analysis of the interviews and the chapters were structured thematically. Reading the book, you will easily conclude that poverty in Nigeria has a face of youth, women, northern Nigeria and rural, signifying that poverty is widely spread amongst young people, women and in northern Nigeria and in rural areas. Identified causes include failing state, government corruption, lack of economic infrastructure, poor access to education, poor health care and challenges of insecurity in the country. Specifically, for the rural areas, official corruption, land grabs, climate changes and desertification, gender discrimination and poor women’s access to land were identified as core drivers.
This corresponds with the findings of previous studies, including the most recent national poverty profile and a world bank report issued in March 2022. According to the World Bank, many Nigerians – especially in the northern parts – lack education and access to basic infrastructures, such as electricity, safe drinking water and improved sanitation. The report further notes that jobs do not translate Nigerians’ hard work into an exit from poverty, as most workers are engaged in small-scale household farms and non-farm enterprises; just 17 per cent of Nigerian workers hold the wage jobs best able to lift people out of poverty. The report adds that climate change and conflict shocks – which disproportionately affect Nigeria’s poor – are multiplying, and their effects have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The stories of the individual respondents provide remarkable insight into the experiences of poor people – from those who lost their jobs due to retrenchment to the impact of privatization, climate change and the lives of small shops and smallholder farmers, especially women. The interesting part of these stories is that the challenges of the respondents are the same irrespective of their region, religion, ethnicity, or state – From Samaru, Zaria in Kaduna State to Numan in Adamawa State or Gboko and Yenagoa in Benue and Bayelsa states, respectively. This is quite instructive in a country where everything is seen through the prism of ethnicity and religion. This is an issue that Dr Yusuf Balla addressed in his classic work, The Manipulation of Religion in Nigeria, 1977– 1987.
Apart from the social economic condition poignantly narrated by the respondents, some key issues emerged from these stories: First is the issue of mobility for survival, as people migrate to other locations to make a living, to the urban political and economic centres where they could get something done. It is even worse in the northern parts of the country where violent conflicts have considerably displaced people. The second issue is the challenge of unpredictable income, as the window of production and employment reduces. The employment window is controlled by a few and dispensed selectively. The third issue is the government’s poverty reduction programme, often referred to as palliative which is about the different conditional cash and social investment programmes of the government. The current government has the most elaborate in the recent history of the country. Including N-Power, designed to provide youth with job training and an N30,000 monthly stipend; the Conditional Cash Transfer programme which directly supports the ‘most vulnerable’ with cash handouts; the provision of TraderMoni and FarmerMoni which provided loans to traders and farmers without collateral, and various other schemes including payment of N5000 cash stipend to the poorest and most vulnerable because of COVID-19 pandemic. Despite these, the number of people in poverty has continued to grow.
To be sure, cash as a poverty reduction strategy is deeply rooted in the market economy, which has been the bane of the poverty crisis in Nigeria.
Social transfer is today at the core of the fight against poverty – cash transfers, loans, grants, and any form of monetary help as an important way of fighting poverty. While there are good examples of the success of the measures in some Latin American and Asian countries, the impact in Africa is minimal.
Another major issue emerging from the stories was the increasing feeling of hopelessness by the poor people. There is the perception or reality that the past is better than the present and even the future. This was clearly captured in the book “life today is more difficult than at any time they can remember, and that the past few years are worse than ever … Nearly all of our informants told us that their life now is at its nadir, and they have little confidence that things will improve.”
Even if politically different, ‘The Face of Poverty in Nigeria’ reminds me of the ‘Voices of Poverty,’ a major World Bank study, which synthesis the experiences of over 60,000 poor people from sixty countries. The Face of Poverty in Nigeria did not only give a face to the poor, but it also gave them a voice.
Considering the magnitude of studies on poverty in Nigeria, the Face of poverty in Nigeria research could have been done better by particularizing a category of the poor, especially women, or focusing on one or two states to allow for an in-depth study considering the limitation of time and resources. Although the challenges of the poor have been brought to the fore, I am not sure adequate imagery of the plights of the poor has been constructed.
Poverty is driven by societal injustices and inequity. Social structure and power relations have been the major definer of opportunities and life choices. It excludes the majority and empowers a few, thereby breeding integrational poverty. The economics of this conversation, without the politics, often blur the nuances involved in the structural and horizontal character of poverty. The gender dimension which has been presented in this report shows an extreme feminization of poverty and I could easily argue that the face of poverty is a woman’s face. This is because of the structural exclusion of women, deepening gender inequality occasioned by entrenched patriarchy and reinforced by market economic principles. The structure of society, therefore, serves to exclude women and deepen their poverty.
I have always argued that the question of poverty in northern Nigeria is a woman’s question.
No considerable progress will be made without addressing the challenges of women’s control over their life choices, and their political and economic inclusion at the community and national levels. The book, with evidence, argues in part that societies that treat women badly are poorer and less stable, and further that oppressing woman not only hurts women; it also hurts men.
Dr. Hussaini Abdu is the Country Director, Care International, Nigeria