Growing GDP, poorer people: a paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty

According to official statistics obtained from the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics, and reported by the world bank in its 2013 “Nigeria Economic Report“, Nigeria’s economy is acclaimed as one of the fastest growing in the world. Over the past decade, the country has averaged a GDP growth of 8%. To put this in context, the economy of the United Kingdom grew at an average of less than 3% during this same period. Now, of course, GDP growth is also a function of the base a nation is starting from, such that less developed nations are generally expected to have higher GDP growth than developed ones. It is nevertheless impressive that after previous decades of stagnation and slow growth, Africa, and Nigeria, has experienced sustained economic growth in the last decade, even much of this is associated with higher global demand and increase in commodity prices, including crude oil.

For Nigeria, however, this is not the complete picture. In the same World Bank report, we are told that: “Despite the high economic
growth reported in official statistics, Nigeria has yet to find a formula for translating its resource wealth into significant welfare improvements for the population. Job creation and poverty reduction are not keeping pace with population growth, implying
that the number of underemployed and impoverished Nigerians continues to grow. With a median age of 14 and population growth
at close to 3%, the very stability of the country depends on a major acceleration in the creation of jobs, opportunities, and basic social services for the population.”

This is the crux of the matter: basically, whereas there has been growth in GDP, there has been no commensurate progress in poverty alleviation. There has been no improvement in the lives of the people. National wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few, to the detriment of the vast majority of citizens. This is consistent with the fact that Nigeria has arguably one of the world highest, and certainly African highest, number of private jets, owned by people who are not known for their remarkable success in industry and business, but for their connections with the high and mighty in power. They are the clerics, the politicians, the big government contractors, and semi-retired militants. How did the matter reach this point, and continue to grow worse as we speak?

There has been a desperate lack of vision, clarity and political will. We have had high sounding rhetoric, but little to show for it. The agricultural sector, for example, employs at least 60% of the country’s population, majority of them subsistence, small scale farmers living below the poverty line. Therefore, it’s no rocket science that, in order to promote inclusive growth, the government need to give the agricultural sector a priority attention.  Although there has been some efforts in recent years to give agrarian transformation some attention, the progress and impact is, on the balance, minuscule, compared with the enormous needs and opportunities.  Between 2011 and 2012, the agricultural sector actually slowed down, reducing from a growth rate of 5.6% to 4%. Also, while the services sector, especially telecommunications, has witnessed modest growth, the movement in manufacturing has been largely negligible, and this is not un-connected with low investment in infrastructure- electricity, transport, broadband, etc- and an almost total absence of incentives for local and foreign investors. To top it all, the education sector has moved from one crisis to the other in the past few years, most of it associated with government’s lack of adequate attention and investment in education. 

Sustainable economic growth can not be built by heavy reliance on commodity (read crude oil) prices. They go up and down. On the other hand, the current boom in oil prices represents a great opportunity to invest in the future and lay the foundation for structural transformation of the economy that is inclusive and based on expanding opportunities for all citizens in diverse sectors. 

And as we speak of the opportunities and reflect on the challenges, we must also remember the consequences. Chronic poverty is recipe for disaster. As we have seen already, unemployment is a fertile ground for the recruitment of terrorists and militants, and breeding of kidnappers, robbers and gangsters. The cause of national security is better served with visionary leadership and inclusive development, much better than machine guns and armoured tanks.

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