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The Future of Poverty in Africa

March 31, 2009

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGS) were declared and made “compulsory” social policy option for third world countries. About the same time the United Nations adopted these goals as a palliative “arrest” option for the third world, the World Bank came up with a huge document on African, entitled “Can Africa Reclaim the Twenty first Century?” Without anybody saying so, both the UN and the World Bank held very pessimistic view about Africa ’s capacity to meet up to its social challenges, to reach or accomplish the limited and tentative targets set for it, but they did say so in too many words.

The World Bank, on a different note had complained about the quality of labor produced in Africa, the bad training received by students in tertiary institutions and the general decay in infrastructure. At a point, the World Bank said that Africa no longer needed universities, all it needed was mid level manpower training for its youth, and this could be acquired at the mono- and polytechnics. Many people were angry and vexed by this recommendation from the external agencies and financial cartels. However, what did they do internally to revamp African universities? Nothing. Even appointment to the post of Vice Chancellorship remains heavily politicized like partisan politics, appointees often do not have nuanced experience of the system neither did they command the  respect of colleagues; and many cannot carry the entire community along. These are the calibre of people often appointed Vice-Chancellors-their commitment is more to the state rather than to their communities.

The social diary reads as follows: many people remained unemployed, young graduates from most tertiary institutions will go out to  swell the queue of those who have been there for close to two decades without jobs, with access to micro-credit and without the privilege of unemployment benefit. Many young applicants will not have access to tertiary institutions while  some who apply to private institutions will never be able to afford the tuition and cost of sustenance.  This is because they are self-sponsored, their parents are either retired or cannot afford the tuition; they are from humble backgrounds; the biting economic crisis has made even feeding a rare privileged. There are not enough kind-hearted philanthropists to come it the rescue and the state has abdicated its social responsibility to the citizens.

 It is a theory of “fend-for-thyself”. This is a theory that has not worked in Europe and America, and it cannot work in Africa either, where we claim to be our brothers and sisters keepers and live a communitarian life. I challenge the view that communitarian life is still a dominant social feature in Africa: increasing urbanization, marketization and individualized based on the ideology of competition and reforms have systematically undermined our social values. Everybody is more concerned with the nuclear rather than extended family system, some for selfish reasons and others because of the harsh reality of the times.

Poverty, as I have repeatedly stated or noted is growing in Africa and this has been caused by at least ten factors that I know of namely: bad leadership, visionlessness, wrong policies, external dependence on loans and  investment (Foreign Direct Investment), obsession with the market economy, lack of focus or understanding of what constitutes development, the destruction of social infrastructure, bad training received at schools  resulting in malformed and badly trained graduates, this takes place at all levels in public schools. Many private schools are in bad physical shape, managed by quacks and with semi-quacks as teachers, such teachers are underpaid and malnourished. In a word, there is no quality assurance or quality control in both public and private schools in Nigeria . Lastly but not least, is the weak nature of the private sector which has resulted in low capacity of the sector. This has had negative impact on employment profile of private employers. The consequences have been devastating for young job seekers.

All over Africa , people are displaced whether internally through internal displacement or external displacement resulting in the refugee crisis. In some cases, these African refugees, just like the Palestinians in South Lebanon , are denied the “right of return”. In such cases, they are engaged in internal contestation for leadership. Such is the case in DR Congo and in other cases; they are engaged in a forcible case of irredentism or ungovernability, as is the case of Somalia and Somaliland, the crisis inside and across, Sudan , Zimbabwe , Botswana , Chad and Rwanda .

Africa is afflicted with the crisis of what I called the Seven Ds: Divestiture, Debt, Desertification, Drought, Deforestation, De-vegetation De-democratization, which sometimes combined with famine and war to wrought havoc on social life in Africa. The seven Ds are crucial to understanding poverty in Africa . For instance, long wars have displaced many families in Africa.For close to 15 years, children of school age were unable to attend school in Liberia and Rwanda, the same thing happened in Somalia and Sierra Leone.

What are the social consequences of this for Africa in the next twenty years? Nobody is bordered about that. Many of those who have been fighting in the numerous wars across Africa  have always used child soldiers from Angola to Rwanda to Dr Congo to Liberia and Sierra Leone. The lives of these children have virtually been destroyed because in the post-conflict or what is called reconstruction and integration era and the DDR process, nobody remembers the youth; because in the first case, the AU and UN laws criminalize the concept of child soldier, but in criminalizing them, they also excluded them from the rehabilitation processes. The children who fought and carried guns were not allowed to submit their guns in return/exchange for US dollars, instead it was the adults that collected the guns from the children and fronted to collect the dollars, without giving these children the money. This is increasing tension in Liberia and Sierra Leone and it is one core reason why President Koroma won the presidential election in Sierra Leone because many of the youth were disenchanted and disillusioned with the corruption, greed and alienation that had overwhelmed politicians in Sierra Leone .

Poverty level in Africa is high because African leaders have no clue about how to strategically address poverty. They believe that poverty is better addressed through the same mechanisms and policies that plunged African economies into crisis-reliance on external masters and forces; they feel that mere palliatives such as NAPEP in Nigeria and GEAR in South Africa can address poverty. However, they all miss the point. The irony of Africa is that over 67% of the population is youth, able-bodied and therefore potentially a huge asset. However, the youth have been turned by African governments into a wasting asset and a liability. In Europe and America, they are worried about the increasingly aging and gerontocratic population and how much will be expended for their upkeep, while in Africa the reverse is the case, nobody cares about the youth, there are no Borstals, few juvenile homes, parenting has given way to the crass pursuit of money. In the name of being professionals, more and more parents are abandoning their children to nannies and housemaids. This is wrong.

Employment generation anywhere in the world is always often based on the potentials of the people, on the opportunities that can be created in the economy. In Many countries of Africa , both those that are well endowed and those that are less endowed, the only opportunities created are those for corruption and not those for gainful employment and development. Even where agencies and structures are created for mitigating poverty, they also become spaces for further corruption, greed and avarice.

We can solve the problem  of poverty in Africa only when we take five core steps, first recognize that the state has a fundamental role to play in the social and economic development of  a country, second when there is a humanist theory of society upon which development and social progress is designed and measured, third when there is accountability and inclusive political system, fourth when there is a proper monitoring and evaluation of state programs, and last but not least, when the goal of the state is to serve the public good and the public purpose. The moment we lose track of that notion, we would have stripped ourselves of our humanity and the essence of living. We would have left the future of our youth to chances, we would have mortgaged the future of the yet unborn, we would have betrayed our forebears who laboured hard to win Nigeria independence, and we would have also betrayed our own generational responsibility as a people.

Life is not all about money only, it is not all about “self”, the purpose of life is about “service” and about “others”. The day we feel or think others do not matter, or that they are external to us; the moment we feel that the next neighbour’s child is not my problem but his/her parent’s problem, that day we have compromised our humanity, sacrificed our future and endangered our security. A child that is not collectively trained and told the values of life is bound to grow a bad and ill brought up child, he is likely to be the robber next door and he may end up in prison. In the process a soul may have been destroyed for life; even if he/she is rehabilitated, he/she cannot may go and live in the ghetto, and have contempt for education or school. That is what we risk as a people, as a neigbourhood, as a collective and as a society or country. As a result, those who have, the wealthy must also think about how to create employment opportunities, educational opportunities through scholarships and endowments, they must endorse/embrace the concept of public private partnership in a genuine and concerted manner. That is the way to grow.

Above all, confidence and hope must be restored in the poor, they must be educated to know that not all is lost, that others care and that lives could be better if they cooperate and work in certain ways. They must be treated as citizens and granted equal entitlements and privileges as others; they should not be seen and treated as the “wretched of the earth”. No matter what we do about poverty or how we treat the poor, the moment they feel that they are being segregated, humiliated and treated with contempt, they will never appreciate what is done for them and they will prefer to live in poverty with their dignity and freedom, rather than being uplifted into wealth and losing their self-respect and dignity. This is akin to what late President Sekou Toure of Guinea Conakry told the departing French colonial masters that his people would prefer freedom in poverty rather than wealth in bondage.

The African poor want a better life, but they do not want to be humiliated or treated with contempt and indignity. Instead, they will prefer to remain in their poverty. However, we all know the social and political consequences of this. What becomes of poverty in Africa depends on us and not on external donors and philanthropists and African leaders must stop ridiculing our poor with the patronizing policies they have put in place, policies which simply do not and cannot work.

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