Oxfam’s absurd poverty reduction claim

In a recent report on inequality in Nigeria the UK-based charity Oxfam made the incredible claim that the combined wealth of the five richest Nigerians could end extreme poverty in the country. The organisation explained that the wealth owned by the five totalled $29.9 billion in 2016 whereas only $24 billion was required to lift the 112 million Nigerians living on less than $1.90 a day from severe poverty for one year. This presentation makes eradicating poverty seem easy. All the government has to do is confiscate the wealth of five individuals and spread it among the poor masses.

Of course this is fantasy thinking. Oxfam, which earlier made another headline-grabbing claim that in 2015 just 62 people had as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity, has a faulty understanding of wealth and poverty. For a start the $30 billion worth of assets owned by five tycoons, led by Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, is unlikely to exchange into any amount near $30 billion in cash that can be given to the poor. Most of the wealth Oxfam is eying is in the form of equity holdings. Once the government or any other enforcer puts the confiscated shares on the market their value will most likely fall. This is what tends to happen when large quantities of shares are dumped on markets.

The fact is that equity wealth is volatile. At the point Oxfam made its calculations Mr Dangote was reckoned by Forbes to be worth $14.4 billion, but his net worth has since dropped to $11.9 billion as at May 2017. According to Bloomberg Billionaire Index Dangote’s net worth has plummeted from a high of $25.7bn in July 2014 to $9.89 billion in May 2017.

If for the sake of argument we assume the assets of the five billionaires can be liquidated without much loss in value and the proceeds go to boost the consumption of the poor for a year, what happens the year after? Does Oxfam believe that having vanquished poverty for one year it will not return after the extra cash is spent?

Furthermore, increasing the incomes of millions of people without increasing the output of the goods and services they will demand will likely fuel inflation and thereby erase some of the gains from the redistribution exercise. Also, while more money will allow low-income households greater access to markets for some items, such as food, it does little to address the lack of roads, schools, hospitals, electricity, etc. – long-term issues that also constitute the condition of poverty

The wealthiest 0.01% of Nigerians undoubtedly comprise very prosperous people by both local and global standards, but redistributing their riches will not end poverty. It is also mistaken to think that the prosperity of the few is responsible for the poverty of the many. Oxfam is right to contend that high-level corruption has widened inequality in Nigeria. It is also the case that most of the country’s tycoons owe much of the wealth to crony capitalism, including benefiting from undeserved awards of lucrative government contracts and concessions and protectionist policies that favour the elite. But cronyism, as despicable as it is, is not the cause of poverty. The businesses owned by the Nigerian billionaires are wealth creating. The cement, sugar, flour and other concerns owned by Dangote provide employment to thousands of people. Mike Adenuga, the second richest Nigerian, runs a telecom company with over 25 million mobile phone subscribers.

The growth in the number of super-rich in society is not necessarily an indication of worsening poverty. No country has reduced incidences of poverty without creating millionaires and billionaires. China has in recent decades achieved remarkable success in reducing poverty and also seen spectacular growth in its count of millionaires and billionaires. The fast growing Asian giant now has more billionaires than the United States, according to its latest annual rich list – and the gap is widening. There is some truth in the saying “To get rich is glorious” ascribed to China’s former leader Deng Xiaoping, who opened his country to global markets.

Wealth and income inequalities are not in themselves problems for societies. What is wrong are individuals using coercion or fraud to enrich themselves, which is always at the expense of others. It is also unfair for the state to dictate or manipulate the choices of citizens to promote and enrich local capitalists. But when individuals amass wealth from profits gained through free exchange – creating value for others – their successes is not only harmless but can contribute to poverty reduction. Poverty is not due to wealth creation but the lack of it. The vast majority of people who live in poverty produce goods or services that generate little income for them. This is not to say that they are lazy or at fault. A farmer who spends long hours toiling under the burning sun to harvest a quantity of a commodity that fetches him $2 a day is poor because of the circumstances of his economy. He is not poor because a city factory owner is racking in thousands of dollars a day from a business that makes large quantities of a product that people want to buy. Closing the factory will not make the farmer better off. What will make him richer is changing his production system to produce larger quantities – perhaps by using more efficient equipment – or by producing a different commodity with higher market value.

By suggesting that what amounts to less than a third of the wealth of Bill Gates can end extreme poverty in Africa’s most populous nation Oxfam is not championing the cause of Nigeria’s impoverished masses.

The myth of Nigeria’s import-dependency

There are many myths in circulation concerning the nature Nigeria’s economy. One is that it is highly import-dependent. The common assumption is that Nigerians are more reliant than other nationalities on the consumption of imported goods. The truth of this may seem obvious to nationalists who believe that it is unhealthy for people to prefer exotic products over local products. But the assumption is simply not true. Merchandise imports as a percentage of Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2015 was only 7%, according to the National Bureau of Statistics latest trade data. This rate indicates a nation that has far lower usage of foreign goods than most comparable economies in the world.

The reality is that Nigeria is one of the least import-dependent nations in the world and its low level of international trade is probably a major factor in its economic under-development. According to World Bank’s data imports of goods and services as a percentage of GDP in Nigeria was 12.5% in 2014. This was the lowest of all countries recorded in the table and compared with a ratio of 30.3% for Britain, 33.1% for South Africa, 18.9% for China and 25.5% for India. With imports equivalent to only an eighth of domestic output it is absurd to describe Nigerians reliant on imported goods. Countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and Togo, where the value of imports is greater than GDP, may be categorised as highly import dependent, but not a nation where imports is a fraction of GDP. Of course, it may be argued that World Bank data do not fully capture high levels of smuggling into Nigeria. But even if the 12.5% import-to-GDP estimate was doubled to account for smuggling the result would still not make the country is extraordinarily import-dependent.

The fallacy of high unemployment in Nigeria

By Tunde Obadina

It is often said that Nigeria is impaired by a major unemployment problem, especially affecting its youths. But this common belief that the level of joblessness in the country is high by international standards is simply not true. Using internationally comparable method of calculation, unemployment in Africa’s most populous nation is not high. It is low to moderate.

The idea that a large proportion of the Nigerian labour force is without gainful employment stems partly from job data published by the country’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) up until mid-2015. Before revising the premises on which it calculated unemployment rates, the bureau told that the world that around a quarter of Nigeria’s workforce was out of work. The problem with this assessment is that it is derived a definition of unemployment that is quite different from that used by most national statistical agencies in the world and the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Nigerian statisticians counted members of the labour force who did not work for at least 40 hours in a week as jobless, while the ILO defines unemployed as those in the workforce who have not worked for at least one hour in a week. Continue reading

Minimum wage law hurts the poorest workers

By Tunde Obadina

Nigeria’s newly elected government will probably come under pressure from trade unions to hike the national minimum wage. Labour leaders have of late complained that the current wage floor of N18,000 (US$92) per month is not enough to support a decent standard of living. This rate, equivalent of US$3 a day, is certainly poverty pay for workers in both single and two working parent families. Nonetheless, the government should resist any demand to raise the minimum wage.

This advice will appear callous to those who believe that minimum wage protects low-paid workers and boost their purchasing power. It is a morally appealing contention while the case against it is counterintuitive. Pay regulation seems moral only when viewed from the perspective of the workers who benefit from it. Continue reading

The roots of anti-immigrant violence

By Tunde Obadina

The recent outbreak of mob violence against foreigners in South Africa illustrates the point that racism is not peculiar to any one race or historical period.  Xenophobic attacks that claimed lives in Durban and Johannesburg targeted black people from other African countries as well as other non-white immigrants.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is not limited to treatment of foreign nationals by local people. It also relates to the uneasy relationship between host communities and migrants from other parts of the same country. In recent decades thousands of people have been killed in different parts of Nigeria in bloody clashes between so-called indigenes and settlers, often stemming from xenophobia similar to what occurred in South Africa.The display of xenophobia has been especially disturbing because it made victims of citizens of African countries that actively supported the struggle to end apartheid and white minority rule in South Africa. The violence was seen by many on the continent as a stab in the back perpetrated by black South Africans who having gained power behaved with the same bigotry as did their former oppressors. But there is more to it than ingratitude. Anti-foreigner sentiments and violence has been present in virtually every country in the world. It was not that long ago when Nigerian leaders expelled Ghanaians after blaming them for their country’s economic woes. Continue reading

The poverty of anti-capitalism

By Tunde Obadina

It is an irony that progressives who claim to advocate for poor people in developing economies often prescribe an ideology that is detrimental to the interests of those they supposedly support. They rant about the evils of capitalism and urge poor-nation governments to restrict foreign capital and curb the activities of multinationals. They contend that the pursuit of profit, especially by foreigners, invariably results in cruel exploitation of the weak, as happened during the eras of slave trade and colonial rule that preceded modern-day globalisation.

This view of capitalism as a cause of poverty is nonsense. The reality is that over the past 250 years, trade and the pursuit of profit have lifted billions of people out of extreme poverty.  Continue reading

The missing oil money saga

I doubt that Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), will apologise to Nigerians for apparently mistakenly alleging that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) failed to remit colossal amounts of oil revenue to the treasury between January 2012 and July 2013. But it is the case that a forensic audit of the NNPC conducted by the global accountancy company PriceWaterhouseCoopers released in April found that the corporation did not withhold money but actually overpaid the state. Continue reading

Poverty doesn’t turn people into terrorists

By Tunde Obadina

Many political commentators and non-governmental welfare organisations have advised Nigeria’s incoming administration to deal with the insecurity fuelled by the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency in northern Nigeria by addressing the issues that drive young people to join the rebellion. They suggest that poverty and ignorance are the main underlying factors in the growth of the Islamist sect that has killed thousands of people over the past six years.

The idea that government should introduce programmes to eradicate poverty and boost education in northern Nigeria as a strategy for defeating violent extremism is supported by many people. However, although reducing poverty and improving education are undoubtedly worthy causes, there are two basic problems about linking poverty and ignorance with the threat posed by Boko Haram and other criminally violent groups.

Firstly, the assumption that poverty and poor schooling are major recruitment conditions for extremist groups is probably wrong. Given that the vast majority of inhabitants in northeast Nigeria, where Boko Haram thrives, live in abject poverty it is unsurprising that many of the group’s fighters and followers are poor and uneducated. But this does not necessarily mean that impoverishment and shortage of schools has driven ordinary people to pick up guns to terrorise their neighbours.

As far as I know there has not been detailed study of the composition of Boko Haram or any other jihadist group conducted in Nigeria, but it is probably fair to surmise that the Islamist movement is made up of people from varied socio-economic backgrounds. There are the disillusioned souls who come from relatively wealthy families. There are many who are relatively well-educated, including university graduates. Indeed, for a person to arrive at the conclusion that society should be purged and forced to operate according to a particular Islamist ideology presupposes above average intellectual endeavour and at least enough literacy to read the Koran. Indeed, it is because religious fundamentalists tend to be thinking people who are less concerned about material wealth, that make the job of defeating them with offers of money more difficult than was the case with Niger Delta militants, many of whose leaders were easily softened by the state with offers of cash and lucrative contracts.

Boko Haram also comprises of mercenaries who fight not for the establishment of a caliphate but for the loot they can obtain from plundering. There also individuals who have been coerced into fighting, such as those who were kidnapped, given a gun and placed in a firing line where they must chose either to kill government troops and innocent civilians or be killed. For the mercenaries, zealots and the captive warriors, increasing government welfare spending in terrorism-plagued areas is unlikely to dent the militants’ recruitment capacity.

The second problem with the advice that government tackle the unrest by investing in poverty eradication and schooling is that the proponents fail to explain how such massive welfare programmes will be funded. The tendency is to assume that with better resource management, primarily through elimination of corruption, adequate amounts of money could be available to government to substantially reduce poverty and make education freely available to all. This view stems from an utterly unrealistic assessment of the fiscal positions of both the federal administration and the state governments in the insurgency affected areas.

In 2014 total federally collectable income in Nigeria was about US$60 billion, which after deductions was shared roughly 50-50 between the centre and sub-national governments. This means the nation’s 36 states received on average less than US$1 billion each. Furthermore, Lagos is the only state that internally generates substantial amounts of revenue. Most other states are almost totally reliant on federation funding, especially those in the north. For example, income generated by Borno state, home of Boko Haram, amounted to a paltry US$14 million in 2013. Kano, the richest northern state, internally generated around US$110 million, less than 5% of the amount yielded by Lagos state.

The combined overall annual revenue of all tiers of government in Nigeria amounts to around US$390 per person. This is just over a US$1 per day. The actual sum available to spend on economic and social projects is substantially less than this due to deductions for items like reinvestment in oil production and debt servicing as well as the fact that the bulk of public revenue is spent on running government.

The reality is that the scale of resources available to northern states is simply insufficient to achieve any major government-led welfare transformation, even if official corruption was somehow completely removed. Similarly, the federal government is too poor to be able to pump substantially more money into northern states without risking a dire backlash in the south where people are also struggling with poverty and inadequate education.

There is a connection between poverty and insecurity. It is not that low income renders individuals prone to engaging in murderous rebellion, but that poverty makes communities susceptible to attack because they lack the wealth to pay for effective protection. Boko Haram has been able to kidnap hundreds of schoolchildren, maim and kill thousands of poor people not because its combatants are destitute or unlearned but because their victims have had little protection from violence.

The prime purpose of the state is to protect us from each other and outsiders.  This duty should take precedence over all other considerations, including building infrastructure, alleviating poverty and expanding education. The fundamental problem in Nigeria is that states are too weak to adequately protect their citizens. This is largely because they lack the necessary resources due to low economic production by society and the fact that the small amounts of tax revenues available are spread too thinly across a wide range of expenditure. The consequence is a loss of focus on the prime purpose of the state; security of its citizens.

The myth of Africa’s abundant natural wealth

It is often said that African nations are endowed with abundant natural wealth because they possess exceptional amounts of valuable minerals and other resources provided by nature. This notion of resource-richness is often contrasted with Africa’s high incidence of poverty to make the case that the continent is a paradox of want in the midst of plenty. It is a construction used to support claims of endemic incompetence amongst African leaders.

The portrayal of Africa as resource-rich has also led many Africans to believe that extreme poverty in the community could easily be eliminated if only their leaders shared nature’s endowment more equally. This understanding has fuelled a culture of entitlement – a belief that ordinary citizens are being denied birth-right benefits bequeathed by God.

There are two major problems with the idea that Africa has plentiful supply of natural resources. Firstly, the claim is without foundation. There is no evidence to support the notion of Africa’s super-abundance in natural resources. The opposite is closer to reality.  The World Bank 2011 report, The Changing Wealth of Nations, shows that low-income nations possess much less natural resource wealth than high-income countries, although poorer nations are more dependent on natural resources.  While countries like Norway, with natural capital valued at US$110,162 per capita or Australia with US$39,979 per capita worth, maybe described as resource-rich, the same cannot be said of Nigeria with natural capital worth US$6,042 per capita or South Africa with US$5,723 or Angola with US$13,307. Leaving aside Gabon, with an estimated US$42,065 per capita in natural capital, the resources endowments of African countries are actually quite modest.

Nigeria is frequently depicted as oil-rich, usually by commentators underlining government corruption and mismanagement of public resources. The image is of a country with ample petrodollars which, with better management, could meet the material needs of its people. This construction stems from massive exaggeration of the scale of Nigeria’s oil assets and income, relative to its population. It makes sense to describe countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as oil rich as they produce lots of the stuff and have small populations. But saying Nigeria is oil rich when in 2014 its oil output per capita was about US$530 is absurd. The United States, rarely described as oil-rich, produced an estimated 2,054 litres of crude oil per capita in 2012, more than twice Nigeria’s 860 litres. The assumption that Abuja is awash with petroleum money is clearly preposterous considering that in 2014 Nigeria’s oil revenue amounted to US$32.2 billion – a mere US$190 per person.

The second problem with depicting Africa as resource-rich is that it encourages a belief among some Africans that such endowment is wealth, provided free by nature and readily available for consumption. The belief that these are low hanging fruits to be plucked with little or no effort.  This assumption of natural wealth can be misleading. In reality almost all wealth is created by people. For instance, the crude oil and other minerals underground become capital goods only after extraction, which is an endeavour requiring significant amounts of effort and ingenuity. Underground mineral deposits can be of value to prospectors willing to buy exploitation rights, but even here, awareness of the existence of the resource requires human knowledge and the application of technology.

Modern-day crop production is not the result of harvesting naturally available products. Cocoa trees are planted and nurtured before they yield beans and mass produced chickens are the result of battery farming. Land is fertile because the soil has been appropriately treated. While rain and rivers are natural sources of water, the gathering and processing of water for delivery to end-users is created wealth.

It is important to make the point that natural resources are not endowments that are realisable without costs. Too often we hear resource nationalists contend that minerals mined in their areas are birthright entitlements of local peoples which outsiders unjustly extract for their own profit. The sense of grievance stems from an understanding that the resource, which the community had no part in harnessing, is a gift of nature to the people.

One of the reasons that the value of natural resources in low income countries is generally lower than those found in high-income nations is that there has been less human exploration and development of nature’s attributes in underdeveloped economies. This is partly due to the treatment in poor countries of natural resources as national resources that must be tightly managed by the state. Reform to make the acquisition of land much easier and to extend private property rights to subsoil resources would go a long way to creating the conditions for the effective development of these assets.

Nigerian governments have for decades voiced interest in the exploitation of the country’s supposedly vast solid mineral deposits but little progress has been made because the state maintains tight control of these resources. The development of the oil and gas sector has stalled for decades largely because of inept state involvement in the ownership and operation of the industry. Officials have said around 60% of Nigeria’s arable land is uncultivated. Imagine the impact that a open market in land transactions would have on the development of the untapped or underutilised land resources. Also imagine the tax revenues government could collect from resource-related industries, such as petrochemicals, freed from the dead hand of state mismanagement.

The challenge facing Nigeria’s incoming administration

By Tunde Obadina

I suspect that having won the 2015 presidential election following three consecutive failed attempts, former military leader Muhammadu Buhari is at least a little anxious about returning to power. The millions of Nigerians who voted for him are expecting that the change of leadership after 16 years of rule by the People’s Democratic Party will herald a new dawn in a country that has hitherto failed to live up to its potential.  People expect that Mr Buhari, with his reputation for honesty, will lead an administration that will thrust Nigeria forward to attain its potential, rightful, place in the world.

Unfortunately, those hoping that the incoming government will eliminate the major problems ailing the country, such as corruption, underemployment and mass poverty, are liable to be disappointed. Even if the new government behaves exemplarily and the economy shifts gear from fast to super-fast growth the likelihood is that in four or eight years time most Nigerians will still be living on less than US$2 a day. There is no realistic scenario in which the country can emerge from underdevelopment in the near- to medium term. Indeed, industrialising is liable to be more difficult in the next decade than it was in previous decades when East Asian nations rose from poverty to wealth. Opportunities for building the type of export-orientated, low-skilled, employment generating manufacturing that enabled these nations to swiftly escape poverty are now scarce. Furthermore, China, already a global manufacturing hub, still has substantial scope for industrial expansion because of its vast untapped hinterland provinces.

This is not to suggest that Nigeria under a new administration cannot achieve faster growth and more rapid reduction in poverty and underemployment. It certainly can. But government will have to be more serious in implementing policies that remove existing obstacles to private wealth creation. It must discount the notion that government can successfully micro-manage the economy to create wealth and jobs. The experiences of economies that have emerged from poverty show that it is the endeavour of individuals acting in markets that produces economic prosperity.

We do not need to look far for evidence of the importance of market reforms in unleashing human creativity and economic growth. We can see how the limited reforms that have taken place in Nigeria over the past decade have spurred growth in the affected sectors. The liberalisation of the telecommunications and financial sectors are obvious examples. Reform of tertiary education produced a mushrooming of private universities in the country. The Buhari administration does not need to formulate a new development strategy but needs to deepen and extend market reforms begun at the start of the new millennium but stalled by politicians lacking the imagination and resolve to tackle politically difficult deregulation reforms.

It would be great if the new administration shows greater courage and determination in pursuing already tabled reforms of the oil sector, including the restructuring of the national oil company to make the management of oil resources more transparent and subject to market forces. It would be great if the new government shows toughness by facing down forces that have blocked the liberalisation of the downstream oil sector, including scrapping the highly corrosive petrol subsidy, to enable private investment in the building of oil refineries and other oil-related industries. Mr Buhari could also boost the economy by implementing land reforms that make it easier for investors to acquire land for commercial agricultural production and construction projects. Far more progress can be achieved in the energy sector if the government liberalises electricity pricing and deregulates domestic gas pricing, thereby giving oil companies appropriate incentives to invest in gas production for domestic usage. The economy would benefit if existing trade barriers were dismantled, including scrapping import prohibitions and punitive tariffs.

The incoming administration does not need to come up with a brand new strategy for economic growth and development. Indeed, it would be a tragedy if it tries to reverse Nigeria’s general movement towards becoming a market economy. What is required from government is much greater steadfastness in implementing stalled reforms to loosen the stranglehold the state maintains on the economy.