Eradicating Poverty by Dr Otive Igbuzor

Dr. Otive Igbuzor, PhD
Dr. Otive Igbuzor, PhD

Dr. Igbuzor is the a past International Head of Campaigns of ActionAid International and Country Director of ActionAid Nigeria. He was an honourable Commissioner in the Police Service Commission (PSC) from 2008-2013. He was a Programme Co-ordinator of Centre for Democracy and Development. He holds a degree in Pharmacy, masters’ degrees in Public Administration and International Relations and a doctorate degree in Public Administration. He was appointed by Ban Ki Moon, UN secretary General,  to the UN Network of Men Leaders. He served as the Secretary of Citizens’ Forum for Constitutional Reform, a coalition of over 100 civil society organisations committed to a process led and participatory approach to constitutional reform in Nigeria. He has published many scholarly articles and is the author of several books.

The world today is undergoing rapid and dynamic changes driven by globalisation, ICT and innovation. The environment of the world has been described as dynamic, turbulent, uncertain, complex, pattern less and value sensitive. The development challenges facing the world are enormous. One of the greatest developmental challenges facing the world today is poverty. The past five decades have witnessed monumental changes in the world. Global economic wealth has increased sevenfold and average incomes have tripled. Yet, poverty has increased to record high levels. The major problem is that wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few people while majority of the people live in abject poverty. The UNDP in its 1998 report documented that the three richest people in the world have assets that exceed the combined Gross Domestic Product of the 48 least developed countries. In 2014, 85 richest people in the world had the same wealth as the poorest 50 percent (3.5 billion people). By 2015, only 80 richest people have the same wealth as the poorest 50 percent.

Several attempts have been made to address the challenges of poverty across the world. But the interventions have been informed by ideological and philosophical considerations. There are two major ideological divides in the world- capitalism and socialism; free market and state intervention; neo-liberalism and state intervention; conservatives and democrats; Tories and Labour.

We look at how a progressive government in Nigeria on the left side of the ideological divide can eradicate poverty. The challenge of extreme poverty and hunger is probably the greatest development challenge of our time.

We have argued elsewhere that the reality of the world today is that many countries are very poor and cannot meet their development needs. It has been documented that more than 1.2 billion people, one in every five on earth survive on less that US $1 per day. Wealth is concentrated in the hand of a few people while the majority wallows in abject poverty. The UNDP in its 1998 report documented that the three richest people in the world have assets that exceed the combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the 48 least developed countries. Similarly, the 1000 richest people in the world have personal wealth greater than 500 million people in the least developed countries. Every minute of every day, somewhere in the developing world, a woman dies needlessly in childbirth or pregnancy, and 20 children are killed by avoidable diseases such as diarrhea or malaria. One in six African children will not live to see their fifth birthday and half a million women die each year from causes related to pregnancy or inadequate health care. In 2009, the number of people going to bed hungry every night reached the record high level of over one billion people.

A graphic example is the case of Nigeria, which was one of the richest 50 countries in the early 1970s and has retrogressed to become one of the 25 poorest countries at the threshold of the twenty first century. It is ironic that Nigeria is the sixth largest exporter of oil and at the same time host the third largest number of poor people after China and India. Statistics show that the incidence of poverty using the rate of US $1 per day increased from 28.1 percent in 1980 to 46.3 percent in 1985 and declined to 42.7 percent in 1992 but increased again to 65.6 percent in 1996. The incidence increased to 69.2 percent in 1997. The 2004 report by the National Planning Commission indicates that poverty has decreased to 54.4 percent. By 2010, the poverty rate has increased to 69.1 percent.

Nigeria fares very poorly in all development indices. The average annual percentage growth of GDP in Nigeria from 1990 -2000 was 2.4. This is very poor when compared to Ghana (4.3) and Egypt (4.6). Poverty in Nigeria is in the midst of plenty. Although there has been steady economic growth from 2004-20014, the growth was without employment and the benefits have not been evenly distributed especially to the poor and excluded. Nigeria is among the 20 countries in the world with the widest gap between the rich and the poor. The Gini index measures the extent to which the distribution of income (or in some cases consumption expenditure) among individuals or households within an economy deviates from a perfectly equal distribution. A Gini index of zero represents perfect equality while an index of 100 implies perfect inequality. Nigeria has one of the highest Gini index in the world.

In order to address the problem of poverty and promote sustainable development, the United Nations Millennium Declaration was adopted in September 2000 at the largest ever gathering of heads of heads of States committing countries both rich and poor to do all they can to eradicate poverty, promote human dignity and equality and achieve peace, democracy and environmental stability. The goals include those dedicated to eradicating poverty, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development. We have argued elsewhere that at present trends, Nigeria is unlikely to meet the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. Goal one is targeted at extreme poverty and hunger with the target of halving the proportion of people living on less than $1 a day and those suffering from hunger.

It is important to point out at the outset that among the MDGs, the one related to hunger is the one that is moving in the opposite direction at the fastest pace. From 2005-2009, the gains of the previous two decades were wiped out by neo-librealism, global economic crisis and the food crisis. The number of hungry people increased astronomically reaching the record level of over one billion, the first time since records began. It has been documented that since 2005, an extra 170 million people have been pushed into hunger-equivalent to the populations of Germany, France and Canada combined.

Extreme poverty and hunger can be eradicated with the application of correct theoretical construction and ideas backed with good strategies, leadership and accountable governance. We point out that the programmes put in place to address poverty and hunger are influenced by theoretical considerations. But first, we will discuss the situation of extreme poverty and hunger and examine some theories of poverty as well as analyse the Nigerian experience.


The debate about poverty reduction or eradication has manifested itself in the confusion and changing nomenclature of poverty policies and programmes in Nigeria. At a time, it was Poverty Alleviation Programme (PAP). Then, it was changed to Poverty Eradication Programme (PEP). While implementing PEP, the government embraced the PRSP process. In any case, there has been serious debate as to whether PRSP by its design and framework can lead to poverty eradication or even reduction. AFRODAD has argued that PRSP cannot lead to poverty eradication:

PRSPs have sought to further liberalise markets, and especially the trade regime, promote market-based land and other policies, cost recovery in the provision of social services and privatisation of state owned enterprises (SOEs). In this context, the private sector is seen as the engine of growth. Market driven policies avoid analysis of power relations, which ultimately determines inequality and poverty. The unequal access to resources, especially land and capital largely explains poverty and deprivation. Thus by focusing on markets, PRSPs have largely avoided remedies that call for a redistribution of resources. Without redistributing resources, it is impossible to address poverty in a sustainable manner.

In fact, it has been documented that in some African countries like Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, there were already national initiatives to eradicate poverty, which were undermined, and the focus changed to meet IMF/ World Bank requirements with the imposition of the PRSP process.

Over the years, public policies have been designed to tackle the problem the problem of poverty and hunger in Nigeria. The crucial question is: why have these public policies failed? In our view, the greatest challenge is the neo-liberal theoretical underpinnings which has manifested in at least five reasons why public policies in Nigeria have failed to stem the rising tide of poverty in the country. First, there is confusion among policy makers on the approach to deal with the poverty situation in Nigeria. At different points in time, various programmes were conceptualized and implemented with the hope that they will impact on poverty in the country. The programmes include the Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFFRI), the National Directorate of Employment (NDE), the Better Life Programme (BLP), the Family Support Programme (FSP), Agricultural Development Programme (ADP), the People’s bank of Nigeria (PBN) etc. At another time, the Poverty Alleviation Programme (PAP) was launched. Then, it was change to Poverty Eradication Programme (PEP). While implementing PEP, the Federal Government of Nigeria embraced the Poverty Reduction Strategy Process (PRSP) initiated by the World Bank in 1999. Even before Nigeria could produce an Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, it abandoned the PRSP process for the National Economic and Empowerment Development Strategy (NEEDS).

It is important to point out that the terms reduction, alleviation or eradication as applied to poverty is not just a matter of semantics but are heavily ideologically loaded. As noted above, the neo-liberal approach to poverty takes the view that poverty cannot be eradicated but can only be reduced or alleviated. Secondly, programmes and projects implemented under the policies to deal with poverty in Nigeria consist of dishing out of handouts from the neo-liberal understanding that the problem is with individuals. But as noted above, poverty results from failure to observe and implement human rights ingrained in the economic, political and social systems. Therefore, discretionary ad hoc handouts and market led growth with the hope of trickle-down effect cannot alleviate or eradicate poverty. Thirdly, the poor for whom the programmes are implemented do not participate in the conceptualization, implementation and evaluation of the programmes.

Meanwhile, scholars are in agreement that when citizens participate in the planning, execution, utilisation and assessment of programmes, social amenities or facilities designed to improve their welfare, success of those efforts are assured. As Onibokun and Faniran have argued,

…participation gives the people the pride of ownership of the facilities completed in the process of community development. When, for example, people refer to social services within the community as our school, hospital, or market, they are implicitly expressing enthusiasm and confidence in their community, with a strong feeling of belonging to it. The very idea of a community doing something for itself through the participatory effort of its people depicts development at its best… The principle of citizen participation extols collective effort for community development as the catalyst by which human efforts can pursue the interchanges of energies and satisfactions for the growth of communities and the development of the wider society. The principle is itself embedded in the psychology of man, i.e. understanding and accepting as the best those actions which he has helped to originate. For example, where a citizen has a part in an action, he agrees with it, and it has meaning for him. If a citizen can feel that he is part of a group in an action, this tends to ease out a major developmental challenge, through the development of the potential of the individual, as a member of a social group, a worker, a learner or a thinker, in an environment which enables him to acquire the necessary knowledge, skills and the freely chosen values to live by. It is this development that enables citizens to create a more wholesome social and material environment on which their succeeding generations can base and build.

Another reason why the policies have failed is the lack of co-ordination of the various programmes and inability to target the poor and vulnerable. Finally, the programmes do not have connection with other programmes and policies that should have impact on poverty situations. Poverty is complex and multidimensional and requires multi-sectoral approach in its eradication including changes to the economic, social and political system.


The challenge of extreme poverty and hunger in the midst of increasing global wealth and technological advances is a paradox that must be dealt with. In order to deal with this and other developmental challenges, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted. But at present trends, the goals are unlikely to be met. In particular, indicators of the goal relating to hunger in moving is the opposite direction in the last few years with the number of hungry people increasing to a record level of over one billion people.

We argue that although several theories have been propounded to explain poverty, Marxist and neo-liberal theories of poverty can help to understand anti-poverty programmes across the world. We opine that capitalism not only generates and promote poverty and hunger but that the global and national political and economic structures are organised to perpetuate poverty, hunger, inequality and injustice. Therefore, several poverty eradication programmes across the world are built on neo-liberal ideological foundations which leave out the structural and systemic causes of poverty and hunger to deal with the symptoms and how to make individuals come out of poverty. We contend that such programmes cannot lead to eradication of poverty and hunger. Meanwhile, countries that have focused on dealing with the challenge of inequality and promoted the intervention of the state including social protection measures have made significant progress in reducing poverty and hunger. In addition, programming for eradication of poverty and hunger must simultaneously take place at the local, national and international levels. The experience of Nigeria in anti-poverty programming utilising the neo-liberal approach has led to woeful failure.

A progressive government programme to eradicate poverty in Nigeria should contain the following elements:

A. A more nuanced understanding of poverty:

There is no doubt that eradicating world poverty is one of the greatest challenges of our age. According to Wolfensohn, the greatest weapon we have to fight poverty is knowledge. This knowledge according to him include knowledge of policies that work to increase economic growth, of how to protect people from disease and protect the environment from degradation, to train young minds and equip them for productive work, and knowledge of where we stand now and how far we have to go to achieve our goal of a world free of poverty. 8 Nigeria 2015 – 2019: What should a progressive government implement?

But according to Ochoa, the new conceptualisation of poverty should stress its human dimensions, enabling a vision of the poor not as ciphers or statistical data but rather as human beings, with a story to tell and a dignity that must be respected. Fayemi made a similar argument when he posited that policy makers need a more nuanced understanding of the complexities surrounding them. A more nuanced understanding of poverty is the starting point of poverty eradication. Scholars, policy makers, development workers and the poor must synthesize their knowledge for the purpose of eradicating poverty.

B. Participation of the Poor:

It has been argued that “the poor are the true poverty experts. Hence, a policy document on poverty strategies for the 21st century must be based on the experiences, priorities, reflections and recommendations of poor children, women and men.” Another reason for the participation of the poor is the failure of the market and State led efforts to eradicate poverty. According to Webster and Engberg-Pederson,

It is now clear that while economic growth and better access to markets are crucial requirements in reducing the number of people in economic poverty, they are not sufficient. Nor, as attempts at State-led development have revealed is it sufficient to leave poverty eradication to the State. In the contemporary world, with the vagaries of fluctuating world markets rendering national economies fragile and their institutional structures often in crisis, poverty reduction is not likely to take place in a sustained manner without the involvement of the poor. The participation of the poor is key to any policy, programme or project directed at poverty eradication.

C. Empowerment of the poor

Another key strategy for poverty eradication is empowerment of the poor. This is because one major cause of poverty is lack of capacity and powerlessness of poor people to transform their situations. It has been succinctly put that: The problem is poverty, not poor people. Those who care most about reducing poverty are poor people themselves. Hence effective poverty reduction must tap into the motivation, desire, determination, imagination, knowledge, networks, and organisations of poor women, men and children. Given the scale of the problem, any poverty reduction strategy must mobilise the energy of poor people to take effective action and make them essential partners in development.

D. Good Governance, Transparency and Accountability

One major way of exacerbation of poverty in Nigeria is bad governance and lack of transparency and accountability. Resources that would have been utilized to promote economic growth and eradicate poverty are mismanaged, misdirected and misappropriated by the ruling elite. Long years of military did not help matters. It is therefore necessary to promote good governance with emphasis on protection of human rights especially economic, social and cultural rights.

E. Rights based approach

There is no doubt that poverty denigrates, excludes, mutilates and kills, and has become the single greatest violator of human rights in the world today. As noted above, poverty results from the failure to observe and implement human rights. Therefore, discretionary ad-hoc handouts and market led growth with the hope of trickle-down effect cannot eradicate poverty. It has been argued that a rights based approach to poverty eradication is the proper approach to poverty eradication. According to CHRI, right based approach: … gives primacy to the participation and empowerment of the poor, insists on democratic practices and on the fulfillment by the international community, nation states, the commercial sector and local communities and associations of their obligations to respect, fulfill and promote human rights. It emphasizes the moral and legal duties of global society to ensure a just and equitable social, political and economic order in which all people and persons can live in dignity. It is based on the fundamental principle of equality of all human beings. It calls for the recognition of the role of all citizens in governance.

F. Combating Gender inequity, children vulnerability and other vulnerable groups
Various scholars have tried to explain why women are poorer than men which has led to the situation whereby poverty wears the face of a woman leading to what scholars have called the feminisation of poverty. Women constitute 70 percent of the world’s poor. Special emphasis need to be placed on combating gender equity and addressing the mechanisms, institutions and practices that make women and other groups in society vulnerable.

G. Promote Pro-poor policies

There are clearly policies that are anti-poor and there are others that are pro-poor. Anti-poor policies will benefit the rich while pro-poor policies will benefit the poor. In order to eradicate poverty, care must be taken to ensure that all policies are pro-poor. For instance, policies that favour small-scale farmers or are labour intensive and will lead to the creation of more jobs are pro-poor. On the other hand, policies that will lead to increase in the prices of social services and utilities or introduction of user fees are anti-poor. Privatisation will almost always lead to increase in prices of goods and services and lay off of staff and is anti-poor. In order to eradicate poverty, emphasis must be placed on pro-poor policies. It has been documented that good public policy is at the core of the process of development.

In conclusion, we can state that the problem of poverty in Nigeria is complex, multidimensional and multi-faceted requiring the need for a renewed reflection and rethinking of the public policies that has been formulated to tackle poverty in the past. The new approach should produce public policies that will lead to poverty eradication in Nigeria. The starting point therefore will be an understanding of what constitutes poverty, the root causes and factors that exacerbate it as well as deciphering who is poor. Poverty in Nigeria is unique in the sense that majority of the poor are located in the rural areas with geo-political variations, disparities between male and female and the fact that it is in the midst of plenty. Meanwhile, the public policies that have been designed to tackle poverty in the past have failed because of confusion among policy makers on the design of appropriate policies to eradicate poverty; lack of participation by the poor; poor co-ordination and inability to link anti-poverty policies with other policies/sectors that should have impact on poverty. It is recommended that a progressive approach to eradicating poverty in Nigeria should promote a more nuanced understanding of poverty, participation of the poor, empowerment of the poor, good governance, transparency and accountability, combat gender inequity and children vulnerability, promote rights based approach and pro-poor policies.

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