You are here
Nigeria: What to do when wealth doesn’t mean development?

Nigeria: What to do when wealth doesn’t mean development?

By Clare Cummings

Having just returned from a research trip to Nigeria, I’ve been struck (not for the first time) by just how difficult it is to make economic growth a force for development. It’s tempting to think that just having a slightly bigger public sector budget would really help, but Nigeria is a clear reminder that wealth alone does not guarantee better services, less poverty or more security.

Nigeria is known internationally as an economic powerhouse, a leading African economy attracting foreign investment and exporting natural resources. It’s also known to have a volatile political situation, extreme poverty and stark inequality. Despite its wealth, Nigeria rates poorly on human development indicators: it ranked 152 in the 2013 Human Development Report, just above Yemen. Compared to other, much poorer, African countries, Nigeria’s investment in public services is low and inequality in accessing services is very high. Why is this?

Why is economic growth failing to address poverty, and what can development organisations do about it?

First, it’s important not to think of Nigeria as one economy and one government. Nigeria is enormous, with a national population similar to that of Bangladesh or Brazil, and a federal system composed of 36 states and a federal capital. When taken as a whole, Nigeria has every challenge and opportunity going: natural resources, divided ethnic groups, nomadic populations, burgeoning cities, etc. Only by delving into the complexity of each state can you begin to understand what’s stopping Nigeria from transforming into a more stable country.

Map of Nigeria's states. From Wikimedia Commons.
Map of Nigeria’s states. From Wikimedia Commons.

Looking at government and politics at the state level, it becomes clearer why Nigeria’s economic growth does not guarantee better living standards. Nigerian state governments each have their own priorities, and these are often not poverty reduction but rather income generation. For example, while the governors of Northern states tend to prioritise agricultural productivity, transport is a political issue in Lagos, as the city’s congestion is a brake on the state economy. Nigerian politicians’ priorities are also swayed by those who financed their election victory. Public funds are often diverted to creating jobs for chosen individuals and awarding government contracts to particular companies. It’s only when a leader’s supporters have been sufficiently rewarded that broader development goals can be considered.

So, taking this as a starting point, how can development organisations, calling for more accountable governments and better services for the poor, persuade Nigerian state governments to change the way they work? Quite simply, development organisations need to learn to work politically. They need to understand the interests of leaders and the constraints of the political system, and find ways to encourage reform without directly threatening a leader’s source of control. Negotiation, brokering, persuasion, peer pressure and incentives are all tools in engaging in the politics of development. This is about taking a politically smart approach to development.

But what could this look like? How about the work the DFID-funded State Accountability and Voice Initiative (SAVI) is doing? SAVI works in a number of Nigerian states to support State Houses of Assembly, mass media and civil society organisations to take action on public problems. Rather than encouraging a battle between government and non-government groups, SAVI looks for ways they can cooperate, finding convergent interests in resolving shared problems, such as corruption in contractors’ building of public infrastructure.

Another inspiring approach to problem solving in Nigeria is Reboot’s work on public financial management. Financial management reforms are often found to be technically heavy, transplanted by international consultants and inappropriate to a country’s own context. Reboot, however, is taking a different approach, which they call “fiscal ethnography.” In this, a team of Nigerian and international staff are embedded in a state government for 18 months to observe how the government systems work, learn about the culture of the organisation and people working in it, and earn their partners’ trust. The knowledge they gain and the relationships they build then enable the Reboot team to tailor their tools and training to the specific needs and priorities of the state government.

Nigeria is certainly not unique in the challenges facing its public sector, and examples like these show that development organisations are beginning to learn that development is not about authority and money, but rather about brokering and negotiating change. Improving the practices of the development community may be just as difficult as improving the practices of state governments, but a movement for change has begun. Academics, practitioners, donors, and researchers are coming together to push for a new, politically savvy way of doing development: development that works.

Look here and here to learn more and join the debate!

Clare Cummings is a Research Officer for Politics and Governance at the Overseas Development Institute, where she works on public service delivery, justice, security and democratisation. She has previously conducted field research on the governance of slum resettlement in South India and worked as a researcher for a consortium of NGOs in Burundi. Claire holds a Masters of International Development from the University of Amsterdam. You can follow her on Twitter.

Featured image is an aerial view of Lagos. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The following two tabs change content below.

Guest Author/s

Our guest authors come from a diverse range of international development backgrounds. If you'd like to submit a blog to WhyDev check out our submissions guidelines on the website.

Latest posts by Guest Author/s (see all)

Related posts

3 thoughts on “Nigeria: What to do when wealth doesn’t mean development?

  1. […] Wealth should theoretically help countries to develop – but that hasn't really happened in Nigeria. Some new projects are trying to combat poverty and  […]

  2. I totally agree with the need for political influence from NGOs but this is not possible unless we first address our own failure to make the case that NGOs, and therefore charitable giving is both a political act and a fundamental right that advances democracy and good government. Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that unless we are able to create a domestic culture of engaging and supporting NGOs – and particularly domestic headquartered ones – the campaigning work of NGOs will never have the local legitimacy and credibility that it needs.

    Many large organisations that are headquartered in the West are on one hand telling donors in their home country that donations are all about services and direct aid to beneficiaries whilst openly engaging in advocacy abroad. We have stood back and allowed the media and government to erode the role that civil society has played since the Victorian era (in the UK) in challenging dominant and popularly held positions and assumptions. The end of slavery, universal suffrage and our modern welfare state would not have come about if civil society was not empowered to challenge privileges with mass public support.

    The message that we send is that political advocacy happens in poor countries and is funded by rich nations. The result? Over 50 countries have passed legislation in the last year or so which restrict the independence of NGOs either through limiting access to foreign funding or adding restrictions on campaigning activities. I have written widely about this issue including in a publication called Enabling an Independent Not-for-profit Sector. I would love to talk to anyone who is interested in this subject.

  3. […] “Wealth should theoretically help countries to develop – but that hasn't really happened in Nigeria. Some new projects are trying to combat poverty and”  […]

Comments are closed.