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.
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.
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.