OUTSIDE THE BOX BY ALEX OTTI
“Population, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty-five years, or increases in a geometrical ratio. … The means of subsistence, under circumstances the most favourable to human industry, could not possibly be made to increase faster than in an arithmetical ratio.” Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834)
A few days ago, I received a call from Aliyu who used to be my security man years ago. Calls from him were not strange as he had maintained contact with me from time to time, even though he no longer worked for me. This time around, Aliyu was to inform me that his second wife had put to bed, a bouncing baby girl. He wanted me to join him in thanking God for the gift of another child. I queried him on why he was apparently breeding like a rabbit as I remembered that a year before, he had made a similar call asking me to thank God for a set of twins from his first wife. When I then wanted to know how many children he had his response shocked me. He said he didn’t know the number. According to him, in their tradition, they didn’t count children as they believe that every child is a gift from God and it would be disrespectful to God to start counting His gifts, freely given. He started lecturing me about people who were praying day in day out for a child and God would not answer them.
Aliyu then insisted that people like him who had the good fortune of receiving God’s blessing almost every year, should be thankful. I tried to explain to him that the country was dealing with population explosion and that he must endeavour to control his unbridled procreation tendencies, at least for the sake of his children as he shouldn’t bring up children that he was obviously incapable of looking after. He again went spiritual and explained that it was God who took care of children. At some point, when he felt that I was getting too much on his case, he quipped, “Oga, wetin concern agbero with overload?” He, however, did not forget to ask me to send something for his wife and the new baby, which was the real reason for the call.
In its release on “Nigeria’s Economic Update” last week, the World Bank warned that Nigeria would be home to an additional 30 million extremely poor people by 2030, which will make it host a quarter of all extremely poor people in the world, if it failed to reform its economic policies. The major argument of the analysis is that our population growth is outpacing our economic growth. While GDP growth is a miserly 1.9%, our population is growing at over 2.6% (some analysts have put the figure at 3%) per annum. Bringing home the population growth numbers, as contained in the study, in 10 years, Nigeria’s population will increase from 200 million people to no less than 260 million people, if we continue to grow at the current rate .
This would not have been a problem had the economy been growing at a minimum of the same rate. Because our economy is not growing at the rate population is growing, Per Capita Income would continue to go down. The World Bank went further to warn that if we do not do anything, the country may go into another recession similar and probably more severe than the 2016 situation. The Bank believes that for a few reasons, the economy is more fragile now than in 2016. The excess crude account has been depleted so the buffers that the surplus provided would not exist today. Their second reason is that our foreign reserves are severely weakened by the huge presence of what is referred to as ‘hot money’. Hot money is foreign portfolio investment which basically takes advantage of high interest rate regimes in the bond and securities market. Interestingly, this kind of money would vote with its feet once it senses any volatility.
The World Bank went further to state that given that Nigeria has close to 100 million people living below the poverty line of less than $1.90 per day and as had been reported, about 6 people fall into this unfortunate bracket every minute, we must do something significant to arrest the impending crisis. Jobs are not being created at the pace at which we churn out skilled and unskilled people into the labour market. Last year, over 5 million new people entered the labour market while the number of jobs created was a fraction of that number. This situation is exacerbated by the large number of jobs wiped out by the recession of 2016 and 2017 and the very fragile 2018 economy. The Bank acknowledged a few positive cases of job creation in 4 out of the 36 states in 2018, against 2017 where no state created any jobs at all. The states that created some jobs in 2018 include Lagos, Ondo, Enugu and Rivers and we must commend them while admonishing others to learn from them.
In that report just released, the World Bank had some recommendations for Nigeria to consider in order to accelerate growth. The first would be for us to implement reforms to boost tax revenues. While we acknowledge the fact that our tax to GDP ratio is at a lowly 6%, about the lowest in Africa, we hasten to add that the fact that close to 50% of our population are extremely poor, makes this recommendation unenforceable. Expecting to raise reasonable revenue from extremely poor and unemployed people would be like trying to strike water out of a stone. The bank also advocated higher investment in human and physical capital, as well as efforts to improve the quality of spending and reduce barriers to trade and private sector development. Specifically, it recommended gradually eliminating the use of monetary policies that crowd out credit to the private sector. It is our considered opinion that no country can grow without growing human capacity and infrastructure, therefore, we agree with the World Bank on this score.
While we cannot completely discountenance the recommendations of the Word Bank, readers would agree that the situation of our national economy is worrisome and needs to be addressed decisively. The choice we have before us is to formulate immediate, short term and long term solutions to the highlighted constraints. Like most economic challenges, the solutions would include different policy options some of which would be bitter, while the results of some may take some time to be felt. First and foremost, it is important for us to agree that this challenge is real. The numbers may not be perfect, but we must agree on the fundamentals. The story of Aliyu that we started with is to show how even in our attitude, we don’t seem to see that there is a problem. When China realised that her citizens could not continue to procreate the way they were doing, as it had a population explosion on its hands, she came up with the one child policy in 1979. The policy was implemented by ensuring that families that breached it paid huge fines. With strict enforcement, the said policy worked. We must also state that in 2015, China moderated the policy to allow her citizens have up to two children per family. This was sequel to realising that they then had an aging population. Besides, their story had also changed with the massive economic growth that the country had witnessed in the last decade. I believe there is a lot to learn from China. The country realised it had a problem and decided to deal with it head on. When she sensed that the problem was easing off, she relaxed the policy.
We believe that in the case of Nigeria, the time has come for us to introduce some restrictions on the maximum number of children that a family should have to avoid the kind of crises that the World Bank warned us about. We know some people would be concerned about enforcement, should we decide to implement the restriction of births. We may decide to start with rewarding good behaviour rather than punishing bad behaviour. We could work out an incentive for families that comply and expect that it would encourage more compliance. As time goes on we can then introduce penalties for breaking the law or policy. Sometime in the 80s, we toyed with a policy restricting births to 4 per family or was it per woman? I am not sure we were very serious with its implementation at that time. I am also not sure there was any penalty prescribed for non-compliance nor incentive for compliance. We may wish to revisit that policy quickly with a view to reintroducing family planning and birth control in the country. For this to work, the government must get involved in birth control measures and provision of support for families. This simply means increased expenditure on health care delivery. Naturally, there should be added emphasis on education and enlightenment. Investment in health care and education is necessary to improve our Human Development Index (HDI).
HDI is a United Nation’s measurement index for countries based on health, education and standard of living.
Nigeria is currently ranked 157 out of 189 countries; a worrisome rank for a country of our size and population. We occupy the lower rungs of that ladder and the implications are that there will continue to face rising incidence of social, political and economic dislocation. We therefore need to do a lot more to improve our HDI ranking. Like we highlighted earlier, we are caught in a bind as we also require resources which we do not have now to invest in the necessary areas to improve our ranking. That is why we believe we should start with low hanging fruits and it is our belief that population explosion restriction is something that is within our control. Once there is a will to do it, we can always work out the details.
In the medium to long term, there are a few other things that we can do to reduce population growth or improve GDP growth rate or both.
Education is extremely important if we must eradicate or even reduce poverty. Good quality education will not only equip the populace for job creation and skills acquisition, but it will also expose the populace to the ills of unbridled childbirth leading to population explosion. Some of the arguments that Aliyu was canvassing in the story told at the beginning of this essay were founded on the altar of illiteracy and lack of exposure. Enlightened people will hardly want to give birth to children they cannot take care of.
The level of unemployment must be brought to manageable limits. At close to 25% unemployment rate, this becomes a drag on economic growth and a boost to poverty. Deliberate efforts must be made by government to create the enabling environment for businesses to generate jobs for the young people. The enabling environment would include ease of doing business, massive investment in infrastructure, tax and tariff policies, and to a little extent, government direct involvement in supporting businesses that would generate jobs. At the end of the spectrum would be enduring economic policies that would lead to sustainable growth. One of such policies would be genuine diversification of the economy. A major problem we have had is the mono product nature of our economy, such that with shocks in the oil market, the economy quickly goes into a panic mode. We must also continue the drive towards reducing our dependence on imports while we encourage local production. This also has the added advantage of creating jobs and reducing pressure on the foreign exchange market and supporting local currency stability.
While pursuing the long-term solutions, we cannot run away from deliberate actions aimed at controlling our population and reducing the number of our compatriots living below the poverty line. We are sure overloading this bus and cannot afford to behave like conductors who don’t care. It is time to begin to care like drivers. If we do not check our population growth, it will be forced on us by other forces that are totally out of our control. That will be the Malthusian nightmare.