Blessed is he who considers the poor. (Ps. 41:1)
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, more than 1.1 billion people the world over are living in “extreme” poverty. This is a category created by social scientists indicating that people at this dire level of need are subsisting on less than $1 a day (U.S.). In a recent report from the United Nations Development Program, Nigeria is ranked 171st on its index of national development, with more than 70 percent of the population living in extreme poverty.
Poverty is not simply about the lack of money. It also means that people do not know where their next meal will come from. They cannot afford decent living conditions. Their incomes are unpredictable and low. Those suffering in extreme poverty lack access to the good things of life and life’s fulfillment and expectations are greatly threatened. This undermining of human dignity makes the amelioration of poverty a moral, as well as an economic, issue. Poverty remains without question the greatest challenge facing African countries.
Many people, in and out of Africa, are quick to blame colonization for the present predicament. But Africa is not unique in this regard. Many countries that were once colonized are today enjoying economic prosperity. For instance, Australia and New Zealand were both British colonies. Estonia was once under Russian and German control. Today, citizens of these countries are enjoying a substantial per capita income. Colonialism ended in Africa more than three decades ago. It is time to look inward, for African solutions, to find ways to ameliorate the suffering of impoverished people in the continent. In many cases, those solutions will be found in morally responsible activity in the market and in government.
Africa ought to be one of the richest continents in the world in terms of mineral resources and arable farmland. So, what is the problem? Internal factors and self-inflicted problems have been the major causes of poverty in Africa in recent years. For example, the rate of capital flight in Africa is more than any other continent. How can the continent develop when Africans are unwilling to invest their own money in their own countries?
Above all, corruption and lack of effective rule of law present huge hurdles to would-be investors. In many countries, much local economic activity is under the control of the state, which necessarily leads to political influence and favoritism. Many government officials, both important and petty, believe that their position allows them to harass business people and extort outrageous fees and bribes. This corruption, combined with excessive regulation, deters both local and foreign investment. It is a problem that must be addressed not only by legal measures but also by the inculcation of a culture of personal moral responsibility that recognizes the damage done to the common good by corrupt exchanges.
The health care infrastructure in Africa is in a sorry state, and this compounds the economic and development problems. The spread of HIV/AIDS has continued to deplete the productive sector of the society, and has undermined long-term investment and growth. Because of their low level of income, many of the poor cannot afford drugs for HIV/AIDS treatment. This has increased the poverty level, as well.
Personal failures and natural disasters do not principally cause poverty. What’s worse are the inequalities in the social structures occasioned by government attempts to make everyone economically equal. Redistribution of wealth by the government has only increased the misery of the people. Pope John Paul II called such problems “the structures of sin,” because they are the products of human actions and they make the situations of the poor so difficult to change.
In the early 1960s and 1970s in Nigeria, government officials embarked on a mission to make everyone economically equal and many industries were protected from foreign competition. In the end, most of these firms are performing below expectations or have folded entirely.
Economic freedom is a route to ending poverty and starting the process of building a prosperous country. A loss or lack of this freedom usually calculates into a lower GDP. A free economy, such as Hong Kong’s, has given that country opportunity to grow tremendously when compared with a country like Zimbabwe, which has lately witnessed anti-business policies. Despite the obvious benefits of economic freedom, too many African governments are implementing unsound – even disastrous – policies.
Success is never accidental. The road to progress and reduction of poverty should include measures that guarantee more economic freedom to the citizens. This must include a transparent privatization, the liberalization trade, lower taxes, and reduced government intervention. It would also be a great help if trade-distorting policies in developed countries could be eased. Finally, Africans must understand their activity in the economic sphere as morally charged. In this way, we can finally address the problem of African poverty in an honest and practical way.