There is no doubt that poverty is one of the major threats to peace and security of lives and property in different parts of the world today. But poverty in our world today cannot be fully understood except it is viewed within the context of its converse side – the unjust concentration of the world’s resources in the hands of a few in most countries of the world. To do otherwise is to adopt a narrow, lopsided, perspective which obscures the underlying causes of poverty thereby obstructing the adoption of viable remedies to the problem. Secondly, it is highly pertinent to make a clear distinction between poverty and impoverishment, that is, “reduced to poverty, made poor” (Merriam-Webster). This means that the framing of the issues is important to unravelling what our Christian response should be. The word “poverty” is a noun which is seemingly morally neutral. By contrast, the term “to impoverish” which comes from the French word “empoverir” means “to make poor” (Vocabulary.com). Impoverishment, therefore, not only encapsulates poverty but also the act of forcing someone into poverty.
Thus, implicit in the term impoverishment are the moral questions of responsibility, accountability and justice. This article posits that, as Christians, we are called to address not just poverty but impoverishment. Whereas human solidarity, in the form of almsgiving, is sufficient to address poverty, it is grossly inadequate as a response to impoverishment. Impoverishment is an act of injustice committed against some sections of humanity by others and the resolution is to give justice to the oppressed. It is estimated that 3 billion people, nearly half of the world’s population live on less than $2.5 a day, and nearly half of them (1.3 billion) live in extreme poverty – on less than $1.25 a day. Almost 80% of the world’s population survives on less than $10 a day (11 Facts About Poverty). According to the World Food Programme, hunger is the leading cause of death in the world, killing more people than malaria, HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis put together.
The situation appears to be worsening, particularly in Nigeria, which now has the highest number of poor people in the world. In 2015, half of the people living in extreme poverty were in just five countries including Nigeria; 24% of the world’s extreme poor were in India, 12% in Nigeria, 7% in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 4% in Ethiopia and 3% in Bangladesh (Katayama and Wadhwa). As at 2018, in just three years, Nigeria had overtaken India topping the chart with its 86.9 million poor, out of an estimated population of 195.8 million (Kazeem). The fact that Nigeria has the highest number of poor people in the world naturally does not portend well for peace and security. The situation is compounded by the fact that those who live in extreme poverty make up nearly half of the country’s population. The country, therefore, has a large restive population, and many, who live in desperation. Crimes have manifestly been on the increase with little or no response from the government, leaving communities and neighbourhoods to resort to self-defense through vigilante efforts.
This situation has left the country precariously on the verge of anarchy. The link between poverty, peace, and security was demonstrated clearly during the COVID-19 lock-down in different parts of the country. Social media was awash with videos showing the poor on the streets protesting their deprivation. Private vehicles conveying food to stores and markets were attacked by the poor and the food looted. In many neighbourhoods in Lagos and Ibadan, citizens had to form vigilante groups and stay up all nights to defend themselves from attacks from mostly unemployed youths and cult members. In broad daylight, hundreds of youths marauded the streets with dangerous weapons menacing residents. In some towns, the poor resisted the stay-at-home orders because they were hungry and needed to engage in their daily economic activities to ward off starvation. Religious bodies, the private sector, well-off communities and individuals had to go to the rescue of governments that were unable to deliver palliatives effectively to the most vulnerable.
Effectively addressing poverty requires adopting the right paradigm of engagement. Many measures have been adopted both globally and here in Nigeria to “alleviate” poverty by various governments, religious communities and philanthropists but they have been largely ineffective because of the wrong paradigm. They mostly treat the poor as charity cases – people who require to be assisted with vocational training, food, shelter, clothing and so on. The increasing numbers of the poor show how unrealistic this approach is. Governments have set up agency upon agency to alleviate poverty to little or no avail. On the one hand, they are giving out to the poor while at the same time reinforcing the conditions that drive poverty and impoverish citizens in large numbers. Logic dictates that we tackle the major drivers of poverty. If the factors that impoverish populations are effectively tackled, there will be much fewer poor people; only then will the palliatives and “alleviation” programmes produce results. Inequality, human greed and structural injustice are the major drivers of poverty.
They create structural poverty and impoverish the world’s population in their billions. In 2019, the richest 1% of the world’s population owned 44% of the entire wealth of the world. “Those with extreme wealth have often accumulated their fortunes on the backs of people around the world who work for poor wages and under dangerous conditions” (Oxfam International). Secondly, structural injustice nurtures inequality by making sure that huge populations are locked out of the spaces where decisions are being made about the common good. Through political and economic exclusion, a minority of elites makes policies in favour of their narrow, collective socio-economic class interests to the disadvantage of the majority. The result is inequality in access to resources and services such as credit, land, livelihood opportunities, healthcare, education, energy, water, sanitation, and decent shelter.
This inequality is even more acute when it comes to women and girls because of their huge burden of unpaid care work in the family- “the billions of hours” they spend “cooking, cleaning and caring for children and the elderly” (Oxfam International). According to International Labour Organisation, “data from 64 countries … show that 16.4 billion hours a day are spent on unpaid care work – the equivalent of 2 billion people working 8 hours per day with no remuneration.” And worldwide, women perform 76.4 per cent of total unpaid work, leaving them poorer and more impoverished than their male counterparts. It is clear that any real commitment to tackling poverty must challenge inequality and ensure that wealth is more evenly distributed among the various classes of citizens.
Even the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (flawed as it is) recognizes this imperative. It clearly states in chapter 2: “The security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government” which shall ensure “that the economic system is not operated in such a manner as to allow the concentration of wealth or the means of production and exchange in the hands of a few individuals or of a group”. The government must, therefore, be made to regulate economic activities in ways that protect the weak and the majority of citizens against individual and corporate greed – especially in the sectors to do with access to quality healthcare, education, housing, energy, water, and sanitation. Secondly, the rich should be made to pay their fair share of taxes.
Care work undertaken by women should be seen as a service to society and remunerated. Amitabh Behar put it succinctly: “[Governments] must pass laws to tackle the huge amount of care work done by women and girls and ensure that people who do the most important jobs in our society – caring for our parents, our children, and the most vulnerable are paid a living wage. Governments must prioritise care as being as important as all other sectors in order to build more human economies that work for everyone, not just a fortunate few” (Oxfam International). Governments must also be held accountable and made to guarantee voice and popular participation. The more voice citizens have on how they are governed, the more policies will be passed and implemented towards the common good. Ultimately, the onerous task of ensuring justice for the poor is the mission of the church. It is the responsibility of Christians to enthrone the reign of justice and peace in society.
This, they can do through a number of ways. The first is a paradigm shift – a move from their current philanthropic approach to a social justice perspective of poverty. Shepherds of the church need to dust up the social teaching of the church and realise that charity goes beyond almsgiving. Christian charity is essentially about justice for the weak and the downtrodden, befriending the weak, clothing them with dignity, being a voice for them and challenging the powers that oppress and exploit the poor. Our Lord Jesus showed that example of love for the poor. The Bible is replete with exhortations to stand by the poor. The Psalmist tells us “defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (New International Version, Ps. 82:3-4).
We must be bold enough to affirm that it is morally reprehensible for a few to have so much more than they can ever spend for generations while others are hungry. For the sake of our collective security, we should look the stinking rich in the eye and tell them that they cannot justify having so much while others own so little. It is the responsibility of Christians to ensure good governance in every societal sphere – public, private, and social. Instead of constantly pointing fingers at politicians, Christians have to take responsibility for the consequences of their collective civic negligence. Governments should be seen as by-products of Christian evangelisation or its failure therefrom. Christians should be oriented to take their place in the civic space and discharge their civic roles and responsibilities. When decent people, who are fruits of Christian evangelisation and have the fear of God, get into office, they will give justice to the poor, do right for the common good and thus enthrone peace and security.
• Mrs. Ngozi Iwere is the Executive Director of the nonprofit Community Life Project (CLP) and a committed Social Justice Advocate.