By Pat Utomi
Monday, October 13, 2003
My friends in the Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship International who long appropriated this title, Happiest People on Earth, should not be faulted if they jumped to the conclusion that this is about that gathering of Christian faithful in business. It is not. Then may be it has something to do with the recent survey in which Nigeria ranked amongst the happiest people on the planet. Partly, since Nigeria's other rankings of global note include leading the pack on the corruption index of transparency international and charging towards the fore on poverty indicators of the UNDP's Human Development Index, you may be forgiven if you anticipate that this excursion will be about drawing correlations between happiness and corruption or between poverty and happiness.
I may believe the scripture that the poor will inherit the earth but I think it is the poor in spirit that is referred to and not necessarily those who live in want and deprivation. Besides, like former US Foreign Aid Czar Carol Lancaster, I worry that the development challenge has been reduced too far by thinking one regression at a time. My scope is beyond the econometricians explanation of what his numbers suggest. There is some truth though to the fact that this reflection is again about poverty amidst plenty in Nigeria, whether the people are happy or depressed about it. Let those focused on cultural relativism bellyache on. What makes Nigerians happy in the face of crippling poverty. The angle through which we journey down that familiar road of Nigeria's paradoxical immersion in poverty is that of financial institutions and how they dampen or promote the spirit of enterprise. How can the triumph of the enterprise culture make the joy of these naturally happy people of Nigeria more complete through improving the quality of their lives?
Oddly enough this discussion started in an environment where there was not much poverty in sight. I was sitting quite relaxed at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, waiting to give a talk not long after the news of Nigeria's top ranking on the happiness index was broken to me, when a lady who had come from Nigeria for the event pulled up a chair beside me. Since she had never been asked to come on Patito's Gang, she announced, this was her chance to raise what she believed was the mother of all questions. Why were banks so unwilling to help the willing and talented, preferring instead to relive scriptures about adding more to those who have. I was getting this "mother of all questions for the "zillionth" time. My dilemma was how to explain the matter which takes up much of my times in class, without sounding academic. Certainly I did not want to plunge into the technical concepts of "moral hazard" and adverse selection in the lounge of a hotel. I did not also make sense to say to her that two University of Chicago Business School professors, Rajan and Zingales had from pages 28 to 43 in the excellent book - "Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists" done in very readable language, a much better job of explaining these issues than I have often done in classroom settings.
Fortunately, she chose to tell me the story of her family's struggle to build a Cyber cafZ Business as illustration of her point. Her husband, she said, was a very focused, determined, and energetic entrepreneur. When he was starting a cyber cafZ with one computer, help would come from nowhere. To ensure availability of service, they crawled, begged and sucked up to every bank in the neighbourhood for a loan to get a generator. In the end they scratched and scrapped and found some non-bank lending. The improved quality of service brought much turnover. They went to fifty computers and their own V-SAT, and now the banks are scrambling for their business. How now do you explain that the banks have no way of telling if her husband will act like others who had used borrowed money as was not intended.
My reply may have shocked her. That's life, I said. Nothing will make me happier than improved access to finance. Without it progress will be very painfully slow, but I am realistic enough to know what the circumstances portend. We can beat up on the banks as much as we want, the economics of the process, given under pinning institutional realities that make it easier to determine risk of exposure. If we are to escape poverty through the efforts of people, like this lady and her husband, the entrepreneurs on whose shoulder opportunity conception and economic growth rests, our politics has to mature from its current state to focus on institutional frameworks and societal values that drive entrepreneurship, encourage deferred gratification, reward merit and corrects the extant abuse and the perverse reward system that domicile benefit not to those that contribute to progress but those with access to power where the common wealth is handed out to friends and co-conspirators, as prebend in a manner that ensures Nigeria will remain a major player atop TI's Corruption Index. The key is shifting in these values. If the senate would spend more time building institutions then debating bribery it would have great justification for its existence and the infrastructure, easier access to finance could be better developed.
Very often I tell my entrepreneurship classes that the cry of people like the lady I met in LA is an alibi for the real problem. I challenge them saying the trouble is not financing, it is the great value creating idea. I tell them if they have the great idea and the discipline to commercialise the idea, the money is there for the picking. In some ways I know I am right because many of the people who complain about credit do not have great value propositions and the tenacity of purpose to circumnavigate the challenges that invariably confront the new venture. But it is only half-truth. There remains a problem of access to finance. The SMIEIS is a good idea but implementation remains shaky and it does not have enough true champions. Above and beyond one scheme we need a mindset shift in which the political process shifts from a rent and prebendal culture to one in which all political actors educate themselves on what actions best stimulate a productive economy that advances the quality of life of the citizenry in a sensationalised manner.
As I left the lady to begin my remarks that evening, my fourth in as many weeks on the Nigerian economy at different fora in North America, I was struck with how that short exchange encapsuled the major torment of my adult life - understanding, explaining and acting or prescribing a path away from the kind of poverty that inclines Nigeria towards such violence that worried me sick when I read Robert Kaplan's - The Coming Anarchy. She had wanted my reaction as an entrepreneur and social commentator and not as one with interests in financial services. Yet in a sense they were all linked. As I say often when I am asked to separate my many hats, I am just a simple teacher passionate enough to see the worlds of the classroom having meaning in the real world. As a result I collaborate with others to bring alive that nexus of theory, praxis and faith. How well I have done in that struggle confront me each time I have the LA encounter that inspired this reflection.
The good side of all the introspection is being reconciled again to the fact that good leadership can bring Nigerians to happiness without poverty. If with so much poverty and the strife that comes with deprivation, we are such happy people. Think if we are not so poor amidst plenty how really happy Nigerian will be. Unless, of course, someone has a regression that shows strong correlation between poverty and happiness. I really doubt that. Nigerians cannot be happy about being poor. In many ways this is why the fuel price crises is so badly misunderstood.
It is not a fight against deregulation. It is just Nigerians tired of being poor wondering if they can reclaim a disconnected state that seems remote and lacking in compassion to what it takes to grow the country out of a poverty that should have no place around here. Nigerians know real deregulation has worked for them in aviation and telecommunications, but they do not trust the state enough to believe that what is on offer is for real and not "new taxes". This is why we have a proxy fight, a tax revolt when the words used are about being for and against deregulation.
Professor Utomi is with the Lagos Business School