ARE THE POOR TO BLAME FOR THEIR POVERTY?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

For quite a while, I have had the sneaky suspicion that there is a disturbingly growing attitude amongst Nigerians when it comes to the underprivileged. I think that many Nigerians (you might not be one of them), think poverty is a contractible disease that is caused by its victims. I also believe that this attitude fosters a belief amongst many that they can mistreat and sometimes even abuse those that are less fortunate.
THE NIGERIAN CONTEXT
I am not sure where this attitude comes from but I have heard, and seen, it in various strains. For instance, I see it when I speak to househelps (maids, 'butlers', nannies) who are treated like dirt by their employers. Or, in conversations in blogville and outside of blogville with people who reveal their belief that poor people are 'on their own' and should hustle their way out of poverty. In fact, I decided it was time to raise this issue after watching a Yoruba movie ('Alatoto') where a main character, Josiah, (who was a multiple rapist, a cheat and horrible human being that eventually got his due), said something to the effect that he did not associate with poor people because poor people would never advance. Josiah went on to say that it was not his fault that he had been born with a silver spoon and he did not want any poor person to affect his fortune. Of course, I know that this attitude is not held by all Nigerians and I also know that non-Nigerians feel this way too, so by no means is this a 'Nigerian' issue. Nonetheless, I chose to look at this within the context of Nigerian society, as that is what is of interest to me.

THE 'HARDWORK' THEORY
As a result, I presented my thoughts to a best friend of mine who reminded me of the Protestant Ethic and he suggested that it might play a role in this attitude. In the Protestant Ethic, Max Werner suggested that non-Catholic Christians must work tirelessly at their jobs so that God will reward them with success/wealth. This 'Hardwork' theory also suggests that people who fail to work hard have sinned and will be rewarded with poverty. Thus, fueling the belief that the poor are those that fail to work hard and reap the 'rewards' of their laziness.

In my humble opinion, this 'Hardwork' theory was hardwired into Nigerian culture before our interaction with Europe's Christians or Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula. So although important, I would rather focus on other elements – being ‘my brother’s keeper’ and a ‘traditional’ factor.

I AM MY BROTHER'S KEEPER
There used to be a well-grounded understanding that we all must take care of each other. That was why if Okadigbo's farm failed to produce enough yam to feed his family, his neighbor, Emeka, would share some of his yam to help Okadigbo feed his family. Such behavior was not limited to the Igbo so feel free to replace the names 'Okadigbo' and 'Emeka' with names from whatever part of the country that you like.

The point is, I am beginning to think that it is the erosion of this understanding - that I am my brother's keeper - that is resulting in the sentiment expressed by Josiah in the movie and held by many ordinary Nigerians. In the struggle to get through everyday life, so many of us forget to treat others as we want to be treated. It is, unfortunately, becoming more common to simply consider the poor lazy, and thus the source of their own poverty. But, I hope that this is a trend that will soon fizzle because although, there are lazy people who end up becoming poor, I prefer to believe that Nigerians are an ingenious people who with or without a balanced playing field can and will be successful regardless of whether they were born with a silver spoon or not. As such, we must all commit ourselves to pulling each and everyone of us out of suffering, together.

THE ‘TRADITIONAL’ FACTOR

Our ancestors believed that certain people were cursed and thus not worthy of living. For example, some Nigerian groups would abandon twin babies to die because they were considered evil. Now, I sometimes think that this old way of looking at our fellow human beings continues to be a factor in Nigerian society today. The idea that the gods or God created some men better than others is a disturbing attitude. It is one that can and does fool many into disrespecting their neighbor. This idea leads to serious injustice and violence and should not be tolerated by anyone. I truly believe this is the underlying source of many Nigerian's attitude towards the poor.
So, will we blame the poor or lend them a helping hand?


Further Reading:
- Beggars, Etiquette & 9ice
- Values
- Being Duped By A Family Member
- The Nigerian Psyche
- Persistent Psychological Paralysis

25 Curiosities. Add Yours.:

Omodudu said...

Reminds me of Obama's speech about race yesterday. The poor act the way they do for a reason. You and I may not think its proper but it exists..blah blah.
Personally I always default to "The system"
But one then questions; why don't the poor fight the system. The answer then goes back to my first sentence.
Lets call this Omodudu-Obama's version of the poverty cycle hypothesis. I like your top commenter widget. consider it stolen.
? two recent comment widget.

Doja said...

I feel there are different causes of poverty all over the world.
In some cases poor people have a chance to help themselves, but they are too lazy to do anything about it and it is better and easier to blame the system.
The situation in Nigeria is that the poor have no chance of helping themselves to a better life as the resources are not available.
It is almost like a curse to be poor in Africa.....you need a big miracle.

TheAfroBeat said...

For some reason, THE GODS ARE NOT TO BLAME comes to mind. I once heard a testimony in church from a man who'd been dealing with financial (poverty?) issues for a while and he talked about how he'd been to see his pastor to seek prayer/help and the first thing the pastor said was sth along the lines of: "Come, are you sure you're even a child of God, see your shoe...the first thing God did when he called Moses was to give him new (pair of) shoes" (he was referring to the burning bush incident when Moses was asked to take off his shoes....i laughed and laughed, but it definitely highlights this mentality that poverty is an affliction brought about by some evil that people do or by them not "helping" themselves - hence the ever popular "verse": "God helps those who help themselves". No wonder we have victimized children being accused of being "child witches" all in the name of their parents wanting to help themselves out of poverty by some magic abrakadabra (in this case, abandoning their kids).

I don tire sha. I really hope it's just a fad that passes asap. Thanks for making us think.

Nyemoni said...

Nice post girl...Yes, a lot of Nigerians think the 'poor' are responsible for their lot...infact I have heard my acquaintances say as much in conversations....some one said he'd never do business with another someone cos he's a poor man...that's the attitude of a lot of Nigerians...

I have to admit that in Nigeria, it's hard for a 'poor man' to break the shackles of poverty and enter the middle class bracket, work hard as he will...Its really very difficult. It's a system of the rich getting richer and the poor getting worse off.
I really have no clue as to the origin of this backward mentality...

Waffarian said...

Good post. There are so many factors when it comes to the Nigerian attitude towards poverty, religion being one of the most prominent, i believe. I will share a serious argument I had with a friend of mine recently.

The man is a student, very hardworking but still his economy is not so good. Last time I visited him, I was determined to find a way to get him more money, so we went over his salary and all his expenses to see what he was doing wrong. After careful calculations I realized that a significant amount of his salary was still not accounted for, (significant to me, because that money would have been a month's worth of food stuff and other household things which he was always short of....when u can't eat porperly...thats significant)

He told me, the money missing was for "tithe". I could not understand why he would pay that 10% when he could not even eat properly. Well, ofcourse this blew up into a full scale argument and basically he firmly believed that if he did not pay that amount, he will not recieve "blessings". Which ofcourse, leads us to this discussion.

His idea of wealth, was that it was God that gave blessings to people. Not only that, but that God gave "special blessings" to particular people. My argument that how come I was "blessed" did not hold water with him since I do not have that "particular blessing"(being wealthy)that God gives to particular people.

Now, this man I am talking about is not particularly generous to poor people or himself for that matter. He never thanks God for the little things that are present but instead can spend the whole day thanking God for "when his kingdom will come". All he talks about from morning to night is about the day God will do it for him.

His recent attempt to get more "blessings" was to fast for 40days ....right now, he is still "recovering". The plan we made of him getting a better job can not be realized at the moment because he is too "weak", and he needs to eat(food that he does not have)and sleep to gain back his energy.

The Last King Of Scotland said...

this is a good post. coming from my post,'cheap labour', i feel inclined to add something to this. the poor are necessary in every economy and drive the economy towards stability. hardwork and riches is also not simultaneous. will you say a bank CEO works harder than a guy who drills or tars the street? the answer is no. its the economic indices that are used to decide which job should pay more than the other that causes the problem. there are a lot of hardworking people who WILL never be rich due to the nature of their jobs. the poor cant fight the system because the system systematically, is designed to keep the poor where they are.

another thing is that the richer you get the lazier you become because you hire people or 'delegate' work to subsidiaries to do the work for you. some rich people dont even remember their kids birthdays, they have to hire a PA to do that for them!

Kiibaati said...

The poor have their own issues and ignorance is part of it. Actually, I think the poor work too hard they don't have time to think. Many actions are driven by faulty believe systems. Because if you really think about it, if you are Christian and the bible says "sow and reap" , shouldn't you be buying shares? Why do you pay tithe but never buy shares or life insurance? Why be a manual laborer when you can double your earnings by learning to drive? Why spend money you don’t have to bury the dead? Why not take advantage of free immunization for your children instead of spending hard earned money on “gbogbonise”? Why do we respect, honor and adore treasury looters? Why embezzle billions of Naira while in public office?

Uzezi said...

it has gotten to an extent that the less privileged have been made to believe that they are cursed with leprosy and can never come out of the pit.

while some struggle and prove their oppresors wrong, others fall by the way.

life has beaten some so recklessly that they don't believe in a better tomorrow, but offer a light of hope and u will be amazed at the strenght that will be born.

poverty is not a curse. it is a school where someone can rise to the highest level. but then it depends on what type of poverty we are talking about right? cause there are diff definitions.

For the love of me said...

There will always be the poor in every society.Perhaps in Nigeria it is worse, but I will agree with Kibaati, some people are poor because they have not tried enough to elevate their status.I said this in one of my posts, that conductors and bus drivers make a lot of money and most of them can afford medical schemes which is avaialble to so many more Nigerians than before, thanx to the HMO's. I like to use drivers because my husband has done it before for a few months, he made a reasonable amount that he used to start a business.These poor people use their daily income to drink or buy girfriends' recharge cards, or have 9 children, and when they fall ill, they blame the rich for not being more sympathetic towards their cause. Can anyone in Nigeria say they have never heard of family planning?
I also do not know how many people here have needed welders/carpenters/electricians, it always takes them so long to come, and when they do, and go to buy what they need, it takes them so many hours and half the time they come back with the cheapest products, and you have to call someone else to do same job again probably one of those well established ones this time.

Yes a lot of people are poor in Nigeria through no fault of theirs and the system does not exactly help matters but most people really can help their situations if only just a little.

nneoma said...

wow you and other commenters raised so many interesting points to reflect on that I may have to come back again and add so more to the discussion. But I will try and give my initial reactions below though crude at this time.

I can speak from the Christian perspective, because I am have not had much interaction with that of Islam. It seems like poverty, in the sight several Christians, particularly Nigerian Christians (whom i am more familiar with than others) is a curse, a punishment. A lack of evidence of God's work in one's life either due to sin or lack of faith. However, we must remember, that the author and finisher of the Christian faith, while he was alive, was a poor man ("Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." - Matthew 8). Amongst some of those early Christians following the death and resurrection of Christ, were also of limited means, as suggested by the calls to share food with others, take care of widows, etc. So the view that poverty is a curse, within Christiandom, is somewhat off. Also, the prosperity gospel, when taken to the extreme, sometimes fuels this misguided view.

In regards to poverty being the result of laziness, I disagree and I think that the majority of poor people are not lazy. I considered myself much lazier than many who are poor - house helps, farmers in unfrotunate circumstances, market women saddled with the committment to raise money and feed large families, etc. Maybe you can say that the rich are smarter. I also think that i am not as smart as some of the poor that I come across. I think of mechanics who work wonders but are not literate, and other members of the working poor who excel at their careers in terms of creativity etc. There are definitely systemic forces that create a class of poor people and the well-to-do. Yes, there are some that could help their situation, but let us not underestimate how difficult this is. How many of us, who are in the middle class or higher, can say that we are totally self-made? We have had many things happen in our favor that just have not happened for members of the poor.

To think that the poor should simply start helping themselves, even if just a little, perpetuates this incorrect notion that the poor are to blame, entirely, for their poverty.

Yes, there are poor people who use their money to drink and entertain girlfriends. But let's look at it this way. Poor people and rich people are essentially the same, except for money. Therefore, both poor and rich are able to engage in these behaviors. So to expect poor people to miraculously abstain from these pleasures would be applying a double standard.

In regards to waffarians friend - i dont think it is best to blame the poverty of your friend due to the fact that 10% of his income goes to tithe. Consider that 10% a charitable donation to a church. What does he does he do with the remaining 90%? I would think that that would be a more significant chunk of his income. I do agree that his approach to tithing is somewhat misguided, but like you said, that is a discussion for another time. The problem I have is that some of these chuches dont in turn make these chartiable donations back to their congregants/communities, which makes the tithing system more beneficial.

The idea that you are not your brother's keeper is pervasive not only amongst some Nigerian Christians and churches, but also in the public (government) and private sector. And if you have your idea that your brother is just hopelessly lazy and refuses to improve his situation, you will be less likely to serve as his keeper.

Beauty said...

Poverty, a deprivation of those things that determine the quality of life, including food, clothing, shelter and safe drinking water, but also such "intangibles" as the opportunity to learn, to engage in meaningful employment, and to enjoy the respect of fellow citizens. This definition explains why the poor cannot own the blame.

The poverty blame must flow upwards. This is why I blog. Our leaders are not willing to take full responsibility for their actions. Plato's Republic describes the action of doing what one ought to do, or of doing what one does best, according to one's class within society but our so called leaders are too ignorant to understand basic issues. They treat our treasury as their personal piggy banks and make horrid decisions that have led to chronic poverty. For justice, I blame all so called leaders in Nigeria, past and present.

Oracle said...

Solomonsydelle, I'm sorry man. I've been trying hard to get into college. I've been too busy to blog.

I won't update as regularly as i used to.

Whatz good with you?

guerreiranigeriana said...

ssd, can i just say that i really, really admire you!!!...i really hope to be like you once i marry and start having children...

...regarding this splendid and thought-provoking post...i always find it interesting and very telling the words we choose to express and discuss...for the sake of understanding, i'll assume you speak of financial/economic poverty only...interesting that we never think to 'blame' the rich for their wealth...why are we even looking for someone to 'blame' about poverty?...especially since we all know that the poor are essential for stable and growing economies-especially in capitalist societies...as we all play our role in sustaining and contributing to the various economies around the world, why we continue to feign surprise at the persistence of poverty, tickles and annoys me...we all willingly and knowingly contribute to keeping the poor poor...we sacrifice them for our own comfort...when we acknowledge and accept that, we can commence with meaningful and truthful dialogue...

...i think one of nneoma's sentences made another salient point: 'Poor people and rich people are essentially the same, except for money.'..too many people forget this basic of basics...we are all humans/people at the end of the day except for some differences, both man-made [money, class, religion, etc.] and natural [skin color, eye color, hair texture, sex, etc.]...

...when we remember that and start to see ourselves in each other, we'll remember how intricately linked we are...we'll understand that as long as we see it as okay to sacrifice our fellow man for our own comfort-the persistence of abject poverty-in our society, we will continue to suffer from armed robberies, an entrenched system of corruption, increased exposure to diseases and so forth and so on...

...i'll leave my thoughts about this christianity [please also see economics here or tool of oppression] and poverty link for a post or comment when you post about it...*hint, hint*...

Ollay said...

As you pointed out I dont think the hardwork rhetoric has something to do with anything puratanic cos I dont believe religioun entered Nigeria during the 17th century as this was when the protestant ethic was rife in europe just before romanticism.

Looking down on poor people also goes beyond the be your brother's keeper idea as well as being a caste. From the word go, Nigerian culture has always been about heirachy and even in the days when Okadigbo will share yam with Emeka they were still considered poor because some sort of feudal system operated in Nigeria at some point then. Similarly people were expected to send some of the best produce to the king of the village which shows servitude.

Fast forward to 20th century when capitalism has been ushered in, it helped to re-define how people see hardwork and the gap between the poor and the rich widened. Giving that there are different ways people can make money it became admissible to see people who cant seem to elevate themselves out of poverty as wimps and a new form of discrimination was created too.

Also there is nothing like dignity of labour in nigera, where as an au pair here can command respect and some good money, in Nigeria that is not obtainable. Nigerians also tend to be greedy and worship money and there are now many dubious means of getting rich quick. So if as a person you dont choose any of these illegitimate means they just see you as no good. Nigeria is now in the era where parents no longer complained that their boys are into yahoo yahoo or their girls into glorified prostitution...

Naija Idol said...

umm. just wanted to make my little contributions. Poverty is not attached to laziness but ill say some poor pple r lazy. i met this guy once at a gas station.he was beeging for money. an able bodied young man who has two hands and legs and is not disabled in any form.Wat stops him from becoming a worker as a gardener,help or something and everywhere u go, u always see signs sayin dat one manual labourer or d other is needed. Some pple r not just ready to work and dats just d way i see it.i dont want to bore u wiv my stories cos i have a whole lot more but i just want to say dat SOME poor pple r to blame for their poverty.but on d other hand the system in Nigeria is also to blame for d poor hardworking pple. cos d rich gets richer and d poor poorer. guess the others have said it all. nice post also.

Anonymous said...

All this talk about poor people and the Protestant Ethic...

I can't help but notice that 'Ollay' (euphemism for 'Ole'?) mentioned that Nigerians are "greedy and worship money". That is just hogwash. There are greedy Nigerians that worship money just as there are greedy Algerians that worship money. To suggest that Nigerians are 'greedy' is offensive and naive.

Anyway, I will have to second the suggestion that it is the system that perpetuates poverty and imprisons the poor. Unless there is a collective understanding that all people deserve a decent life regardless of their class, religion, tribe, sex or education, we will all continue to twiddle our thumbs having this very conversation, with little or no prospects of creating a solution.

AnyaPosh said...

Solo, you know that it is a lot easier to blame. So in this very second and only in the moment will I blame the poor for their poverty.

Ok, the moment has passed. Now on to dealing with the situation. We need to face the question; why are the poor "poor"? Is it mostly because they are destined to be unfortunate? whether it is an act of God? whether the government is to blame? or that the poor lack the drive or the zeal to bring themselves out of poverty?

My friend, I cannot seriously answer any of those questions but I know that in line with Amartya Sen's capabilities approach, the poor, in nigeria or anywhere for that matter, remain poor because they lack the basic capabilities to rescue themselves from cyclical poverty.

Porter deHarqourt said...

ohboy, there's a lot of very profound stuff that has been said in this post and on this comment section.

going back to Africa in the days before the Christian/Imperialist invasion, i think that society has always been stratified by a lot of things including economic resources.

while it may be true that Okadigbo would help Emeka out once in a while with yams, let's not forget that some pretty well entrenched caste-systems existed (and still do)in some areas. there is also the little issue of slavery in which one Mr. A could own not just Mr. B, but Mrs. B and all the children and earthly possessions of the B family. That is perpetual poverty, and it still goes on today on a slightly more subtle level when Chief Billionaire gets away with paying his driver 5000 Naira a month.

These days, religion, and a stubborn belief in 'fate' are also a part of the reason why a majority of our people are poor. The flawed thinking is that if you are not prosperous, then it's because you are not praying hard enough, or attending the right church, or giving your tithe accurately, or something like that. Or maybe it's your destiny to be constantly struggling to make ends meet.

It's ironic that all some of these now-wealthy wealthy people had to do was inflate contracts, or sit in cybercafes sending out fraudulent emails. the truck pusher who toils from sun-up to sundown is the lazy one, fated to be eternally wretched, perhaps because he doesn't pray hard enough.

Sherri said...

the rich controls the resources of the land, the rich need to keep the poor in poverty to maintain their status. how can we then blame the poor for a problem they didn't create? that wud be victimizing the victim.

poverty is a sin? doesn't the Bible say the poor are blessed?

how can anyone say the poor are lazy? is there any harder way to earn a living than menial jobs?
the housemaids who does all the housework the "rich" can't do is lazy? or the alaru who's out there carrying goods rain or shine?

the mentality of blaming the poor for their predicament is simply to ease the conscience of the privileged. how else can they justify treating them as subhumans?

if we all remain complacent about poverty, am afraid our humanity is at stake.

Aspiring nigerian woman said...

I detest the way hosehelps are treated in Nigeria. Nigerians, especially the women can be very nasty to the poor and underpriveledge.

How can you blame a poor for beign poor,when his parents were poor? Rich Nigerians always forget unless they help the poor, we will never create an ideal society.I am still at loss why we don't have social services in Nigeria. Oh Yes, I forgot, the money is beign used to line the pockets of the rich

AnyaPosh said...

Another reason that Nigeria's poor often receive the blame for their own poverty lies in the fact that many of the more wealthy families/individuals are to divorced from the social reality of poverty.

I know people who cannot seriously understand why the poor remain in that cycle of poverty. These people are not exceedingly wealthy but the problem is that they have no grasp of the real issues that poor people experience on a day-to-day basis.

We need to begin seeing the poor as human beings as well. They are people too. With feelings, needs and desires. But as long as wealthier people fail to see the poor on these terms, those kissed with poverty will continue to be relegated into the background of our social reality.

On another note, nearly every week I see pictures of nigerian celebrities at the latest award shows decked to the nines in those flashing lights. And I laugh at the irony in their pretensions. Even within their immediate surroundings, there is a sharp contrast between the red carpet and street children hawking at the corner. This contrast in social realities will continually blame the poor for their circumstances.

naijalines said...

I agree with 'aspiring nigerian woman'. Naija people need to change their attitude to the poor. It is a societal disease not an individual one. In a country where 300 billion naira (meant for the building of roads)disappears with no trace, we have major problems!

Until the rich stop lining their pockets and start diverting some of that money to the poor, they should stop complaining about armed robbers and lack of security of life in naijadom.

It is the attitude of the rich that dictates societal attitudes towards crime, greed and corruption. You only have to compare kuwait and nigeria. Both rich oil states but the kuwait rich have a better attitude towards their lesser privileged citizens. If you are a kuwaiti citizen, you get paid to go university. The concept of the wretched poor is practically non-existent there. Kuwait is a smaller country but the values regarding fair distribution of wealth is the issue here.

Give the poor an opportunity to live a decent life and you might just have a safer, healthier society.

Nogo said...

Maybe my youth brings about a naive perspective but I think that possibly the less fortunate have more to offer sometimes. The circumstances in which they have to live may foster a different approach to situations that may prove more productive and/ efficient in a corporate setting. But unfortunately it seems to me that a lot of opportunity of "moving up" is who you know, what school you went to, etc. That the chance to develop whatever skills they may have is lost. It's not always "their" fault. And then of course there are the people that "can't be bothered". From the little I know of financial aid in Nigeria I doubt that would be the reason for their laziness, so what is?

Jinta said...

yes, they have to stop this 'alri-sir' attitude and question the source of wealth

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