Inclusiveness is all about smashing barriers, not selling statistics

It just doesn't add up. Nigeria is one of the world's fastest growing economies (we've been in that exclusive club for years); Foreign Direct Investment ($8.9bn in 2011, a four-fold increase from a decade before) and Diaspora remittances ($21 billion in 2012) are growing impressively; crude oil prices are at record-high levels — but none of these is managing to make an impact on poverty rates.

According to Nigeria's Bureau of Statistics, poverty rates have actually risen in Nigeria in recent years: in 2010 60 percent of the country's population exists beneath the poverty line ($1 per day), up from 55 percent in 2004. This translates to about 100 million persons — that's more than the combined population of South Africa and Kenya. Among the rest will be found a growing middle-class (a lot of the buzz around the expansion of that class is baseless hype) and then a tiny super-rich elite (for whom the Porsche dealerships exist).

But the bulk of the rest will be anguished citizens struggling to stay above the poverty line, without access to decent housing, education, healthcare, or finance.

Against a backdrop of oil wealth ($90bn in crude oil revenues in 2011), it is inconceivable that Nigeria is ranked 153 — out of 186 — on the UN Human Development Index. But that is the harsh reality — evident on streets everywhere across the country.

Take Lagos for example, Nigeria's commercial capital, and a city responsible for about 15 percent of national GDP. According to the Lagos State Government as much as 90 percent of the businesses in the state exist outside the "formal" economy. This means many things — one of which is that these businesses will never have access to the kind of financing that can lift them and their proprietors out of subsistence levels.

Now, here lies the icing on the tragic cake: Nigerian governments are eternally obsessed with statistical transformation, making a big deal out of trumpeting progress as recorded on a UN or IMF or World Bank ranking, at the expense of tangible improvements in the lives of citizens.

Which is why I find it interesting and heartwarming that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) — which this week in Paris organised a workshop on inclusive growth — has realized the importance of not allowing statistics to obscure harsh reality. According to its website, it is "developing a new vision for inclusive growth that combines strong economic growth with improvements in living standards and outcomes that matter for people's quality of life (e.g. good health, jobs and skills, clean environment, efficient institutions)."

Inclusive growth — growth that carries everyone along, as opposed to growth that enriches the richest, maintains the status quo, or exists only in the spreadsheets of economists. Clearly it's high time that cities and governments and nonprofits started looking at ways of cutting through the false hype of macro-economic success, and looking at the lives of ordinary citizens, the "bottom millions."

My feeling about inclusive growth is that it manifests in a clear, provable change in the lives of citizens. It is a practical growth that removes obstacles and actively provides opportunities – access to education, healthcare, technology, finance. This means that for example slum-dwellers can get a chance to exchange their shacks for proper dwelling places, shop-less traders can enjoy the relative comfort and security of a 'shop', schoolchildren can have access to proper toilets at school, etc. It's about smashing the barriers that lock people into a vicious cycle of poverty and illiteracy or lock them out of opportunities to improve their living and working conditions.

I'll give three examples of ongoing initiatives in Lagos, undertaken by citizens (typically with modest or no government support), with a view to improving the quality of life and/or creating wealth, and thereby — in my opinion — promoting inclusiveness. It's my hope that the Lagos State Government will start to pay more attention to these ventures.


Young Nigerian architecture student Ada Umofia is championing the application of contemporary building ideas to market and slum spaces in Lagos.” The idea is to upgrade the kinds of structures generally available to low-income Nigerians for living in and selling from.

Makoko Floating School

Kunle Adeyemi is a Nigerian architect who is, through his architecture practice, NLE, focusing on designing for developing cities. One of his ongoing projects is a floating school at Makoko, a slum on the Lagos Lagoon, under threat from the state government’s demolition spree.


Wecyclers is the brainchild of a team led by Bilikiss Adebiyi, and aims to innovatively tackle Lagos’ monumental waste challenge. The scheme seeks to serve as a middleman of sorts between citizens (who generate the waste) and recycling plants. It offers mobile-phone-based (SMS) incentives to individuals and communities to gather recyclable waste, which it then collects through a network of "cargo-bicycles," and sells to the recycling plants. It's a win-win at all levels: the individuals/households who collect the waste get payment (in credits that can be redeemed for tangible items), Wecyclers makes money selling to the recycling plants, who are of course in the business of recycling for profit, and currently have to deal with a raw material shortfall — a startling paradox when viewed against the backdrop of a city that produces far more waste than it can cope with.

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