• Sunday, July 14, 2024
businessday logo


Now that poverty is newsworthy and front-page story


An editor was once quoted as saying that “poverty is worthy, but not newsworthy.” That declaration arose in a debate about what the media ought to do with stories on poverty: give them prominence in the newspapers; tuck them away somewhere inside the papers, or perhaps leave them out entirely.

This mind-set of the media industry for long consigned stories about poverty at best to the “other pages” which often served as continuation pages used to make up the pagination of the newspaper. The practice was also reinforced by the influence of big business, the advertisers whose money sustains the media, and who therefore have some measure of control over editorial content.

For example, an advertiser may insist that his advert of, say a bank must not sit next to a page with pictures of Makoko or Ijora Badia or any of the urban slums that belie claims to prosperity and good life. This shows how much the affluent wants to distance itself from the poor.

This media view of poverty helped significantly in delaying the emergence or elevation of poverty as a critical social condition that needed to be tackled the way epidemics, terrorism, and several other social upheavals have been tackled headlong by the media and subsequently by governments. It symbolised the failure of this industry in two key areas where it must play its role: agenda setting and media framing.

It led to media’s defective framing or portrayal of poverty and consequently robbed the industry of the opportunity to play a critical role in the fight against poverty until recently. Because of this the media industry was unable to frame stories on poverty in ways that provided the salient issues about this social malaise.

That mind-set is changing, and a couple of events around the world testify to this. Suddenly, poverty is on everybody’s lips – even that of the government. After decades marked by lip service to, or even denial of its existence, governments have woken to the reality of the enormity of poverty as a social condition calling for urgent actions. This is good news about what was until recently considered as no news.

Poverty is now in the news. Indeed, it is now the news. When President Muhammadu Buhari in his Democracy Day speech on May 29 this year said the government would over the next 10 year lift 100 million Nigerians out of extreme poverty that made front-page news. Media houses ran with it as breaking news – and indeed, it was.

It was news because it signified admission on the part of the government that poverty has become an issue in Nigeria that needs urgent attention. This was more so against the background of the revelation that Nigeria had overtaken India and won the ignoble garland to become the World Capital of Poverty by having the highest number of the extreme poor people in a single country.

There are different classifications of the condition called poverty. Extreme poverty in quantitative terms refers to the state of those who live on less than $1.90 a day. At the official exchange rate of N305/$, this gives N579.5 as the poverty line. But its real significance comes alive with visits to such places as Makoko, Ijora Badiya, and other urban slums that dot Nigerian cities. The extreme poor do not just lack what to eat; they also lack the basic requirements of life. Their habitation at best is encapsulated in squalor, bereft of meaning and substance. They are just simply in existence.

Government’s declaration was also news because it raised questions around how the government planned to achieve this feat, and relatedly, what was new about the government’s understanding of poverty and the poor.
Poverty bared its fangs on Nigeria once more on December 3, when the World Bank warned that Africa’s most populous nation risked a further descent to the point of harbouring a quarter of the world’s extreme poor by 2030, unless the country undertakes significant reforms. Without the required reforms, it said, additional 30 million Nigerians will fall into extreme poverty within the next 11 years.

The Bank said its figure was based on a “do-nothing”, “business-as-usual scenario”. With 100 million Nigerians already in extreme poverty, that would raise the number to 130 million! Again, this was a big poverty story, and predictably, made the front pages of our newspapers.

Whether Nigeria eventually falls to that extent is a choice; and no other entity or authority has the power to make it except the Federal Government of Nigeria. The dividing line between prosperous nations and poor ones is simply their choices on management of their economies. Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in their 2012 book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, declare this, citing as notable examples the differences between North Korea and South Korea, and Mexico and the United States of America. They argue that nations are rich or poor depending on the political and economic institutions operating in them.

Similarly, this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics bears testimony to the changing attitude to poverty because it was awarded to three economists – Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer- in recognition of their research work on poverty alleviation. Banerjee and Duflo are currently professors of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At MIT the duo run the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), which they co-founded in 2003.

Their 2011 book, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, captures the essence and the uniqueness of their views on poverty and the way around it. That uniqueness in part derives from their firm understanding of the popular misconceptions about poverty, a phenomenon that pervaded not only the media landscape but also the academia and policymaking setting.

As they note, often the economics of poverty gets confused with or mistaken for poor economics (italics mine). This is the notion that “because the poor possess very little, it is assumed that there is nothing interesting about their economic existence”.

For as long as such a notion about poverty prevailed, no meaningful steps could be taken to engender sustainable progress against it, whether at the national or global scale.

In their words, “Poor Economics” is a book about the very rich economics that emerges from understanding the economic lives of the poor. It is a book about the kinds of theories that help us make sense of both what the poor are able to achieve, and where and for what reason they need a push”.

Framing poverty stories properly would involve looking beyond the apparent triteness of the state of the poor. Their story is begging to be unearthed and told in fresh ways that can open new vistas for understanding and lead to action – new action.

That is what Banerjee and Duflo refer to as the rich economics of poverty and they border on the creation of a socially shared reality through framing. Journalists and the media industry have the duty to represent poverty – both urban and rural- from perspectives that have been lacking in the narrative so far.

The rich economics of poverty are the salient issues the understanding of which will make a difference in anti-poverty policies and the reforms recommended by the World Bank for Nigeria.


Vincent Nwanma