Gendered Poverty, Inherited Debts and Structural Adjustment Policies

Research Question: What are the gendered impacts of “structural adjustment” policies in the developing economy that is Nigeria?


“The earth has enough for everyone’s needs, but not for some people’s greed”. – Mahatma Gandhi


Inherited Debts – IMF and World Bank Strategies and Policies:

Inherited debts are the bane of developing nations’ current financial woes, and Nigeria is no exception. Nigeria, though oil rich and prosperous, owes over US$60 Billion to international and local creditors, with US$953 Billion extra for debt servicing in 2015 – 21% of the national budget for that year (Vice President Osibanjo 2015), and 35 kobo of every naira collected by the Nigerian government is used to service external debts (Christine Lagarde 2016). The history of said debts and who acquired them, and for what purposes, are shrouded in mystery. Being of Nigerian descent, I was born into a never-ending debt circus that spirals out of control with each government administration; I was denied basic amenities because of those debts. As was rightly put by the New Internationalist: “the poorer the country, the more likely it is that debt repayments are extracted from people who neither contracted the loans nor received any of the money”. Going further on analysis of the global debts, the New Internationalist also noted:

“Most of the increase in debt during the 1990s was to pay interest on existing loans. It was not used for productive investment or to tackle poverty. In six of the eight years from 1990 t 1997, developing countries paid out more in debt service (interest plus repayments) than they received in new loans – a total transfer from the poor South to the rich North of US$77 Billion.”

To ensure repayments of loans and servicing of debts, the creditors – IMF, World Bank, IDA – set up a system of policy adherence – structural adjustment policies – that propels indebted countries to pay back what is owed. Many critics of the policies have called this system blackmail. The policy adherent system consists of debt seeking and owing countries preparing and signing policy papers – referred to as Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers – stating that they are willing to promote free market trade and commerce, privatize state owned enterprises, cut down government spending on subsidized services like healthcare, education, energy, agriculture, etc., deregulate their economy for international investments and devaluate their national currency. The nations are then required to submit the papers to the IMF or World Bank, who has the final say and signs off on whether or not to grant the loan application.

At present, Nigeria faces a growing problem of economic instability caused by fall in oil prices, decline in agricultural exports and years of looting of national coffers. The latter, unsurprisingly, was caused by years of neglect of its once majestic agricultural sector, following the oil boom of the 1960’s. Thankfully, it is a redeemable sector, albeit one that will require and take years of effort and renewed interest to redeem. Despite, the economic gloom Nigeria – and many of the world’s developing economies – faces, its debts continues to rise along with its citizens poverty levels. However, this appears not to trouble the International Monetary Fund (IMF), one of Nigeria’s creditors, as earlier this month, Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of IMF advised the Nigerian government to remove the subsidy on fuel, create flexible monetary policies (read: devaluation of the naira), and increase value added tax (VAT) (Vanguard 2016). All of which, if adhered to, will worsen the situation of Nigerians, especially those living below the poverty level of US1.25 a day – of which an arguable percentage are female. In a country where welfare equals only access to primary education, IMF’s ill advice and continued interference in political processes, does not bode well for the Nigerian women and girls who will bear the brunt of the decrease in household incomes. Many women will have to increase their labor productivity, even as they juggle the reproductive responsibilities at the home front. Many girls, especially in the northern regions of Nigeria, with the concentrated population of Nigeria’s poorest, will have to drop out of school to help out at home or farms; many other girls will be married off in return for bride prices that will supplement the families’ incomes. In industrial cities like Abuja, Lagos, Onitsha and Aba, female prostitution statistics will spike as more women will flood the cities in search of survival, thereby increasing rates of sexually transmitted diseases, sexual abuses, sex worker deaths, illegal and risky abortions by quacks, child trafficking through illegal adoption channels and survival sex.

Thankfully, the current President of Nigeria, President Buhari and the IMF agree that requesting for more loans as bailouts is not a feasible option, but rather, with good, stable governance and diversification of the country’s economy, Nigeria will be on the way to development thereby putting an end to poverty. However, many Nigerians are of the view that IMF’s visit, although annual, is a reminder to pay debts and is of a kind of supervisory nature of the country’s political and economic affairs. The National Labour Congress has released a statement calling for the Nigerian government to disregard IMF’s advice to remove fuel subsidy, citing increasing poverty levels and reliance on kerosene for cooking by majority Nigerian homes (All Africa 2016)

Poverty and Gender:

Poverty is defined according to its relative or absolute effects on people’s lives, but generally it is defined by one’s access to the necessities of life. In 2008, World Bank announced a new poverty line as living under US$1.25 a day, even though poverty is still classified as absolute or relative. The European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN) defines relative poverty as: “where some people’s way of life and income is so much worse than the general standard of living in the country or region in which they live that they struggle to live a normal life and to participate in ordinary economic, social and cultural activities”. While absolute poverty is defined as: “when people lack the basic necessities for survival. For instance they may be starving, lack clean water, proper housing, sufficient clothing or medicines and be struggling to stay alive” (EAPN). Classifying national poverty along extreme/absolute or relatives is done by calculating a household’s or an individual’s income and the level of expenditure (food and nonfood) in relation to the standard of the living in that country (Anyanwu 2010:5-6).

Poverty in Nigeria is multidimensional and seemingly intransient, more than 46% of Nigerians currently live in absolute poverty, making Nigeria the third largest country with the highest number of the world’s poorest (World Bank). Like its counterparts in China, India, Congo, Somalia, etc., Nigeria’s poverty has been linked to and influenced by income inequality as a result of: (a) one’s nature of employment, level of education, and geographic location, gender, age and disability discrimination in the workplace; (b) absence of a working welfare state in a populous nation of 177.5 million people (World Bank estimates); (c) poor governance borne of political instability, ethnic rivalry and tribalism, and corruption. And like its aforementioned counterparts, poverty in Nigeria is gendered, affecting largely women and girls (Anyanwu (2010); Brundtland (2000)). The majority of Nigeria’s poorest are of polygamous households in the northern and middle zones of Nigeria, zones with little or no oil resources, limited service sectorial engagement and manufacturing output. These zones are however doing well on agricultural outputs. This concentrated poverty can be linked to the disparity in salary earnings of agricultural workers who are usually female and are considered ill-educated, often living in technologically backward and rural villages, as opposed to the more respected, educated and well paid oil and gas workers – often male – in the southern zones of Nigeria. It is trite to note that despite oil and gas proceeds favoring only a reported 1% of Nigeria’s population, oil and gas contributes only 32.4% of Nigeria’s gross domestic production, while agriculture contributes 22% – a more than 10% decline over the last decade; the service sector contributes 52% of the national GDP, with telecommunications – privatized – packing up a whopping 8.7% (CNBC Africa). All the progressive sectors mentioned above are patriarchal in organization, sexist in employment tactics and choices and are dependent on skilled labor; all of which negatively affects the females trying to make a living in the urban areas but are hindered by lower education – compared to the males living in Urban areas – and “the double burden of production and reproduction” (Momsen 2016:193). It is not surprising that female headed households in urban areas of Nigeria are more likely to fall victim to poverty than their counterparts in the rural areas (Anyanwu 2010). The female headed households in rural areas, found Anyanwu (2010) & Momsen (2010), are less likely to be subjected to poverty, because: (a) they do not bear the pressure of expensive city living, (b) their subsistence farming practices enable them feed their families, (c) they have formal and informal wages from the agricultural sector as they dominate in agriculture and market sales, and (d) they have the support networks of their community. However, these rural women are often regarded as “non-productive and economically inactive” and are often excluded from (inter)national economic and developmental aggregates (Vandana 2000). Researching gender and poverty, Anyanwu (2010) also found that male headed households in rural areas are more likely to be victims of absolute poverty than their counterparts in urban areas, due to lower education and absence of job opportunities in the rural areas. Conversely, majority of rural to urban migrants are male, as such the statistics for females residing in rural areas tend to be higher. One fact stands out: “poverty is higher in rural areas households, whether headed by a male or female” (Anyanwu 2010:46).

Gendered poverty is not a new concept in humanitarian and development studies. Giving a lecture on Health and Population in the BBC Radio’s publicized Reith lectures in 2000, former Director General of World Health, Gro Brundtland noted that “poverty has a woman’s face; of the 1.3 billion poorest, only 30% are male”. This is an overarching result of society’s continued gender discrimination against women. Still, the dynamics of poverty as it shifts and changes face and gender from one geographic location to another is an interesting angle from which to tackle gender and development issues. Increasing access to education for both genders cannot be overemphasized, as well as eradicating cultural practices and norms that feminize and masculinize certain agricultural labors and enable workplace discrimination. Also, an encouragement of a welfare state that combats poverty – relative and absolute – is essential to social and economic development in Nigeria. Seeing as “older women are increasingly overrepresented in the populations of rural areas” (Momsen 2010:145) and poverty increases with the advancement of age – one’s productivity decrease with age – it is wise to assert that poverty is rife amongst the older generation of Nigerian women residing in rural areas, who have limited or no access to social welfare benefits – healthcare, pension, housing, etc. – and/or savings.

Modernization plans that encourage erosion of traditional economic practices will also have to be curtailed. In Nigeria, where women fall back on community assistance – for homecare, childcare, and agricultural farming – and use the commons (roadsides, riverbeds, etc.) for subsistence farming, eroding these practices in favor of big, mechanized, technologized practices will not only discourage women from economic empowerment, it will also encourage income inequality and gender discrimination, as only the richest, brightest and educated (read male) will have access to jobs in the free market economy.

Stakeholders in Nigeria – government, civil society, and citizens – must (continue to) denounce structural adjustment policies that endeavor to deny vulnerable groups access to the bare necessities of life, affordable energy resources, for e.g.,. Stakeholders must continue to approach development issues from a gender and development perspective, bringing together both males and females, even as they address the varied issues that are specific to women and girls. This is most assuredly the only way to achieve sustainable development, i.e. development that is persistent and feasible. Otherwise, it will all be in vain. For, when nations’ poorest are denied access to basic amenities like healthcare, electricity, kerosene, cooking gas, and clean water, because of Poverty Reduction Strategies and Policies that undermine independent political processes and engender socioeconomic harm, what the world has only succeeded in doing and maintaining – after decades of talks of, and campaigns for, sustainable development – is sustainable poverty. A gendered poverty that wears a woman’s face, per Brudtland (2000), and is steadily on the increase; a hostile poverty without end.



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Sparr, P. 1994. “Mortgaging Women’s Lives: Feminist Critiques of Structural Adjustment”. Zed Books, Washington.

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About Egoyibo Okoro

Beautiful. Friendly. Opinionated. Feminist. Scholarly. Political. Christian. Sometimes, I write in Engli-Igbo and/or pidgin English. Just so you know, I am naturally disgruntled about a lot of things, most especially gender inequality, human rights abuses, racism and corruption. #EndChildMarriage. #EndTerrorism. #EndPoverty. #EndRacism. #EndImperialism. The Igbo say, "egbe bere, ugo bere, nke si ibe ya ebena nku kwa ya" - Live and let live!
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