Out on housekeeping chores Saturday, I’d barely gotten out of my vehicle at the dry cleaner’s when I was accosted by this bedraggled middle-aged female importuning me for N200 with which to eat. According to her, she’d had nothing to eat since the night before. She walked me to the dry cleaner’s, waiting till I found enough loose change to make her thank me profusely and go on her way.
Increasingly, episodes like this are a daily staple of conversations at the different watering holes I frequent. Along with another phenomenon they speak to aspects of our economy that the numbers from our bean counters simply paper over. Returning from work, most workday evenings, the riot of mendicants on major roads in Lagos now worries me to no end. Yes, the numbers of this class of our compatriots appear to be on the increase daily. But the sheer variety of ailments on parade (cause to be less parsimonious with the giving) has turned mind-numbing.
“There, but for the grace of God, go I”. True.
However, increasingly these days, the “grace of God” is felt in its absence in access to schools (and jobs thereafter), as is attested to by the horde of pre-teen emergency windshield cleaners swapping extended palms with the begging class. The thing is, an underclass this young, left unattended as we are wont to, does pose a much bigger threat. Because the alms that we give may not support for long their eleemosynary life style, we would soon near that point where a more vigorous ask will replace the extended palm.
How much of this development is the consequence of a failed society, and how much the result of indolence, is a question that will remain moot for some time. (Especially when well-meaning interest in helping those beggars supposedly with health challenges have unearthed scams.) Easier instead to understand the provenance of a much-related phenomenon. Same Saturday, I get this message from a close friend: “Kai, more and more folks are reaching out for financial help — cousins classmates etc.”. In this instance, given the medium through which the plea for assistance came my friend was minded to establish the plea’s bona fides — “his account could have been hacked” was one risk. Then, she was unsure how much to part with; although at this point she had no doubt that the cause was a deserving one. The basic problem? How big an intervention is enough? And how many small regular interventions may the charitable-minded make — giving that one hasn’t abandoned other obligations? And for how long this latter?
Irrespective of the answers to these queries, the one fact that is not in doubt any more is the increasing number of our nationals battling different levels of privation. Significantly, a large number of this new eleemosynary class went to school, and once had jobs that allowed them to meet most of their obligations. So, the charge of indolence that one could easily lay before the roadside cohort may not sit easily here. These, instead, are anecdotal evidence of how bad our economy has turned of late. They are the corporeal manifestation of four successive quarters of shrinking domestic output growth. They are, in a much broader sense, the weightiest reproach to the incumbent administration. The one argument against its competence that does not easily permit of being swept under the carpet.
Yet, the sense of shame and circumscribed self-respect that hunger imposes mean that (for a while) this cohort is not likely to be heard or be as visible as the other underclass. But that they are a real and present threat to our social cohesion, not even the most benighted supporters of this administration can deny. On one hand, the administration’s policies are destroying jobs. On the other, by supporting inflation, monetary policy regularly deeps its hands into the people’s pockets, apparently using the ill-gotten proceeds to support its exchange rate policy.
As more Nigerians lose their jobs, and the social safety net that is the extended family is weakened by weak disposable incomes, we can only expect the rank of the needy to grow. This will mean more requests like my friend got on Saturday. It will also mean more beggars and windshield washers on the streets. Worse, though, is that it will, just as well mean less money in the hands of the charitable, both for alms volunteered to the needy in traffic, and for interventions in the lives of those close enough to us to demand more.
That these phenomena will worsen as management of the economy remains sub-par is no longer moot. Still open to debate, though, is what will come after; and what we may still be able to do to forestall whatever the latter (safe to assume from this vantage that whatever it is, it won’t be welfare-positive) is.