Defend Truth


The trouble with Africa — economic attitudes and a poverty of the mind


Anotida Chikumbu is a historian and political economist. He is a PhD candidate and assistant lecturer in the department of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Contrary to the conventional arguments that bad decisions lead to poverty, it is high time we understand that it is the cognitive toll of being poor that leads to bad decisions.

The psychological cost of economic insecurity in Africa today is a damning indictment of poverty and how it warps the way we see our challenges and how to resolve them. It seems when poverty hits the mind, it sometimes liquidates reason and assumes the role of thinking itself.

The main consequence of this problem is the perennial misdiagnosis of the causes of our recurrent economic woes, that sometimes pay less or no attention to any explanation that invokes cognitive aspects of our people’s feelings, attitudes and predispositions about solving the problems we have. Our conception of ourselves as human beings and an evaluation of our minds and the conclusions we draw to come up with an effective strategy to deal with our problems matters more. 

Contrary to the conventional arguments that bad decisions lead to poverty, it is high time we understand that it is the cognitive toll of being poor that leads to bad decisions.

Although nincompoop and scoundrel politicians are largely responsible for many of our structural problems like unemployment, hyperinflation, corruption and armed conflict, among many others, they are not necessarily the reason that these problems are perennial. The main reason is the mentality that we, “the governed”, the victims of these structural problems, have developed over the years. A very few of us are trying to fix the problems we have. Many are simply trying to make enough money, so much so that they think the problems do not apply to them. 

One might however wonder, is this not the case with people’s mindsets in other parts of the world? 

Yes, it may be the case, but the main difference is that in Africa we are too poor to think that way. Africa is home to 70% of the global poor but, unlike others, our minds have become so selfish that we have turned a blind eye to national issues and concentrated on individual welfare and making “enough” money for survival. We have disengaged from civic responsibility, particularly abstaining from activities like voting and becoming educated on political systems and government functionality. 

We have failed dismally to understand that national political issues have a direct bearing on individual welfare, on the cost of bread on the streets in Harare, the food lines in Mogadishu, the unemployment queues in Johannesburg, the high mortality and morbidity rates in Kinshasa and the widespread poverty in Cabo Delgado. It is, however, understanding this logic that is key to alleviating widespread poverty on our continent.

How does being poor change the way we feel and think? What are the consequences?

In a recent book entitled Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir argue that “poverty creates a distinct mindset for everyone struggling to manage with less than they need and, therefore, orients the mind automatically and powerfully toward unfulfilled needs”. They further note that “poverty creates a new mindset completely, one that shifts what people pay attention to and how they make decisions”. 

Some key variables of this argument would be that poverty creates a fixed mindset that cannot dispassionately make choices based on issues, one that thinks in terms of survival and is primarily concentrated on struggle and hustle, through which the next mouthful of food will come, and through which one will find shelter. 

What is so worrisome about this is that about 490 million Africans are somewhat victims of this and the result is that many, if not all these people, distance themselves from politics. The ordinary cobbler in Arusha, domestic worker in Mombasa, poor vendor in Yaoundé, communal farmer in Kivu and toilet cleaner in Lagos is sometimes too poor to invest his or her attention and time into understanding enough about the government, the election process, economic policies or constitutional amendments. Therefore, without the right political consciousness, poor people do not feel able to engage with politics. 

The reasoning behind this political disengagement is best explained by a study done by John Darley and Bibb Latané on the “bystander effect” in cognitive science, which posits that whenever a group of people is faced with an emergency, a significant number of individuals tend to display a diffusion of responsibility, the thinking and feeling that someone else is responsible for the problem and that someone else will fix it. Likewise, political disengagement — that is, lack of participation in political activities — when due to perceived indifference in others may also be seen as diffusion of responsibility. In fact, the emergency experienced at a personal level is like the experience of a political atmosphere in crisis at the national scale. 

The mentality, attitude, feeling and act of political disengagement induced by the thinking that one can only concentrate on individual welfare is that which I am referring to here as the poverty of the mind or hurombo hwenjere in Shona, ‘umaskini wa akili’ in Swahili and osi ti okan in Yoruba. It has done nothing but perpetuated a toxic culture of voter apathy, despondency and pessimism, discursive scapegoating aimed at deflecting blame and diffusing responsibility. 

A study of voter registration and voter turnout patterns in the recent elections can help us clarify this argument. Nigeria, a country with more than 105 million people wallowing in poverty, is the most egregious example. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (Idea) database: “since the return of democracy in 1999, voter turnout reached a peak of 69% in 2003 and has then continuously declined to a record low of 34.8% in 2019”. 

While Nigeria’s population has nearly doubled over the past 20 years and there are about 25 million additional registered voters, the absolute number of Nigerians who are voting has declined (30.2 million in 1999 compared with 28.6 million in 2019).’ 

Tanzania, in the Great Lakes region, a country with more than 14 million people languishing in poverty, is another striking example. According to its National Electoral Commission (NEC), “a total of 14,662,746 registered voters across the country, which is 49.27% of the total registered voters, did not vote in the 2020 general election.” 

In South Africa, a country with about 13.8 million people reeling in poverty, “the 2021 local government elections witnessed the lowest turnout for democratic elections: less than 50% of registered voters showed up on polling day. This indicates a recurrent trajectory of declining voter turnout, which has been in evidence since at least 2009.”

Registering to vote and casting a ballot on polling day take a couple of minutes, but the ripple effect caused by a vote will last beyond a candidate’s term. We cannot let others decide for us the laws that will affect our families and communities. Political participation gives us the power to contribute to deciding how our cities, towns and villages will be run. If we do not vote, the fault is ours! Let us vote and make the decision before others do it for us. DM/MC


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