Tunde Leye wrote an interesting post yesterday which touched on a subject I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: building a life in Nigeria or trying to do so elsewhere. This is a topic as old as the hills, but maybe we can say something new about it.
Why does anybody voluntarily try to move borders? Simple: For a chance at a better life. If you think about it, there are two options for improving one’s life:
- We can improve our lives in the country we are in. [The blow scatter option]
- We can move to another country where an improved life is likelier. [The emigrate option]
It is important to note the italicised words ‘chance’ and ‘likelier.’ There are few certainties in life. Implicit in (2) is the admission that (1) is less likely or achievable. A lot of people do not like this, they insist that they will blow scatter and that Nigeria is just the place to do so. I find the option to blow scatter problematic. If most people are saying ‘I go blow scatter,’ the consequence of this is that most people are actually saying: ‘We go all blow scatter.’
Unfortunately, this cannot happen. Mathematically, we cannot all blow scatter. This admission is a struggle for many of us. Why? There is a solid body of research which shows that most of us are convinced that we are above-average, even though this is statistically impossible. Most of us make up the average. The blow scatter mentality is premised on an impossible world.
Let’s look at these two options in another way. The stylised graph below shows what a distribution of income looks like in many societies. The middle of the graph does not mean ‘middle class’ in the typical sense (i.e.: people earning a certain amount of money), it is the average. We’ll come back to this.
So, what do we have?
- On the left are people who do not have a lot of income. (Red)
- Towards the middle are most people in society (Yellow). This group of people earn the average income.
- You have those with higher incomes still on the right. (Blue)
By definition, the average is a measure of central tendency, or the likeliest outcome. That jargony sentence simply means that if I had to pick the random person in Nigeria today, there is a good chance that his or her income will be near Nigeria’s average income. That is, he or she will fall into the Yellow portion. It also means that if you look out twenty years, the average Nigerian is likely to be earning the average Nigerian income, whatever that is by that time (the future Yellow). This is a consequence of what the average is.
Once you accept this, things become clearer. All you are concerned about is which average is likely to be better (option two). Do you want an average which allows you to pay tax, travel, enjoy 24-hr electricity and water and cheap high-quality education for the rest of your life? (High Income) Or do you want an average where you are worried about an emergency medical operation? (Low Income)
Going back to our graph of income distribution, here is what I mean by a choice between averages:
On the one hand, we have where we are now—Nigeria. Then there is the U.S. graph to the right of it (it could be any other developed economy). Notice that overall, their average is a higher level of ‘income.’ In other words, the average American is doing better.
And this is all there is to it: Emigrating is a chance at a better average. (Please note that the average is the likely state wherever you are. I am not making the fallacious argument that leaving Nigeria is a choice between having average income overseas and having exceptional wealth in Nigeria. That is nonsensical.)
But we have another problem, don’t we. In the same way that the strategy to blow is not a strategy for all Nigerians, emigrating cannot be either. We cannot all emigrate. So are we stuck? Not quite. Looked at individually, it seems to me that a person has a better shot at a great life in a better average than trying to work themselves out of their current average (which is a very difficult thing regardless of where you are). That’s an option for Tunde’s friend (and the one he’s taken) but not for all of us.
This is a stark truth. There is no easy way out for Nigerians collectively: We cannot all hammer and we cannot all emigrate. We have to fix the country. When we speak of improving Nigeria, what that means to me is moving the Nigerian graph to the right. It does not mean moving a few people from the Red to Blue portion of the existing graph. Economic development is simply a process of helping most of society ‘emigrate’ to a better life at home. It is not creating millionaires or billionaires. Our World In Data shows how this has worked over time. It shows that the world’s graph has progressively moved to the right; that on the whole, we are all better off now compared to a hundred years ago. We’ve moved the average, and that’s what Nigeria needs, a better average.
I should add a few thoughts which I was not able to incorporate into the body of the essay, but which are quite important nonetheless:
- Notice that I left the word ‘income’ in quotes; that was deliberate. It does not mean ‘money.’ It is things such as lower costs, expanded lifestyle options, better quality of life, freedom and so on. These all enhance our wellbeing but are non-monetary in nature. For instance, being able to walk into a public library that was founded by Benjamin Franklin in the 1700s is free. But, for people like me, it is a massive increase in my ‘income’ or my wellbeing. I also like trees. Being in a green space is free, but it enhances my ‘income.’ Stress may appear costless because there is no naira or kobo charge, but eventually, we will pay through some medical issue or the other. (This idea is a staple of economics) There are other non-monetary factors which enter into this conversation. Identity is important, and this could become an issue overseas. Xenophobia and racism are never far off. What of family? It is very difficult to leave one’s loved ones and emigrate, we deny ourselves the privilege of watching them (and they us) grow old. there is no money one could attach to that pain. In other words, there are many things which cannot be modelled in a spreadsheet which increase or decrease our wellbeing. A lot of us miss this when thinking about these decisions.
- To point out that most people will be in the average is not a predication for your life. In fact, I am hoping that I manage to escape the average myself. However, the disconcerting truth is that we must run as hard as we can to likely end up average. But what is life if not the ability to relish its complexities and contradictions?
- I am writing (and you may be reading) as someone who has had the advantage of privilege. The middle and below is an ugly place in Nigeria, most of our countrymen and countrywomen live a life of unimaginable hardship. Our concerns here are the privilege of the rich. This is not to criminalise wealth or to victimise the poor. It is an acknowledgement of the unfortunate status quo. The vast multitude of our people are more worried about a warm meal, a comfy bed, making it through this rainy season. If you have escaped this (by your effort or Fate’s design) be grateful, you have better problems.
- Apologies to the statisticians and/or economists who may object to some of the liberties I’ve taken. I deliberately tried to strip away most of technicalities associated with the curves and averages.
- @inpoco and @andyRoidO were generous with their time and helped me to bring this essay to life. I thank them. Obviously any errors or problems are mine alone.