by J. R. Bullington
As we come within three months of departure, ordinary activities begin to stand out as the last of their kind: the last trip to visit Volunteers in Gotheye, the last swearing-in ceremony for new Volunteers, the last Thanksgiving dinner in Niamey. Tuy-Cam and I will be leaving in February after five and a half years in this country. She wanted to leave at the end of my normal five-year Peace Corps tour of duty last summer; I wanted to extend for another year; we compromised on six months.This compromise perhaps reflects some of the ambiguities of living in Niger. It is one of the hottest, driest, dustiest places in the world, yet we have been comfortable almost all the time. Dread diseases are common, and even strong young people are often sick, yet we have enjoyed excellent health except for the normal afflictions of advancing years. It is the world’s poorest country, yet we are taking away a richly rewarding experience.
This will be my next-to-last “Letter from Niger,” and I want to use it to reflect on the country’s most salient characteristic, poverty.
Poster Country for Poverty
Some of the grim indicators:
The list could go on and on. Americans and Europeans who have not visited Niger or a country like it have never seen and cannot even imagine this sort of poverty. And the saddest point is that long-term trends point not up, but down. Both anecdotal evidence and statistics confirm that most people in Niger are poorer today than they were three or four decades ago.
There are many reasons for Niger’s deep and worsening poverty. Following are the seven that I believe to be the most important.
1. Explosive Population Growth
Since 80% of the people live off subsistence agriculture and herding, and essentially all arable land is already under cultivation, the consequence of this sort of population growth is predictable and inexorable impoverishment. Only a spectacular improvement in agricultural productivity or greatly increased employment opportunities outside the agricultural sector can forestall Malthusian outcomes. Neither of these possibilities is anywhere in view.
2. Environmental Degradation
3. Primitive Technology
A time traveler from 1000 or even 2000 years ago, magically taken to a rural Nigerien village, would find little technology that would be unfamiliar. The houses, the agricultural practices, the way of life generally are pretty much the same now as then. Even simple machines like pulleys to draw water from wells and animal-drawn plows to till the earth are rare.The common scenes in a Nigerien village are much like the illustrations of Biblical stories I recall from childhood Sunday school books.
But it’s not only the heat and scarcity of water and other natural resources that keep Niger poor, but also its isolation and distance from the sea and major trade routes. Few people realize that Africa is three times as big as the continental United States. Niger, in the midst of this vastness, is remote from global commerce and the wealth it brings.
5. Political Instability
Like most African countries, Niger has been plagued by political instability since its independence from French colonialism in 1960. The decade of the 1990s was particularly difficult, with two military coups and a long-running rebellion in the north. Government largely ceased to function, and many donors, including USAID, withdrew.Since 1999, when a new government was democratically elected, the situation has been stable and most donors have returned; but it has been necessary to re-start the development process at the very low level to which the country had regressed, and the stability that has been achieved remains fragile.
Disease is not only a humanitarian concern but also a cause of poverty. Sick people can’t work well, so productivity is low. A WHO study showed that malaria alone cuts economic output in Africa by at least six percent.
7. Status of Women
Gender roles are strictly defined in this traditional Islamic society, with women doing much of the hardest work as well as caring for children. Female literacy is only one third the male rate; nearly half of all girls are married by the time they are 15; and pre-menopausal women are pregnant 28% of the time.We tend to think of this as a social problem and a matter of gender justice, but it’s also an economic constraint to development. The fact that half the population is much less productive than it could be has major implications for the persistence of poverty.
Rays of Hope
And perhaps most importantly, the people’s spirit has not been broken. They remain hopeful and remarkably happy in the face of all these hardships, and they have not fallen prey to the calls of Islamic extremism, political radicalism or ethnic hatred that have kept much of Africa in turmoil and poverty. Our Peace Corps Volunteers, who live among the common people and speak their languages, report that in spite of the grinding, pervasive poverty, life in a Nigerien village is not at all gloomy. They enjoy living among these people, and find them kind and hospitable. This is a major reason why our Volunteers extend their service beyond the normal two years at a rate double the global Peace Corps average.
Still, as I prepare to leave Niger, it is difficult to be optimistic about the country’s future. The problems are just too enormous, and the resistance to change, especially in terms of reducing population growth, is just too deeply ingrained.Yet we, the rich, developed countries, cannot give up on Niger. We have a moral imperative to help these poorest of the world’s poor people; and we also have an interest in preventing Niger from becoming another failed state that generates conflict and breeds terrorists and extremism.
Even if I can’t leave with a sense of optimism for Niger, I will leave with continuing hope and determination to help, as well as with gratitude for a great experience and affection for Nigerien friends and colleagues and Peace Corps Volunteers who remain to fight the good fight.