Two years ago, as I was celebrating the Christmas festivities with my family in California, I was made aware that a very close family friend was shot dead in my home country of Nigeria as he was on his way home from a Christmas carol service. Needless to say, news of our dear friend’s death dampened our Christmas. Fast-forward two years.
On Christmas morning, 2016, I woke up to the news that a friend of mine visiting Nigeria was kidnapped by armed robbers as she was on her way home from the airport. She is currently a student at Harvard and was home for the Christmas holidays. As I read the news of her kidnapping, I was terrified, but later relieved when I found out that she was able to escape her captors by jumping out of a moving vehicle. Thankfully, this time, it did not end in tragedy. But my joy quickly turned into sorrow because, at that moment, I realized something—this is no longer the exception; it is becoming the norm.
The crime problem
The two cases I mentioned above are not anomalies. In the 2015 World Economic Forum’s Global Travel and Tourism Report, which is made up of 14 different rankings including one that assesses a country’s safety and security,Nigeria ranked 141 out of 141 countries in the Safety and Security rankings. News of kidnappings is increasing across different regions in the country and one article calls it Nigeria’s fastest growing industry.
So, we must ask, why is this becoming the norm and why is crime set to rise in Nigeria? To answer this question, we must understand the following simple assertions, without placing a value judgement on them. First, everyone has certain basic needs such as food, water, safety and security, and the feeling that they are making progress in their lives. Second, on average, everyone will do their best to satisfy those basic needs in ways that are culturally acceptable. Third, committing crime has always been an option for people in society to fulfill their needs. Fourth, lacking a better alternative, people sometimes choose crime, therefore making crime both more culturally acceptable and more expected in some societies than others. Fifth, there are few better alternatives for many in urban Nigeria to accomplish many of the demands that arise in their lives today than engaging in crime. By understanding how systems work, rather than dwelling on how theyshould work, we are better able to develop solutions that can help us solve some of society’s problems.
How can we stop it?
It goes without saying that a more effective law enforcement system is needed. But that sort of response does not warrant a blog post. The most viable way to stop the rise of crime is to provide an alternative means for people to accomplish the things they are trying to accomplish. In essence, the best way to fight crime is to provide employment. Not only does employment provide productive work for people to do, it also creates the tax revenues necessary to actually combat crime, thereby reducing it. The follow up question then becomes, how do we provide employment? To answer that question, we must look at how other countries have solved this problem.
In the World Economic Forum Safety and Security report cited earlier, Singapore is ranked eighth out of 141 countries, above countries such as Australia, Belgium, and Netherlands. Also, with a GDP per capita of approximately $53,000, Singapore is one of the richest regions in the world.In the 1950s, however, Singapore was a very poor and crime infested region with high unemployment, and its GDP per capita was barely an eighth of the United States’. Patrick Radden Keefe, writer for the New Yorker, notes that Singapore was, “a key entrepot in the drug trade between India and China,” an island beset by crime and corruption. How did Singapore solve its pressing unemployment and crime problems?
On the one hand, Singapore became tough on crime—very tough in fact. The country instituted harsh jail terms and increased the salaries of civil servants in order to disincentivize crime and corruption. However, those strategies could only work if Singapore could fund them. So, in 1961 Singapore created the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB).
The job of the EDB was to attract foreign investment to Singapore in order to create employment which was in short supply at the time. The EDB focused on investments that promoted industrialization beginning with garments, textiles, toys, wood products, and hair wigs. Since then, the EDB has evolved its business model to promote training and investments in higher value-added industries, such as biotech, electronics, and semiconductor research and development. As a result of the EDB’s work, Singapore was able to reduce unemployment significantly and currently has an unemployment rate that hovers around three percent.
Relevance for Nigeria and other overpopulated African cities plagued by crime
Understandably, at just over five million people, Singapore is much smaller than Nigeria. And it is also more homogenous. But there are lessons for Nigeria and many other poor countries that are urbanizing quickly in relation to curbing crime.
First, the Nigerian government should stop relying on economic growth as its measure of success and should instead celebrate employment growth. In his 2006 essay, Good numbers gone bad, Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz makes it clear that GDP is no longer the right measure for success. Employment is a more helpful measure because it is impossible to increase employment without increasing economic growth, but the reverse is possible. Further, increasing employment will ultimately reduce the number of people in a country’s “crime pool,” ultimately causing crime to reduce.
Second, Nigeria should create an institution whose job is to ensure that jobs are created. In Singapore, the EDB’s purpose was not to create jobs but to ensure that Singapore attracted the necessary investments that would both industrialize the country and create jobs. Similarly, this institution’s job would not be to create jobs itself, but rather ensure that jobs are created. In other words, it would make certain that private sector investments that target market-creating innovations and not efficiency or sustaining innovations are prioritized. See my earlier post for the different types of innovation and their impact on economic development.
Third, this newly created institution must be non-partisan and not be subject to the whims of the election cycle. Paradoxically, one of the biggest problems facing many poor countries that are democratic is that public officials must not only manage the economy, but must also work to keep their positions. While this is understandable, and while the benefits of democracy are immense, unfortunately, this causes short-term thinking similar to that endured by many public companies. Public officials with the power to enact change are forced to compromise because their interventions may not create the short-term benefits required to keep them employed. As such, this new institution, whose role is primarily to attract investments targeted at market-creating innovations which will create jobs, must exist above the unpredictable vicissitudes brought about by elections.
There are no silver bullets in development, but the strategy of investing in market-creating innovations has worked time and again. Today, Singapore is one of the safest places in the world. Nigeria can begin its march toward safety, security, and prosperity as well. But it must do the hard work of making the right investments.
For more, see: