I listened to some scholars assert that poverty is the “absence of leadership and not the absence of natural resources.” This assertion is true to some reasonable extent. Nevertheless, poverty is relative and not necessarily “the absence of leadership” only. Poverty has different meanings, various connotations, different ramifications and varied applications or interpretations. For me, poverty is more of a mental disorientation or mental deprivation or mental destitution. Hence, Bob Marley implored us with his song to “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, now that our mind can free ourselves.”
Poverty at Various Units, Forms, and Historical Epochs of Human Existence
Let’s begin from the family which is the smallest unit and the earliest form of organization or community of people in human history. The father (husband) as the leader of the home could be smart, but the mother (wife) and the children could be mentally disoriented, impoverished or disorganized for whatever reasons, vice versa. This affects outcomes and relationships in the family. It’s not that the father or the mother or whosever is the leader of the home is absent. Rather, the poor outcomes are as a result of the poor mindset of the leader who, nonetheless, is always present in the home, but lacks focus, commitment, creativity, integrity, and productivity.
In the family, the leader could be the breadwinner or the one who calls the shots (the father, the mother, the son or the daughter, depending on their ages and economic status in society). If the couple are still strong ― employed and not yet retirees ― and they cater for their school age children, one of them who makes more money or is traditionally or divinely ordained to lead the other members of the family becomes the leader of the home. But if the couple are old and retired parents dependent on their children for sustenance, either of their children becomes the leader of the home.
Now if any of them is greedy, selfish, miopic and not open to change, that state of mind taints the family. In such scenarios, if the home leader is disoriented, poverty breeds in the home. Therefore, at the home front, poverty is not the absence of leadership, but the lack of an effective and result-oriented mindset in the person who plays the leadership role in the house.
In a corporate organization, as another example, the founder may have great vision, but the employees could ruin the business because they fail to see the vision for the mission. Even though at the onset of the organization, for instance, there’s no profit coming for certain business strategies that the founder and leader introduced, the management staff and other employees might not understand because they’re clueless or they just taunt the vision of the founding leader for greedy or selfish reasons.
For instance, the strategic idea of “buying one and getting another product free” could be expensive at the onset of the business, such that it might not allow the management staff and other lower senior level employees to make a lot for themselves. Yet, it doesn’t mean that the company wouldn’t make ends meet. Unfortunately in certain cases, the initial management employees could ridicule the idea or strategy that the leader and founder adopted simply for paucity of vision.
Consequently, they begin to act anyway and anyhow they want simply to get away with stuff, thereby creating a downward spiral of the organization. There are worse examples showing where a leader had vision, but the followers taunted him and destroyed the organization. This illustration simply goes to show that poverty is not necessarily the absence of leadership but a perverted, destitute, and depraved mindset.
Hence, the scripture affirms that “the people become impoverished and perish for lack of a visionary mindset and not for lack of leadership” (Proverbs 29:18 paraphrased; emphasis is mine). Hence, in each nation, we can see segmented poverty here and there, because of the debauched or warped mindset of the people in the family, the organization, the community or the state.
Look at the case of Nigeria, for example. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first ceremonial president also known as Zik of Africa was a great leader who had great vision for the new Nigerian state at independence in 1960, but his contemporaries frustrated and shoved him aside. His vision and fight for Nigeria’s independence and Republic smacked of great leadership. And he wasn’t greedy. Rather he was a lot more selfless than those miopic leaders with paucity of transformational wisdom who destroyed him and his dream for a pan-Nigerian nation-state that’s not ethnically segmented as it is today.
Much better illustration of the fact that poverty is not necessarily the “absence of leadership” is our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is indeed the best example of the GREATEST and RICHEST LEADERSHIP that ever existed. Knowing the fact that Jesus Christ was an extraordinary leader and the light of the world of his time ― and will continue to be for eternity ― didn’t stop Judas Iscariot, the follower of Christ to act selfishly and in fact wickedly. Judas Iscariot still did the unthinkable! This was because Judas, though a leader in his own capacity, was impoverished in his mindset, hence he betrayed Christ with a kiss and sold him for 20 shekels of silver.
Much further, in spite of the fact that doubting Thomas saw all that Jesus Christ did, he lived with the mindset of doubt without faith and trust. In fact, so many followers of the greatest leader, Jesus Christ, did the same. Countless numbers of people in Christendom and other religious sects that we call leaders in either the political, economic, business, sports and entertainment, religious or governmental realm today also suffer this problem of paucity in their mindset.
Therefore, poverty is definitely in part a culmination of “absence of leadership,” but not strictly the “absence of leadership” only. Some speakers that I listened to when they argue about poverty being the “absence of leadership” from the get-go targeted African nations with their political and governmental leaders. Of course, many of our African political and governmental leaders are inept and mentally impoverished to say the least. But let’s not forget that even in Europe and America, there are also inept political, religious, governmental, and business leaders.
It’s just a matter of the extent of their mental poverty that separates the advanced industrial democracies from the developing nations in terms of paucity of mindset. In the USA, for instance, there’s poverty here and there: in the family, in the workplace, in the church, in various organizations, in various communities and so forth. So poverty of the mind is a global phenomenon! What can you say of people who know the importance of college education and the motivational free tuition offered by government and development organizations like Rockefeller Foundation, Bill and Melinda Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, etc and still refuse to go to college in the industrialized nations of the world?
In the most recent times with the prevailing COVID-19, consider this question. What about those who disrespect the coronavirus-safety rules and health regulations; and yet they know that face masks, face shields, and social distancing to a large extent save lives given the spread and death caused by COVID-19? What happened in cases where some of them caught COVID-19 and never made it alive, leaving precious family members to bear the brunt of such losses? It’s mental disorientation and deprivation which is the real poverty that is responsible for the actions of such warped leaders.
So when I think and talk of Africans or any group or unit of people or organization in our global community as being poor, it’s not “only lack or absence of leadership.” It’s widespread mental disorientation. Consider this wise analogy by the great ancient King Solomon: very inspiring and interesting example! He said, “look at ants. They’ve no leader but are more organized in terms of getting results than many human beings” (Proverbs 6: 6-8 KJV paraphrased). It’s poor mindset suffered by both leaders and the followers, or mental deprivation suffered by both governors and the governed that makes a nation poorly developed or stagnated. I stand to be corrected. I rest my case, so help us God!
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By Rev. Chukwudi Chuck Eke
Word Bank International Magazine