…none of these matters if our policy makers continue to miss the point that the outcomes that we attribute to our compatriots’ lack of patriotism (preferring to hold dollars, for instance, rather than the naira) are often the result of a collective response to perverse incentives.


I was taught my first lesson in the structuring of incentives in order to bring about optimal outcomes by my mother. First, the circumstances that this lesson responded to. Growing up, my siblings and I shared school holidays with this favourite cousin. Fun to be with, he was, each time he came visiting. But such was his understanding of issues that situations involving the sharing of scarce resources invariably degenerated into rancour. He was much older. Thus, not only did he get to share whatever it was that was allotted to “the children”. He’d also get the first pick. And like the proverbial lunatic in the Yoruba proverb, his side of the commons was always better tended.

Fed up with the incessant whingeing from the losers from these transactions, one of such days, my mother then decreed that henceforth, the youngest of us was going to be responsible for sharing whatever was allotted to the bunch; while the eldest would get to pick first. I thought it was Solomonic in its intent and application ― fated to pick whatever was leftover, the youngest was incentivised to ensure that the portions were arithmetic equals. But then, I got told that it was a device common among the Igbos north of the River Niger to ensure equity in the sharing of resources.

Today, confronting a smorgasbord of often contradictory policies on the economy, I cannot but wonder how a people whose forebears could craft solutions as neat and effective as that to which I was introduced long ago, continue to churn out policies whose unintended consequences far outweigh their intendment ― and negatively too. The dilemmas that we face as a people are legion. How can we keep our space democratic while ensuring that only those are elected to office whose approach to governance betters all? How do we fix the disadvantages (social and economic) between regions without sacrificing merit and applying the brakes on the progress of more advanced regions? How do we balance governments’ need for cheap loans with the need to reward savers?

In part, by eschewing evidence-based approaches to policy-making, we were always going to fall into the traps suggested by these dilemmas. The thing is, in this respect, we are in good company. Across the world, there is now a grab bag of populist leaders who positively denigrate experts in the same way in which some here traduce “err-conomists”.


Global warming is real. Who is paying attention to what it means for the country? As the Sahel turns desert, Benue, Plateau, parts of Kwara and Kogi States will lose the arability of their lands. Ondo, Edo, and Delta States will see lesser rainfall ― and hence might become more arable. But does that mean that we may transfer crops previously grown in our bread baskets to these new places? Precipitation will be more saline in the latter places? And so, may not support the new portmanteau of crops. And what of the old agriculture? Will cocoa and palm oil thrive in the now more relatively arid regions where they used to grow? Would they have to move further south? And what to make of the more saline rainfall further south?

All of Lagos from Ikeja southwards is below sea level. So, with the rains this year has come a renewed focus on drains. Yet, the last major flooding in the State was the result of the adjoining waters rising and feeding back into lower lying parts of the State. Must it be thus, though? The whole of the Netherlands is below sea level, yet it doesn’t flood. “God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands”, we are told. Thankfully, God has already created Lagos, we are only being called upon to keep it in a liveable state.

In part, by eschewing evidence-based approaches to policy-making, we were always going to fall into the traps suggested by these dilemmas. The thing is, in this respect, we are in good company. Across the world, there is now a grab bag of populist leaders who positively denigrate experts in the same way in which some here traduce “err-conomists”. Except for this difference. Whereas most of the populists that we seem to share this mindset with see value in boosting private sector supply responses, here, a “left-wing communist” mindset dominates.

A loathing of the market isn’t the same as a preference for government provision. For proper rules and an effective regulatory environment could help restrain the markets’ excesses. Nor is preference for government provision equivalent to wanting a nanny state.


Aside the unfortunate outcomes that policies driven by this mindset lead to, it is also burdened by a number of conceptual difficulties. A loathing of the market isn’t the same as a preference for government provision. For proper rules and an effective regulatory environment could help restrain the markets’ excesses. Nor is preference for government provision equivalent to wanting a nanny state. For even in those spheres ― public goods, where government provision makes the most sense ― market-level efficiencies would help, including through “cost recovery” and “user pays” policies.

But none of these matters if our policy makers continue to miss the point that the outcomes that we attribute to our compatriots’ lack of patriotism (preferring to hold dollars, for instance, rather than the naira) are often the result of a collective response to perverse incentives.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.