#EvenItUp: …Sustainability and Value Creation as Catalysts for Bridging Inequality, By Emilia Asim-Ita

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“If any of us is unequal, None of us is equal” – Amina J. Mohammed, former Assistant UN Secretary General, and present Honourable Minister for Environment, Nigeria.

The concept of Inequality stems from a school of thought that populations are divided across basic factors such as wealth, income and consumption (2015, Wikipedia). This holds true for most of the academic justification of these elements or criteria for the categorisation of citizens in any economy. However, in my opinion, true inequality is mainly manifest in the existence of – or a clear perception of – an imbalance in availability and access to economic infrastructure, such as reliable communication systems, energy supply, effective transportation, financial institutions, as well as access to finance, social justice, markets and distribution networks. In addition, non-restriction of various levels of free trade, competition in enterprise value, open markets and others auxiliary factors which make for better human existence and decent standard of living should not be ignored.

Just before my thoughts are trumped by the dynamics of free trade and open markets; might I draw attention to two possible forms of inequality – one where a segment of the population feels unequal in spite of the economic indices and another where many segments of the population feel equal and strive to bridge the existent gaps between their economic statuses and the creation and retention of wealth. In both scenarios, inequality will have various effects on the economy and living standards of citizens, however what differs in both circumstances is the enthusiasm and resilience of the population to proffer solutions to the myriad of challenges.

The quest for sustainable development can be likened to the search for eradicating inequality, a holy grail. However, bridging the gap in inequality is a tool for attaining sustainable development. The first task of reducing inequality in any emerging economy, especially the largest in the most promising continent, is the promotion and possible mainstreaming of sustainable development issues.

Therefore, if my uncertified assumptions were right, the real meaning of inequality would lie in the disparity or perception of same hinged on the prevailing socio-economic circumstances of any economy, as well as the instruments of state such as social justice, continuous creation of jobs, potential of skills and even a system of merit. Similar instruments in other climes power cultural dogmas such as the American Dream.

The quest for sustainable development can be likened to the search for eradicating inequality, a holy grail. However, bridging the gap in inequality is a tool for attaining sustainable development. The first task of reducing inequality in any emerging economy, especially the largest in the most promising continent, is the promotion and possible mainstreaming of sustainable development issues. The promotion of living standards, accessible primary healthcare, available basic education, affordable housing and social amenities will ensure individuals are empowered to actively contribute to bridging the inequality gap.

…MSME Development is key and not paying lip service as our public and private sector leaders have done in past decades. Our billionaire Chief Executives cannot achieve this through grants and hype-focused charity initiatives but through a silent revolution training and impacting one life, one MSME at a time.

It is sad to observe that sustainable investments are still far and in between despite the emergence of auspicious-sounding phenomena such as Socially Responsible Investing, Impact Investing and recently, Afrocapitalism. To a typical citizen living below the poverty line, these terminologies do not hold water. Sustainable investments resonate with the majority of populations where the modalities are feasible within the local economic contexts. Hence, advocacy for Africans to invest in Africa, for instance, will remain mere rhetoric if the investment climate does not yield high returns with minimised risks, as well as products and services in demand at every fiscal period in context. With the current interest rates from banks and even development finance institutions, payment cycles (spanning 60 – 120 days of credit from clients and to vendors) that cripple cash flow projections for small businesses and dependent workers, the supply chain is at risk and such indices deepen inequality.

Therefore MSME Development is key and not paying lip service as our public and private sector leaders have done in past decades. Our billionaire Chief Executives cannot achieve this through grants and hype-focused charity initiatives but through a silent revolution training and impacting one life, one MSME at a time. Nonetheless, this painstaking work is not theirs alone to do, as each entrepreneur should focus on growing the enterprise, as well as grooming another leader in his/her stead. Perhaps, if the success of enterprises were measured in a financial to talent growth ratio, we would realise that many successful organisations could be likened to empty shells or sprouting plants waiting to wither once the founder kicks the bucket.

…it is obvious that sustainability will serve as the most reliable catalyst for bridging inequality in Africa’s largest economy. Sustainability in this case, is defined from a value perspective, which is the most holistic scope to view this fundamental imperative. It sounds quite simple yet has far reaching effects on the economy and society.

The future of talent and content is the balance upon which the entire future of our world, as we understand is today, depends. In an economy where talent is not nurtured, reproduced and protected, the value of human livelihood is greatly threatened. Sadly, our environment still permeates a culture of placing a higher value on foreign talent over local content. In circumstances where many organisations that position as celebrated corporate citizens keep a retinue of foreign consultants and experts, yet pledge loyalty to the growth of a host country, inequality (of services and talent) will persist. What some refer as ‘Contextual Intelligence’ cannot be ignored i.e. good grasp of local environments merged with global best practices and expertise. What Africa urgently needs is a deliberate, sustained investment in people through skill acquisition, transfer and development – the burden of talent is the singular most prevalent challenge for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises in Nigeria and Africa.

Over the past decade working in Management Consulting focused on Sustainability (MSME Support, CSR, Corporate Governance, Sustainable Development and Project Management), after the same period working in the Media and Youth Development Sectors, it is obvious that sustainability will serve as the most reliable catalyst for bridging inequality in Africa’s largest economy. Sustainability in this case, is defined from a value perspective, which is the most holistic scope to view this fundamental imperative. It sounds quite simple yet has far reaching effects on the economy and society.

We cannot attempt to ameliorate the consequences of inequality without building a value system and constantly strengthening the system upon which this value depends – it all adds up and flows from one branch to another.

Emilia Asim-Ita is Senior Consultant, Strategy and External Relations, Thistlepraxis Consulting.

This article is part of the #EvenItUp Campaign by BudgIT with collaboration from OXFAM, Nigeria.

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