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Africa: More poverty despite economic growth

Jan Philipp Wilhelm
March 19, 2020

Many African countries have been recording high economic growth rates for years. However, a recent study showed that poverty on the continent has increased again. How can this be?

Angola Slum Kinanga in Luanda
Image: DW/N. Sul d'Angola

When it is about poverty in Africa, there are many misunderstandings. According to surveys, a large proportion of people in Europe and North America are convinced that little or nothing has been done in recent decades to combat extreme poverty on the continent. This is no surprise: stereotypes from the colonial era, memories of the terrible famines of the 1980s and current reporting on refugees easily obstruct a clear view of the living conditions of people in African countries.

In fact, the figures even suggest the opposite: there is progress - at least in the number of people who have to live on less than $1.90 (€1.76) a day. "Overall, the proportion of people in Africa living in monetary poverty has clearly declined, from 54% in 1990 to 41% in 2015," World Bank economist Luc Christiaensen said in the DW interview. The main contributors to this development were the expansion of infrastructure in rural areas, increased agricultural productivity and years of robust economic growth in most African countries.

children pumping water in a village in Zimbabwe
The better the rural infrastructure, the lower the poverty in the respective countryImage: Imago/Peter Udo Maurer

So the trend is positive, but the whole truth is that rapid population growth has actually increased the absolute number of poor people in Africa, from 278 million to 413 million. The most important project of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - the end of all kinds of poverty by the year 2030 - will therefore most likely be missed by Africa. According to World Bank estimates, 20% of all people in sub-Saharan Africa will still be living in poverty in 2030 unless the governments of Africa significantly step up their poverty reduction efforts.

Survey: Lived poverty increased

But it doesn't look like that at the moment. At least this is what a recent, representative study by the pan-African research institute Afrobarometer, which is regularly questions people in more than 30 African countries about the provision of their basic needs, suggests How often did you not have enough to eat last year? How often did you not have access to clean water? The researchers summarize the results in the so-called Lived Poverty Index (LPI).

Infografik Karte Alltagsarmut in Afrika EN

The results of the study published this month are disillusioning. According to the study, between 2014 and 2018, lived poverty rose slightly in Africa for the first time in more than a decade. In some countries - including South Africa, Niger and Uganda - it even rose considerably. Although people are still better off on average than they were some ten years ago, the figures indicate that there are deeper-seated difficulties in the fight against poverty.

For study author Robert Mattes, a political scientist at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, the recent rise has one main reason: "Africa's democratization, which has been going on for decades, has come to a standstill," Mattes told DW. Even one well-functioning multi-party systems, such as in Zambia, Tanzania or Benin, have now come under pressure from authoritarian leaders. "This decline in democracy leads to a neglect of the needs of the rural population in particular. There are fewer incentives to take care of the things that reduce poverty," said Mattes.

Data from the study show that lived poverty is lowest where electricity networks, sewerage systems, roads and mobile phones are relatively well developed. Governments should therefore invest primarily in public infrastructure, Mattes said.

Inequality as a driver of poverty

Although the results of the Afrobarometer study match the assessments of other organizations on poverty in Africa, they also raise an apparent paradox. For years, Africa's economies have been recording some of the highest growth rates in the world, with the African average GDP rising by 4.7% per year between 2000 and 2018. Although the figures have fallen slightly in recent years, the question remains: shouldn't Africa's economic growth also be reflected in the development of poverty?

People travel by canoe in the floating slum of Makoko, Nigeria
In Nigeria's economic metropolis Lagos, gentrification pushes the poor into slums on the waterImage: picture-alliance/Anadolu Agency/M. Elshamy

Henry Ushie of Oxfam Nigeria has an explanation for the sometimes huge discrepancy: "If we want to fight poverty, we must first fight inequality. Inequality is the biggest driver of poverty in the world." Economic growth, largely due to the sale of commodities, simply does not reach ordinary people. Inequality is particularly high in Nigeria, Africa's largest economy.

Oxfam therefore uses the so-called Commitment to Reduce Inequality Index to evaluate the efforts of governments in the fight against inequality. Among other things, it examines tax justice, investment in education and health, and gender equality. The results of a recent survey in several West African countries are sobering. "Governments in the region are not particularly committed, and unfortunately Nigeria is even ranked at the very bottom," said Ushie.

Coronavirus "another hurdle" for African governments

In the near future, African governments are likely to face another problem: The coronavirus, which could not only pose challenges to the health systems of African countries but is already slowing down the global economy. "The prices of oil and other commodities will fall and countries that live on the export of these commodities will have to go further into debt," said Luc Christiaensen from the World Bank. It remains to be seen whether countries that are less dependent on exports will also be affected. "In the fight against poverty, the coronavirus has thrown another obstacle in the way of African governments."

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