Ending extreme poverty in Africa

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POVERTY is endemic in Africa; like Siamese twins that are conjoined at birth, the continent and poverty seem to be inseparably intertwined. A combination of factors has conspired to suppress the growth of a potentially great continent and deny it pride of place among its peers. They include self-inflicted factors such as perennial conflicts, endemic corruption and bad governance. A World Bank Report, Poverty in a Rising Africa, shows that extreme poverty declined in Africa from 56 per cent in 1990 to 43 per cent in 2012. Yet, because of the increased pace of population growth, an estimated 63 million more people were living in extreme poverty on the continent by 2015 than there were in 1990. Africans account for more than one-third of the poor in the world, despite Africa making up just 11 per cent of the global population.

While poverty is reputed to have declined globally, with the greatest impact made by China and India in the last three decades, Africa has been consistently left behind. The Bretton Woods institution noted last year that, for the first time, the number of the world population living under extreme poverty would fall below 10 per cent. “We are the first generation in human history that can end extreme poverty,” the World Bank boss, Jim Yong Kim, said in October last year.

But that does not seem to be the case with sub-Saharan Africa, where the human development indices have continually remained stark. While the outline of the present is dim, the picture of that part of Africa going forward offers no glimmer of hope, as attested to by a recent report by a United Kingdom-based think tank, the Overseas Development Institute. The report said 40 per cent of the world’s poorest people, almost double the current share, will be accounted for by Africa in the next 14 years. “The prospect of 40 per cent plus of world poverty in 2030 being African children is one that I think should focus the minds of the international community,” said the Executive Director of ODI, Kevin Watkins.

It should also be quite disconcerting to African leaders that at a time when other parts of the world are aspiring to pull their citizens above the poverty line, ODI is estimating that one in five children in sub-Saharan Africa – about 148 million children – would be living on less than $1.90 a day. The prognosis is quite ominous, given that world leaders who met only last year at the United Nations General Assembly had agreed that 2030 should be the target date to end extreme poverty globally.

Although the forecast might seem far-flung, with Africa as the focus of attention, it is, however, something that should be of interest to Nigerian leaders because the country embodies the soul and the character of sub-Saharan Africa. As a giant with an estimated population of over 170 million people, Nigeria’s leadership role is considered pivotal to getting the continent out of entrenched poverty. This is why Watkins says, “Unless the picture improves in Nigeria, it’s almost guaranteed that sub-Saharan Africa as a region will be pulled off track.”

How then will Africa get out of the poverty trap? African countries need a transparent and accountable government and an efficient civil service to help meet social needs and create jobs. Another escape route for Africa is population control or demographic transition. Africa’s average birth rate is 4.7 children per woman, twice the number in South Asia. Nigeria alone will account for 6 per cent of births globally between 2015 and 2030. The report by ODI warns that if African governments fail to harness this generation of children to accelerate growth and drive development, they could become trapped “in a vicious circle of marginalisation.”

One other crucial factor identified as militating against development and escape from extreme poverty is the lack of investment in education. “We’re talking about getting kids into school (and) tackling the most extreme forms of poverty,” which Watkins believes “is doable.” Again, the role of Nigeria in achieving this is crucial. But how can education in Nigeria play a major role in the fight against poverty in Africa when more than 10 million Nigerian children, the largest in the world, are out of school?

While rightly establishing the link between education and escape from poverty, ODI failed to identify the role played by hunger and shortage of food production. Africa remains a paradox and an enigma. This is a continent that is abundantly blessed, with a surfeit of arable land and labour, capable of sustaining food production, enough to feed its 1.2 billion population. But having failed to adequately pull its weight, the continent now depends heavily on food imports.

Speaking in Abuja on September 30, Akinwumi Adesina, the President, African Development Bank, put Africa’s food import bill at a whopping $35 billion annually, an amount that is projected to rise up to $110 billion yearly by 2025. This is not the sign of a continent ready to escape from poverty, when the scarce foreign exchange that should be deployed to import raw materials and keep factories running and the young ones gainfully employed is now used for food import. Why should such a huge amount go into food import when there is a wide infrastructure gap waiting to be filled? Why is Africa not exporting food?

These are questions that should be answered by the continent’s leaders, which the Mo Ibrahim Foundation described as “thieves of state,” instead of heads of state. While ODI recommends improved healthcare, education and cash transfers, Adesina calls on the continent’s ministers of finance – not agriculture – to invest heavily in modern approach to agriculture.

One cannot agree more with Adesina. A continent which, according to him, boasts 65 per cent of the arable land in the world and a capacity to feed nine billion people, has no business romancing with poverty. And the time to start that journey to economic emancipation and freedom from poverty is now.

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