27 August 2014

Africa: Eliminating Poverty in Africa - an Appeal for More Realistic Targets

Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT
A farmer with her bean harvest in Rwanda.

When Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson, first mooted the idea of Agenda 2063 as a blueprint to achieve 'a prosperous and united Africa in the next 50 years,' it came as a surprise to some. Why look so far ahead?

Earlier this year, Ethiopian scholar Mammo Muchi, for example, called Agenda 2063 a pretext for African leaders to 'drag their feet'. Speaking ahead of a conference of intellectuals from across the continent who had gathered for the Africa Day celebrations in Pretoria, he said the time span is a cop-out by leaders who should look at development and integration with a greater sense of urgency.

New research by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) African Futures Project shows that Africa will realistically, only achieve the 1990's slogan of 'making poverty history' by 2063.

In a paper launched in Addis Ababa yesterday, Jakkie Cilliers, Executive Director of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS); Sara Turner, a research associate at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures of the University of Denver; and Barry Hughes, Director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center caution that the proposed target for eliminating extreme poverty by 2030 is unrealistic.

Based on their study of recent trends, the nature of poverty in Africa and expected future trends, the authors conclude that 'the 3% extreme poverty target by 2030 is not a reasonable goal for many African states and it is insensitive to the varying initial conditions in which African countries find themselves.' Instead, they argue, extreme poverty in Africa can be reduced to 20% by 2030, 10% in 2045 and 3% in 2063 - on the back of a huge effort to bend current trends.

Is this picture too gloomy, dashing the hopes of those expecting the dividends of the 'Africa rising' narrative to pay out sooner? In fact, with a closer look, based on 2013 figures - the year in which Agenda 2063 was officially adopted - the picture really isn't half bad.

The forecast presented in the paper maps out a comprehensive set of policy interventions that will make every African citizen sit up and think again about the sometimes-morose predictions for the continent's future.

Imagine an Africa where only 3% of Nigerians live in extreme poverty: or where the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has only a very small fraction of its people surviving on less than US$1,25 a day. With the right interventions, this seemingly far-fetched scenario in very populous countries like the DRC and Nigeria can be a reality by the time our children, born in 2014, reach their fifties, say Cilliers and his co-researchers.

Many other African countries can reach this target much earlier - by 2030, when those born this year are only 17 years old. In Ethiopia, poverty will be marginal when this coming generation reaches the young age of 22, they forecast.

Of course, population growth will influence the total number of Africans who will remain poor for the next few decades, but despite a huge increase in population, the number of Africans living in poverty will steadily come down.

Figures can indeed be hugely deceptive, especially for countries where data is scarce and policymakers are notorious for juggling development indicators. New rebasing of global purchasing power parities by the World Bank that now use 2011 (instead of 2005) as a base for calculations, also throws a spanner in the works.

These new calculations have reduced the estimated number of poor populations worldwide quite drastically.

Yet, Cilliers and his co-researchers say, even with the new calculations, the end targets that they forecast remain pretty much on track. Using the International Futures forecasting system, they are refining methodologies to model the impact of alternative policy interventions in reducing poverty. If taken to heart, these methodologies would be able to guide the AU and African governments in the right direction.

The paper, amongst other recommendations, advises the AU to look at individual countries when setting targets. Grand schemes and global indicators might simplify things, but they have limited use.

The United Nations' Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), for example, which draw to a close in 2015, have been very useful in focusing global minds onto key targets - but the most significant progress has been seen in countries such as China, and to a lesser extent India.

It certainly is good to learn that life has improved for the majority of people on the planet thanks to 566 million Chinese citizens being lifted out of poverty between 1999 and 2010.

Yet many African countries didn't make the grade for quite a number of the 21 MDGs. These targets are now being reviewed, and lively debate is raging within development circles over what is to happen after 2015. As part of this debate, the World Bank and others may set targets that, according to Turner, Cilliers and Hughes, are 'over-ambitious.'

The future is certainly largely unpredictable, and the researchers admit that shocks or unforeseen political interventions - Ebola comes to mind - can steer things in a completely different direction. With a realistic approach and dedicated interventions in a number of sectors, however, prospects for the future do improve largely across the board.

The paper models four sets of interventions that include providing social assistance (in the form of social insurance to make the poor less vulnerable to shocks); improving secondary school education and primary healthcare; spreading the gains of economic growth more evenly (through improved infrastructure, investment in agriculture and other means) and positive social change that will eliminate obstacles to progress - including removing discrimination based on gender, race, religion or ethnicity.

Interestingly, while others place much more emphasis on the private sector and individual entrepreneurship to develop Africa, this paper stresses that to reduce equality and help the poor, an appropriate role for the state is required to translate gross domestic product improvements into pro-poor growth.

To illustrate this, the paper focuses on two groups of mostly large and important countries. The first group - Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia - has high populations and relatively smaller percentages of their population in extreme poverty. (That is, in comparison to other African states.)

Of these, only Ethiopia is on track to reach the 3% poverty reduction goal (but only by 2046). However, if the forecasts are to be believed, the four sets of interventions can see Ethiopia reach this target as early as 2036 and Nigeria by 2054. Kenya is not expected to reach the goal by 2063.

The second group, which comprises the DRC, Burundi and Madagascar, is a bit trickier, since up to 80% of their citizens live in extreme poverty. These are shocking statistics for a magnificently resource-rich country like the DRC. With the right measures mentioned above, however, the DRC can reach the target by 2054. Madagascar and Burundi are only forecast to reach the 3% goal after the 2063 deadline.

Clearly, Agenda 2063 marks 100 years after the formation of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963, but it is an aspirational, long-term plan. Yet the research shows that such a distant time horizon may be appropriate given the deep-rooted nature of Africa's poverty challenge.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS consultant

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