5 April 2017

Southern Africa: Extreme Poverty Set to Rise Across Southern Africa


In Southern Africa, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty (defined as those living on less than US $1.90 per day) is expected to drop over the next 23 years. But, the number of people living in extreme poverty is expected to rocket from 88 million today to nearly 130 million over the same time period.

At first glance, these two statements seem to contradict each other. And the tendency by governments and international development organisations to focus on the former can downplay the extent of the poverty problem.

A decrease in relative poverty (the proportion of people living in extreme poverty) usually indicates a reduction in absolute poverty (the number of people living in extreme poverty) as well. But, in some instances, using only the measure for relative poverty hides increases in absolute poverty.

Southern Africa is a case in point. Sustained population growth and modest economic growth in the midst of pervasive inequality mean that the region has seen and will continue to see diverging poverty trends (a drop in relative poverty and a rise in absolute poverty).

The portion of the population living in extreme poverty in the region has dropped by 9 percentage points over the past 25 years. But, over the same time period, the number of those living in absolute poverty has nearly doubled. These trends are likely to hold across the region, albeit at different paces in different countries.

In Southern Africa, the burden of extreme poverty is already heavy. It is estimated that nearly 88 million people (45% of the population) live in extreme poverty across the region. Southern Africa accounts for 9% of extreme poverty globally, even though it only accounts for about 2.5% of the world population.

Southern Africa is expected to see the portion of those living in extreme poverty (relative poverty) drop from 45% today to 41% by 2040, but the number of those living in extreme poverty (absolute poverty) rise from 88 million to nearly 130 million (see Figure 1). This means that over 40 million more people are expected to be in extreme poverty in Southern Africa by 2040.

Every country in Southern African is expected to see an increase in absolute poverty, but the most rapid growth in absolute poverty will be concentrated in the region's poorer countries (see Figure 2 below). Madagascar, Malawi and Zimbabwe are expected to see the largest increase. By 2040, 45% of the region's extreme poor (over 58 million people) are expected to live in Malawi and Madagascar.

So, the question is: Why is the region expected to see such an increase in the number of those living in extreme poverty?

First, Southern African economic growth has not and is not expected to trickle down to the most vulnerable members of society. Southern Africa has the highest level of inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient) of any region in the world and is expected to see a slight increase in inequality over time.

Second, Southern Africa has not and is not expected to register economic growth that is high enough to both provide for its rapidly growing population and pull up those already in poverty. The region as a whole is expected to average 3.5% annual growth (see Figure 3 for regional variation) to 2040, which is lower than every other region on the continent save for Central Africa. Meanwhile, population growth is expected to average 2% over the same time period.

Much of the population already lacks access to basic infrastructure and health services. Less than a third of the population has access to piped water, less than half has access to improved sanitation facilities and the region has the third-lowest life expectancy in the world (above only West and Central Africa).

Low public service access, paired with expected population growth and modest economic growth, means that much of the population will continue to lack support and means to help them pull themselves out of extreme poverty.

Without concerted efforts to slow population growth and reduce inequality (both in income and access), absolute poverty in Southern Africa will continue to increase.

Alex Porter, Research Consultant, African Futures and Innovation, ISS Pretoria

Join the ISS seminar with Alex Porter on 6 April, at 10:30am CAT for a discussion on this topic.

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