Cape Town — One in three Africans is destitute, says a new study on poverty in 39 African nations led by development economists at Oxford University in Britain.
The figures for children are even more shocking. In what the study calls “truly staggering” statistics, two of every three African children are living in poverty. That’s 300 million African children.
But as the world works to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015, there is hope. Poverty has gone down over time, the study says, and most countries are reducing destitution – the worst form of poverty – at a faster rate than poverty overall.
The figures come from recently-released data and reports issued by the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI), drawn from a survey of 103 countries across the world – 39 of them in Africa. The study is unique in that it measures poverty not only by income levels but by 10 indicators in the areas of health, education and living standards which are also priorities in the SDGs.
The indicators rate poverty by factors such as malnutrition, child mortality, years of schooling, levels of school attendance and access to cooking fuel, sanitation, safe drinking water, electricity, proper flooring and ownership of forms of transport and electrical goods. These ratings are used to develop what the OPHI calls the “Multidimensional Poverty Index” (MPI).
The OPHI study defines the most severe form of poverty as “destitution”.
By this definition of “the poorest of the poor”, 282 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are destitute – the highest rate in the world. More than half the citizens of six countries – South Sudan, Niger, Somalia, Chad, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia – live in destitution.
Widening the definition of poverty to include all who are “multi-dimensionally poor”, the OPHI says six in 10 sub-Saharan Africans – or 521 million people – are poor by this measure. (By the World Bank’s measurement of poverty – the global poverty line of $1.90c a day – 402 million people are poor.)
But in what the Oxford study calls its “good news”, it identifies countries which have succeeded in reducing destitution. Three of the four countries in the world which did best were in Africa.
Ethiopia reduced the proportion of destitute people by 30 percentage points between 2000 and 2011, mostly by increasing years of schooling and school attendance and providing better sanitation. Virtually across the board, the study shows that rural areas are poorer than urban areas, and Ethiopia reduced its number of rural destitute people from 51 million to 44 million over the decade.
Other stories of relative success cited are Ghana, where the number of rural destitute was cut from 4.9 to 2.9 million in the years covered by the study, and Niger, where although the numbers of rural destitute increased, their proportion to the country’s total population dropped from 90 to 80 percent.
Looking at poverty more widely, two of three countries which did best in reducing it were African: Rwanda, where the proportion of poor in the population dropped to 54 percent over the period surveyed, and Ghana, where it dropped to 34 percent. The study cited better access to sanitation and safe water as key reasons for the improvement in Rwanda, and better school attendance and lower child mortality for that in Ghana.
Another feature of the Oxford study is its breakdown of poverty rates within different regions of each country. More than nine in 10 people are “multi-dimensionally poor” in at least one region of the following countries: Chad, South Sudan, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Niger, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Benin, the Central African Republic, Guinea, Gambia, Nigeria and Mali.
While Niger is shown to be the poorest country surveyed, with 89 percent of people living in poverty and 69 percent in destitution, people in two regions of Chad are poorer, with the incidence of poverty reaching 98 percent in the Lac region and 99 percent in Wadi Fira.
But poverty is at its lowest levels in urban areas, with a rate of less than 10 percent in Bulawayo (Zimbabwe), Nairobi, Libreville, Yaounde, Douala (Cameroon), Lagos, Mzuzu City (Malawi), Dakhlet Nouadhibou (Mauritania), and Harare.
The OPHI uses the example of Chad to illustrate the importance of digging deeper than “headline” statistics, breaking them down to show what steps need to be taken to alleviate poverty.
“How people are poor differs,” it says. “In Lac, 34 percent of people are poor and have experienced a child death, in Wadi Fira it’s 20 percent. But in Wadi Fira, 97 percent of people lack clean drinking water, whereas in Lac it’s 64 percent. So even between two extremely poor regions, policy responses need to differ.”
Looking at specific indicators in the 39 African countries surveyed, the OPHI says 64 percent of the poor are deprived of cooking fuel, 57 percent of electricity and 56 percent of improved sanitation.
The 39 countries covered by the OHPI survey are: Burundi, Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo, Comoros, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Mauritania, Malawi, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Sao Tome, Swaziland, Chad, Togo, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Although Somalia’s situation is mentioned in this report, its statistics were not among those included by the OHPI in its consolidated figures for sub-Saharan Africa.