We continue to ignore the rise of extreme poverty in Africa


In the early 2000s, wily state and corporate PR agents masquerading as journalists began talking about an “Africa Rising”. Whereas the continent had been seen in the modern era as hopeless, corrupt and politically dependent hell-holes that had failed the independence experiment, the new narrative told of double digit growth, rising incomes, a middle class and even solid, stable democratic values.

The ruse didn’t last long. Just as the hopeless rubric has misrepresented a desperate continent of many parts as one monolithic case, soon, the “Africa Rising” exposed itself for the farce that it was. As the mist lifted, the shacks began to show – be it in the outskirts of Nairobi, Durban or Lagos. It became clear that economic growth – where ever it may have been booming – was not solving the conundrum of income inequality. 

As economies in Europe slowed around 2008-2009, investors were playing up the “Africa Rising” card: they talked of expanding mobile phone networks, building shopping malls, and technological innovation in Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana as IT hubs were sold as the continent’s short-cut to development. Then the global economy shrunk again in 2015. South Africa and Nigeria – the continent’s biggest economies contracted, too. But the myth of “Africa Rising”, didn’t die completely. Now, analysts spoke of “Africa Rising in certain countries”, like Ethiopia and Rwanda.

Now given the hubris over “Africa Rising” and the obvious hackery associated with its use, imagine my reaction when I learnt this week that 14 out of the 18 countries where extreme poverty was increasing were in Africa itself. The report, published by the US-based Brookings Institute, and based on a projection by the World Poverty Clock, shows that some 643 million people across the world live in extreme poverty (less than $1.90 per day). Remember, this is an acute, dangerous level of poverty, in which families are on the verge of starving, or living in destitution. Africans account for around two-thirds of the total number. If current trends persist, Africans will account for nine-tenths by 2030.

According to the report, Nigeria is said to have the highest number of people – some 87 million people – living in extreme poverty. We love the oppression olympics, so I will add that India has 77 million (it has reduced over the past decade) while the Democratic Republic of Congo has 60 million people. But also on this list are Ethiopia and Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. These are large, important economies on the continent, and this did not happen overnight.

So what is going on? Why are so many African countries on this list?  

For one, Africa is not a country, and the insistence on treating it as such is not merely an irritant; the one-size fits all plans by global institutions continue to fail. Secondly, when investments have come in, they have almost always benefited the political and social elite. Thirdly, when loans have come in from International Monetary Fund (IMF), it has come with woeful conditions: privatisation, reducing government spending, and deregulating the market. All of which has left the vulnerable tethering on the periphery. 

The high levels of inequality meant that those excluded fall even further down the chain. Fourth is the ratio of population growth to growing incomes. The population is growing, and bigger incomes aren’t able to pull larger families out of poverty as a result. Fifth, the amount of money being pulled out of the continent is still astronomical. A 2010 study by the Global Financial Integrity group showed that $854bn was illicitly transferred out of the continent between 1972-2010. Out of that, $89.5bn came from Nigeria.

It is the illicit transfer of money that is among the biggest culprits for poverty on the continent.  Sixth, and finally, as mentioned by Tapiwa Gomo’s column in Zimbabwe’s Newsday, African nations remain mere suppliers of raw materials, governed by the games of industrialists and traders outside. This makes it difficult to wield influence over our

Neither can we ignore the many nefarious trade deals that keep many on the continent at bay. Consider the recent decision by Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda to ban second hand clothing to their countries, so that the country can develop its own clothing industry. The US promptly suspended the duty-free status of Rwanda’s textile products as punishment. Donald Trump’s protectionist policies targeting China will impact Africa, too.

But again, how a country like Nigeria – which is the largest economy on the continent and home to the biggest oil-reserves – continues to fail its people, is absurd. According to the latest stats, six Nigerians fall into extreme poverty each minute.

Likewise, for all the talk of Ethiopia’s economic boom over the past decade, 23.9 million people still live in extreme poverty.

Across the continent, I am inclined to argue that most leaders are neither serious about addressing poverty nor are they committed to finding ways to make it any easier to accomplish. They are also disconnected by the fact that it is the youth who are most impacted by unemployment and lack of opportunity.

Consider the poverty in the Sahel which have led to youth joining armed groups or migrating to Europe. Governments are asking the UN and European governments for funding to boost their armies, rather than addressing their poor governance and failure to provide.  

Or consider Kenya, where recent elections cost half a billion dollars for no reason at all. Or the fact that 20 Kenyan MPs had allegedly traveled to the World Cup in Russia at taxpayers expense to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Remember, Kenya is on that list, too.

And the average Kenyan earns $150 per month. This is certainly not the actions of a caring leadership. This is not to suggest that reducing poverty is a simple affair. But the numbers do suggest that we better get a move on, before the problem becomes insurmountable.

Azad Essa is a journalist based in New York City