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									                 Poverty – Status and Dynamics in Africa

                                                                                    Wolfgang Schonecke
                                                                              Netzwerk Afrika Deutschland

150 years the average African would have feel insulted to be called poor. Unless there was famine or
war, he had all he needed for a contented life: enough food for his family and even for lavish feasts, a
house he had built and simple clothes he had produced himself. He felt a respected member of his
enlarged family and his clan gave him identity and support in times of need. His life was short due to
malaria or other sicknesses for which there was no effective herbal medicine. But that was simply part
of life. The same person living today would feel poor because he has no money to educate his
children, no television, no mobile phone, no means of transport. The World Bank would classify him as
one of the millions of poor who live on less than two dollars a day. The most Europeans for whom
Africa and poverty are almost synonymous would place him with the people living in the squalor of
slums or dying of wars or aids, whom they sees occasionally on their TV screens.
Poverty is Africa is a sad reality. It is also an oversimplified image created in our minds, which hides
much the mixture of joys and pains, the hopes and sufferings that are part of all human lives. Above all
poverty is a complex phenomenon and has many faces, causes and consequences. Who is poorer,
the African child in rags eating one meal a day, yet smiling in the midst of many playmates and caring
mothers, or the European child sitting alone listless and bored surrounded by heaps of gadgets while
father and mother are away at work?
Sure enough, we have crated more objective indicators of poverty like infant mortality, alphabetisation
or calorie intake and according to these criteria most African countries rate bottom of the list. Whereas
Asia and Latin America have made much progress there is little chance that African countries will
reach the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 on most scores.
At the same time, Africa is the richest continent. On much of its fertile lands one can grow two crops a
year. All industrialised countries, old or new, vie to exploit the huge potential: its untapped mineral-
and oil reserves, the timber and genetic riches of its tropic forests, its renewable energy potential of
sunshine, waterfalls and energy crops. Africa is also rich in human resources. It exports not only top
class footballer and sportsmen, but also doctors, nurses and other highly qualified professionals into
the rest of the world. Looking at the natural endowment God has put into the „cradle of humanity‟
Africa should be richest and most developed continent. So the question arises why can a rich
continent be so poor? To understand the root causes of poverty we have to dig into the painful history
of the continent and face the fact that Europe has been exploiting Africa for the last five hundred years
and is still doing so.

The historical roots of poverty
Most Africans of the older generation when writing or speaking about the problems of their continent,
will point to the horrors of centuries of Arab and transatlantic slave trade and the consequences of
colonialism. Both damaged Africa‟s social fabric and left behind a collective trauma. More damaging
than any form of economic exploitation or political oppression has been the contempt with which the
rest of the world has treated African people for centuries, denying their humanity and treating them as
less than human. This has destroyed in many for a long time a sense of personal dignity and the
healthy self-confidence that are necessary conditions for the kind of personal and collective dynamism
that translates into social change and auto-development. The paternalism in politics and in the Church
where Europe played the role of the gracious giver of knowledge und aid and Africa the role of the
grateful receiver of the benefits of Western civilisation has characterised relations between Africans
and Europeans long after colonialism officially ceased to exist. These uneven relationships have
reinforced colonial patterns subtly but effectively. It is only in recent years that politicians have started
talking about a dialogue between Africa and Europe on equal terms, seeing eye to eye. This is due not
so much to a conversion of European superiority complexes, but to the fact that a new generation of
Africans who have not know colonial rule is coming into positions of power. They claim respect and
begin to understand that nobody but themselves will pull Africa out of the poverty trap. The political
expression of this growing self-confidence is the re-organisation of the African Union, the New
Partnership for Africa‟s Development (NEPAD) and the self-organisation of regional economic entities,
even if most are still struggling with enormous teething problems. This renewed self-confidence
manifested itself when the developing nations refused and continue to refuse to accept unfavourable
terms in the Doha-Round at the WTO. Still better, the West African regional community ECOWAS in
spite of massive threats of the EU refused to sign the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs).
These are hopeful signs that Africans is at last beginning to shed the mental patterns of colonialism
that are the root of poverty.

The economic causes of poverty
The colonial era did not only shape the mental landscapes, but also the economics structures of Africa
in a way that was not favourable to indigenous development. The logic of colonial economics served
two goals: to provide the European power with cheap raw materials produced by cheap labour (often
slave labour) and at the same time provide new markets for finished goods. Using his own resources
of land, water and plentiful sun the colonial labourer produced cotton for Europe‟s textile mills, and
then spend his meagre earning to buy cloth „Made in Europe‟ for himself and his family. He was not
supposed to produce it himself. The added value remained abroad. Colonial powers did develop the
infrastructure in many countries, but only in view of the export-oriented economy, not to provide for the
needs of the population. When the late President of Tanzania opened the Chinese-built TAZARA
railway line he remarked that all other railways line had been built to serve the interest of colonial
power. The Chinese had for the first time built a railway line to serve the national needs. The colonial
pattern did not serve local development and contributed much to keep Africa in poverty.
When African countries became independent in the 60ies there was a tremendous expectation that
soon the continent would catch up with the rest of world. Initially the newly formed states declared war
on the three great enemies: ignorance, sickness and poverty. They drew up ambitious development
programmes, built schools and multiplied health facilities. After a century of foreign rule Africa wanted
to catch up with the rest of the world. Two decades later this great thrust ended in disappointment.
Much of the progress had been financed not by local funds and efforts, but by foreign credits, which
were often not used productively or went straight into private pockets. With the first and second petrol
crisis Africa got deeply caught in the debt trap. Soaring interest rates drained the resources that
should have help development and poverty eradication.

Poverty through forced liberalisation
To ensure that debts were duly paid the International Monitory funds imposed the Structural
Adjustment Programmes (SAPs). To get the hard currency to pay interests the economies were more
and more focused towards production for export, while social services, education and health services
were partly privatised and so no longer accessible to the poor. Import duties were forcibly reduced to
open up local market to foreign goods. As a result government income was reduced Not only citizens
became poorer, governments became poorer too. The fledging local industries (for example textile or
sugar industries) could not compete with often subsidised foreign competitors and went bankrupt.
Large numbers of people lost their employment and became poorer. Today‟s poverty is not only due to
bad governance and corruption, but is equally a direct result of the poor policies of the International
Financial Institutions, policies that are continued even after they proved to be doing more harm than
The push to force developing countries to liberalise their economies continues unabated. Under the
slogan “Trade not aid” the World Trade Organisation (WTO) pushes in the Doha-Round for further
liberalisation and privatisation. The European Union in turn in its negotiations with the 77 ACP-
(African-Caribbean-Pacific) countries, its former colonies, wants to liberalise trade even further.
Already 40 years ago Pope Paul VI famous encyclical „Populorum Progressio saw clearly the chances
and dangers of trade liberalisation:
         “In trade between developed and underdeveloped economies, conditions are too disparate
         and the degrees of genuine freedom available too unequal. In order that international trade be
         human and moral, social justice requires that it restore to the participants a certain equality of
         opportunity. This equality is a long-term objective, but to reach it, we must begin now to create
         true equality in discussions and negotiations”.
All highly industrialised countries, including the USA, have for a long time protected their industries -
and are still heavily protecting their agriculture - until such time that they were competitive on world
market. Forcing African countries to open their markets risks to ruin their weak local industries and
their subsistence farmers, thus creating more rural and urban poverty. Fighting poverty in Africa

 Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progresio, 1967 No. 61
No. 56-65 describe the problems of trade justice in clear, and still up to date terms.

supposes finding the thin line between protecting local producers against unfair foreign competition
and stimulating the local economy to improve their productivity to the point of being able to compete
on world markets.
One aspect is worth mentioning here. Dwindling energy resources, high oil prices and the concern
about climate change push the USA, the EU and newly industrialised countries like China, India and
Brazil to switch to “agro-fuels”. Since most of them have no spare land to cultivate energy crops they
have to import them from the developing countries. While they could be a welcome source of income
for poor countries they risk to create a competition between energy crops and food crops and thus
lead to more hunger in Africa as small farmer are pushed out of their land to make room for plantations
of energy crops. For this reason UN-Rapporteur Jean Ziegler in his last report to the UN-Plenary
Council called
         “for a five-year moratorium on bio-fuel production using current methods, to allow time for
         technologies to be devised and regulatory structures to be put in place to protect against
         negative environmental, social and human rights impacts.”

Poverty and population growth
Poverty will increase when population growth outstrips economic growth. Where the number of mouths
who want to eat increases faster than the amount of food on the table, there will be less for every one.
High population growth can both hinder and favour development. Rwanda is a country that for the
level of its development is overpopulated and the average family has less than a hectare to live on. As
the population doubles every 20 to 25 years poverty is bound to increase sharply unless new sources
of income can be created. The government has introduced a three-children-per-family policy and is
investing in information and communication technology. Neighbouring Congo on the contrary has vast
stretches that are only thinly populated and would profit from a higher population density. Population
growth in Africa is still high with more than 5 childbirths per woman, but is slowing down as education
increases. What measures of channelling population growth are appropriate in terms of poverty
reduction and development depends to a large extend on local conditions.

The economic impact of HIV/Aids
The pandemic of HIV/Aids has spread faster in Africa than in any other place. The 2006 Up-Date of
the World Health Organisation (WHO) reveals terrifying impact of Aids on Sub-Saharan Africa: 24.7
million infected persons (63% of the total number), 2.1 million deaths (of 72% of the total number),
over one million patients receiving ARV-Treatment. It means untold suffering for the affected persons
and a major tragedy for the families concerned. It also affects negatively the economy. The section of
the population that is sexually active and so exposed to infection is the same that economically the
most active. The disease ravages particularly people who are needed for the functioning of a modern
state: civil servants, teachers, medical staff and other professionals. The huge investment of African
governments made to raise the level of education and health care are frustrated as the qualified
personnel die away. The availability of anti-viral drugs has slowed down the death rate, but the vast
majority of aids victim cannot afford the drug and the needed medical supervision.
Aids has behind a trail of death and some 11 million of orphans. The funds to provide for their basic
needs of life, for housing, food, schooling and health care are simply not their. When the extended
family becomes unable to cope many of the children end up as street children, enlarging the numbers
of the desperately poor. Fighting poverty goes together with the fight against Aids and with providing
drugs and treatment to keep people alive to make their contribution to the economy and to keep their
children out of poverty.

War as a cause of poverty
From 1990 to 2005 23 African nations were involved in wars and armed conflicts. A recent study made
by Oxfam and other NGOs calculates that the cost of these wars amounts to a staggering 300 billion
dollars and is roughly equal to the total of development aid given during the same period. Ironically, it
is the rich countries that often most vulnerable to war as their resources attract greedy neighbours and

  Jean Ziegler, Interim Report to the UN General Assembly 22.08.2007 No. 44
  UNAIDS, 2006 Aids Epidemic Update, Sub-Saharan Africa
  Africa‟a mission billions, International arms flows and the cost of conflict, Oxfam, Iansa, Saferworld, ,
Briefingpaper 107, October 2007

foreign investors who finance rebel groups or private armies and use wars serve their interests. The
international campaigns on „Blood Diamants‟ and on coltan in the Congo demonstrated the
mechanisms of war economies.
Many of these wars go almost unnoticed by the rest of the world; yet leave behind them a trail of
destruction and death. The worst legacy is often a generation of young people with no education or
skills except the art to kill. To rebuild houses and infrastructure is hard enough, to re-educate the
children of war and give them life skills takes a much longer sustained effort. Fighting poverty means
also work for peace and reconciliation locally and for effective arms controls internationally.

The threat of climate change
Most experts on climate change point out that Africa will be among the places that will be hardest hit
by global warming. The signs are already visible. The ice cap of the Kilimanjaro is disappearing. Lake
Chad has almost dried up. Southern Africa saw an exceedingly long period of drought while the
usually dry Sahel zone experienced the worst floods in memory. The prediction is that the excesses of
nature, which always existed, will get worse. This means that large areas where people could just
scratch out a meagre living will no longer support their population who will be forced to migrate
creating conflict and overuse of resource elsewhere. People who were once prosperous will loose their
means of livelihood and swell the ranks of the poor. In answer to this prospect development agencies
are studying strategies to prepare the affected populations to cope better with the effects of climate
change. Climate change could a great challenge to the development community in the coming years
and a new front in the fight against poverty.

GNP is growing
The causes of poverty are many and their elimination a difficult, long-term challenge. But there are
signs of hope. After years of Afro-Pessimism and writing off the continent of unredeemable World
Bank and International Monitory Fund point out that the economic growth rates are rising steadily and
that the future of Africa looks brighter. Indeed, a look at the World Bank statistics is encouraging .
GDP has almost doubled since 2000 and is growing at 5.7% annually. Foreign investment increased
from 6.8 billion to 16.6 billion, Official development assistance and aid from 13.2 to 32.6 billion. The
most spectacular growth rates are in communication. 140 people in very 1000 have a phone as
compared to 31 in 2000. Internet access is still reserved to a few but spreading fast, even in rural
areas. Investment in education is high. Enrolment on primary level has risen to 94.9% and Africa could
meet the millennium goals at least on that point. The number of conflicts is on the continent is
decreasing and the AU has taken a more active role in mediating in conflicts.
Economic growth rates are mainly due to high prices for oil and other raw materials and the discovery
of new oil and mineral deposits in several countries. Europe and America, and even more so China
and India, are in need of more and more energy and raw materials to feed their fast growing industries
and they are investing heavily in Africa. High demand has pushed up world market prices, and African
countries are profiting from this. Yet, very little of this growth is profiting the poor.
This is caused by several factors. In undemocratic regimes the state income is controlled by a small
and often corrupt elite who use the state funds for personal enrichment. A considerable portion of the
financial flows never reaches the treasury and does not part appear as part of the national budget, but
is instead diverted directly onto foreign banks on private accounts. In the end very little of the national
income reaches the poor. Many economists point out that Africa would be not need of foreign aid if
governments would actually use the means at their disposal for the development of their countries.
The other reason for poverty in rich countries is that these corrupt elites often sell resources of their
countries to foreign investors for very small return. Only a very small portion of profits from the
extraction of the resources flows into the national treasury. A report on benefits of the mining industry
in Ghana states: “In 2004, all the mining companies paid mineral royalties at 3%.” . The lion‟s share of

  cf. WWF Climate change impacts on East Africa,
  See World Bank statistics at the end of this paper. For more detail see:
  Report on the Aggregation/Reconciliation of Mining Benefits in Ghana, January – June 2004

Africa‟s wealth is going into the hands of investors instead of serving the development and poverty
The many Chinese projects in Africa, like roads, railways, communications, mining and energy
improve the infrastructure, but they do not create much employing, as Chinese companies come with
the armies of workers. The hope of the local people to find jobs is mostly disappointed.
It is striking that oil producing countries like Nigeria, Angola or Equatorial Guinea which have doubled
their incomes from oil revenues in the last years, yet poverty remains rampant. Apart from massive
corruption a further reason is the so-called „Dutch disease‟. These countries have enough money to
import the goods they need and do not have to bother about developing their own agricultural and
industrial capacities. In the end they are poorer than countries without easy income that have to
struggle hard to make ends meet.

How Africa’s poor cope
People in Europe could hardly survive on 2 Euro a day, millions of people in Africa do. Anyone who
has observes life in a slum of an African city will wonder how people survive. It is indeed not easy to
understand how people without land, running water, sanitation, electricity and salary manage their
daily survival. Without access to resources that most people take for granted they have developed a
parallel economy that keeps them alive, yet does not appear in most statistics. The poor who cannot
afford the normal services create their own informal economy using their own capacities and skills and
setting up an internal market with its own price system. Part of it belongs to a criminal economy
through dealing in drugs and prostitution. Yet, the miracle is that slums dwellers survive at all. To
exploit that potential and help it with better skills and minimal capital input could be perhaps the most
effective way of fighting poverty.
One way how the poor survive is through solidarity. There is the traditional solidarity between family
members and a new solidarity between members of churches and their various associations.
Remarkable progress has been achieved also with more organised forms of solidarity, particularly
through various types of saving and loan societies and other mini-credit schemes. It is astonishing
what women in particular are able to do with relatively small amounts of credit.
Another way how the poor try to escape poverty is through migration. Millions of people in Africa are
on the move. Farmers, who can no longer survive on the land, move to the city. Fishermen who catch
no more fish in the ocean because EU ships sweep Africa‟s coast use their boat to transport desperate
migrants to the shores of Europe. Families put together the 2.000 – 3.000 Dollars needed to pay the
middlemen to smuggle one member into the promised land of Europe in the hope that they will find
work and support the folks at home. And they do. What migrants send to their home countries in many
cases far exceeds the official foreign aid. The brain drain that impoverishes Africa also enriches it.

To make a definite assessment of the poverty situation on the African continent is difficult. There are
definite indicators that the worst years are over and better times lie ahead. The question is how will
profit from the progress? Foreign investors, the political elites or the general population? As in the rest
of the world, globalisation is increasing the gap with the poor and rich. There are an estimated
100.000 Millionaires in Africa and their number is rising steadily while most people in most countries
would say that they are poorer today than they were 10 years ago. Perhaps the chance for change lies
with the younger generation. They are better educated, less blocked by the colonial syndrome and
politically more conscious. They are connected to the rest of the world through Internet and e-mail and
less ready to tolerate the glaring social injustices. Whether they have the moral fibre to act with more
concern for the common good than their fathers, only time will tell. Even more needed than academic
and technical skills is to educate the young to a sense of social responsibility and train them in the
skills of non-violent ways of transforming society so that the huge potential of Africa will one day be
used for the benefit of its people and the eradication of poverty.

Wolfgang Schonecke
Netzwerk Afrika Deutschland

    cf. World Wealth Report 2004, Capgemini et Merrill Lynch, New York, 32 pp.


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