90 Percent: The Future of Poverty in sub-Saharan Africa


SEATTLE — The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) predicts that sub-Saharan Africa will be home to 90 percent of all children living in poverty and 43 percent of all impoverished people worldwide by 2030. As stated in its report, “The emerging face of residual world poverty is the face of an African child.”

That being said, ODI’s new study puts forth solutions to what could become a developmental crisis. In order to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, the world’s collective gaze must fall on poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to the World Bank, the distribution of extremely impoverished children by region in 2030 will likely settle as follows: 7.6 million in South Asia, 1.2 million in East Asia and the Pacific, 10.7 million in Latin America and the Caribbean and 147.7 million in sub-Saharan Africa.

If those predictions come to fruition, sub-Saharan Africa could pose a serious threat to the achievement of SDGs by the target date.

Understanding the Problem

Any nation that lies fully or partially south of the Sahara Desert is considered to be part of sub-Saharan Africa. The region is made up of 46 countries in total. Based on data collected by the World Bank, ODI developed scenarios outlining developmental struggles in the region and what aid organizations would have to do to clear those hurdles.

The important question here is this: why is sub-Saharan Africa projected to become the primary seat of global poverty? There is a four-part answer to this seemingly insoluble question. Understanding the indicators that form the basis of ODI’s predictions is key in weighing the efficacy of proposed solutions.

1. Living Below the Threshold

Anyone living on less than $1.90 per day is considered extremely impoverished by World Bank standards. What sets sub-Saharan Africa apart from regions that have similar legacies of poverty like South Asia is the fact that impoverished people in sub-Saharan Africa fall further below that threshold.

The median daily consumption figure for sub-Saharan African nations is $1.18. In South Asia, the median is $1.56. Although extreme global poverty rates have fallen consistently over the last three decades, the level of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa has all but stagnated.

In 2002, 399 million people in the region lived on or below $1.90 a day. In 2012, that figure experienced a discouraging 2.8 percent decrease to 388 million.

During the same 10-year period, the number of South Asian people living in extreme poverty experienced a 47 percent decrease from 583 million to 309 million.

Inability to break through the daily consumption threshold will likely contribute to the state of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030.

2. Unequal Access to Education

The second major indicator of sub-Saharan Africa’s potential problem is systemic inequality. Such inequity leads to stunted social and economic growth. As written in the report, “High levels of initial inequality weaken the link between economic growth and poverty reduction.”

Access to education typically leads to the development of a skilled workforce. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, educational access is low. In 2010, 32 million sub-Saharan African children of primary school age did not attend school, which accounted for one-quarter of all school-aged children in the region.

Those 32 million children made up 45 percent of the world’s total out-of-school population. Beyond that, girls’ access to education is even less stable. Whereas seven in 10 men in sub-Saharan Africa can read and write, only five in 10 women can do so.

3. Commodity-Intensive Growth

The region has experienced consistent economic growth since 2000 because of an increase in mineral export value, which led to foreign investment.

The logical conclusion, then, would be to assume that significant poverty reduction followed. Unfortunately, economic growth and poverty reduction do not run parallel in sub-Saharan Africa at this point.

That disparity could be the region’s most pressing paradox. Although this relationship between growth and poverty reduction seems counterintuitive, it can be traced back to one issue. Regional economic development was not built on a foundation of economic reform.

As stated in the report, “The sectors driving economic growth have, for the most part, been capital intensive rather than employment intensive.”

Allowing people to find stability and security in a labor-intensive market fosters sustainable economic reform. As of now, poverty in sub-Saharan Africa is reinforced by a sweeping failure to operate under that system.

4. Demographic Transition

This massive region is now in the early stages of demographic transition. Child mortality is declining and fertility remains high. In terms of poverty reduction, those factors are at odds. The region’s share of world births is expected to rise from 29 percent to 35 percent by 2030, which is of great significance when it comes to reaching SDGs.

While the under-five population is decreasing worldwide, researchers predict that 622 million children will be born in sub-Saharan Africa over the next 14 years. Such a staggering number of children under five could pose serious problems for education and health care systems. Those problems could then create roadblocks on the road to poverty reduction.

The Solution

Researchers from ODI presented four main solutions in their report for dealing with a demographic transition on this scale. Economic reform, access to education and daily consumption figures can all be addressed if poverty in sub-Saharan Africa is approached with a focus on demography.

Although it is up to aid organizations to find specific avenues toward improvement, ODI’s proposals provide a valuable starting point:

1. Empower women and girls.

One-quarter of sub-Saharan African women of reproductive age report that their needs for family planning are unmet. Lack of information and preventative measures strips women of their agency in the domestic sphere.

Socio-cultural impositions play a large role in the fact that women are expected to have large families. Giving them greater control over their reproductive health could accelerate demographic transition in a way that compensates for decreasing child mortality.

2. Create equitable access to health care.

Although acceleration toward smaller families should remain a goal, steps must be taken to ensure that the 622 million children who could be born between now and 2030 receive health care. Particular attention should be paid to antenatal and early childhood care since malnutrition is often the region’s greatest health setback.

The report states that “changing this picture will require a major increase in the quantity and quality of health personnel and facilities, along with a greatly strengthened focus on equity.”

3. Strengthen social protection of children.

ODI researchers speculate that government-funded safety-net programs could address childhood poverty on a large scale, even with limited resources. The implementation of cash transfer initiatives for underserved families may be the answer.

Such initiatives have proven successful in nations like Nepal, where cash transfers of just $1.95 per month to low-income families now support 20 percent of the nation’s under-five population.

4. Emphasize equal access to education.

By working toward educational equality for boys, girls and all children living in rural areas, progress toward accelerated economic growth would likely follow. Achieving a growing demographic dividend is often a goal in poverty-reduction efforts.

Building a skilled workforce plays a vital role in economic reform. Such development begins in the classroom. The focus should be on helping more children not only achieve literacy but develop specialized skills that they can use to obtain stable, long-term employment.

The picture painted by this report is an alarming one, but it is by no means hopeless. By coming together and focusing on these four solutions, aid organizations can defy the odds and change the trajectory of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

Madeline Distasio

Photo: Flickr


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