ERITREA — The small East African nation of Eritrea has a population of approximately 5.5 million, of which 69 percent are estimated to live in poverty. Numerous reasons have been proposed as to the cause of this large percentage, from having one of the lowest GDP per capita in the world, to the knock-on effects from its war for independence more than two decades ago; yet no singular reason exists. As such, this article will examine the primary causes of poverty in Eritrea.
1) The Economy
The economy of Eritrea is one of the poorest performing in the world, in part because of the way it is comprised. One third of the nation’s GDP is made up of money sent home from Eritrean citizen’s living in Europe and other developed countries. Internal industry and services make up the majority of the remaining GDP, while agriculture contributes only 13 percent, despite employing 80 percent of the population.
The issues associated with agriculture are not limited to Eritrea’s economy. Located in the Horn of Africa, the variable climate causes multiple problems for those employed within this sector. Only 12 percent of total land is suitable for farming, in part due to the country’s rocky and mountainous terrain and in part due to the persistent drought which impacts much of the remaining landscape.
The border lands, much of which being arable, are unusable due to unexploded ordinances left over from the war from independence. This ultimately means that for those whose life is based in agriculture, it is virtually impossible to earn a sustainable living off the land.
The issues associated with agriculture have a knock-on effect to one of the other main causes of poverty in Eritrea – hunger. Across the country, an estimated two-thirds of households are impacted by food insecurity, an area of concern that the government has targeted with little success since independence in 1992. As with many nations, this threat is far more widespread in rural areas, with food security largely unequal between urban and isolated regions.
Educational issues further contribute to poverty in Eritrea, with primary education enrollment the third-lowest in the world at an estimated 33.5 percent. While efforts have been made to improve this through government initiatives such as free basic education and non-formal education programs, they have seen little to no effect. The educational failures are not limited to attendance, however, with the quality of education received observed to be particularly low.
Of all attendees, 13 percent repeat grades, while literacy rates are approximated at 74 percent for men and 61 percent for women. These figures lead to the assertion that both quality and availability of the service requires improvement in order to help alleviate poverty across the country.
Thank Goodness for Health Care
One of Eritrea’s brighter areas is health care. Of all African nations, Eritrea was one of a small number to have made progress towards the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), however a lack of access to clean water and adequate sanitation remains a major problem in the country, with diarrheal diseases remaining one of the primary causes of mortality among children under five.
Health services also remain limited and, as such, the health system requires investment and expansion in order to continue the strong work and impact they’ve had thus far. While the Eritrean government has made strides in meeting MDGs, particularly given the challenges that it faces, external assistance has also proven invaluable.
IFAD has focused on reconstructing communities and their needs, as well as assisting in the managing of natural resources in these regions. UNICEF has provided investment into areas such as healthcare, education and hunger. With continued investment on behalf of these organizations and additional aid from partnerships such as the EU, perhaps Eritrea can overcome the demanding conditions which block its way out of poverty.
– Gavin Callander