SEATTLE — Although poverty in Africa has declined in years, it is still a major problem. According to the latest report from the World Bank, poverty across the continent is lower than what some current estimates suggest, but the number of people living in extreme poverty has risen since 1990.
The Borgen Project had the opportunity to speak with Jenny Peterson, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia. Peterson is interested in international relations, comparative politics, humanitarian studies and peace studies. She has a passion for international aid, and in the past, she has conducted research and led student field trips to Kosovo, Sri Lanka and Ghana.
The Borgen Project: In your opinion, has poverty in Africa progressed or is it still a huge problem?
Jenny Peterson: I think that development is still very uneven, regardless of the examples of great progress. I wouldn’t want to suggest that there haven’t been great strides within communities, countries and aid organizations, but we still see inequality. The general trend is not positive, although there are several examples of success.
TBP: What are the main reasons for poverty still being a huge problem?
JP: I think it’s related to inequality. There’s been a real focus on economic growth and we have not focused enough on relative indicators. There has been increasing inequality, and also we haven’t thought about how inequality is bad for economic growth. Even though we see success at the micro level, the reason we don’t see those successes leading to huge changes is because there’s still a focus only on economic growth and not human security, human development or non-economic indicators. Economic growth is important, but it has to go alongside other goals and projects.
TBP: How can organizations, citizens and everyday people help with poverty in Africa?
JP: I think there needs to be a focus on relationships between communities and people. Rather than just development, there needs to be more community building, relationships and empathy. We need to start building social support between individuals and communities. Jobs, social safety nets and government policies are all important, but people need to look out for one another more than we are.
TBP: Do you believe that every small action makes a difference?
JP: I do, but we don’t always see what the impact is. The problem with the development industry is when the project is completed, everyone wants to see the tangible impacts straightaway. However, sometimes we don’t always see the impact because it takes longer than we think, or the impacts are hidden or hard to measure. We don’t always get to see the positive impact on a community or an individual. Also, although every small action can lead to change, we need to be careful, because small actions can lead to negative change as well. We need to be careful that the things we are doing aren’t unintentionally making things more difficult for people.
TBP: What did you do when you led a student field trip to Ghana?
JP: The students I took were on a master’s degree for post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding. Although Ghana is a fairly peaceful place, compared to some other conflicts, there has been low-level violence in the country in recent years. We were looking at community relationships in the north of Ghana, and looking at what local actors and community elders were working towards. It was more about social relations and building peaceful relationships between different community groups.
We also spent a bit of time in a refugee camp outside Accra that was hosting refugees from other West African conflicts. We spent some time there looking at how refugees were being treated and how they were being protected. Ghana itself is a developing country, but it has done much to support other countries. Although they are at times in need of assistance, they also have played a role in assisting others and this shouldn’t be forgotten.
Poverty in Africa is still a huge problem, but focusing on non-economic factors can help reduce poverty in many communities. A solution that people do not often consider is taking the voices of the poor into account. By taking in their suggestions, teaching them to build relationships in their community, and having them help one another, poverty can be alleviated even more.
– Negin Nia