AFRICA: How To Make Poverty History

By Chinua Akukwe

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
July 6, 2005


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The Live8 concert organized in multiple cities across the world on July 2, 2005 will go down in history as a major milestone in organized global efforts to end poverty, especially in Africa. Bob Geldoff and his fellow organizers deserve a lot of credit. The focus on raising awareness rather than soliciting for funds was also unique. However, despite the success of the Live8, the road ahead for a serious dent in Africa’s poverty levels is still perilous. Global effort to make poverty history is not going to be easy despite the genuine concern of celebrities and their millions of fans.

How can poverty in Africa become history for more than 300 million Africans who live on less than one dollar a day?

The first credible answer is that the war on poverty must overcome crowd pleasing rhetoric and saber-rattling. There is no magic wand in poverty eradication efforts. Success will require years of diligent hard work, with victories eked out in small bites. More than 40 years of multilateral and bilateral anti-poverty programs show that reducing rates of poverty or ending personal poverty status is not an exact science.

The second response is to think and act long term. Three hundred million Africans living on less than one dollar a day cannot by any stroke of economic or management genius suddenly escape the cold hands of poverty. Social welfare programs of Western countries show that gains are incremental, sometimes intergenerational. These scenarios are in environments where the polity is fairly stable, rule of law is present and most recipients can read at reasonable levels. This scenario is not applicable in many African countries.

Third, the cost of ending poverty is no longer a rate limiting step. Convincing work by the UN Millennium Development Goals project, Jeffrey Sachs and others show that it is feasible to set aside financial and technical resources, especially from rich Western countries to make poverty history.

Fourth, policy makers in rich countries and poor African countries can dramatically improve the odds of millions of Africans making poverty history. I am yet to see a logical reason why strategies for ending poverty in Africa should be different in Washington, London, Lagos, Nairobi or Johannesburg. If the ultimate goal is to end individual or family poverty in Africa, I do not see why there should be divergent vision on the best way forward in Africa or the West. Unlike the current dichotomous approach of “good” versus “bad” guys in the war on poverty in Africa, the only realistic hope for making a dent in extreme poverty levels in Africa is when Western and African leaders are literally on the same page.

These leaders must be on the same page on how to end the choking debt burdens in Africa; how to end all forms of corruption and malfeasance in Africa; how to end trade inequities and agricultural subsidies in Western countries that impoverish African farmers; how to end lack of genuine elections and democracy in many parts of Africa; how to end extrajudicial forms of justice in Africa; and, how to end the use of Western financial centers as the preferred end destination of misappropriated funds from poor Africa countries. Imagine a situation whereby policy makers in the West and Africa reach abiding accord on these issues. The war against poverty in Africa will dramatically change.

Fifth, education is the foundation of sustainable poverty eradication efforts. Free primary and secondary education should be available to all African children as part of any serious anti-poverty initiative in Africa. In particular, African female children should have the opportunity to know how to read and write.

Sixth, anti-poverty eradication programs in Africa must take advantage of the natural entrepreneurial abilities of Africans. Africans like to trade on goods and services, and have done so for centuries. Creating opportunities for Africans to become small-scale business men and women are critical. To make this happen, governments in Africa should create enabling regulatory environments that encourage budding entrepreneurs to push ahead with their ideas and motivate large-scale entrepreneurs and foreign investors to plan for the long-term. An enabling small and medium enterprises (SME) environment will also include investments in infrastructure in the areas of road networks, electricity, telecommunication, water and sanitation. Nurturing a sustainable private sector in Africa should be a major strategic objective of poverty eradication programs in Africa.

Seventh, the challenge of translating international, continental and national anti-poverty programs into verifiable impact at personal and family levels remains daunting. To avoid the scenario whereby earmarks or press conferences on antipoverty effort become more important than actual expenditures on the ground, the most important barometer of success should be measurable at personal, family or household levels. For example, in Zambia, a serious anti-poverty eradication program in Lusaka for individuals living on less than one dollar a day must show trend data that documents the additional numbers of individuals in a defined period that are no longer living in extreme poverty in the city. This is also applicable if the anti-poverty program is for all Zambians.

Finally, present day policy makers can make poverty history for all African newborns. Poverty eradication efforts in Africa should give every newborn a healthy and a fair start in life. To achieve this scenario, every African newborn should benefit from early childhood development programs that lead to age-appropriate and culturally relevant development milestones. These early childhood investments should also include quality health care, cognitive development skills, and, compulsory primary and secondary school education. To make poverty history for Africa’s newborn, all policies or programs that are anti-children will have to end. Wars and conflicts in Africa will also end since children pay a terrible price and some become child soldiers. Africa’s debt burden will be resolved so that no newborn African enters the world already indebted to financiers and bankers. There should be drastic curtailing of corruption in Africa since children often pay a higher burden as parents lose work and social services break down.

Poverty can become history in Africa if African leaders, their peoples and their Western friends join hands and implement long-term programs that have verifiable impact at individual, family or household levels in the continent.

About the author: Dr. Chinua Akukwe is with the George Washington University School of Public Health, Washington, DC.