Causes of Poverty in Africa: Lost Continent or Land of Opportunities?

January 20, 2011
Decade after decade, politicians and international organizations have failed to tackle poverty in Africa. Nor have they been able to help generate growth or build basic infrastructure. Between 1975 and 2000 it was the only place on earth where poverty has intensified. Since then things have been changing - and fast - but some countries still struggle more than others.

Excluding Africa from the rest of the world

In fact, there has been some growth since 1995 but it's been mostly in the very new services sector so it created only a few jobs whereas manufacturing and agriculture could have done much better.

As the British prime minister declared in 2001 African poverty is "a scar on the conscience of the world". In recent years, globalization and technological inflation have made it only worse. It only helped further excluding the continent and widening the gaps with the rest of the world.

However development economists and experts from all boards are now approaching the problem from new angles to provide innovative ways to fight African poverty.

Better yet, some African countries are now emerging as real economic powers thanks to better leadership and deals with foreign investors to build infrastructure. Let's see how all that improves our understanding of poverty in Africa, the plague of a continent.

Globalization & causes of poverty in Africa

Poverty in Africa - Map of the places connected to electricity network
Poverty in Africa - Map of the places connected to electricity network

Better off rich or poor?

Aside from political and social reasons (e.g. corruption, ethnic violence), many economists argue that the absence of economic growth is in part due to a detrimental geography that impacts on the economy. 

But in many cases, oil-rich African countries are also more likely to be exploited by other countries or powerful corporations who always find a way to not pay much-needed taxes (billions and billions of dollars).

In most developing countries, disparities pose the problem of redistribution of wealth, but many African countries are simply too poor to redistribute anything. The average income level is sometimes so low that even working people live under poverty. So, how do you fix that?

Free trade agreements against the African continent

International trade policies, for example, are incomparably more important than international aid to end African poverty and help its countries to integrate the global market. Surprising ? Not that much considering the global competition that the continent has to face: not only are the US, the European Union protecting their key industries (especially those that Africa could compete with, like agriculture), but now Asian countries also got in the game, spearheaded by India and China.

With each of them seeking to protect their benefits, the international community should rather give preferential market conditions to poor countries (e.g. for export or agricultural development). This would provide them a path to fast development, and hopefully diffuse the benefits to inner regions. In that way the internal market could also thrive and help alleviate poverty in African countries that are landlocked. Read how African farmers have finally won their case at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Africa is not poor, others made it that way

"I come from the richest country in the world. It is located in the richest continent in the world. That country is called Sierra Leone." (Mallence Bart-Williams)

Here's the transcript of the beginning of the video and you'll understand very quickly what she's talking about. Read the full transcript of the video here.

"On the surface we are blessed with infinite beauty and abundance of flora and fauna. Producing the most exquisite harvest of coffee, cocoa, fruits, vegetables... and culture. You name it, we've got it. 

We also have diverse wildlife and vast marine resources. [...] A true paradise. They also had the first modern university in Africa and prior to that the first university in the world was founded in the kingdom of Timbuktu.

At a deeper level we are blessed with the real treasures that the kings and queens of this world desire. Diamonds and gold are commonly found in people's backyards. You'll also find about 20 precious minerals and recently huge oil reserves have also been discovered.

  • ‍Platinum
  • Iron ore (the largest in Africa)
  • Zinc
  • Chrome
  • Phosphate
  • Potassium
  • Nickel
  • Exquisite timber like mahogany and teak

... all the stuff that goes straight into your computers, laptops and mobile devices.

The West needs Africa's resources desperately to make and power airplanes, computers and engines. But not just the West anymore, pretty much everyone including China are in the same boat."

From dictators established by Western governments, to foreign companies operating all over (I mean "mining the hell out of ") Africa without paying any real tax, nearly everyone is exploiting the continent.

International aid and corruption

Delivery of humanitarian aid in Africa
Delivery of humanitarian aid in Africa

Barriers to poverty reduction

So far local governments, international aid and market reforms had only a minimal effect on the population. Consequence: people have had to solve their problems on their own, outside the system. It is only recently that new international policies, such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) in Africa, have stopped overlooking the effect of politics on local economies: 

  • Transparent and accountable government
  • Rule of law
  • Public resources management
  • Free and fair election
  • Active civil society 

All of these are now recognized as a vital factor of poverty alleviation. This whole forms what specialists now call “good governance”.

Considering the extent of corruption and violence of local councils and governments, it’s not surprising that a huge part of the African population can only fend for itself most of the time, relying on a makeshift economy. This makes them hard to reach by international aid but at least they have an alternative system to fall back upon: coping through sharing. Not only farmers in rural areas but African urbanites as well manage to avoid the claws of the law. This makes many development policies totally ineffective.

More transparency, less corruption

Another issue is that of international aid. Aid donors obviously want to make sure that their money is put to the right use, rather than to building palaces for individual use. Now how things have changed is that foreign aid has become demand-driven with local communities, governments and NGOs competing to receive the funds. This should help foster competitiveness and efficiency of development projects as well as transparency. In other words it should radically reduce corruption and embezzlement.

This model was field tested and can help avoid the case of the African Millennium Villages, blindly “shooting” money in every direction in a local community, like a crazy action hero who doesn't believe in nuances and complexities of real life. 

What is needed is targeted funding that provides new opportunities and incentives for people to participate in the development of their country. Humanitarian aid remains way too opaque, only the most concrete and effective programs should remain. In particular those that help local entrepreneurs, not multinationals.

Geography and regional poverty in Africa

Geography & regional poverty in Africa
‍Geography & regional poverty in Africa

Too poor to redistribute anything?

Recently specialists have increasingly taken into account the role of geography to explain the absence of economic growth and the aggravation of poverty in Africa. Whereas in many developing countries there are disparities that pose the problem of redistribution of wealth, Africa is simply too poor to redistribute anything.

Well that's not totally true. Africa is full of natural resources, but to give just one example many multinational companies that extract these resources don't even pay any taxes to the country where they operate. In other cases, it's simply that the local aristocracy keeps all the revenues to itself.

The African paradox: it's both rich and poor

So poverty in Africa is paradoxical: the continent is made of 54 countries of low population density and rich in natural resources. Of course, as usual the resources are not evenly distributed between regions, countries and within local populations.

The countries are separated into resource-rich and -poor and into coastal and landlocked ones. Across all categories, most countries have remained stuck with a GDP per capita below $2000 for the past six decades.

The need for tailored development

Unlike other continents, a great share of the population in Africa lives in landlocked, resource-scarce countries which accounts for 1% of its overall growth rate. Another consequence of this is that policymakers need to start thinking in terms of context-based development strategies rather than continent-based ones.

In particular concerning the resource-poor landlocked regions which will remain the very core of the African poverty puzzle. A puzzle that year after year became obviously unsolvable in a day. These very countries are the ones that would need a sort of targeted, continuous aid flow in order to steadily raise consumption levels, therefore consistently reducing poorness in Africa. Nevertheless, today's aid flows only focus on short-term emergencies.


Impact of poverty on health

Almost half of the population in Africa suffers from water-related diseases. On top of insufficient hygiene education, the frequent inundations (and lack of risk prevention) play an important role: in Mozambique over 1 million people were displaced by the floods of 1999/2000 and an unknown number killed.

Diseases: a threat to development

Diseases in Africa – and in particular HIV-AIDS – are another major threat to economic development. As an academic (Whiteside 2002) puts it: “one of the main consequences of the disease is that it impoverishes individuals, households and communities”, thus further entrenching the roots of poverty in Africa.

This is a vicious cycle by which poverty boosts the spread of HIV which in turn increases poverty. The case of the poor in South Africa shows that despite the country's substantial growth, that wealth is still too concentrated in the hands of an "uninfected" minority. That way the gap between the rich and the poor only gets bigger and bigger, making it harder for impoverished populations to catch up with the well-off.

Hygiene and sanitation first

As for basic sanitation and hygiene, it is first and foremost an educational issue. Hygienic habits have consistently prevented millions of deaths across the world in the past decades. And just like in all the countries where it happened, massive full-scale educational campaigns are needed to significantly alleviate poverty in Africa. 

Education and poverty

Education & schools in Africa
‍Education & schools in Africa

Education - A neglected cause of poverty

Starting to feel slightly overwhelmed? We're just talking about everyday life poverty here! ... So, not only does proper education help eradicate a great deal of diseases (STIs, sanitation, etc), but there is also a direct link between levels of education and poverty.

Authoritarian rule in most countries has only made the situation worse, deepening both levels of education and poverty in Africa. For that reason, although some argue that authoritarian regimes can better spur development in some cases (China, Singapore,…), but in this case democracy seems more appropriate for the case of Africa.

Is democracy better suited to Africa?

Experts who hold this argument ground it on several factors including: the multi-ethnics nature of most countries (better representation of everyone’s interests), the need for better governance and redistribution of the riches in absence of strong political will, and pervasiveness of corruption that drives people away from the legal and institutional life.

But the experience of democracy in the West has also resulted as we've seen with the protests in 2011 that most of rich countries' wealth eventually ended up in the hands of a very small elite.

Education to gain skills first and foremost

Even though many fancy universities tend to forget it, education is in general about teaching people skills (duh), thereby enhancing productivity, creativity, and exchanges. 

Higher education is crucial to bring Africa back into the world system (yes it’s been kind of left aside) and bridge the digital gap with other continents. What we need is then consistent education in ICTs on top of developing the infrastructure (optic fiber, antennas, electricity grids,...) so that people can benefit from an advanced use of ICTs and harness their economic potential.

Obviously on a priority list of fighting poverty in Africa, this comes after meeting the most basic needs such as food, water, health, energy,... How could you possibly charge a computer's battery without electricity in your town? Yet they did that mistake a few years ago and sent thousands of laptops.

Food and water

Hunger and undernourished population in Africa map (2006)
Hunger and undernourished population in Africa vs the rest of the world (2006)

Hunger, a typical feature of African poverty ?

In the past 30 years only sub-Saharan Africa saw no improvement in fight against malnutrition and hunger in Africa (or several types of malnutrition). Currently there is an estimated 80% of Africans who suffer from hunger, and 30% of whom are children. Despite the current levels of poverty in Nigeria and in Zimbabwe, these countries were part of the group that manage to reduce its underweight population between 1976 and 1995.

On the other hand just as many countries - a dozen - were suffering from sharp rises in under-nutrition. The worst case is that of poverty in Ethiopia which left over a million people underfed. The plight of hunger is undoubtedly one of the most severe effects of poverty in Africa, where it is incomparably harsher than in most other places.

Water, diseases & geography

"All peoples, whatever their stage of development and their social and economic conditions, have the right to have access to drinking water in quantities and of a quality equal to their basic needs". (Action Plan, United Nations Water Conference, Mar del Plata, 1977)

More than 30 years after this statement, more than 50% of Africans still suffer from water-related diseases (cholera, diarrhea). Although the continent is blessed with large rivers such as the Congo, the Nile, the Zambezi and the Niger, uneven geographical distribution causes sharp shortages of water in Africa. History has shown that despite technical, financial, economic and institutional support in water-related projects, poor governance has been a major factor in ruining those efforts and resources.

The end of the tunnel?

The causes and effects of poverty in Africa are fueling a seriously vicious cycle that stops Africans from getting the most basic services. It affects simple water supply, sanitation, health care and education in incredibly diverse ways. 

Ultimately it becomes so all-pervasive that it overwhelms the application of the very best practices drawn from past lessons. The way out of poverty in Africa is therefore hardly imaginable without the constructive and appropriate help and cooperation of the international community, along with (increasingly) that of private businesses from other countries.


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Dario Berrebi

Digital strategist, researcher & filmmaker. 

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