Why is the number of poor people in Africa increasing when Africa’s economies are growing?

By Laurence Chandy

2015 marks the 20th year since sub-Saharan Africa started on a path of faster economic growth. During that period, growth has averaged 5.2 percent per year. Meanwhile, the number of people on the continent reportedly living under $1.25 a day has continued to creep upwards from 358 million in 1996 to 415 million in 2011—the most recent year for which official estimates exist.

What can explain these divergent trends? 

The most obvious explanation would be if all the benefits of growth were captured by the rich, resulting in ever-increasing inequality within each country. But the data don’t show much evidence of that, thankfully. Distribution trends within African countries are a wash: The distribution is widening in about as many countries as it is narrowing. And in most countries the distribution isn’t changing much at all. It might be that the very richest people—the top 1 percent—are enjoying more than their share of the spoils of growth but that this is missing from the data, as this rarified class tends not to participate in household surveys from which distributions are derived. Yet, in the absence of supplementary data to back this theory up, such as the tax records used to measure top incomes in rich countries, this is mere speculation. Moreover, there is certainly evidence of rising average incomes for the people who do participate in surveys. 

Instead, there are five factors that can account for sub-Saharan Africa’s disappointing poverty numbers.

The first is the region’s rapid population growth of 2.6 percent a year. While African economies are generating more income, that income has to be shared among an ever-increasing number of people. Since the region’s income is growing faster than its population, average incomes are rising and the share of Africans living in extreme poverty is falling—from 60 percent in 1996 to 47 percent in 2011. But the rate at which poverty is falling is less than the rate at which the population is rising, so the number of people living in poverty continues to grow. More generally, sub-Saharan Africa’s record on economic growth looks much less impressive in per capita terms. The World Bank has just released a revised growth forecast for the region in 2015 of 4.0 percent. When you lop off 2.6 for population growth, you’re left with per capita income growth of only 1.4 percent. Compare that with the world average where projected economic growth of 2.9 percent combined with population growth of 1.1 percent results in per capita income growth of 1.8 percent in 2015. So, in per capita terms, Africa’s growth this year is expected to be below the global average.

The second factor is the depth of Africa’s poverty compared to poverty elsewhere. In other words, poor people in Africa start further behind the poverty line. So even if their income is growing, it is rarely enough to push them over the $1.25 threshold. In 2011, the average person living in extreme poverty in Africa lived on 74 cents a day, whereas for the rest of the developing world, it was 98 cents. I’ve written before about the implications of this trend for poverty reduction in Africa here.

The third factor is that even though inequality isn’t rising in most African countries, inequality is already at unusually high levels. Where initial inequality is high, it is to be expected that economic growth delivers less poverty reduction, since the absolute increases in income associated with rising average incomes will be that much smaller for the have-nots versus the haves. Moreover, the degree of inequality that exists on the continent is worse than it looks. The fact that Africa is divided into so many countries masks big differences in income between them. If Africa were a single country, its inequality would look much worse—worse even than Latin America. Since incomes across African people vary so widely, only a fraction of people are likely to cross the poverty line at any one time. That contrasts with India where a concentration of people immediately below the $1.25 mark means that even a small increase in incomes can result in a sudden flood of people moving above the poverty line.

The above three factors explain why you would expect relatively little poverty reduction for a given amount of growth in Africa compared to elsewhere (in technical terms, a lower poverty elasticity). But they can’t explain why the number of poor people in Africa has actually increased since the start of the century. For this we need the two final factors.

The fourth factor is that there is a degree of mismatch between where growth is occurring and where the poor are on the continent. To be sure, the region’s growth acceleration has benefited some of its poorest countries, including Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Rwanda. Yet others such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Madagascar have recorded little or no growth over the past 20 years, and the number of poor people in these countries has risen accordingly. So long as a handful of the region’s fragile states struggle to build and sustain economic momentum, the number of poor people in Africa need not fall. 

The fifth and final factor concerns data quality. Poverty estimates are drawn from household surveys which in most African countries are conducted infrequently. Those that do take place often suffer from operational glitches that affect the credibility of the results. Take Nigeria, which accounts for a quarter of the people on the continent living in poverty. There are some well-documented flaws with its most recent national survey of living standards (not to be confused with the issues concerning the country’s national accounts, which were recently rebased). When new data become available, be prepared to discover that Nigeria’s poverty rate is considerably lower and has been falling at a faster pace than previously thought. As a general rule, aggregate poverty numbers for Africa should be handled with care, and small increases or decreases should not be taken too seriously.

The dissonance between Africa’s growth performance and its poverty numbers is a striking phenomenon that demands an explanation. While intuition may lead us to call into question the region’s growth—it only benefits the rich, the quality of growth is deficient, the growth numbers are exaggerated—the above five factors suggest that the answer can instead be found by analyzing Africa’s poverty data more closely.  


Laurence Chandy is a former fellow in the Global Economy and Development program and the Development Assistance and Governance Initiative. His research focused on poverty, fragile states, aid effectiveness, and globalization.

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John Locke (1824): Two Treatises of Government (1)

John Locke (1632-1704) was an English philosopher who is considered to be one of the first philosophers of the Enlightenment and the father of classical liberalism. In his major work Two Treatises of Government Locke rejects the idea of the divine right of kings, supports the idea of natural rights (especially of property), and argues for a limited constitutional government which would protect individual rights.

Though the earth, and all inferiour creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men. For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.

He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. Nobody can deny but the nourishment is his. I ask then, when did they begin to be his? when he digested? or when he eat? or when he boiled? or when he brought them home? or when he picked them up? and it is plain, if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could. That labour put a distinction between them and common: that added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done; and so they became his private right. And will any one say he had no right to those acorns or apples he thus appropriated, because he had not the consent of all mankind to make them his? was it a robbery thus to assume to himself what belonged to all in common? If such a consent as that was necessary, man had starved, notwithstanding the plenty God had given him.

We see in  commons, which remain so by compact, that it is the taking any part of what is common, and removing it out of the state nature leaves it in, which begins the property; without which the common is of no use. And the taking of this or that part does not depend on the express consent of all the commoners. Thus the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut; and the ore I have digged in any place, where I have a right to them in common with others; become my property, without the assignation or consent of any body. The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them.

But the chief matter of property being now not the fruits of the earth, and the beasts that subsist on it, but the earth itself; as that which takes in, and carries with it all the rest; I think it is plain, that property in that too is acquired as the former. As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, enclose it from the common. Nor will it invalidate his right, to say every body else has an equal title to it, and therefore he cannot appropriate, he cannot enclose, without the consent of all his fellow commoners, all mankind. God, when he gave the world in common to all mankind, commanded man also to labour, and the penury of his condition required it of him. God and his reason commanded him to subdue the earth, i. e. improve it for the benefit of life, and therein lay out something upon it that was his own, his labour. He that, in obedience to this command of God, subdued, tilled, and sowed any part of it, thereby annexed to it something that was his property, which another had no title to, nor could without injury take from him.

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