1. Absolute numbers
2. Relative numbers
3. Alternative numbers
4. International vs national numbers
5. Alternative poverty systems for poverty measurement
According to the World Bank poverty estimates, Africa – meaning sub-Saharan Africa – hasn’t seen large reductions in the absolute numbers of poor people. Compared to China, for instance, the number of poor Africans – those living on less than $1.25 a day – has even grown during the last decades:
The numbers almost doubled from 200 million in 1981 to 400 million in 2005, although in 2008 they fell by a few million (source). Between 2005 and 2008, for the first time, the absolute number of poor Africans declined, from roughly 395 million to 386 million. That, however, is still almost half of all Africans. The estimate for 2010 is 414 million.
From 1993 to 2008 the average per capita income of sub-Saharan African economies barely budged—it increased from $742 to $762 per year (measured in 2005 purchasing-power parity-adjusted dollars). If we exclude South Africa and the Seychelles, we see a decline from $608 to $556 over the period (source).
And yet, a lot of the growth in the absolute numbers is due to population growth. If you look at the relative numbers, the percentage of poor Africans has actually been falling. Using the measure of people living on $1.25 a day or less, the World Bank estimates that the percentage of poor Africans fell from 58 percent in 1999 to 47.5 percent in 2008 and 44 percent in 2011. This rate of decline of about one percentage point a year is a welcome change from the previous decades when the poverty rate increased:
This paper tells the same story but with an alternative and even more optimistic set of numbers. In the graph below, the rate of the population surviving on less than $1 dollar day has fallen to 32% in 2006 from a high point of 45% in the late 1980s. How come? As you can also see in the graph, at the time poverty began to decline around 1995, GDP began to grow (after three decades of zero or negative growth). The graph shows a striking correlation between poverty reduction and economic growth (something I have written about before in another context, see here and here).
Of course, poverty reduction isn’t the automatic result of GDP growth only. Other factors are at work as well.
What’s interesting is that this African growth spurt since 1995 (probably briefly interrupted by the current recession) isn’t just caused by growing oil prices. If that had been the case, we would have seen increasing income inequality, since revenues from the oil industry are typically appropriated by elites. But that’s not the case. Poverty reduction in Africa has gone hand in hand with a reduction in income inequality. You can see the extent of this reduction in the following two graphs:
This means that growth has benefited the poor.
It’s a development that is remarkably general across African countries and that is not just explained by good news in a few large countries. Poverty is falling even in countries which are believed to burdened by geography, bad agricultural prospects, a history of slave trade, war, or lack of natural resources.
Notice the often large discrepancies between the World Bank poverty estimates and the different national estimates using a national poverty line:
A lot of these differences are caused by somewhat strange national choices: Uganda assumes that a person needs 3000 kilo calories per day, which is 40 percent higher than the threshold used in Angola or Mozambique, and Tanzania uses a survey-based price index instead of its official Consumer Price Index.
According to national numbers, Rwanda moved one million people out of poverty. Ghana and Uganda also showed significant declines in poverty. Where growth was anemic or negative, as in Cote d’Ivoire, poverty rates increased.
Poverty can be measured in a number of different ways. National accounts data is one source. However, many African countries’ national statistics systems have difficulties generating reliable numbers on their national accounts. National statistical offices also conduct large household surveys to measure income, expenditure, assets etc. These can be used to calculate national poverty lines and count the numbers of individuals below that line. The problem here us that these surveys are expensive and conducted infrequently in many African countries.
You can also use more direct surveys to measure poverty. The Afrobarometer for example offers the Lived Poverty Index (LPI) based on a series of survey questions that measure how frequently people actually go without basic necessities during the course of a year. According to the latest Afrobarometer:
- One in five Africans still experiences frequent (“many times” or “always”) deprivation with respect to their most basic needs for food (17%), clean water (21%), and medicines and medical care (20). Approximately half experience at least occasional shortages.
- Majorities report facing shortages in medicine and medical services (53% at least once in the past year) and food (50%). Just under a majority experience at least occasional shortages of clean water (49%).