Africa Gains in Health, Education, but Numbers of Poor Grow

October 16, 2015

Ahead of End Poverty Day, new World Bank Group report highlights progress and challenges, calls for ambitious efforts to collect data

ACCRA, Ghana, October 16, 2015 – Africa’s strong economic growth has contributed to improving people’s health and education in the past 20 years as well as major reductions in poverty in several countries, but a rapid rise in population has led to increases in the overall number of extreme poor, the World Bank Group said Friday in a comprehensive report on poverty in the region.

The report estimates that 388 million people – or 43 percent of all people living in Sub-Saharan Africa – lived in extreme poverty in 2012, the last year that figures were available, a decrease of 5 million people from 2011. In a separate report, the Global Monitoring Report, released earlier this month, the World Bank projected that 347 million people are living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa this year. While the percentage of Africans living in poverty has decreased over time, the sheer numbers have grown. An estimated 284 million Africans lived in poverty in 1990.

The report, “Poverty in a Rising Africa,” was released in Ghana at a high-level event commemorating End Poverty Day, which was attended by World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, government leaders, and civil society partners.

The report called for much better measurement of poverty, saying that data gaps make it extremely difficult for policymakers to target programs for the poor. On Thursday, the World Bank Group pledged to work with developing countries and international partners to conduct household surveys once every three years in each of the 78 poorest countries. The initiative, which will be fully launched by 2020, is estimated to cost $300 million every three years,

“Africa’s economy is on the rise, but to avoid bypassing vulnerable people – whether in rural areas or in fragile states – we must improve how we measure human progress. Better data will tell us whether we’re delivering effective programs that will help end extreme poverty by 2030 and boost shared prosperity among the poorest,” said Jim Yong Kim, World Bank Group President.

Kim traveled to Ghana on Friday to draw attention to the West African’s country record in the past two decades in cutting poverty by more than half, from 53 percent in 1991 to 21 percent in 2012.

The report finds that progress in ending poverty in all its forms has varied greatly across countries and population groups, with the levels of achievement remaining challengingly low. Africa posted the slowest rate of poverty reduction of all major developing regions, with the share of people living in extreme poverty (less than US$1.90 a day) declining only slightly, from 56% in 1990 to 43% in 2012. Globally, according to Bank estimates released earlier this month, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty will likely fall to under 10 percent for the first time, to 9.6 percent this year.

Despite progress, more than 100 million more Africans lived in extreme poverty in 2012 compared to 1990, with at least 30% of the population estimated to be chronically poor. Africa’s extreme poor live mainly in rural areas (home to 65-70% of the population), while the highest levels of inequality are recorded in Southern Africa, where six of the world’s 10 most unequal countries are located.

Disparities among Africans are accentuated by where they live (urban or rural areas); whether they live in a stable or conflict-affected or fragile country; and possibly their gender (limited evidence on household poverty shows women are at a disadvantage).  While intergenerational mobility in education and occupation has improved, rates are still low.  Lack of economic mobility perpetuates both poverty and inequality in the next generation.

Conflict and violence are among the most important factors slowing economic growth or even reversing development gains. While the number of large-scale conflicts and civil wars has declined, criminality, drug trafficking, terrorism, and piracy at sea are on the rise. The effects of conflict are often long-lasting, as in Burundi, where the share of households living in extreme poverty rose from 21% before that country’s civil war to 64% in 2007.

The human toll of poverty in Africa remains unacceptably high. With the new target set by the Sustainable Development Goals to end extreme poverty by 2030, much more work is needed to accelerate poverty reduction,” says Makhtar Diop, World Bank Vice President for Africa. “In particular, significant efforts must be made to boost productivity in agriculture, a sector that still employs most of the region’s poorest, and increase access to affordable and reliable electricity. As African countries develop policies targeting job creation and inclusive growth, improving the way poverty is measured in its various dimensions will be crucial,” he added.

Promoting women’s education can be game-changing for Africa, since investing in it significantly improves not only their own life chances but also those of their children.

The report finds a decline in domestic violence targeting women, but rates of abuse in the home remain exceptionally high. Some 40% of women with partners have suffered domestic violence, and 46% do not have the final say in decisions about their health care.

Despite these challenges, Africa has made tremendous strides over the past 20 years amid unprecedented economic growth. Some countries have had impressive gains in poverty reduction, such as Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda and Uganda.  Since 2000, the number of children dying from malaria has been reduced by 40%, and under-five deaths from tetanus, pertussis and measles have declined by 75%.

The report noted rapid increases in school enrollments, with total net enrollment of children in primary school expanding from just 55% in 1995 to 74% by 2012. But it also highlighted the alarmingly low level of learning. Adult literacy rates across Africa increased by only 4% between 1995 and 2012, compared to 17% in South Asia. 

While life expectancy has improved significantly, with newborns now expected to live more than six years longer than in 2000, life expectancy in the region – currently at 57 – remains well below the global average. Under-five mortality and HIV prevalence (which declined to 5% across the region in 2013), account for more than three-quarters of the variation in life expectancy. 

The report also confirms a worrisome development: Africans living in so-called resource-rich countries (endowed with gold, diamonds, copper, oil, etc.) are paying a human development penalty: they have 10% shorter life spans on average, are less literate, have higher levels of malnutrition, and suffer more from domestic violence.

Gauging Africa’s human well-being remains tremendously difficult. The report shows that in 2012, just 25 of the region’s 48 countries had conducted at least two household surveys over the past decade to track poverty. The authors urge action across Africa in improving the availability and access to regular and reliable data on income poverty and other dimensions of well-being. They also stress that national support for adhering to methodological and operational standards is essential. 

The report is the first of a two-volume analysis of the region. The second installment will focus on the underlying causes of poverty and policies to accelerate poverty reduction in Africa.

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