There’s more to poverty than meets the eye: Reflections on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty 2023

By Dr Irene Nyakagere Thomas - Postdoctoral fellow, Future Africa Global Equity in Africa Research Chair

Poverty is a complex issue, subject to various interpretations of what it truly means to be impoverished. As we reflect on this year's International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (#EndPovertyDay), I am compelled to revisit the impactful gathering of over a hundred thousand individuals on 17 October 1987, at the Trocadéro in Paris. This assembly, where each participant brought their own understanding of poverty, served as a catalyst for the United Nations (UN) resolution 47/196 of 1992, officially designating 17 October as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

The 2023 theme of #EndPovertyDay, "Decent Work and Social Protection: Putting Dignity in Practice for All," shed light on the challenging working conditions faced by those trapped in extreme poverty. The theme underscores the urgency of addressing the inadequacy of income to sustain individuals, thereby stripping them of their dignity and exacerbating their struggles.

A Complex Challenge in Africa

Poverty unquestionably hinders the progress of African states towards peace and prosperity. The severity of the impact of lived poverty on the continent is best described by the definition adopted by the 1995 World Summit on Social Development, which states that,

 ‘Poverty has various manifestations, including lack of income and productive resources sufficient to ensure sustainable livelihoods; hunger and malnutrition; ill health; limited or lack of access to education and other basic services; increased morbidity and mortality from illnesses; homelessness and inadequate housing; unsafe environments and social discrimination and exclusion. It is also characterised by a lack of participation in decision-making and civil, social, and cultural life … Absolute poverty is a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education, and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services.’

This acute manifestation of poverty on the continent serves as a catalyst, inspiring the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa Research Chair for Global Equity in Africa to explore different perspectives and strategies for poverty eradication under its Solidarity programme.

Afrobarometer’s Lived Poverty Index and Working Papers

It is important to recognise the valuable insights from the Afrobarometer attitude surveys, which form the basis of their Lived Poverty Index (LPI). This index serves as an effective and direct measure of the central and core aspect of poverty, that is, the rate at which people go without the basic necessities of life. Indeed, the true value of one’s standard of living lies in the living itself, as such, an experiential measure of shortages of basic necessities of life takes us directly to the central core of what the concept of poverty is all about.

Afrobarometer, one of the many collaborative partners of Future Africa, also publishes working papers that extensively explore how data produced from the LPI predicts or correlates with widely used indicators of poverty or other theoretically associated concepts.

For example, Working Paper No. 98, published by Afrobarometer, provides an account of these linkages at both micro and macro levels. On the micro level, it explores how poverty links with formal education, employment, income, political preferences, democratic citizenship, and policy priorities. At the macro level, the paper examines the relationship between poverty and indicators like GDP per capita and GDP growth.

In summary, higher levels of formal education, employment, and income result in a predictable reduction in lived poverty among respondents, ultimately enhancing their overall well-being.

Democracy’s role in poverty reduction

In terms of poverty's influence on politics and policies, it heightens a sense of relative deprivation but minimally impacts policy priorities. The impact on democratic citizenship varies by country, sparking activism in some (e.g., South Africa) while stifling it in others (e.g., Zimbabwe). The data also suggests that expanding political liberties and rights between 2003 and 2005 led to lower-lived poverty, highlighting democratisation's role in poverty reduction.

At the macro level, Afrobarometer shows a strong correlation between the LPI and GDP per capita, with wealthier nations experiencing less lived poverty. However, the relationship is not always linear, and changes in national wealth or GDP growth do not consistently reduce poverty levels. Surprisingly, in some cases, GDP growth is linked to an increase in lived poverty. A similar sentiment was echoed by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Poverty and Human Rights who expressed his skepticism about continuing to rely on economic growth as a guide on poverty reduction efforts.

image of woman
Dr Irene Nyakagere Thomas - Postdoctoral fellow, Future Africa Research Chair: Global Equity in Africa


What’s the big deal?

Going beyond financial metrics, poverty can be likened to a relentless cancer that afflicts every level of a nation, from grassroots communities to the national stage. This not only leads to mounting debts from loans but also fosters dependence on grants, ultimately positioning Africa as more of a recipient than a contributor to global peace and prosperity. To truly address this issue, African states must adopt multidimensional strategies that align with a spectrum of associated concepts, including democratic citizenship, policy priorities, economic factors, and socio-technical variables. Without this holistic approach, remedying poverty on the continent remains a formidable challenge. Policymakers must confront uncomfortable questions, such as ‘why GDP growth often coincide with increased lived poverty rather than its reduction?’ and ‘Is Africa really poor or poorly managed, and what is actually done about that?'

Image Credit: United Nations
Image Credit: United Nations