OPINION | Tackling sub-Saharan Africa's escalating poverty after the pandemic

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As the world moves beyond the initial shock of Covid-19 and adapts to a wholly different working environment, the pandemic’s most important impact in Africa is escalating poverty, say Anda David and Murray Leibbrandt.

High profile international discussions on changing global inequality pay far too little attention to African inequality dynamics despite the growing importance of these African issues in the international conversation.

Moreover, the continent has recently witnessed distributional issues being driven to the fore given the lack of inclusive growth.

Inequality measures and existing studies in low and middle-income countries rarely showcase the entire spectrum or their impact on societies. Both are essential in reaching the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Sustainable Development Goal 10 to reduce inequality within and among countries.

Addressing inequalities means understanding their complexities and their link to poverty and a weakening social cohesion, but stakeholders still miss the key elements required to drive effective inclusive public policies.

This raises the key question: what can be said about African inequality to promote better analysis and policymaking and address inequality on the continent? As the European Union - African Union Summit unfolded this week, we extracted the research conducted in the context of the EU-AFD Research Facility on Inequalities in an attempt to answer this question.

As the world moves beyond the initial shock of Covid-19 and adapts to a wholly different working environment, the pandemic’s most important impact in Africa is escalating poverty. By comparison, Europe has social protection measures in place when economies tumble, but African governments typically lack that fiscal space.

Equally, closing schools has created a learning gap impossible to plug, particularly among students without access to online lessons. The impact will extend throughout their lives and perpetuate the vicious circle of poverty.

Insufficient research means a statistical lack about what people want and need. The current inequalities mean Africa’s recovery from Covid-19 will take longer with trends indicating how the pandemic has heightened poverty levels. This adds to the existing challenges climate change poses to African countries.

Other than fossil-dependent countries such as South Africa where reducing carbon emissions will be a factor in its climate change approach, Africa must predominantly deal with how climate change issues, like extreme weather patterns and rising sea levels, affect their countries and economies. The urgency to rethink economic growth in light of climate change must be at the heart of economic recovery.

The continent differs in its inequality levels, trends and drivers and no single context or any single piece of research or set of solutions can be considered as a catch-all answer befitting the 54 individual nations. The highest concentration of inequality is in southern Africa with levels declining towards the Sahara and the north. Taken together, Africa’s inequality levels are exceptionally high by global standards with sub-Saharan Africa containing seven of the world’s 10 most unequal countries.

Yet, even within regions, inequalities across countries have changed since the 1990s. Sub-regions, and sometimes countries within them, witnessed diverse individual increases and decreases, effectively changing the picture.

The issue remains that we do not know enough about inequality in many African contexts and the gap in that knowledge means we cannot adequately work together to clearly see how to mitigate the poor in light of changing climatic conditions affecting their lives and livelihoods.

We cannot view Africa as a uniform space, as that runs the risk of not paying attention to an individual country’s details and requirements. Contributions to addressing inequality must empower at a local level and incorporate this perspective into prevailing policy discussions for each nation.

Each African country presents specificities with regards to drivers of inequality intersecting with factors within households, communities and local and national economies. Among these are the complexities of household formation and composition; the high frequency of polygamous households sits at the heart of people’s access to resources and the accurate assessment of inequality. Similarly, analysing social mobility and inequality dynamics shows, as in developed countries, African wealth and assets undergird livelihood and employment opportunities and constraints.

However, the specific sources important in African contexts are often not those dominating contemporary international inequality literature. The access to, and ownership of land, is important in many areas where land is communally held and women particularly do not have access to its ownership.

The prevailing legal and normative rules around this land and other assets are key to understanding de facto biases in wealth and access to assets resulting in fundamentally different livelihood trajectories and mobility by gender and age.

Lastly, it is clear Africa’s inequality landscape is characterised by a deep urban-rural divide. This correlates with inequalities in many dimensions of foundational well-being including education, health and child nutrition and fundamentally different labour markets. Most of these differences are driven by other socioeconomic factors in turn associated with urban-rural divides.

The key point is that numerous Africans will reside in rural areas and depend on rural opportunities for the foreseeable future. This does not deny the growing significance of urbanisation and the need to understand urban contexts, like integrating the informal sector, into any analysis of labour market inequalities. It is critical that African inequality analysis always gives analytic attention to both rural and urban contexts and their linkages.

Africa’s particular textures of inequality must be measured and included in analysing the continent’s inequality regardless of international trend measurements or global comparison demands. Naturally, some characteristics will overlap in key ways with inequality in other developing country contexts and thus, the global discussion.

However, our analysis aspires to draw in African inequality into the global discussion and strengthen the case that developing country specificities warrant central attention assuming the goal is to overcome, not simply measure, global inequality.

David is an AFD economist and researcher, while Leibbrandt is the African Centre of Excellence for Inequality Research (ACEIR) director.

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