How wide is poverty in Africa?

The Economist magazine once called Africa “The Hopeless Continent”. Now the narrative has changed to “Africa Rising”. This contrast is what is actually happening on the continent. Despite the many promising progress taking place in the economic front, political stability and better access to health and social benefits, poverty is still rampant. Poor infrastructure, inequality, and injustice have all contributed to the elevated poverty levels. Some countries are doing well in lifting many of their people out of poverty by achieving economic growth. However, this exists without fair resource distribution that touch the lives of the majority. The Afrobarometer is one source of information where one can see the extent of poverty and related problems in the continent as it has been carried out since 1999. Starting operation in 12 countries back then, it has national partners in more than 30 countries now. It has released its 6th round survey findings in Addis Ababa during the 6th Citizens Continental Conference held on January 21. Henok Reta of The Reporter caught up with E. Gyimah Boadi, professor of political science at the University of Ghana, co-founder and the current executive director of Afrobarometer. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Why did you release the six round survey findings in Ethiopia when the country is not included in the round?

Professor Gyimah Boadi: Yes, Ethiopia is not included in this round because of the capacity problems we have and there was a huge delay in interpreting, analyzing and disseminating the data. Ethiopia is the second most populous African nation and a diverse country with many languages and cultures. It was in 2005 when we conducted our first Ethiopian survey and the last was in 2011 when I personally came to oversee whether the situation was favarable here. Not only Ethiopia but there are countries in which we have failed to conduct our survey in this round. We feel embarrassed for not being able to present Ethiopia’s survey findings this time while we are gathering here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We did our Ethiopian survey in 2005. I hope we will be able to include Ethiopia in the next round.

What is the relationship between Afrobarometer and Eurobarometer?

Both Afrobarometer and Eurobarometer are cross-national comparative survey projects focusing on population sample surveys. Other related projects are the Arabbarometer (Arab region), Asianbarometer (Asia) and Latinobarometer (Latin America). Each of the barometers is implemented independently although in each country, a national research team administers a country-wide face-to-face survey using standardized survey instruments to compile the required micro-level data under a common research framework and research methodology. When we see Afrobarometer it’s an independent organization established to carry out surveys in Africa and it is a partnership of various institutes such as Institute of Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in South Africa, Center for Development and Democracy (CDD) in Ghana and similar other organizations in Benin, Kenya and other countries. The founders of the organization are African scholars who aspire to see a prosperous and developed Africa.

What are the criteria and methodologies you apply to gather data and how responsible are you in analyzing the data you collect?

Afrobarometer measures the social, political and economic atmosphere in more than 30 countries in Africa.  We conduct face-to-face interviews with a randomly selected sample of 1,200 or 2,400 people in each country. To ensure we collect good quality data, we work with national partners in each of our survey countries. Our national partners are responsible for training interviewers before collecting data for Afrobarometer. They make sure the interviewers have the right skills and qualifications to perform an Afrobarometer survey. We have questionnaires and interviews to be applied in order to get the data. We focus on basic necessities such food, water and fuels to cook meals. So, by asking the people and giving the questionnaires for those who can write we gather the data.

In each country we follow almost similar approaches unless in small countries with more educated citizens. As much as possible we want to come up with direct and reliable results to keep governments alert in solving their peoples’ problems. Some of them respond to us by saying that our survey findings are helping them do better while some remain suspicious of our operations. For example: The government of Liberia accepted our survey findings well but they responded they expect more from us while a first lady in West Africa lambasted us in a local newspaper for what the findings brought to her country.

Why are there mixed perceptions towards your survey findings?

The perception can always be a different because our survey findings can never satisfy all. We have to know it well first and try to do our best all the time. I think some of our shortcomings are from the partners we do business with. When we have strong and capable partners then the survey will turn out less controversial. And the other thing is that some governments are not happy with the findings even if they are open to welcome us.

When you released your survey findings in Liberia in 2013 your assessment of the macroeconomic condition was unfavorable, causing popular disapproval, what happened there?

That is right. We came up with less satisfying findings in Liberia in round five particularly in terms of macroeconomic activities whereby many young people were not able to get jobs when we revealed positive prospects for personal living conditions. However, it inspired the government to pay much attention to the sector.

Does your survey indicate a reduction in poverty in those 30 plus countries where you conducted the survey?

Though Africa has recorded high levels of economic growth over the past decade, previous Afrobarometer surveys of citizens found little evidence that this growth had reduced levels of poverty in any consistent way. Afrobarometer Round 6, collected across 35 African countries, suggest a very different picture. While “lived poverty” remains pervasive across much of the continent, especially in Central and West Africa, we now see evidence that the decade of economic growth seems to have finally delivered broad-based reductions in poverty. However, these changes show no systematic relation to recent rates of economic growth. While growing economies are undoubtedly important, what appears to be more important in improving the lives of ordinary people is the extent to which national governments and their donor partners put in place the type of development infrastructure that enables people to build better lives. We have to be positive that there will be more success stories to arise to the future.

Why hasn't the success registered on the economic front been manifested in poverty reduction?

A relationship between GDP and decline in poverty does not necessarily mean that they should be similar. For example, the GDP in Gabon is high as much as the poverty while in Mauritius, the GDP is high and the poverty is low. Algeria is one of the wealthiest countries in Africa and its performance in the survey has not always been similar. Yet Africa can no longer be characterized as uniformly poor as levels of lived poverty vary widely across the continent. Lived poverty is the highest in Gabon, Togo and Liberia and lowest in Mauritius, Cape Verde and Algeria. Indeed, people in Gabon and Togo experienced shortages at approximately 18 times the rate of those in Mauritius and four times as frequently as residents of Cape Verde and Algeria.

How difficult is measuring poverty when there is a lot of inconsistent and varying figures released by governments and NGOs?

Poverty can be measured in a number of different ways. At the national level, all countries produce national accounts data to calculate their gross national income (GNI) which is used to summarize national wealth and the total state of the economy. However, the capacity of many African countries’ national statistics systems to generate these numbers has recently been criticized. At the personal or household level, national statistics offices conduct large household surveys to measure income, expenditure, assets and access to services, which are then used to calculate national poverty lines and place individuals above or below that line. The Millennium Development Goal that focused on reducing the number of people living on less than USD 1.25 a day is a good example. However, such surveys are expensive and are conducted infrequently in many African countries. Other development organizations collect data on the consequences of poverty such as the proportion of people who don’t use improved drinking water sources or sanitation services, or the proportion of underweight children under the age of five, in a given country. 

So what general figure can the 2014/15 survey show and how acceptable do you think it is?

Based on responses to these questions in surveys conducted across 35 countries in 2014/2015, we found out that significant numbers of Africans still fail to meet their most basic needs, and many fall short on a regular basis. Across the 35 countries surveyed, half of all respondents’ reported that they are facing shortages of medicine and medical services (49 percent at least once in the past year) and about four in 10 experienced shortages of clean water (46 percent), food (46 percent) and cooking fuel (38 percent). Reflecting the continent’s ongoing employment crisis, the most commonly cited form of deprivation remains access to cash income, with three-quarters (74 percent) reporting that they went without cash at least once in the previous year. While cash income is not in itself a basic need, access to it can enable citizens to meet their basic and non-basic needs. Income shortages therefore have many spillover effects on peoples' lives. The fact that three-quarters of Africans reported of having gone without cash income at least once in the previous year and that 40 percent did so frequently. This poses a major development challenge, as many adults on the continent cannot afford to buy resources for immediate use or to invest in assets. I think this is an important finding to look through so that governments will be able to put effort in those areas they fail to fulfill the needs of their people.

Do you believe poverty in Africa is a deep-rooted problem because there is no practical democracy and rule of law and corruption is rising?

In fact it is a result of many problems that can be related to those factors and for that matter we ask those relevant questions to measure the corruption level or bribe. I think when governments in Africa are becoming more democratic and are dedicated to put practical measures to change the lives of their peoples then poverty will decrease at a high rate. Moreover, fair distribution of resource and equal share in growth will inevitably fulfill the demand of the people to move out of poverty. That is a practical lesson we can take from the other world. At the same time the migration of many Africans is still a challenge in many countries. In some of these countries young people are migrating not because of seeking a better life. I can tell you this from my experience in my home country Ghana. The economy is doing well there and even the political situation is getting better than what is used to be but there are people migrating to Europe. So, we need to settle life in Africa not because of ensuring better living but with all those demands that people have a right to acquire.