Focus on African Poverty

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By Prof. John Harbeson

After a number of years of understandable applause for positive annual economic growth rates for, perhaps, a majority of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, it refreshing that there is a new and apparently relatively unheralded initiative to focus on the nature and extent of African poverty. The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) is a welcome complement to United Nations data on poverty reduction via the Millennium Development Goals project, 2000-2015, and inauguration of its successor the Sustainable Development Goals project.

In its emphasis on the meaning of poverty at the level of the individual, it also complements the annual global surveys of stage fragility conducted by the Fund for Peace, which I have frequently referenced in my columns, that argue implicitly that state strength is not only a function of governmental coercive capacity, but also of the socioeconomic and political fragility of the lives of individuals.  No measure of poverty is perfect, and perfection is probably impossible, but this new index makes an important contribution to the cause.

The OPHI project focuses on the meaning and extent of poverty globally, currently reaching about one hundred countries worldwide, including forty-two in sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya and all its immediate neighbours in east Africa and the Horn among them.  Developed in conjunction with UNDP’s Human Development Report Office, OPHI constructs a Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, which may be included as one indicator in assessments of progress under the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) project.

The core contribution of OPHI is its focus on the intensity of individually experienced poverty rather than simply the number of people who are poor. Its Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) for each country is the product of the percentage of the population experiencing poverty, multiplied by the intensity of that experienced poverty. OPHI focuses what it describes as a “high-resolution” lens on poverty, examining its incidence not only at country levels but at 475 sub-national regions globally which may cut across political boundaries in some instances. The MPI index complements while also demonstrating the insufficiency of income-based definitions of poverty, specifically those centring on the numbers of people earning the equivalent of USD1.90 (Sh190) or less per day.

A unique and critically important function of OPHI is its focus on the intensity of experienced poverty, which it defines as the “average share of dimensions in which poor people are deprived,” where a person is defined as poor if he/she is deprived of “at least one-third of the weighted MPI indicators.  OPHI defines ten such indicators, falling into three categories: education, health, and living standards, each of which constitute one-third of the index. OPHI says a person is poor in education if “no household member aged ten or older has completed at least five years of schooling” or if “any school-aged child [in the household] is not is not in school and on track to graduate from grade eight.”

A health-poor household is defined by OPHI as any in which a child has died in the last five years or where any adult or child is malnourished based on available information. Finally, OPHI focuses on poor living standards defined as a households that lacks (i) electricity, (ii) its own (as distinct from shared) improved sanitation, (iii) safe drinking water no more than a thirty-minute roundtrip from home, (iv) has a sand, dirt, or dung floor, (v) cooks with dung, wood, or charcoal, or (vi) lacks certain assets. OPHI considers as essential assets possession of a radio, TV, telephone, bike, motorbike, refrigerator, car or truck. The subcategories within each of the three broad areas are weighted equally, so that the two each in the health and education category constitute one-sixth of the index and the six within living standards 1/18th each.

For once, sub-Saharan African turns out not to be the planet’s poorest region in the world according to OPHI in most recent 2014 global estimates. Scores are tallied in percentages of the population, East Asia and the Pacific counting 33pc of its population in poverty, multiplied by a poverty intensity score of 44.3 for an MPI of 14.6. Sub-Saharan Africa was close behind with an estimated 29.7pc of the population in poverty multiplied by an intensity index of 42.7 for an MPI of 12.7. Europe and Central Asia registered an MPI of only .001pc while the Arab States and Latin America and the Caribbean were both just over one percent apiece.

For sub-Saharan Africa, only South Africa, Gabon and Swaziland had MPI scores below the region average, with Zimbabwe registering the precise region average MPI of .127.  The highest MPI’s in the region, the highest multidimensional intensity scores, all of them over 50 percent, are Niger (.605), Ethiopia (.564), South Sudan (.557), Chad (.554), Burkina Faso (.535) and Somalia (.514).

Kenya’s MPI of .227 is the best in east Africa and the Horn (Eritrea not in the survey), which puts in perspective the scholarly focus on the outsized GDP growth rates that have been registered by Ethiopia and Rwanda. They may be “developmental states” as they have been termed, but it is at least arguable that their relatively high, undistinguished MPI scores have something to do with the fact that both countries are led by authoritarian, undemocratic ruling regimes. Kenya is better than average on all indicators, especially on the education indicators, but only just barely above the region average on flooring in dwellings, an indicator not often found in other poverty surveys.

An intriguing question that cannot reliably be addressed until the rather new OPHI has been in existence for more years is what correlations will emerge connecting poverty reduction with degrees of democratisation. In the 2014 survey, relative high scorers on democracy indicators, South Africa, Ghana, Sao Tome, Lesotho and Namibia are half countries in the top quartile.

Leading contributors to the OPHI project have acknowledged that possession of tangible assets is a relatively weak link as measured in the index. Intuitively, it would seem that a household could possess those assets and still be poor. But, more fundamentally, a reason why that household would still be poor is that some of the most important economic assets are ones that are shared, often tenuously. Many households of Dadaab, for example, might possess many of the specific assets identified by OPHI but still be poor because they are unable to work. As rural Kenyans know only too well, secure tenure on the land is an indispensable asset, often a very tenuous security.   Employment security in urban areas, unsullied by political interference, might fall in the same category. Also, while the focus is on individuals, OPHI works with households, and stability and gender equality within those households must also be important indicators. Moreover, most of the living standards indicators are proxies for larger environmental sustainability issues that, at least, over the medium to long term, bear importantly on poverty levels.

Finally, a deeper question implicit in the foregoing observations is whether and to what extent it is possible, conceptually as well as empirically, to separate measures of economic well-being from those both of political liberties and overall political stability.

In short, poverty is multi-dimensional in broader societal ways than OPHI measures.^
Writer is Professor of Political Science Emeritus and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

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