What do we know about Acute Poverty in Africa? Defining the Phenomenon, Identifying the Poor and the Causes of Poverty
Ezeanyika, Samuel Ezeanyika
Department of Political Science and Public Administration
Imo State University, Owerri, Imo State, Nigeria
Okeke, Vincent Onyekwere Sunny
Department of Political Science,
Anambra State University, Igbariam, Anambra State, Nigeria
Nworgu, Kingsley Onyebuchi
Department of Mass Communication
Imo State University, Owerri, Imo State, Nigeria
Opurum, Innocent Okwu
Development Studies Research Group (DESREG)
Imo State University, Owerri, Imo State, Nigeria
This article attempts to achieve three major goals: the first is to provide an overview of the meaning of acute poverty by introducing frameworks for understanding, conceptualising, and defining, explaining, and measuring poverty in its broader sense. The second goal is to identify the characteristics of those who are classified as the poor. The third goal is to explain what causes poverty. Our understanding of acute poverty is also likely to draw upon notions of both absolute and disproportionate poverty, vulnerability, social exclusion and capabilities and freedoms, as well as upon subjective assessments of poverty by the acutely poor themselves. This article succinctly presents the synthesis of the current debate on poverty.
In all fields of scholarship, words acquire meaning from their use. Words that are used frequently and extensively are likely to acquire not a single meaning, but a range of meanings. Poverty is such a word, with multidimensional and multifaceted ramifications. Poverty has series of meanings – most not well understood - linked through series of resemblances. The writing of this article is, therefore, premised on this inadequate understanding of the characteristics of, and processes surrounding poverty, and the 900 million peoples who will be living in acute poverty in 2015 if the international development targets are not fully achieved. They are those likely to have benefited least, or suffered most, from contemporary development efforts, for whom emergence from poverty is therefore most difficult. There is evidence that Africa is the second poorest continent in the world, and the majority of these poor people live in the rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). A significant proportion of these people are likely to be acutely poor, that is, they will have been poor over a very long period and/or since birth.
Quite a number of terminologies have been coined to identify those who experience poverty most intensely; among the most common are ultra poor, core poor, poorest of the poor, destitute (Kozel, 1999), highly dependent poor (Wood, 2000), absolutely and disproportionately poor (Ezeanyika, 2006) and declining poor. Such distinctions have deep historical roots. For instance in 18th century France, commentators distinguished the pauvre from the indigent (Hufton, 1974) and Illiffe’s (1987) seminal book distinguishes structural poverty from conjunctural poverty. This article focuses on the acutely poor in order to draw attention to those for whom emergence from poverty is most difficult. It is a means of examining the durational aspect of intensity of poverty, the dynamics of inter-generational transmission of poverty, as well as the interaction between duration and other aspects of poverty intensity, such as poverty severity and multi-dimensionality.
Understanding fully the vicissitudes of poverty is claimed as an important area for development research because it draws attention in a deep and dramatic way, to the heterogeneity of the absolutely poor in today’s global system, and to the possibility that they will be better served by a more differentiated policy and market framework than exists at present. Our discussions of the poor attempts to address the problems of those among them who are hardest to enable, include, reach, or provide for.
This article has three interconnected objectives. They are:
- To challenge existing ideas about poverty and enhance the understanding of policymakers and other researchers about the processes that underpin acute poverty.
- To increase attention paid to the acute poor in development policy and action, thus sensitising the policy community, enhancing communication, and ensuring sustained commitment to acute poverty alleviation.
To strengthen the capabilities of researchers and research/advocacy organisations to document, analyse, develop and facilitate the communication of high quality policy recommendations centred on or associated with acute poverty. Even though it does not matter that we do not agree on the definition of poverty (Laderchi, Saith and Stewart, 2003), for the purpose of an effective communication in this article, a common understanding of the concept of acute poverty is necessary. Many scholars and development practitioners have chosen to give different meanings to the acute poverty phenomenon in different settings, when appropriate and necessary. Indeed, those researchers involved in quantitative work have given acute poverty strict definitions, those engaged in qualitative work have tended to use broader and more varied meanings – as well as meanings determined by the acutely poor themselves – that allow for assessment and interpretation but not necessarily measurement. However, these seemingly divergent views are synergised for a better appreciation of this article. The conceptualisation and provision of several definitions of poverty will therefore constitute the second section of this article after the introduction. This will be followed by an elaboration of frameworks for understanding and measuring poverty in section three; an evaluation of the heterogeneity of the poor in section four; an assessment of the causes of poverty in section five; a synthesis linking analysis with action in section six and a conclusion in section seven.
2. Conceptualising and Defining Poverty
It is interesting to note that there is no shortage of approaches in the conceptualisation and definition of poverty. Defining poverty has been an issue of great debate and concern to scholars since the 18th century. Table 1 below summarises the key features of the most influential definitions.
Table 1: Alternative definitions of poverty
Adam Smith (1776):
“By necessity, I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life but ‘whatever the custom renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without.’ A linen shirt, for example, is strictly speaking not a necessity of life…But in the present time, a creditable day labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful state of poverty.”
Seebohm Rowntree (1899):
“[A family is counted as poor if their]…total earnings are insufficient to obtain ‘the minimum necessities of merely physical efficiency.’”
William Beveridge (1942):
“In considering the minimum income needed by persons of working age for ‘subsistence during interruptions of earnings’ it is sufficient to take into account food, fuel, light and household sundries, and rent, though some margin must be allowed for inefficiency in spending.”
Ronald Henderson (1975):
“Insofar as poverty is defined by reference to a minimum acceptable standard of living, it is a relative concept. [It requires] a value judgement [that] must ‘reflect the productivity of the economy and community attitudes.’ The task of determining a minimum standard of living is difficult given the variety of lifestyles and values in…society and the range of matters, such as food, shelter, clothing, health and education that must be considered.”
Peter Townsend (1979):
“Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diets, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities ‘which are customary, or at least widely encouraged or approved, in the societies to which they belong.’”
Joanna Mark and Stewart Lansley (1985):
“Poverty is an enforced lack of ‘socially perceived necessities.’”
Amartya Sen (1992):
“Poverty [is] ‘the failure of basic capabilities to reach certain minimally acceptable levels.’ The functionings relevant to this…can vary from such elementary physical ones as being well-nourished, being adequately clothed and sheltered, avoiding preventable morbidity, etc. to more complex social achievements such as taking part in the life of the community, being able to appear in public without shame, and so on.”
Culled from: Ezeanyika (2006: 93-95).
The complex and multidimensional phenomenon of poverty is elaborated and extensively discussed by Chambers (1983, 1995). Important parts of this phenomenon include (but are not restricted to): material deprivation, isolation, dependence and subordination (over land ownership, sharecropping, and the poor bargaining position of ‘asset less’ labourers in labour-rich economies), absence from organisations, lack of assets, vulnerability to natural disaster, and insecurity, the latter, sometimes a result of development, or semblance of it (Ezeanyika, 2006).
Summing up the various facets of the contemporary reasoning on the multidimensional definitions of poverty presented by Jazairy, Almagir and Panuccio (1992), and the enriched discussion and the major contributions of Spicker (2002, 2007a, 2007b) on the subject of poverty, four typology of poverty emerge. They are:
- Interstitial (pockets of) poverty, surrounded by wealth;
- Material deprivation combined with isolation and alienation found in marginal areas, and labelled peripheral poverty;
- Overcrowding poverty in areas of population pressure; and
- Traumatic or sporadic poverty, perhaps better explained by Illiffe (1987) as conjunctural poverty (temporary poverty into which the non-poor may be thrown by crisis)
In this article, we understand poverty to be the absence or lack of basic entitlements. This implies that when people within a household, family, community or nation lack (or there is the absence of) basic and fundamental entitlements, they are said to be deprived and poor. These entitlements include economic, political, and socio-cultural. It following from this reasoning that acute poverty is characterised by the absence or lack of all these entitlements, and disproportionate poverty is the presence of one or two of them. Acute poverty emerges from the lack or absence of financial, human and physical necessities for creating and retaining a suitable environment for a sustainable living, and from the disparities and inequalities in access to, control of, and benefits from economic, political and socio-cultural resources within your community and/or nation. Acute poverty can therefore, in a nutshell, be explained as a state of being without, and often linked with need, hardship, and lack of resources. It could also be a state of being deprived of the basic necessities of life such as adequate housing, food, sufficient income, employment, access to basic social services, and the enjoyment of an acceptable social status. In other words, one can say that to be acutely poor is to lack or be denied adequate resources (from the pool of available ones) to participate actively and meaningfully in society (Ezeanyika, 2006).
3. Frameworks for Understanding and Measuring Poverty
There exist a number of poverty frameworks which may be useful for understanding and measuring acute poverty (Hagenaars and de Vos, 1988). There are also several good and contemporary reviews of poverty concepts which are briefly discussed below (Ravillon and Huppi, 1991; Kanbur and Squire, 1999; Lok-Dessallien, n.d.; World Bank, 2000 [Ch. 1]).
3.1 Material poverty, money-metric measurement approaches and multidimensional concepts of poverty
Material and physiological approaches view poverty as a lack of income, expenditure or consumption, and money-metric approaches that measure these deficiencies are commonly used by economists for quantitative analysis. These approaches allow for precise measurement and comparisons over time and between regions (McKay, 2001). In recent years, however, poverty has been viewed in a more holistic sense, based at least, in part, on the increased credence given to the views of the poor themselves (Spicker, 2007a). As Bevan and Joireman (1997: 316-7) argue, “while poverty everywhere involves people experiencing very real material and other deprivations, the concept of poverty is used to cover a wide-ranging set of interrelated life-chances which vary and are valued differently in the diverse cultures and sub-cultures of the world.”
Following from the above, the notion of what constitutes basic needs has expanded to encompass not only food, water, shelter, and clothing, but also access to other assets such as education, health, credit, participation in the political process, security and dignity. The 1995 Copenhagen Social Summit was the first major international gathering centred on the concepts of poverty and well-being. This development steered the international community and international organisation. Five years after the Summit, the World Bank (2000) was describing poverty in terms of material deprivation, low levels of education and health, exposure to vulnerability and risk, and voicelessness and powerlessness. Multidimensional approaches capture the full range of deprivations that constitute poverty, and may give ‘voice’ to the poor, but they lack the precision and comparability of income/consumption measures.
It is our hypothetic position that those who are acutely poor are likely to be poor in several ways, not only in terms of income. We may well try to construct ‘easy to use’ devices that identify acutely poor households through the multidimensionality of their poverty (e.g. households that experience food insecurity every year, with all children not attending/dropped out of primary school and with low levels of assets). Money-metric and other quantitative indicators are used for three main reasons: first, they will be more likely to be available across time as well as countries and communities, in a relatively comparable form; second, policy-makers commonly want quantitative evidence to guide policy choice; third, quantitative, money-metric analysis will be useful as researchers attempt to determine the communities and localities particularly vulnerable to acute poverty, before undertaking more in-depth, qualitative case studies. Ultimately, it may be that quantitative indicators other than income or consumption (e.g. capital or assets) that are more appropriate for the analysis of acute poverty.
3.2 Absolute and disproportionate poverty
Poverty is usually viewed as either a form of absolute deprivation or disproportionate,but significant, deprivation. Absolute poverty is perceived as subsistence below the minimum requirements for physical well-being, generally based on a quantitative proxy indicator such as income or calories, but sometimes taking into account a broader package of goods and services. Alternatively, the disproportionately poor are those whose income or consumption level is below the national average. Disproportionate poverty encourages an analytical focus on income inequality trends (Ezeanyika and Opurum, 2001; Ezeanyika, 2002).
Adopting multidimensional frameworks for understanding poverty creates more possibilities for disproportionality. The level of education needed to avoid falling into poverty is likely to increase over time, other things being equal. Exposure to a variety of risks is likely to require increased health expenditure to maintain the same level of health. Following from the above, if the ‘social wage’ does not increase correspondingly, similar levels of real private disposable income would mask an increase in poverty (or literally ill-being). Indeed, as Sen (1999:89-71) notes, disproportionatepoverty that is linked to incomescan yield acutedeprivation in terms of capabilities, depending on a person’s ability to convert income into well-being, which is in turn based on, for example, health status, age, gender, and differences in social or ecological environment.
3.3 Subjective poverty assessments
The subjective approach to understanding and measuring poverty argues that poverty and ill-being must be defined by the poor or by communities with significant numbers of poor people. Meanings and definitions imposed from above are seen as disempowering poor people and removing their right to create and own knowledge. The ideas behind these studies originated from the work by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on participatory rural appraisal (PRA) (Colclough and Manor, 1991; Hyden and Bratton, 1992; Chambers, 1994) which were later developed into participatory poverty assessments (PPA) (Robb 1999). The PRA and the PPA sought to understand the multidimensional, interlocking nature of poverty in ways useful to policy making. The Voices of the Poor (VOTP) series (Narayan et al., 1999, 2000), based on work in a total of fifty-eight countries in the developing and transitional countries, have provided a rich picture of both the differences and similarities of poor people’s experiences around the world. Through detailing and analysing the poor’s descriptions of material and psychological well- and ill-being; powerlessness, vulnerability and coping strategies; relationships with state and civil society institutions; and gender relations and social fragmentation at the household and community level, the VOTP series has contributed to the generation of researchable ideas at both local and comparative levels.
A few examples of the poor’s perception of their poverty situation selected from Ezeanyika (2006) and Ezeanyika and Okorie (2006) will buttress the above position. In Cameroon, based on field survey information obtained in 1995, 2001 and 2006, the poor distinguished themselves from the non-poor in five distinct ways:
- The presence of hunger in their households;
- Fewer meals a day and nutritionally inadequate diets;
- A high percentage of their meagre and irregular income spent on food;
- Non-existent or low sources of cash incomes; and
- Feelings of powerlessness and an inability to make them heard.
The plight of a 10 year old child in Gabon (1997), explaining his poverty and that of his family:
“When I leave for school in the mornings, that is, the very few times I do so, I don’t have any breakfast. At noon, there is no lunch, in the evening, I get a little supper, and that is not enough and cannot satisfy my hunger. So when see another child eating, I watch him with hungry and envious eyes, and if he doesn’t give me something, I feel pains in my stomach as if I’m going to die.”
A poor man in Kenya (1997) was asked the meaning of poverty. Below is his answer:
“Don’t ask me what poverty is because you have met it outside my hut. Look at the hut and count the number of holes on the roof. Look at my utensils and the clothes that I’m wearing. Look at everything around and write what you see. What you see is poverty.”
In a village in the outskirt of Kano, Nigeria (April 2005), the poor identified periods they experience acute and severe hunger and absolute poverty:
“During the hunger months of late March, April and early May, we are so poor that even dry corn and coconut are difficult to come by. When they are found, they rarely go round the many hungry mouths and empty stomachs. During this period, you could, from a fair distance, hear the grumbling noise made by angry worms in our famished stomachs. In spite of the pains and the shame, these rumblings never fail to amuse us, particularly the children.”
Women are not excluded from the absolutely poor and their perception of their situation was quite informative. In Urualla, Imo State of Nigeria (April 2006), the breadwinner of a female-headed household was approached and asked what she thought was the meaning of poverty. Below is her explanation:“You want to know what poverty is? Just look at my dilapidated hut, battered by years of neglect; look at my wasted body designed by visible bones; that’s poverty. Now, look at my orphaned, starving half-naked and naked children and their protruded but empty stomachs, they don’t go to school; that’s poverty. For months now, I’ve been having terrible pains in my joints, preventing me from working, but I can’t afford to go to the private clinic (the government one is empty and desolate) for a prescription because it is useless, I cannot pay for the medicines. You want to know what is poverty? I can tell you that my whole adult life is a demonstration of poverty. Just look at me and you’ll learn instantly the true meaning of poverty as it is written all over me.”
Poor peoples’ perceptions of their poverty situation reveal important psychological aspects of poverty. Poor peoples are acutely aware of their lack of voice, power, and independence, which subject them to exploitation. Their poverty also leaves them vulnerable to rudeness, humiliation, and inhumane treatment. They also speak about the pain resulting from their unavoidable violation of social norms and their inability to maintain cultural identity through participation in traditional festivals and rituals. Their inability to fully participate in community life leads to a breakdown of social relations.
Poor peoples also pay particular attention to assets rather than income, and link their lack of physical, human, social, and environmental assets to their vulnerability and exposure to risk (Cernea, 1985; Puttaswamaiah, 1990; Chambers, 1994)
These studies also sustain the multidimensional nature of poverty. Indeed, it is emphasised by many that wealth and well-being are not identical, due to the loneliness, lack of respect or insecurity that many wealthy people experience. The VOTP studies also confirm the ineffectual, corrupt and exclusionary nature of many institutions in the developing countries of Africa in relation to the poor; the vulnerability associated with seasonality in both rural and urban areas; and the justifiable fear among the poor of serious illness, disability or death within the household. As stated in Narayan et al., (2000:89), “… multiple factors – loss of income coupled with cost of treatment and the transformation of a wage earner into a dependant – make injury and illness common triggers of impoverishment.”
3.4 Capabilities and freedoms
Sen (1999) popularised the capabilities and freedoms approaches. In his seminal work, he explained poverty as a lack of capabilities, both intrinsic and instrumental (e.g. income, education, health, human rights, civil rights etc.) that permit people to achieve functionings (the things they want to do) and beings (the states of existence they want to experience). Such an approach is commonly used in relative terms (such as through the Human Development and Human Poverty Indices (UNDP, 2004). It can also be used in absolute terms if one is sufficiently courageous enough to define a minimum set of capabilities that people need or to which they have a right (Doyal and Gough, 1991). In his acclaimed work, Sen (1999) has extended the concept to argue that development is about the pursuit of five freedoms - political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees and protective security.
It is logical to postulate that what poor peoples are really afraid is not that their level of income; consumption or capabilities are low, but that they are likely to experience highly stressful declines in these levels, to the point of premature death. The vulnerability approach suggests that poverty can be seen as the probability (actual or perceived) that a household will suddenly (but perhaps also gradually) degenerate to a level it can no longer cope, leading to social breakdown (family splits, destitution or death) (Ezeanyika, 2004a).
Ellis (1998, 2000) notes that vulnerability has a dual aspect of external threats to livelihood security (e.g. climate, market collapse, theft) and internal risk management and coping capability (determined by access to a range of assets). He also establishes the important distinction between ex ante risk management strategies, and ex post coping strategies. However, vulnerability is generally measured as variation after the fact – “needed are indicators that make it possible to assess a household’s risk beforehand – information both on the household and on its links to informal networks and formal safety nets”, taking into account physical assets, human capital, income diversification, and participation in informal and formal networks, safety nets and credit markets (World Bank, 2000).
4.1 The heterogeneity of the Poor
The acute poor are a heterogeneous group whose deprivation may be caused by multifarious factors. Commonly, they reside in remote rural areas or zones of violent conflict and insecurity, experience social dislocation and discrimination, lack social networks, are disadvantaged because of impairments and have been displaced or relocated (Ezeanyika, 2002, 2004b). Levels of knowledge about the acute poor vary greatly. For example, the numbers of refugees and the problems that they face is reasonably well known and is (at least partially) regularly monitored. By contrast, the numbers of physically challenged people in developing counties and their needs, problems and means of support remains a major omission in the literature on poverty in developing countries (Yeo, 2001, Ezeanyika, 2004a, 2004b).
Below is the categorisation of individuals, households and social groups in Africa that are most vulnerable and likely to suffer acute poverty:
- Those experiencing deprivation because of their stage in the life cycle e.g. older people, children and widows.
- Those discriminated against because of their social position at the local, regional or national level e.g. marginalised ethnic, racial or religious groups, refugees, indigenous people, nomads and pastoralists, immigrants.
- Household members who experience discrimination within the household e.g. female children, daughters-in-law, house-helps or maids.
- Those with health problems and impairments e.g. those infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and people living with the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), the physically challenged and people with mental health problems.
- People living in remote rural areas, urban ghettos and regions where prolonged violent conflict and insecurity have occurred.
It has become an accepted truism that the acute poor experience several forms of disadvantage at the same time: these combinations, sustained by such issues as gender interaction, age, discrimination and geographical location, keep them in poverty and block off opportunities for escape (Falkingham and Namazie, 2001).
In any analysis of chronic poverty, it is important to differentiate whether one is referring to an individual, a household, a social group, or a geographical area. As Yaqub (2000b) clearly details, ‘whereas poverty trends focus on inter-temporal changes in aggregate poverty of countries (or sub-groups thereof) in which households (or individuals) remain anonymous, poverty dynamics focus on inter-temporal changes in poverty of specific households (or individuals).”