African Journal of Rural Studies 24 (4) July 2004: 413 – 420
The Political Economy of Rural Poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa: Issues and Policy Options
EZEANYIKA, S.E.1 OPURUM, I.2
2. UNDERSTANDING RURAL POVERTY IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA
About one-fifth of the world’s population is suffering from poverty. Poverty is a disease, not only a state of existence but also a process with many ramifications. It is usually characterized by deprivation, vulnerability and powerlessness (Lipton and Ravillion, 1995:106, Sen, 1999:149). These characteristics impair poor people’s sense of self. To understand poverty, it is important to define it and put it within a dynamic context. Poverty, which can be absolute or disproportionate, is the absence or lack of basic entitlements. They include economic, political and socio-cultural entitlements. Therefore, absolute poverty is the absence or lack of all these entitlements, and disproportionate poverty is the presence of one or two of these entitlements, but not all (Ezeanyika, 2001:36-38). It is important to note that even disproportionate poverty, if acute, can, just like absolute poverty, trap succeeding generations. Therefore, for a fuller understanding of poverty, it is essential to examine the economic, political, and socio-cultural contexts including institutions of the concerned SSA countries, their markets, communities and households. Differences in the severity of poverty cut across age, ethnicity, gender, income source, and location. In household, children, women the disabled and elderly folks often suffer more.
In the community, minority, ethnic or religions groups suffer more than majority groups, and the rural poor, more than the urban poor, among the rural poor, landless wage-workers suffer more than small landowners or tenants. These differences are a reflection of very complex interactions of cultures, markets, and public policies. The multifarious links among poverty, economic growth, and income distribution have been examined extensively in recent literature on economic development (World Bank, 1990, 1996). Absolute poverty can be alleviated if at least two conditions are met. First, economic growth has to occur or mean income has to rise – on a sustained basis. Second, economic growth should not affect or influence income inequality. From a general perspective, poverty cannot be alleviated if economic growth does not occur. As a matter of fact, persistent poverty of a large portion of the population can negate the prospects for economic growth (DESREG, 2002:6-9). Also important is the national and regional strategies adopted by SSA nations to spur growth and alleviate mass poverty. There is sufficient evidence within SSA to show that a very unequal distribution of income is going to negatively affect economic growth and poverty alleviation. Available evidence on economic growth indicates that if SSA countries institutionalize incentive structures and make complementary investments geared towards improving primary health care delivery, and education, higher income levels will be attained, and the poor will benefit doubly through increased current consumption and higher future incomes (DESREG, 2003:11-12). The pattern and stability of economic growth plays a fundamental role in alleviating rural poverty. While traditional capital – intensive, import – substituting, and urban – driven growth – induced government policies on pricing, trade, and public expenditure has not actually alleviated poverty, agricultural growth, where there is low concentration of land owners hip and the use of labour –intensive technologies, poverty has been alleviated (Gaiha, 1993:14-16). Rural poverty accounts for more than 65 percent of poverty is SSA. In almost all these nations, the conditions faced by rural poor – such as problems of personal consumption and access to basic and functional education, health care, potable water, affordable housing, transportation, and communications – are far worse than those faced by urban poor. Persistent high levels of rural poverty tend to induce population growth and migration to urban centres. This situation is aggravated is SSA nations by distorted government policies that have neglected to build and maintain basic physical and social infrastructures in their impoverishes rural communities.
3. CLASSIFYING THE RURAL POOR AND THEIR SOURCES OF INCOME
The classification of rural poor is very important because it is through it that we can identify what they do for survival. From this knowledge, we can learn how poverty affects them and their households. This classification also helps in delineating the policy options capable of alleviating poverty. The rural poor in SSA are a heterogeneous group; therefore, classifying them is difficult but necessary. One very functional way to do it is to determine their survival. Using this criterion, the following groups emerge: poor rural farmers, that is, those who have access to small farming land, either as owners or as tenant farmers; and poor rural non-farmers, that is, those who have no land, no particular skill, and are merely laborers toiling for a miserable wage. In response to the change in their economic fortunes, the rural poor in SSA however adopt poverty –mitigating strategies that encourage overlapping between these groups (Mobogunje, 1990:10). According to Atkinson (1989:749) it is common for the poor to work as cultivators, hunters and gatherers, small artisans, petty trader s, and wage laborers at various times of the year. In the majority of SSA nations, poor rural farmers form the majority of the rural poor and they are engaged mainly in small –scale agriculture. Since the income derivable from their often over-used small parcels of land cannot sustain their generally large households, they also engage in wage in wage labour in farm and non-farm activities within and outside their communities.
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The poorest among the poor in SSA are perhaps poor rural non-farmers: their number has been on the increase because of the growing population in the least developed countries (LDCs) and the high rural-urban migrating. In the majority, these workers depend on seasonal demand for laborers in agriculture, and in the rural informal sector. They are, therefore, very vulnerable to fluctuations in the demand for labour, wage rates, and food prices. In the majority of instances, they are absolutely poor and therefore marginalized from gaining access to public infrastructure and services. From available empirical evidence, poor rural women suffer more than their male counterparts. A major contributor to their hopeless situation is their low social status in most communities in SSA. Substantial evidence from many SSA nations indicates that targeting women’s needs and empowering them are keys to attaining sustainable human development (DESREG, 2003:21 - 24). The elderly, the disabled and the widows are most traumatized by absolute poverty in the rural areas of SSA nations. This group of poor, which often relies on the extended family, can no longer count on it. This is because this formerly reliable social structure is breaking under the tremendous pressure of economic recession, unemployment, rural-urban migration, and the emergence of multigenerational households. This peculiar demographic characteristic of poverty is gradually disintegrating traditional and strong African kinship ties built over centuries of pattern maintenance’s and socialization. Africans in the rural areas have been particularly affected by this pattern of poverty and its impact is yet to be fully assessed (Ezeanyika, 2001:39-40).
4. DETERMNING THE ASSETS OF RURAL POOR
Understanding poverty creation in rural areas and its effects on different groups requires a determination of the assets owned by the poor or those they have common access to, and how they are linked to their nation economy. Their economic condition is determined and affected by a variety of assets. Their physical assets include private and communal property rights in land, forest, pastures, and waters, tools and machines, structures, domestic animals, foodstuffs, savings and access to credit. The poor's human assets comprise workers of different ages, genders, skills, and health in the households and the communities. Their infrastructure assets include constitutionally guaranteed right, freedoms and obligations, the extent of their participation and contribution in decision-making in households, communities and villages. The first two categories of assets are regulated through formal and informal network among individuals and communities (Khan, 2001:18-20). Most rural poor, particularly women, landless households, the elderly, the disabled, and the widows are greatly marginalized by inadequate assets and their low and volatile returns.
Poor rural women often have too many children, spaced to close together, to the detriment of their health. Because the rural poor are highly prone to diseases, famine hunger and malnutrition, these hazards usually undermine their capacity for hard labour, which is often their main or only sure asset.
The rural poor in SSA nations are rarely self-sufficient in anything other than poverty. They are always in need of petty cash to buy a few household items such as fifth-hand cloths, salt, and soap, besides paying taxes (for non-existing and / or non functioning amenities), and medical and school bills. For the majority of these poor traditional agriculture has remained the main source of income, but it suffers from inefficiency and low productivity. In most of SSA – apart from the white High-land of Kenya and some of the large cocoa, coffee, and sugar plantations of East and West Africa – the large majority of rural poor farmers plan their agricultural output for their own subsistence.
5. THE RURAL POOR AND THEIR ENVIRONMENT
The majority of the rural poor in SSA nations have little or no access at all to publicity provided goods and services. In their own nations, they are generally marginalized and placed at the fringe of society. They are victimized by governments that usually fail to reach millions of poor people in the remote and inaccessible rural areas (Okorie and Ezeanyika, 2003:41). The rural poor are often set apart from basic services by traditional and educational barriers. Most illiterate and absolutely poor rural people are easily marginalized and intimidated by government agents. Sometimes, they simply lack information about available programmes targeted to their needs. More often however, because they are not consulted, programmes designed for alleviating their miserable conditions compound their problems. In many nations (including those of SSA), poverty is correlated with race and ethnic background, and since the poor play a very little part in active politics, they are often disfranchised (Sander and Whiteboard, 1989:13). It has also been observed that many characteristics of a nation’s economy and society, as well as some external influences, create and perpetuate rural poverty (Jazairy, et.al. 1992:98-100). They include:
As already mentioned in this essay, skewed national economic and social policies in SSA nations have tremendously contributed to exacerbating poverty through the exclusion of rural poor from the dividends of development, and thus, accentuating the effects of the other poverty – creating processes. Identified public biases that generally marginalize the rural poor include:
6. POLICY INITIATIVES FOR REDUCING RURAL POVERTY
1. Markets in which the rural poor participate are usually those selling products, labor and non- labor inputs, and formal and informal financial resources. Several important features of these markets can improve conditions in rural areas.
The policy initiatives that stand a better change of imparting on rural poor have to target the following major groups in the rural areas:
proceeding groups. All of these groups are likely going to obtain dividends from good national macroeconomic management which helps reduce inflation and maintain unsubsidized process – because it creates and maintains a sustainable environment for economic growth through private and public investments, and competitive markets (Khan, 2001:23) and Ravillion (1995:241)
particularly in SSA. It involves a broad-based land reform programme – including land tilling, land redistribution, and fair, equitable and realizable tenancy contracts – which can transform small and marginal landowner s and tenants into more efficient producers, and raise their standards of living.
rural poor need to build and strengthen their human capital so that they can be set free from the prison of humiliation and dehumanization created by absolute poverty, and contribute more to the development of their national economy and society. The provision and delivery of basic and functional primary health care (which includes immunization against avoidable killer diseases, potable water, and family planning) and basic and functional education (which includes literacy, schooling, and technical training) – particularly targeted to women and children – are essential building blocs for sustainable development and should be available and accessible at very reasonable cost.
infrastructure and services associated with the provision and delivery of basic and functional primary health care, and education can be funded and maintained best if the target groups and their association are involved in making decisions about their design, implementation, administration, administration, monitoring, and accountability.
use of their resources including human capital if either the quantity or the quality of some of the key parts of the nation’s physical infrastructure (communication, irrigation, and transportation) and support services (research and extensions) are absent or inadequate. The social and physical infrastructure and services can be funded and maintained best if there is communal involvement and local reciprocity – based organisations (civil society, town unions women and youth groups) are involved in the provision of basic infrastructure in the form of self-help project. Many SSA nations showcase examples of such success stories.
rural poor, since informal and formal sources of credit are usually too costly for, or unavailable to, them. Recent experiments with Grammeen-type credit systems, and traditional group-based savings and credit schemes in which the poor contribute and actively participate in the making of lending decisions that ate subject to peer accountability have been quite successful in reaching target groups at reasonable cost and in improving their lots (DESREG, 2003:20-24).
It is widely recognised and generally accepted that macroeconomic stability, competitive markets and public improvement in physical and social infrastructure are important preconditions for creating and sustaining economic growth, and alleviating poverty in the rural areas. In addition, because the rural poor are a heterogeneous group and their links to their national economy vary considerably, public policy initiatives should be centred on issues concerned with their access to land and credit facilities, basic and functional education, and primary health care delivery systems, support services, and above all, the three basic entitlements, economic, political, and socio-cultural participation to enable them escape from the dehumanising and humiliating prison of absolute and disproportionate poverty.
Addison, T. and Demery, L. 1985. ‘Macro-economic stabilisation, income distribution and poverty,’ Preliminary Survey Working Paper 15, London: ODI.
1Senior Lecturer in Political Economy and Development Studies, Department of Government and Public Administration, Imo State University, Owerri, Imo State, Nigeria.
ISSN 0880-2123 © 2004 New World Publications Ltd.
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