A raft of trickle-down economic policies adopted by East African governments to fight poverty seems to be bearing fruit with new global data showing that poverty levels in the region have significantly dropped.
The UN said in the Human Development Report (HDR) 2013 released last week that poverty reduction drivers in developing countries exceeded expectations, helping uplift hundreds of millions of the poor into a new “global middle class.”
Another report by Oxford University’s Poverty and Human Development Initiative (Ophi) ranked East African countries, mainly Tanzania and Rwanda, among the “star performers” in fighting poverty worldwide.
The Oxford University think tank reckons the two East African countries could, if the current trend continues, eradicate absolute poverty within the current generation.
“The world is witnessing a epochal ‘global rebalancing’ with higher growth in at least 40 poor countries helping lift hundreds of millions out of poverty and into a new ‘global middle class.’ Never in history have the living conditions and prospects of so many people changed so dramatically and so fast,” said the UN Human Development Report.
The report also cited trade as a key factor in improving conditions in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone.
The Oxford report, which is based on the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), measures nutrition, education, sanitation and traditional methods such as GDP.
It identifies Rwanda, Nepal and Bangladesh as the most rapidly improving countries of a 22-country study, closely followed by Ghana, Tanzania, Cambodia and Bolivia. It predicts that the “star performers” could eradicate acute poverty in 20 years.
East African economies have had poverty eradication policies but not all have worked.
When he came to power in 2003, Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki promised to roll out free learning both in primary and secondary schools. The introduction of the twin social welfare plans was touted as the most effective social equalisation programme, opening the doors for children from poor backgrounds to attain basic education.
But the Kibaki policies have done little to lift a majority of Kenyans from poverty. A May 2012 report by the World Bank showed that Kenya’s poverty levels have oscillated between 44 and 46 per cent.
Rwanda has achieved remarkable recovery and progress, characterised by reduced poverty numbers, government data shows. In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, Rwanda was confronted with extreme poverty, with 70 per cent of the population living below the poverty line in 1997.
The government initiated the Girinka (one cow per poor household) programme adapted from the traditional Rwandan solidarity practice of giving each other a cow as a pact of friendship and support in the event of misfortune or dire need. By 2010, 44.9 per cent of Rwandan households were considered poor.
Tanzania has been championing Mkukuta II to accelerate economic growth, reducing poverty, improving the standards of living and social welfare and push for good governance and accountability. Mkukuta II, like its predecessor, is a vehicle for realising Tanzania’s Development Vision 2025.
Government statistics show that 36 out of every 100 Tanzanians were poor in 2001 compared to 34 in 2007. Income poverty (basic needs and food poverty) varied, with the rural areas being worse off.
Uganda has more than halved the percentage of the population below the poverty line from 56 per cent in 1992 to 24 per cent in 2010, government data shows.
But the future for other countries does not look as bright.
“At the current rate of reduction, it will take Ethiopia 45 years to halve multidimensional poverty; in other words, to achieve poverty levels equivalent to those Nigeria has now,” said Ophi’s José Manuel Roche. “Based on the same assumptions, it will take India 41 years and Malawi 74 years to eradicate acute poverty.”
Rwanda and Bangladesh achieved significant reductions in both the scale and intensity of multidimensional poverty in every one of their regions.
“This ability of the MPI to reveal inequalities at a regional level, as well as between social groups, makes it a vital tool for policy makers,” said Dr Suman Seth, one of researchers at Ophi.
“The global MPI allows us to compare people’s poverty and see in what ways they are deprived, in order to address these interconnected deprivations and target interventions more accurately.” This year, Ophi found that 1.6 billion people are living in multidimensional poverty.
How can developing countries improve the living standards of their people?
The UN says that the first measure is to improve the education standards of women, as research shows that a mother’s level of education is more important to the survival of her child than the household income. This pushes governments to focus more on ensuring that girls attain quality education.
The latest Kenya Demographic Health Survey shows that the median age of marriage increases with advances in education. Girls who have no education will get married at about 17.5 years, but those with at least a secondary education will tie the knot at 22.4 years.
In Tanzania, girls who never went to school would be married by 17.7 years, but those with secondary school or higher level of education are likely to postpone marriage till 23.1 years.
Governments can also improve citizens’ participation in politics and governance. The youth need to feel they have better economic opportunities, a possibility of upward social mobility and a stake in the country’s future, the UN said.
In Kenya, youth constitute about 61 per cent of the unemployed. Data from the UNDP’s 2009-2013 Country Programme Document shows that 82 per cent of young people who are unemployed have primary and secondary school education but no skills that make them employable.
East Africa has some of the youngest populations in the world.
Half of Uganda’s population is aged below 15.1 years. Only Yemen and Niger have younger populations.
In Burundi, the median age is 16.9 years and in Tanzania, it is 18.5. Rwanda’s median age is 18.7 years, while Kenya’s is 18.9 years.
Unemployment in the 18-24 age group is double that of the general population and is one of the major causes of insecurity and social unrest. The Arab Spring is a case in point.
Still, a younger, better educated and more energetic population offers the possibility of large leaps in economic growth.
A report by audit firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) shows that in the next few decades, much of the expansion in emerging economies will be driven by high population growth.
As societies get richer, they have fewer children. The size of their working-age population increases until they reach the “demographic window,” characterised by a large working-age population with fewer dependants, be it children or the elderly.
When a country enters this period of greatest potential, as western Europe did during late 19th century and the US in mid 20th century, it can cash in on the fast-growing, economically active population, providing the impetus for industrial production. Demography has accounted for a third of East Asia’s phenomenal growth over the past three decades.
Countries with the oldest populations naturally enter the demographic window first, and those with the youngest populations last.
According to a report by the UN’s Population Division, East Africa is expected to enter the demographic window in the middle of this century.
With a current average of 4.5 children per family, the smallest in East Africa, Kenya is expected to enter the demographic window around 2035. Tanzania will follow in 2040 and Rwanda in 2045.
Burundi and Uganda, currently having the youngest populations in East Africa with 6.7 children per family, should cash in their demographic dividends around 2055.
But the HDR warns that countries must have strong policy measures to reap the demographic dividend by increasing education of the youth and providing meaningful economic opportunities for the working-age population.
Without these measures, many countries will be struggling to meet the needs of an older population while they are still poor.
Confronting environmental challenges is also one of the major steps governments can take to improve lives. Although poorer countries contribute less to global climate change, they are hardest hit by severe and unpredictable weather, with dire consequences on agriculture and food security.
In East Africa, protecting forests is critical, as virtually all the countries in the region, except Tanzania, face serious “water stress” in the next few years.
Kenya is the most affected: each Kenyan has 636 cubic metres of water a year, compared to 1,270 cubic metres in Uganda and 2,035 cubic metres in Tanzania.
Water scarcity is likely to hit Uganda by 2035, but water stress will hit the country by 2020. Nairobi’s water demand stands at 750,000 cubic metres a day, against a supply capacity of 530,000 cubic metres. It is projected that the daily demand in 2020 will stand at 1.6 million cubic metres and climb to 2.2 million cubic metres by 2030.
But forests in East Africa have shrunk, especially around the fringes of parks, complicating efforts to protect wildlife and fight climate change.
The study, published last July in the PLos One journal indicated that forest cover decreased by about 9.3 per cent overall from 2001-2009 in about 12 nations studied. Losses were biggest in Uganda and Rwanda, while only South Sudan made fractional gains.
By Paul Redfern and Christine Mungai