Poverty, inequality need home-grown solutions

6 09 2009

By Dr Vusi Gumede

Dr. Vusi Gumede

Dr. Vusi Gumede

A world-renowned scholar of public policy, Yehezkel Dror, recently reemphasised the point that policy and politics “closely interact, often overlap, and in part cannot be separated even analytically”. This seemingly obvious point, with far-reaching implications, has also been made by various eminent scholars. On poverty, Martin Ravallion — a leading scholar on issues of poverty — made, a while back, a similar point: that (poverty) measurement and (public) policy issues are often inseparable. Without doubt, poverty and inequality remain the most pressing challenges confronting Africa specifically. This is not to say that other continents and/or regions do not have a poverty and inequality challenge.

The fundamental issue is that Africa (south of Sahara specifically) is the only region in the world where poverty is not declining. The inequalities, be it in opportunities, outcomes or incomes, remain glaring in most parts of the African continent. For instance, the population-weighted poverty gap is estimated to be above 40% in sub-Saharan Africa relative to the $2 per day per capita international poverty line — this is just an indication of the wide chasm between the minimum level of income or consumption necessary for a sufficient living standard and what it would take, in monetary terms, to bring the most poor to the poverty line.

The other fundamental point about poverty (and inequality in Africa) is that unlike the Latin American region in particular, dealing with poverty in Africa is not just a matter of re-distribution — our per capita incomes, with exceptions of course, are too low. In addition, and worth highlighting is that gross domestic product per capita incomes in sub-Saharan Africa have been negative over a longer period. (In simple terms, gross domestic product can be defined as the value of a country’s total output of goods and services. Per capita income refers to the amount each person receives from a country’s overall income generated annually). It could therefore be argued that poverty in Africa is largely a matter of equitable growth and to some extent re-distributive policies could take Africa somewhere. It is also in this context that politics and policy cannot be separated. The policy-making processes, needless to say, require that the politics of Africa or rather the political history of the African continent be borne in mind. Africa is largely what it is today or what it has become because of despicable political history and continued external influence. Distinguished African scholar Thandika Mkandawire has provided detailed analyses of how external influence or interference by outsiders has negatively impacted Africa’s development.

As such, it is encouraging that more scholars from other disciplines, rather than just economists, are increasingly getting their hands dirty in an effort to come up with correct solutions to poverty eradication — even economists have been hard at work to better understand poverty dynamics. Recent studies, such as those led by Ravi Kanbur, who is one of the leading scholars on poverty dynamics, examine the role of and dynamics in communities that impact on poverty levels and also the measurement of poverty in the context of the resources each nation has — a sort of gauge of poverty reduction failures. Linked to that are developments around the measurement/s of poverty. It has been argued that critical to conceptualisation and definitions of poverty are values, principles and aspirations that inform the developmental goals of the kind of society that is envisioned.

However, in most (African) countries, the definitions of poverty are traditionally based on money-metric measures as reflected in adopted poverty lines. Many have been critical of this approach, arguing that poverty is a complex and a multidimensional socio-economic phenomenon (though how one accurately measures the multidimensional nature of poverty remains unresolved). Nanak Kakwani, among other leading scholars on these issues, has been doing important work in this area. Increasingly, Amartya Sen’s conceptualisation of poverty guides analyses and policy-making pertaining poverty. However, the human-capabilities approach that Sen provides us a framework for remains contested — what exactly are those critical capabilities and who determines them?

In addition, it could be argued that poverty (at least in most African countries) is a “social construct” and therefore will take sustained human ingenuity to foster an environment where the so-called poor are able to create wealth and feel a part of the respective nations. It is here that I think history might judge most of us harshly: we continue talking on behalf of the poor while our appreciation of the broader structural geopolitical forces that shape the experiences of the poor and the (socially) excluded worldwide is wanting. That is why I find the argument that poverty is a “social construct”, in as much as it is an artefact of human creation in a world devoid of morals and compassion, persuasive. It seems that each country determines what kind of poverty it can tolerate, how long it wants to tolerate it and how vigorous it will deal with it when it decides to deal with it. This idea is not difficult to comprehend because we constantly fail to explain why about a billion people go to bed hungry while millions more are suffering from lifestyle diseases such as obesity, hypertension and so on.

In trying to understand why the poor are poor, three main strands of theoretical explanations hold. First, some theories place the poor themselves as the architects of their own precarious circumstances. Second, some theories blame the nation state for being impotent in the face of emerging tragedies for which immediate solutions abound. And third, some people may choose to place the global geopolitical structure at the centre of the genesis and persistence of poverty. The third hypothesis, if it has any merit, warrants that policy makers in particular recognise Dror’s point that policy and politics “closely interact, often overlap, and in part cannot be separated even analytically”. The second hypothesis would imply that better African leadership is one of the critical solutions to the challenges of poverty and inequality in Africa (and elsewhere). The African leadership that would be better placed to sustainably improve the circumstances of Africa would most likely be the one that is sufficiently independent of external influence.

In conclusion, through “reasonable” and sustainable economic growth, radical redistribution regimes and strategies that enrich the assets of the poor, as Hernando de Soto argued, will gain some mileage. Africa is again called upon to answer the question of whether the generations tasked with the mission to emancipate Africa from deprivation are indeed fulfilling or betraying their respective missions, as Frantz Fanon would enquire. Reversing the scourge of dehumanising poverty (and inequality) in Africa requires home-grown solutions, mindful of the argument that policy and politics closely interact, often overlap, and in part cannot be separated even analytically.

Dr Vusi Gumede holds a PhD in economics, among his other qualifications. He has worked for the South African government for about 10 years, as an advisor, economist, analyst, etc.



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