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LOOKIN’ INSIDE FROM OUTSIDE: Rural Poverty in Africa

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Poverty in Africa is predominantly rural. More than 70 per cent of the continent’s poor people live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for food and livelihood, yet development assistance to agriculture is decreasing. In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 218 million people live in extreme poverty. Among them are rural poor people in Eastern and Southern Africa, an area that has one of the world’s highest concentrations of poor people.

The incidence of poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa is increasing faster than the population. Overall, the pace of poverty reduction in most of Africa has slowed since the 1970s. Rural poverty in many areas of Africa has its roots in the colonial system and the policy and institutional restraints that it imposed on poor people. In recent decades, economic policies and institutional structures have been modified to close the income gap. Structural adjustments have dismantled existing rural systems, but have not always built new ones.

In many transitional economies, the rural situation is marked by continuing stagnation, poor production, low incomes and the rising vulnerability of poor people. Lack of access to markets is a problem for many small-scale enterprises in Africa. The rural population is poorly organized and often isolated, beyond the reach of social safety nets and poverty programs. Increasingly, government policies and investments in poverty reduction tend to favor urban over rural areas.

HIV/AIDS is changing the profile of rural poverty in Africa. It puts an unbearable strain on poor rural households, where labor is the primary income-earning asset. About two thirds of the 34 million people in the world with HIV/AIDS live on the African continent. Three fourths of poor people in Western and Middle Africa — an estimated 90 million people — live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. One in five lives in a country affected by warfare.

In conflict-torn countries such as Angola, Burundi, Mozambique and Uganda, the capacity of rural people to make a livelihood has been dramatically curtailed by warfare, and per capita food production has plummeted. Land degradation, a consequence of extensive agriculture, deforestation and overgrazing, has reached alarming levels and further threatens livelihoods. The poorest people live in isolated zones, deprived of the social safety nets and poverty reduction programmes available in semi-urban and urban areas.

The incidence of HIV/AIDS in Western and Middle Africa is generally lower than that of Eastern and Southern Africa, but the epidemic could spread dramatically if it is not combated vigorously. Rural poverty is deepening in Eastern and Southern Africa, where most of the region’s 130 million poor people live in rural areas. Ten of the 21 countries in the region have an average annual per capita income of less than US$400.

The progress of national and rural development is slow. Development assistance to agriculture has declined. This has a negative impact on smallholder farming, the basic source of livelihood for the rural poor. In general, agricultural productivity per worker is stagnating or decreasing. More than 85 per cent of the rural poor live on land that has medium to high potential for increased productivity. The poorest people live in the desert or on semi-arid land that makes up almost 40 per cent of the land base of this part of Africa.

As elsewhere on the continent, poverty in Northern Africa is concentrated in rural areas. The percentage of rural poor people living below the national poverty line varies dramatically, from 6 per cent in Tunisia to 90 per cent in Somalia and 87 per cent in the Sudan.  Rural poor people constitute about one third of Tunisia’s poor population and about three fourths of Somalia’s poor. Beginning in the late 1980s, countries such as Egypt and Tunisia undertook structural adjustments with the aim of reducing poverty.

Rural poverty in the region has its roots in limited availability of good arable land and water, and the impact of droughts and floods. Political conflict has disrupted agriculture and aggravated poverty in countries such as Somalia and the Sudan. Among the obstacles to reducing rural poverty in Northern Africa are poor transport and social infrastructure, high rates of illiteracy (especially among women), weak local institutions, poor integration with the national economy, and the migration of rural youth to urban areas.

In Northern African countries in general, rural poor people have very little political influence. This is especially true of women. The rural population is poorly organized and often lives in isolated zones, beyond the reach of social safety nets and poverty programmes. Government policies and investments in the region tend to favor urban over rural areas.

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