Safety nets have the potential to play an important role in protecting the well-being of poor and vulnerable households in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the world’s poorest region—and also one of the most unequal—targeted social program transfers are an effective way to fight poverty and ensure shared prosperity. But social safety net resources are limited and identification of households with the greatest need is difficult in most African countries. Evidence of effective safety net program targeting is needed to justify using existing resources, to gain support for additional investments, and to guide country efforts to improve social safety net coverage of both long-term (chronic) poor and short-term (transient) poor households.
Concerns about South Africa’s economy have been rising, after years of slowing growth following the post-financial crisis peak of 3.2% in 2011. South Africans lament the plunge of the Rand—a 30% depreciation against the U.S. dollar over the year 2015. They fear the potential of South Africa losing its high-prized investment grade credit rating. Many, especially the youth, live with high and largely chronic unemployment, currently at 25.5%, or 36% when including those who have given up looking for a job. Not surprisingly unemployment is the top concern for 72% of South Africans according to the 2015 Afrobarometer. Growth and job creation are crucial for sustaining the impressive economic and social progress the country has achieved since the end of apartheid—and to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030, as envisioned by the National Development Plan (NDP).
It is widely known that, compared to other continents, poverty rates are particularly high in Africa. Somewhat less appreciated is that inequality within countries also tends to be high. “Poverty in a Rising Africa,” the latest World Bank Africa poverty report, shows for example that seven out of the world’s 10 most unequal countries are African, with the country Gini indexes ranging from 0.31 (Niger) to 0.63 (South Africa) (with zero implying perfect equality and one, perfect inequality).
However, not only the level of inequality matters, but also the reasons behind it. Unequal outcomes may result from both differences in opportunities as well as differences in effort. There is also growing evidence and consensus that it is especially the former, which is pernicious for development. Rewards by effort may incentivize people. Yet, when welfare mainly differs because of differences at birth (such as gender, ethnicity, or parental background) or, more generally, because of factors beyond the individual control, it tends to be especially detrimental for economic growth and social harmony.
Standard measures of poverty and inequality are calculated at the household level—assuming resources are pooled and shared equally among its members. The World Bank Group’s new global poverty estimates, for example, are based on consumption per person—the average consumed by individuals within the household.
If consumption per person falls below the new global poverty line of $1.90 per day, everyone in the household is considered “poor.” If consumption is above the poverty line, no one in the household is considered “poor.” This measure is also used to monitor progress toward the first target of the newly agreed Sustainable Development Goals, to end extreme poverty by 2030.
According to the latest statistics, 51% of African women report that being beaten by their husbands is justified if they either go out without permission, neglect the children, argue back, refuse to have sex, or burn the food. This is startling.
To be sure, the numbers reflect attitudes, not incidence. About one third of African women report to have experienced domestic violence (physical or sexual). But the attitudes are arguably even more pernicious. They shape behavior, reflect social norms toward conflict resolution, also outside the home, and could bear importantly on development and poverty reduction. They are also correlated with the incidence of violence. In assessing people’s poverty status and well-being, a much more systematic discussion of the acceptance and incidence of domestic violence is called for.
So, what has been happening to women’s attitudes and incidence towards domestic violence following Africa’s hopeful economic turn-around? Two decades of systematic data collection through the Demographic and Health Surveys make it possible to examine this. The latest Poverty in a Rising Africa report summarizes the findings.
Just under two years ago, I, along with a team from across the World Bank, co-authored a report, Youth Employment in Sub-Saharan Africa, which tackled the growing gap between the aspirations of African youth and the realities of the job markets and what governments should do about it. With an expected 11 million young Africans entering the labor market every year well into the next decade, the findings and main messages of the report remain relevant.
Boosting youth employment is not a one-dimensional task that can be solved, for example, by merely increasing training opportunities—a frequently touted response. The key is to ensure that young people—and other workers—can earn a decent income in whatever work they do. Young people need strong foundational skills—human capital—to bring to their jobs; farm and business owners, entrepreneurs and investors need a conducive environment to create more productive opportunities. Governments must address the quality of basic education and remove obstacles that hinder progress in agriculture, household enterprises, and manufacturing.
In Western economies, widows were historically among the poorest and most vulnerable individuals until the introduction of pension schemes and widow benefits in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One might expect a similar situation in developing countries with underdeveloped safety net and insurance mechanisms, as well as high levels of gender inequality in rights, human development, and access to assets and employment. Yet, despite the likely relevance of widowhood in the lives of African women, surprisingly little is known about the well-being of Africa’s widows.
This is partly because poverty and vulnerability are typically measured with the household as the basic unit of observation. Potentially disadvantaged individuals such as remarried widows, young or elderly current widows, and their children are then largely hidden from view in standard data sources. In a background study to the latest World Bank Group Africa poverty report, Poverty in a Rising Africa, we mined Africa’s Demographic and Health Surveys to dig deeper into these issues. The findings are telling.
Living standards have risen and poverty has fallen considerably across Sub-Saharan Africa since the late 1990s. But are all groups sharing in the gains? In particular, what about Africa’s many female-headed households, often thought to be poorer. Have they been left behind?
Nearly one in four households in Africa are headed by a woman. To be sure, this figure is not the same in all countries; those in Southern Africa have substantially higher rates while households in West African countries are least likely to be headed by a woman. What is true in all countries is that female headship has been increasing. The data show quite clearly that the probability that a woman aged 15 or older heads a household has been increasing over time in all sub-regions and at every age (see the figure).
The thousands of people crossing the European borders in 2015 have attracted considerable media attention. While such an attention is welcomed, we do not hear much about the millions of refugees hosted in developing countries.
Developing countries host about 85% of the total number of refugees in the world. Although Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) also hosts refugees from other regions, the number of refugees originating from SSA follows closely those hosted in the region, suggesting that most SSA refugees remain in countries within the region (Figure 1).
There is no doubt that the logistical, institutional, and socio-economic challenges are even fiercer in developing countries. Focusing mainly on Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, we reviewed the recent literature to draw a few lessons in a new working paper, prepared as background to the Poverty in a Rising Africa report.
It must not have been easy to be a statistician at Volkswagen. At least Martin Winterkorn, former CEO of the car company, may not have been very fond of them.
Independent researchers published data showing how cars produced by Volkswagen were anything but the “clean diesels” they were proclaimed to be. In fact, the cars were shown to be very polluting, pumping out up to 40 times the allowed level of nitrogen oxide. Statistics revealed the truth, and the once powerful CEO is now a person in disgrace who may have to spend time in jail.
Countries are not companies, and a country’s leader is not to be compared with the CEO. Still, at times, their behavior reminds one of the self-interested take on life one expects from the head of a profit-maximizing company but not from an official representing its people. Countries with such self-interested profit maximizing leaders, let’s call them “Volkswagen” countries, prefer their statistical systems to be underfunded and of low capacity. It prevents the false claims about the country’s successes from being uncovered.