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What will it take to end poverty in Africa?

Shanta Devarajan's picture

My colleague Jim Kim has launched a social media campaign on what it will take to end global poverty (please send your solutions via twitter to #ittakes.) I was reminded of a blog post I did about four years ago entitled “Ending poverty in Africa and elsewhere”. 

My answer then and now is:  Overcome government failure.  By “government failure,” I don’t mean that governments are evil or even that they are incompetent or ill-intentioned.  Analogous to “market failure,” government failure refers to a situation where the particular incentives in government lead to a situation that is worse than what was intended with the intervention.  

For instance, governments finance and provide primary education so that poor children can have access to learning.  But if teachers are paid regardless of whether they show up for work, and politicians rely on teachers to run their political campaigns, the result is absentee teachers and poor children who don’t know how to read or write—precisely the opposite of what was intended.  We see similar government failures in health care, water supply, sanitation, electricity, transport, labor markets and trade policy.

Why do I say the problem is government failure, and not, say, lack of education or health or infrastructure?  We have known for some time that education, health and infrastructure are important for escaping poverty.  The question is: why has there not been more education and health and infrastructure for poor people?  The answer is not simply a lack of money.  The problem is that much of the  money spent on these sectors is captured by powerful elites before it reaches the poor.  In Chad, this is literally the case: only one percent of the nonwage public spending on health actually reaches the clinics.  In other cases, it’s more nuanced, such as the teacher (and doctor) absenteeism mentioned above, or when trucking monopolies keep transport prices so high that African exports are uncompetitive in world markets.  In short, while education, health and infrastructure—among other things—are important, to get spending on these sectors to benefit the poor, we need to overcome government failure.


Overcoming government failure is difficult.  These failures are the result of the interests of some powerful groups in society—including government officials and politicians—who will resist attempts at reform.  What can be done?  Pouring money into a leaky bucket will not solve the problem.  And asking governments to reform—even if the request comes with the implicit threat of a cutoff in funds (sometimes referred to as “conditionality”)—is unlikely to work if the government itself is captured by the special interests.  Perhaps the most productive action is to reach the people who are losing out—the poor—and empower them with information—about teacher and doctor absence rates, the incidence of energy and water subsidies, the costs of labor regulations and protective import tariffs—so that they can bring pressure to bear on politicians.  Politicians can ignore technical advisers and external actors, but they can’t afford to ignore the citizens of their country. 


To be sure, empowering poor people with information is not easy.  First, many work 15-hour days just to make ends meet.  Expecting them to attend village meetings or read the newspaper or listen to the radio is not straightforward.

Secondly, information by itself may not be enough to empower poor people. They need mechanisms to hold politicians accountable.  And third, governments may not welcome these efforts at making evidence available to the public; some will consider it incendiary, and attempt to block it.  


But if we agree that overcoming government failures is key to ending poverty in Africa, we need to promote poor people’s access to information.  Today’s technology helps.  The fact that one in two Africans has access to a cellphone has made it easier to reach them—and for them to reach politicians.  In a sense, then, Jim’s social media campaign—and other open knowledge initiatives—are more than just ways of eliciting ideas about ending poverty: they are potential instruments to end poverty


Submitted by Stuti on
Interesting point, Shanta. That getting people to think about solutions to poverty may be important not because it can lead to new or better solutions (that nobody, not even the highly-educated, and highly-paid, experts thought of), but because it may address the political constraint of why good solutions or policies are not being adopted. (Worse, actually, why bad policies are systematically adopted, even when policymakers know it’s bad, and know what would be better). If social media enables people to reach a better agreement over what are the broad public goods that scarce public resources could deliver, they may be better able to demand these public goods, and condition political rewards and punishments on its basis. As opposed to on the basis of vote-buying, which enables ill-intentioned politicians to get away with rent-seeking, and well-intentioned ones to lose/or never win office even when, or especially when, they try to do things differently.

Submitted by Butungi on
Have any of you ever visited institutions like Berea College in Kentucky, College of the Ozarks in Missouri, Warren Wilson in North Carolina and a few more such institutions? If not, do it. What you will learn there will revolutionize the way you look at higher education in Africa. In addition to their academic pursuits, students at these institutions work 15-20 hours a week to offset tuition and; room and board costs. They are what are called Work Colleges. They used to be popular in the US several decades back but now there are only seven left. Visit the and see for yourself. All the money that Development Partners spend on tertiary education could start these types of colleges that educate the "head, hands, and heart" through the integration of learning, work experience and service to others. Believe you me, a new cadre of African leaders would emerge and the continent would take off.

Submitted by Anonymous on
I tend to agree with most of your arguments but a few points need some comments: 1. Do you really think that Politicians can ignore technical advisers and external actors, but they can’t afford to ignore the citizens of their country? This is how they do it: (i) They exclude, intimidate or push the most competent advisers away and (ii) they ignore, disenfranchise most of the electorate against them. Most rebellions are caused by the perpetuation of such a continuous disenfranchisement 2. You said: Many work 15 hours a day and cannot be expected to attend village Meetings. Actually, did you consider the amount of time they spend at weddings, birthday parties, funerals and other cultural events? Conscious change is required and people must be enlightened to make that change themselves after realizing what is holding them back into poverty. However, poverty does not result from one’s behavior only. The system may contribute to it. In fact most cases show that the poor are trapped in situations where they lack opportunities, they have low labor productivity, they have no access to markets, they have no collateral to have access to finance, and the elite prey on them to keep their privileged positions. The case of teacher absenteeism you mentioned is exacerbated by cases where some teachers extort money from parents in exchange for better grades for their kids and others often even abuse the very students they are paid to teach and educate. Many bad teacher conducts are tolerated when victims are children from poor parents and the circle continues. in countries where the judiciary is generally weak, the poor are trapped and afraid that they might actually be punished further for raising their voice. The failure of Governments to understand what is expected from them by all the people and how to provide for it, the political leaders inability to reduce the gap between their hunger for reaches and privileges and the welfare they need to provide to their people to eradicate poverty, the lack of interest for a whole lot of people who are ignored, mistreated, disrespected and disenfranchised with little or no consequences are all contributing to the current nightmare. It is a failure of Government and institutions that should be put in place to take corrective measures to protect individual rights in a civil society setting. Let's take one simple example where Villagers own their land but have no official land titles or certificates. When a company wants to build a plant in this village, the Government makes the deal and local villagers get nothing. Let's compare this with an urban area where land is distributed and land property prices rises with surrounding improvements made out of Government investments in Infrastructure etc. with no additional effort made by the landlord who can still get 50 or 100 times better off than his counterpart in the village. This lack of fairness perpetuates poverty and could only be corrected if urban landlords are taxed to help improve infrastructure in rural areas, but unless villagers get lend titles they will hardly make up any difference. One approach used to create incentives and accountability could be to introduce indicators of social accountability among basic Economic Indicators. For instance, a Government would have to report and track progress on its efforts to increase the percentage of people or households with land / house / apartment ownership. Every CAS could include a program component to issue land titles and disclose their value. A poor citizen owning a piece of land with a significant value would no longer be considered a poor with nothing. It could start with something as simple as this to incite Governments to establish land titles where they are crucially missing and allow Institutions to put in place all legal instruments to govern the occurrence of trade, acquisition, exchange or inheritance. Governance should be more about increasing opportunities rather than making the few elite filthy reach at the expense of the majority poor. Economic growth should focus more on Governance efforts that shed light on microeconomic performance that tackle social justice and welfare issues for sustainable peace and security that ensure a healthy, respectful and productive living environment. The poor should neither be neglected nor disenfranchised; they actually need to be identified, organized, educated, empowered and given opportunities to take care of themselves and contribute more effectively to the broader community. Governments that have no plans to do that are simply creating a ticking bomb that will at some point threaten peace and stability not only in their country, but also their region and the World. The Arab Spring and the breakup of Mali are just the latest examples that still unfolding before our eyes. Leadership should be put under more pressure to deliver better results. By law, any president with poor records on poverty reduction efforts (To be specified in advance) should simply be denied or disqualified to run for another term.

Submitted by anonymous on
I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to share this. You have answered the question "What will it take" so thoughtfully, and with so many actionable ideas that could have a lot of impact. People like you should be running the World Bank.

Submitted by Martin Plaut on
Bring about a single free trade zone from the Cape to Cairo. A wonderful concept, proposed by Jacob Zuma and backed by his government. Simple, cheap and necessary. No outside help needed. Get on with it! Martin Plaut

Submitted by Sam Mwaka-karama on
Shanta, I have to support what Martin Plaut says - and to also suggest that African governments have to begin empowering local government - at the decentralized locality... populations in Africa is on the increase (I don't have to give data) and technology is getting more and more friendly even to the uneducated - this makes localizing focus on development and good governance at local government a priority - African education is already on the good path - setting standards for locally elected leaders and how they work - might be the key...

Submitted by Dominic Wilson on
Great article Shasta! Going forward do you see a role for organizations such as the World Bank in developing, supporting and promoting governance/accountability apps that will run on the mobile infrastructures and foster the feedback that empower poor people?

Submitted by John Paton on
I agree with much of what has been written but would underscore the aspect of education. We will only get real economic growth if we have well educated populations - with education comes health and security, more effective civil society and insistence on accountability. If people understand better what government policies and actions have on their lives they are in a better position to do something about it. In the meantime, since getting a population to an educational standard that is comparable to more developed economies takes a generation or more (so not an attractive area for politicians to espouse given the relatively short parliamentary terms), we can tinker at the edges such as infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing and so on but none of this has a lasting impact until we have populations capable of making better use of these resources.

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Submitted by Vince Chipatuka on
The dream is not lost. Africa has a lot of opportunity to realise the dream and end poverty. It is a fact America and Europe to be were they are today it took Africa's Aid. Our resources including human resource was utilized. To end poverty in my beautiful continent Africa we will require a robust wealth creation program supported by African Union and implemented by all the 50 + member countries through positive utilization of Aid. European countries such as Spain and Ireland are better countries today because of Aid which has been utilized well in infrastructural development. It is unfortunate that out of the Aid we receive as Africa very little goes towards development projects, most of the resources end up going to salaries and buying of expensive vehicles for the so called international projects. Time is now that we did things differently, my Government kindly consider to invest;- 1. Women in business micro economic growth 2. Creation Youth employment 3. Infrastructural development roads, IT, education and health facilities 4. Zero tolerance against corruption 5. Fair and Free Elections In all the above the participation of citizens is critical in the development plans is critical.

Submitted by Gachiri Nicholas on
Thank you for this. My two cents: You are right in that change right now hinges on the governance in place; we need governance committed & passionate about unleashing the potential of the continent with the ruthlessness to go with it. However, governments are also a factor of the citizenry, when you have a people who do not know their rights, do not demand their rights, allow politicians to use them in petty ways (for even more petty gain), people who will not immerse themselves in issues to do with the direction their governments take (too busy, understandably, trying to make ends meet)...then we get sub standard leaders! So what to do? because fighting poor governments and controlling elites will take a while, i think we continue with pushing (with the help of development partners) chiefly the education & infrastructure agenda. Caveat on the education, it has to be practical, skills people can use to take us forward, with incentives to take up the same.

Submitted by Fred on
Great article. Being a Kenyan currently living outside the country i would say in a nutshell Africa's problem is lack of good values in the leaders. But then again it has been said that the character of the leaders is a mirror image of the citizens. Makes you believe why Kenyans keeps on recycling the same people who have failed them 50 years after independence. I believe that if we can have leaders with good values, African countries can make a huge stride in solving their problems.

It seems to me that everyone points to it being somebody else's fault in the first place and thereafter. Government misadministration? Again, somebody else's fault for not being the right kind of leader. People dying because they don't have the right medicines? Again someone else's fault for giving the wrong kind of aid. How can the African Renascence be made real without Africans taking responsibility for their own predicament and doing something about it? As well as African migrants sending US$40 billion in remittances to African countries in 2010, according to the Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011, the stock and shares owned by international emigrants from African nations totaled $30.6 million in 2010. It is also estimated by The World Bank that the African diaspora saves US$53 billion annually, most of which is currently invested outside Africa but which could (potentially) be mobilized for Africa via various inward investment channels. Officially-recorded remittances to the developing world amounted to $372bn in 2011, up 12 per cent from 2010 according to the World Bank. And the bank expects flows to continue growing by 7-8 per cent a year, reaching $467bn by 2014. It is reasonable, is it not, to imagine that some of these savings could be attracted as investment into Africa, if proper channels and incentives can be designed specifically for African countries, where the need is greatest? Billions of dollars and 60 years of tinkering by the World Bank and countless other organisations couldn't do it. What makes any right minded person think another 60 years of the same thing will bring any different result? Africa will not be able to end the poverty until it learns to use what it has to stand on its own two feet, build its commercial, industrial and agricultural infrastructure to support a tax-base which can provide the amenities and basics of social welfare its citizens have for so long had to do without.

Submitted by Alice Raine on
It will take the African people to end poverty,finding ways for self reliance and also putting in place structures that requioire accontability.Beaurocracy will also have to end .

Submitted by FAUZIYYAH MUHIB... on
Probably the day we stop being only heros of speeches but of actions,the moment we bridge the gaps of communication and ensure implementation of policies @ the grassroots [ the local govt level] ,becoming actors driven by the vision of change then africa will be in her rightful place oned and nutured by its own ppl.

Submitted by Joseph Mongi on
Most of our African leaders especially in a country like mine; Tanzania, they put themselves infront by making themselves rich and forgeting the people who voted for them and trusted them in their community development. Our leaders neglects their responsibilities and trying to utilize any opportunity they get for their own well being without thinking about their people, without thinking of their country. It's not strange to find someone has been elected today for MP or appointed for MR MINISTER and tommorow he is a super rich and as if nobody cares he is out there loughing knowing that no one can touch him. Our leaders are lacking GOOD GOVERNANCE, they are no practising it while they are preaching everywhere in the political stands. they misuse their post for their own benefits, they dont realise people's expectations from them. too much political blahs without actions. they should keep aside politics where reality is needed, where specialty is to take charge, and where seriousness should be afront.

Submitted by Anonymous on
first of all i want to congratulate to what you have said Shanta b/c government failure is & will be the main problem of African poverty. lack of proper policies & strategies that address the rural people real difficulty on the ground specially for these who have affected more (women & youth) is the main problem for poverty. thank u zenawi g/selassie

Submitted by Buntu on
Stop all civil wars and looting of minerals from mineral rich African states. Improve agricultural initiatives and invest in rural development initiatives as Africa is mostly rural.

Submitted by mwakarama on
Shanta, This is a great and holistic approach you are igniting - the African political class has the wrong tool for seeking electoral office. They aim their tool at the convenience of the provided for... Aid and Grants. Access is all they want. The political class then have little to do with national interests. The sentiment of contemporaneous beliefs - in Education OB-ism etc and manifest grandiose social living generate the rampant corruptibility that deform African governments... It is not theoretical political, economic, education (the 'work-college' suggested by Butungi is a great idea) solutions that will ebb-out poverty - the African planners aren't awake as yet - look at what the Asians are doing in Africa the last 10 years. We don't manufacture any of the BODA BODA Okada-man motor cycles that has lifted thousands upon thousands out of poverty... I think the solution is in massive construction for habitat in our Cities and larger towns - the occupant of the habitat will always work if the jobs are created by the planners. The new US Ambassador to Uganda once posted a question on his FaceBook page - something like; "what can you say about your environment?" In my comment I suggested that African planners have to plan City Subways not for tube or metro trains... but for the motor cycles - so that Boda Boda travelers get wherever underground. Instead of the traffic mess we see on African streets. That is a huge construction works to transform our environment.

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Submitted by emmanuel adol aggrey on
Those are actually the main factors That have been hindering Africa from prosperity and in particular my country South Sudan if in less than one decade government officials can made away with four billion dollars what can be left for improvement of common citizens living standards absolutely no way and that is why Africa and in particular my country have long way to go unless we get leaders with citizens base interest at their minds or else poverty will not be eradicated.

Submitted by Melaku on
Thanks, I got it by chance. I wanted to save it before I rush into comments. My genral remark is as follows. Poverty is a serious maater for me and that is why I am serious about it. Is it possible to eradicate or end poverty? I don't think so. Is it possible to reduce poverty? Absolutely true especailly when the leadership is committed not in words but in deed.

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