Most parents in Africa will tell you that their children’s education is the most important investment they can make. Over the past decade, great progress has been made in terms of getting children into school, with countries such as Benin, Cameroon, Rwanda and Zambia recording primary net enrollment of over 90 percent. But across the continent, primary school completion and youth literacy rates remain unacceptably low.
Climate change imposes stark challenges in West and Central Africa, where droughts and floods are already frequent. Vast portions of the region’s populations are poor, dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, and unable to prepare and respond adequately to extreme weather events. Weak monitoring and information systems, absence of proper infrastructure, and limited governance capacity render countries in the region unable to manage their climate risks, threatening food and energy security, economic development, ecosystem health, and overall regional stability.
This blog is the latest in a series of posts reflecting on the findings in the 2016 World Bank Poverty in a Rising Africa report, released in its entirety this month. We look forward to your questions and comments regarding this and other blogs in the series.
The consumer price index (CPI) is the most commonly used measure of inflation in the world, and Africa is no exception. But do CPIs reliably reflect the actual change in the cost of living? And if not, how does this affect our understanding of how poverty has evolved in the region?
The CPI is derived from a fixed and supposedly representative basket of goods and services provided in the domestic market to measure a cost-of-living index. To keep up with changing consumption patterns, the basket weights need to be updated regularly. But often they are not. Most get updated every decade or even less frequently, so they become less and less representative of the items that consumers actually purchase.
Last year two of my friends welcomed new babies into their families: James and Maureen (not their real names). Both babies were born in Metropolitan Nairobi - the fastest growing urban area in the country. Their births added to the growing urban popluation in Kenya, which will double to 24 million by 2035 and more than triple to 40 million by 2050. The Kenya Urbanization Review projects that by that time, that there will be nearly as many Kenyans living in urban areas as there are Kenyans today. Kenya’s urban transition has begun.
In Nigeria, Africa’s largest and most populous country, more women are engaging in work than ever before. By 2011, more than half (57%) of women 15-64 years old were in some form of employment. The increase in women working has been driven by women with the least amount of schooling finding work –these are the women who are more likely to be out of work than those who have had access to more schooling.
Static poverty measures fail to distinguish between an individual who has been in poverty all her life, and another who happens to have had a small misfortune for the year the measurement was carried out. But these distinctions matter. The forces that conspire to condemn some individuals to remain stuck in poverty for years are generally somewhat different from those that randomly drag them down for a brief period. The latter group may need only some temporary relief – perhaps only some short-term employment insurance till they get the next job – while the former would need also longer-term interventions aimed at breaking the persistence of poverty. Indeed, the longer people spend in poverty, the lesser tends to be their chance of exiting it. As Africa rose, has its poverty remained mainly chronic, or has it become a more transient state of affairs?
Consumer Price Indexes (CPIs) can be subject of heated debate. Plans by the US administration in 2013 to modify the way social security benefits are adjusted for inflation led to protests of federal workers. The new method, which involved a shift from one version of the CPI to another, was designed to make the adjustment more sensitive to consumer substitution behavior. For instance, consumers may shift from blueberries to strawberries if the price of blueberries increases disproportionately – failure to account for such behavior change leads to ‘substitution bias’ in the CPI. However, the move proved deeply unpopular, in part because it was perceived – in Paul Krugman’s words – as “purely and simply, a benefit cut”. Eventually, President Obama dropped the proposal.
Today, four in five African primary-school-age kids are enrolled in school, with more joining at a later age. This is a major change and achievement, and should bode well for Africa’s upcoming generations. Only 20 years ago, barely half the kids were in school. Progress has been faster even for girls, with the gender gap in net primary school enrollment now down to four percentage points (compared with eight percentage points in 1995).
Following the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, attention to education increased dramatically. At least in terms of enrollment, this seems to have paid off, so much so that education has lost its earlier top spot on the international development agenda. Since 2000, the solutions train has been set in motion, the illiteracy challenge seems to be taken care of, and attention has shifted elsewhere.
Against this background, the latest Word Bank report “Poverty in a Rising Africa” finds that 42% of Africa’s adults, about two in five, or a whopping 215 million people, are still illiterate, down from 46% in 1995. And make no mistake; this does not imply functional literacy for the remaining part of the population. The literacy tests applied are simply too rudimentary, and gross secondary school enrollment rates also only still stand at 46%.
In recent years, growing evidence supports the value of cash transfers. Research demonstrates that cash transfers lead to productive investments (in Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia), that they improve human capital investments for children (in Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Lesotho, Zambia, and Malawi), and that they don’t get spent on alcohol (all over the world).
At the same time, the vast majority of governments invest large sums in training programs, whether business training for entrepreneurs or vocational training for youth, with the goal of helping to increase incomes and opportunities.