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African countries show mixed progress towards poverty reduction and half of them have an extreme poverty rate above 35%

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Extreme poverty will become a predominantly Sub-Saharan African phenomenon in the coming decade and the continent will be home to the lion’s share of the global poor by 2030. The recently published Poverty and Shared Prosperity report 2020 shows that the concentration of high poverty rates in Sub-Saharan Africa recalls the image of a poverty belt extending from Senegal to Ethiopia and from Mali to Madagascar (see Figure 1). Half of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have poverty rates higher than 35%.  These numbers become even more alarming when compared with the levels of extreme poverty in other regions. Of the top 20 economies with poverty rate estimates in PovcalNet, 18 are in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Figure 1 Poverty rates at the US$1.90 line, lined up estimates for 2017

While extreme poverty is endemic in the region, almost half of poor people in Sub-Saharan Africa live in just five economies : Nigeria (79 million), the Democratic Republic of Congo (60 million), Tanzania (28 million), Ethiopia (26 million), and Madagascar (20 million). Figure 1 shows the distribution of the extreme poor across African economies. Nigeria has the largest poor population in Sub-Saharan Africa (79 million extreme poor). It accounts for around 20% of the total poor in the region and is one of the economies with the largest number of extreme poor in the world.

Figure 2 Distribution of the extreme poor in Sub-Saharan Africa, by economy in 2018

An examination of country-level information also reveals different national trends in poverty rates. It is important to note that this comparison only includes countries in which the latest two years of survey data in PovcalNet are comparable. The availability of household surveys in the region improved between the global poverty counts for 2013 and 2017 (comparing this year’s edition of the Poverty and Shared Prosperity Report to the first edition). Seven additional countries are available within three-years of 2013 and 2017, respectively. For example, Nigeria has recently added a new survey in 2018/19, which is improving the regional population coverage by almost 25 percentage points. The new data for Nigeria are, however, not comparable to the previous round, so it is excluded from the comparison that follows.

Of the 32 economies in Sub-Saharan Africa for which the latest two years of survey data are comparable in PovcalNet, 25 show a decrease in poverty, while 7 show an increase (see Figure 3). Looking at changes that are greater than 1 percentage point per year, 9 economies show a decline, and 4 economies showed an increase. Put differently, for every African country where poverty increased by more than 1 percentage point per year, there were two economies where it declined by more than 1 percentage point.  On the one hand, this underscores that progress in poverty reduction has been achieved. Ethiopia registered a decrease of 7 percentage points in its extreme poverty rate between 2004/05 and 2015/16, confirming a virtuous trend since the early 2000s. The share of population living below the IPL decreased from 44% to 37% between 2005 and 2015 in Kenya, and from 23% to 13% between 2009 and 2015 in Namibia.

Other economies in Sub-Saharan Africa have been less successful. Angola saw extreme poverty rise by 17 percentage points in the past decade. Extreme poverty increased by 6 percentage points in Uganda between 2012 and 2016. Both examples show a reversal in poverty reduction compared with the previous period. Similarly, remarkable progress in poverty reduction in Tanzania has come to a halt: after an 11 percentage points drop in poverty between 2007 and 2011, data for 2017 shows stagnation at a poverty rate of 49%. Due to robust population growth, this implies an additional 4 million Tanzanians in extreme poverty between 2011 and 2017. A similar trend can be observed in Ghana, where poverty rose by 1 percentage point between 2012 and 2016 after having dropped by 12 percentage points between 2005 and 2012. These examples help illuminate the region’s limited progress in poverty reduction in recent years.

Figure 3 Annual Change in Poverty Rates between latest two comparable surveys


We gratefully acknowledge financial support from the UK government through the Data and Evidence for Tackling Extreme Poverty (DEEP) Research Programme.


Marta Schoch

ET Consultant, Development Data Group, World Bank

Christoph Lakner

Program Manager, Development Data Group, World Bank

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