The number of poor people continues to rise in Sub-Saharan Africa, despite a slow decline in the poverty rate


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One reason behind the slowdown in global extreme poverty reduction is the slow progress in Sub-Saharan Africa. The latest estimates show that the regional poverty rate decreased by 1.6 percentage points between 2015 and 2018. This translates to 40% of the population living below the US$1.90-a-day poverty line in 2018 and Sub-Saharan Africa accounting for two-thirds of the global extreme poor population. While the poverty rate has decreased from 56% in 1990 to 40% in 2018 the number of poor continues to rise. In other words, the poverty rate in Sub-Saharan Africa has not fallen fast enough to keep up with population growth in the region and 433 million Africans are estimated to live in extreme poverty in 2018, rising from 284 in 1990. 

The Poverty and Shared Prosperity report 2020 shows that the number of poor has also increased at the US$3.20 and US$5.50 lines. While the poverty rate has decreased at the three lines between 1990 and 2018, the number of poor has increased (Figure 1). Poverty reduction has been much slower at the higher lines: between 1990 and 2018 the poverty rate fell 15 percentage points at the US$1.90 poverty line, by 10 pp at the US$3.20 line and by just 3.3 pp at the US$5.50 line. Consequently, the number of poor has risen by 50% at the US$1.90 line and has doubled at the higher lines over the past three decades. Whatever progress has been made in terms of reducing extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, has not translated into equivalent gains in consumption beyond the US$3.20 threshold. 

Figure 1 Poverty rates and number of poor at the three lines, Sub-Saharan Africa 1990-2018

Perhaps even more alarming than having 40% of the Sub-Saharan African population living in extreme poverty in 2018 is the limited progress from such high levels over the past three decades. East Asia and Pacific has seen a remarkable compression in poverty rates over that period, while starting from levels that were not all that different a generation ago. The progress in East Asia and the Pacific, and more recently in South Asia, is evident both at the US$1.90 and US$3.20 poverty lines (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 Poverty reduction at the US$1.90 and US$3.20 lines, selected regions

The slow progress in Africa is also seen at the country-level: the range of poverty rates in Sub-Saharan Africa has barely narrowed between 1990 and 2018, extending from close to 0 to about 80%.  This does not mean that individual economies have not seen progress in poverty reduction (in fact, the region as a whole has made some limited progress), but rather that the region still has many economies with poverty rates well above the world average. In fact, 21 of the 45 African economies with poverty estimates available in PovcalNet have a poverty headcount above 40% in 2018.

The Poverty and Shared Prosperity report 2020 discusses how the poor in Sub-Saharan Africa are also more likely to be exposed to the threats of conflict and climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to push between 30 to 40 million people into extreme poverty. Africa is also the region that shows the greatest overlaps between monetary and non-monetary dimensions of multidimensional poverty, thus further exacerbating the monetary deprivations reported here. Given the demographic trends and plausible growth scenarios, global extreme poverty will become increasingly concentrated in Africa and without more rapid progress in the region, the 2030 goal of eradicating global poverty will not be reached.


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

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Samuel Obara
January 04, 2021

Good analysis. The situation is likely to worsen with prolonged COVID-19, debt distress levels in some countries and corruption.