Poverty in Contemporary Africa

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Poverty is a major problem in Africa today. In this lesson, we are going to look at the roots of this issue and see how it is impacting modern African populations.

Poverty in Africa

In our world of smartphones, Internet technology, and modern luxuries, it's sometimes easy to forget that both in the United States and around the world, poverty is a serious issue. In technical terms, poverty is defined as having income that is below a minimum threshold needed to maintain a quality of life. Basically, it means you can't afford what you need. Even worse is absolute poverty, which is not having enough for even the bare essentials of food, water, and shelter.

Poverty exists today, but where? Honestly, every country in the world has people living in poverty, but many of the most dramatic rates of poverty are found in Africa. Africa is one of the largest continents in the world, and it is also the poorest. As of 2012, roughly 43% of Africans were statistically poor, with around 330 million people living below the poverty line. The chart below shows levels of economic development, and Africa is mostly orange and red, which mean low to no development at all. So, why is this happening, and what is being done? Let's take a look.

Despite its size and population, Africa has some of the highest poverty rates in the world.
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Roots of African Poverty

Right off the bat, we need to acknowledge that there are no easy answers to these questions. Why is poverty so rampant? There's no single reason, but many researchers trace the origins of this problem back to the legacies of colonialism, a period when most of Africa was under the colonial authority of European empires. As colonies, African nations were often denied opportunities to expand their economies or to develop the industrial infrastructures that had helped promote growth and stability in other parts of the world. As these nations became independent, they often found themselves alone, without a developed economy or infrastructure and in massive amounts of debt, which often led to civil wars. This is not the only reason for poverty; many African nations have also struggled under dictators or warlords that kept people poor for decades, but the legacies of colonialism are hard to ignore.

One other thing we can't ignore is access to various resources. Specifically, I'm talking about food and water. Africa, as a continent, has massive jungles and wide deserts, neither of which are great for farming or necessarily filled with consistently accessible food resources. On top of that, water is scarce in many parts of Africa. In some regions, such as the desert, fresh water simply doesn't exist. In others, often around swampy jungles, it cannot be safely accessed without extreme risk of water-born diseases. In fact, as of 2000 at least eight nations in Africa were determined to be in water-scarce environments, a label affecting about 300 million people. Limited resources contributes to poverty in Africa, but is also greatly impacted by poverty, as those with the least economic opportunities have the fewest chances to improve their situation.

Poverty Across Africa

Now, Africa's a big place, so we can't expect this issue to look the same in every part of the continent. Northern Africa tends to be more economically stable than Sub-Saharan Africa, the part of the continent south of the Sahara desert, which tends to have substantially higher levels of poverty. The Sahara desert runs along the northern third of Africa and on the map below, the bright yellow Sub-Saharan countries have the lowest average level of wealth.

Poverty rates are higher south of the Sahara desert
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The biggest distinction, however, is between urban and rural regions. Right now, the global economy favors industrialized, urbanized nations, so many African nations have worked hard to modernize their urban areas. As a result, this is where we've seen the greatest success in poverty reduction efforts. Poverty is still a problem in African cities, but overall, urban areas offer more opportunities, more relief and welfare programs, and better access to health care and human services.

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