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To reduce extreme poverty, focus efforts on women and Sub-Saharan Africa

“The number of people living in extreme poverty stood at 736 million in 2015," reports the World Bank

In our world of plenty and technological innovation, it may surprise some people that hundreds of millions of people live on less than two dollars per day.

Indeed, extreme poverty is a complex problem that defies easy solutions. And yet reducing extreme poverty is still possible and remains one of the great moral challenges of our troubled times.

When it comes to the campaign to reduce extreme poverty around the world, there is both good and bad news to report. According to the World Bank, significant progress has been made in recent decades to rescue people from crushing poverty.

“In 2015, more than a billion fewer people were living in extreme poverty than in 1990,” states a World Bank Group report entitled Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2018: Piecing together the poverty puzzle. Much of the progress has been powered by global economic growth and increasing wealth in many developing nations, especially in East Asia, the Pacific, and South Asia.

“This impressive progress has brought us closer to achieving the World Bank’s target of reducing extreme poverty to less than 3 percent of the world’s population by 2030,” the report declares. “Half of all countries included in the global poverty counts already have less than 3 percent of their populations living under the international poverty line (IPL), which defines extreme poverty for global monitoring.”

In 1990, approximately 36 percent of the world’s total population endured extreme poverty. Extreme poverty, notes the report, is “defined by the IPL as consumption (or income) less than US$1.90 a day in 2011 purchasing power parity.” Flash forward to 2015, the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty had dropped to ten percent.

“The number of people living in extreme poverty stood at 736 million in 2015, down from nearly 2 billion in 1990,” the World Bank reports.

However, the poverty puzzle is far from being solved. In many developing countries women lack economic empowerment and tend to be poorer than men. For example, when wider consumption patterns, including food and other goods, were taken into consideration, the World Bank found that in Malawi, “women have a significantly higher poverty rate (73 percent) than men (49 percent).”

Broken model

“The current economic model is broken,” asserts a recently published report from Oxfam Canada. “While the top 1% accumulates extraordinary amounts of wealth, the poor are incapable of escaping poverty despite working long hours day in and day out,” declares the nongovernmental organization’s report, which is entitled A Feminist Approach to Women’s Economic Empowerment: HOW CANADA CAN LEAD ON ADDRESSING THE NEGLECTED AREAS OF WEE.

The report, which focuses on the issue of women’s economic empowerment (WEE), points out that women around the globe “consistently earn less than men and are trapped in the lowest paid and least secure jobs, which rarely provide formal workplace protections or social security.”

The report also states that women “experience multiple and intersecting disadvantages due to, for instance, their race, class or religion, and are especially vulnerable to gender-based violence at home and in the workplace." And Oxfam Canada contends that "gender inequality and economic inequality are inextricably linked.”

“With global momentum on WEE, a feminist prime minister and a government committed to feminist aid and foreign policy, Canada is well positioned to play a leading role in the promotion of the economic empowerment of women,” the Oxfam report states. And the feminist document offers a set of recommendations for the Canadian government on how to “adopt transformative feminist programming and policies.”

First, Oxfam urges the Trudeau government to “promote and invest in women’s collective organizing, and support feminist and women’s rights organizations and movements working on women’s economic and labour rights.” And Oxfam is calling for stable, long-term funding for such groups so that they will have the capacity “to consistently and effectively advocate to government, civil society and the corporate sector.”

Second, the NGO wants Ottawa to “promote women’s economic rights by working with trade unions, labour movements and feminist and women’s rights organizations to advocate for government reforms, gender budgeting and impact assessments, and the removal of legal barriers to WEE and to unionization.”

Third, Oxfam recommends that the Canadian government advance labour rights for women and access to good job opportunities “by engaging the business sector and governments to pay living wages, adopt gender-inclusive policies, support collective bargaining, combat occupational and gender segregation and support organizations of informal workers, including domestic and care workers.”

Fourth, the feminist NGO is asking Canada to “become a global leader in addressing women’s unequal responsibility for paid and unpaid care.” And that means Canada should invest in programs that aim to help “the most marginalized workers and addresses the 4Rs of care work: recognition, reduction, redistribution and representation.”

Fifth, Oxfam draws a direct link between women’s economic empowerment and gender-based violence. And the NGO is pressing Ottawa to adopt policies and programs that employ “a holistic and multidisciplinary approach” to the problem. And the report recommends that the Trudeau government “support governments and organizations advocating for the elimination of workplace violence and discrimination and support a new binding International Labour Organization convention and recommendation to end sexual harassment in the workplace.”

Sixth, the Oxfam report recommends that Canada appoint a senior “feminist economic adviser” to help Global Affairs Canada adopt and implement “world-class feminist aid programming.” The NGO also wants the Canadian government to “adopt inter-sectional and gender-based analysis, explore standardized methods for tracking and measuring WEE in programming and investments and invest in feminist monitoring, evaluation and learning frameworks.”

A recent Oxfam Canada contends that “the root causes of women’s economic inequality” are “economic and patriarchal structures and social norms."

Trade liberalization

Oxfam Canada is pushing for systemic economic change, alleging that trade liberalization policies have “created a ‘race to the bottom’ on taxation, wages and labour standards that hits hardest on the poor, especially women.” And the NGO contends that “neoliberal policies, prescribed by multilateral agencies, discourage governments from investing in public infrastructure and delivering basic services.”

The humanitarian NGO concludes that these policies have had the effect of forcing women “to take on more unpaid domestic and care responsibilities, which in turn limits their ability to access education and the labour force.”

Oxfam Canada also takes issue with Canada’s traditional approach to women’s empowerment when it comes to international development policy.

“For several decades, Canada’s international assistance has promoted women’s empowerment and gender equality by integrating women into economies and markets, mainly by providing access to jobs, training, credit and financial services,” the report notes.

However, Oxfam Canada maintains that “the root causes of women’s economic inequality” are the “economic and patriarchal structures and social norms that permeate and shape the market, drive expectations around women’s role as primary caregivers, perpetuate gender bias and discrimination in the labour force, and dictate attitudes towards women’s rights, mobility and the acceptability of violence against women.”

The feminist organization argues that Canada’s feminist development policy should not focus just on economic inclusion. “Focusing on economic inclusion alone cannot guarantee women’s broader empowerment—we need feminist and intersectional approaches to transform unequal power relations, norms and structures in society,” the report states.

Social norms

In a diverse world, criticizing human rights abuses can sometimes draw accusations of religious, ethnic, and/or racial bigotry. Nevertheless, it is important to address such pressing issues as child marriage, forced marriage, and early marriage. After all, as Hillary Clinton declared at the 1995 United Nations Women’s Conference at Beijing, “Women’s rights are human rights.”

According to the Oxfam Canada report, “supporting transformative change and applying a feminist lens to WEE requires changing discriminatory social norms that devalue women and girls in all their diversity.” And the NGO asserts that “not taking social norms regarding culture into consideration when promoting WEE can undermine the transformative potential of WEE efforts.”

To bring about long-term change and eliminate societal norms that discriminate against women and girls requires “sustainable programming and generally demands collective action and strategies that work towards changes at multiple levels: within ourselves, households, institutions, the economy and society.”

Oxfam Canada acknowledges that “change in social and gender norms has been often dismissed as too complex to address, part of culture and outside the scope of development.”

However, the NGO says that the need for change has been garnering greater attention in development research, policy and practice. Indeed, so-called women's issues--women’s economic empowerment, reproductive health issues, as well as child, early and forced marriage--are now being openly discussed.

“Oxfam’s WEE framework identifies the need to engage with influential ‘norm-setters’, including traditional and community leaders, as powerful allies in this work,” the report states.

In addition, Oxfam Canada says that it is vital to engage with men and boys if discriminatory social norms are to be changed over the long-term.

Not surprisingly, the activist NGO is calling for “new economic models” that address gender and economic inequality at the same time. “This means efforts to support WEE, through the programming of international assistance for example, must address the social norms, laws and economic policies, and structural barriers that restrict women’s choices and opportunities,” states the report.

Another way

Oxfam’s anti-trade liberalization message and hostile view of market economics is not shared by everyone working to lift up those in need. In fact, some very influential people and organizations advocate making capitalism more inclusive in order to lift women out of poverty and help them realize their individual and collective potential.

On Feb. 7, 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a memorandum establishing the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative (W-GDP), which aims to assist 50 million women in developing nations to become full participants in economic life by 2025. The initiative is the brainchild of Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter and senior adviser.

The Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative is the brainchild of Ivanka Trump.

The day before President Trump signed the memo, Ms. Trump penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. “Over the last year, I have met with more than 200 partners—nongovernmental organizations, private-sector companies and members of Congress,” she writes of her efforts to put together and build support for the women’s economic empowerment plan.

In the Feb. 6th op-ed, the senior presidential adviser makes the point that international peace and security are linked to the economic empowerment of women. “Research suggests that the more women are excluded from full participation in a country’s economy, the likelier it is that the country will be involved in conflict and respond to a threat with immediate violence,” she writes. “When women are free to thrive, they bring national stability, as well as more jobs and economic growth.”

Moreover, Ivanka Trump asserts that “expanding women’s economic participation has the potential to boost global economic output by an additional $12 trillion by 2025.”

By investing in the potential of women, writes Ms. Trump, "smart development” policy will benefit “families, communities and nations,” thereby unleashing the human potential of developing countries.

The Trump administration has allocated $50 million to the new fund.

Ms. Trump’s has the backing of some high powered women. For example, Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations tweeted: “Congratulations @IvankaTrump on this initiative. Empowering women is an effort that we should all care about. This initiative is another example of when the US leads everyone benefits!”

Likewise, Condoleezza Rice, who served as President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, also took to Twitter to “applaud” Ivanka Trump for leading “this important W-GDP initiative.”

Rice also posted a much more detailed statement on her Facebook page. According to the first African American woman to serve as America’s top diplomat, empowering women would solve many problems in the world. For example, educate girls “and they will not have their first child at twelve,” she writes. “If you want to do something about human trafficking -- educate women and they will not be forced into slavery.”

Moreover, Rice believes that the “Women's Global Development and Prosperity Initiative being launched seeks to solve these problems.” And she contends that the empowerment of women is a foreign policy and national security issue, because “societies that treat women badly are dangerous societies.”

Rice concludes that government agencies, Members of Congress, the private sector, and civil society must come together to advance the initiative. “This work will not only make for a better America, but a better world and a more prosperous future full of opportunities for all,” she writes.

Similarly, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde praised Ms. Trump’s initiative to help advance international efforts to economically empower women, reduce inequality, and make economies more resilient. “I very much welcome the launch of The Women’s Global Economic Empowerment Initiative #WGDP, which will help to advance this critically important agenda,” Lagarde stated on Twitter.

Ivanka Trump’s initiative was also applauded by ONE, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to eliminating extreme poverty and inequality,especially in Africa.

“Over one billion women and girls don’t have access to a bank account, the loans required to grow their businesses, and the quality skills training and employment opportunities they need to be fully empowered,” Tom Hart, the North America executive director for The ONE Campaign, stated in a press release.

In addition, the representative of the ONE Campaign, which was co-founded by U2’s Bono, says that the Women’s Global Economic Empowerment Initiative “is a positive, bipartisan step towards reducing some of the inequalities that far too many women and girls face everywhere, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa

The dramatic rise of China has contributed greatly to the decline of extreme poverty in East Asia and the Pacific. “The countries of this region went from an average poverty rate of 62 percent in 1990 to less than 3 percent in 2015,” reports the World Bank.

Conversely, the situation in Sub-Saharan Africa remains very bleak. The World Bank notes that economic progress in the region lags far behind that of Asia. In fact, 27 out of 28 of the world’s poorest countries are located in Sub-Saharan Africa. And the Bretton Woods institution concludes that “extreme poverty is becoming more concentrated there because of the region’s slower rates of growth, problems caused by conflict and weak institutions, and a lack of success in channeling growth into poverty reduction.”

Sub-Saharan Africa remains mired in extreme poverty, at least in part, due to the region’s over-reliance on “on extractive industries that have weaker ties to the consumption and income levels of the poor, the prevalence of conflict, and their vulnerability to natural disasters such as droughts.”

“The stark contrast between Asia and Africa explains why it is getting harder to reduce poverty globally,” states the World Bank report. Extreme poverty in East Asia and the Pacific region fell to 2.3% in 2015, which leads the World Bank to conclude that “the region has little more to give in terms of reducing the global rate.” And it’s a similar story in South Asia.

The World Bank predicts that the rise of extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan “makes it unlikely the World Bank’s 2030 (global poverty reduction) target will be met.”

Importance of agriculture

“Agriculture is the mainstay of most African economies,” states the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) website. And the United Nations agency makes it clear that agriculture is central to the continent’s future prosperity.

“The continent has enormous potential to eliminate poverty and food insecurity—and become a major player in regional and global food markets,” the FAO asserts. However, agriculture in Africa needs to become more productive—both in the use of land and labour.

The importance of the agricultural sector cannot be understated. According to the FAO, the sector “continues to provide employment to a large percentage of the population and is largely based on family.” Most of the cultivation is done on very small plots of land less than two hectares each.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, Sub-Saharan Africa faces a number of challenges, including conflict, a lack of security, weak support services, for the agricultural sector, poor transportation and infrastructure, as well as the lack of financial institutions and insurance.

In addition, the FAO identifies a number of other serious problems confronting the region, such as insecure land rights, climate change, and a rapidly growing population.

Unlike Oxfam Canada, the FAO views international trade as an important component to the development of Sub-Saharan Africa. However, the UN agency notes the barriers to trade are a problem. “Difficulty access to markets” is a complex problem facing the region, according to the FAO.

The FAO is working to improve food security and nutrition in the region. For example, it is working with farmers to boost crop production by improving water, land and soil fertility management and expanding irrigation.

Helping farmers adapt to climate change by making crop production more resilient to drought and extreme weather are also part of the FAO’s mission in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition, the UN agency is helping develop value chains in the agricultural sector and “making them more inclusive and efficient.” And when it comes to addressing equality issues in the agricultural sector, the FAO claims to promote “decent employment for all, including women and young people.

Given that the population of Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to double by 2050, it is imperative to solve the region’s agricultural problems. “To address these challenges, the public sector will have to invest an additional (U.S.) six to seven billion (dollars) net annually in agriculture,” states the FAO website.

Investments in African agriculture and women

The FAO’s Investment Centre supports the work of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), which aims to “eliminate hunger and reduce and reduce poverty through agriculture.” The Investment Centre also supports the agricultural framework of the New Partnership of Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

The FAO’s Investment Centre is also helping to design a $250 million regional project funded by the World Bank that supports pastoralism in the Sahel. The initiative seeks to enhance the resilience of the two million pastoralists in drought zones in semi-arid to arid nations in West Africa, such as Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

H.E. Josefa Sacko, African Union Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture, says the AU aims to triple trade in agricultural products by 2015.

Like the FAO, the African Union (AU) views international trade as an important component of agricultural policy. In fact, the African Union has set hard targets for boosting trade in agriculture. “One of the AU Malabo Declaration commitments is to triple Intra-Africa trade in Agric (agricultural) commodities & services by 2025,” H.E. Josefa Sacko, AU Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture, stated in a Twitter post on Jan. 28, 2019.

The African Women Agribusiness Network (AWAN), in cooperation with the Technical Centre for Agricutlural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), ran a workshop last month in Abbis Abeba that aimed to strengthen agribusiness in the Horn of Africa and East Africa.

According to another tweet from Sacko, “AWAN is a network that brings together women entrepreneurs from Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, & Uganada.” And the network's recent workshop was intended to help “strengthen (the) capacity of women in agribusiness and women in (the) agricultural value chain.”

In the Malabo Declaration of 2014, the African Union committed to tracking the progress of member states in implementing the international organization’s agricultural strategy. In Jan. 2018, the AU published the Inaugural Biennial Review Report on the implementation of the Malabo Declaration on Accelerated Agricultural Growth and Transformation for Shared Prosperity and Improved Livelihoods, which was adopted by the African Union in 2014.

According to a Jan. 30, 2018 press release issued by the African Union, the purpose of the AATS is to capture “the continent’s agricultural progress based on a pan-African data collection exercise led by the African Union Commission’s Department of Rural Economy and Agriculture (DREA), NEPAD Agency and Regional Economic Communities in collaboration with technical and development partners.” And member states were assessed based on benchmarks and commitments set out in the Malabo Declaration.

According to the African Union, “only 20 of the 47 Member States that reported are on track towards achieving the commitments set out in the Malabo Declaration.” The top performers were Rwanda, Morocco, Ethiopia, Togo, Malawi, Kenya, Mauritania, Burundi, and Uganda.

The 2018 Biennial Review Report recommended that AU member states boost investment in and financing for agriculture. In addition, members were urged to increase access for farmers of both sexes to financial and advisory services. And the report also stressed the importance of statistical analysis, recommending improvements to data collection systems.

The way forward

Several things need to happen in order to move Sub-Saharan out of extreme poverty, according to the World Bank. “Ending extreme poverty will require a renewed focus on Sub-Saharan Africa and states suffering from weak institutions and conflict,” states the World Bank report.

“Stronger economic growth and renewed efforts to resolve violent conflicts will be crucial to speed up the rate of poverty reduction in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere.”

However, the World Bank says that economic growth will have to be more inclusive, lifting up the bottom 40% of the population of Sub-Saharan countries. “If Sub-Saharan African and other fragile situations are to have a chance of reaching the 3 percent goal, not only will their growth rates have to be high but consumption (or income) levels among the bottom 40 in their societies will also have to rise at a higher rate,” the report states.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is that of the poor quality of economic data on Sub-Saharan Africa. Only 1 in 4 low-income countries and 4 of the 35 recognized fragile and conflict affected situations have data that allow us to monitor shared prosperity over time,” the World Bank report reveals. “Because a lack of reliable data is associated with slow growth in consumption (or income) for the poorest, the situation could even be worse than currently observed.”

The World Bank report explains that “a lack of reliable data is associated with slow growth in consumption (or income) for the poorest, the situation could even be worse than currently observed.” And this means expanding the understanding of what it means to live in poverty beyond conventional data on income and consumption levels.

“Other aspects of life are critical for well-being, including education, access to basic infrastructure, health care, and security,” notes the report. “Someone may earn more than US$1.90 a day but still feel poor if lacking access to such basic needs.” In addition, people earning even less than that “could be in even direr need without clean water to drink or a safe environment for his or her family.”

An expanded “multidimensional” approach to data collection would supposedly reveal “a world in which poverty is a much broader, more entrenched problem, underlining the importance of investing more in human capital.” The multidimensional approach to poverty would measure income, consumption, education, and access to basic infrastructure.

When all of those factors are taken into consideration, the World Bank estimates that the share of the poor under the multidimensional approach “is approximately 50 percent higher than when relying solely on monetary poverty.”

Why is the multidimensional approach to poverty reduction important to Sub-Saharan Africa? “In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than in any other region, shortfalls in one dimension go hand in hand with other deficiencies," the report states. "Low levels of consumption are often accompanied by challenges in non-monetary dimensions.”

The hard fact is that multidimensional deprivation makes extreme poverty reduction in Sub-Saharan Africa an elusive goal.

Bottom line

According to the World Bank, the stark reality of global extreme poverty is that it is “increasingly becoming a Sub-Saharan phenomenon, and the share of the poor in fragile and conflict-affected situations is growing.”

The World Bank is calling for “transformationnal change” in Sub-Saharan Africa and areas afflicted with conflict. And the bottom line is that “the battle against extreme poverty will be won or lost in Sub-Saharan Africa and fragile and conflict-affected settings.”

If the world hopes to reduce extreme poverty to three percent of the global population by 2030 will require big changes in Sub-Saharan Africa, including “strong and sustained economic growth, significant improvements in the living standards of the bottom 40 throughout Sub-Saharan Africa at a scale not seen in recent history, and substantial investments in people.”

Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian journalist specializing in international affairs, humanitarian crises, human rights, and international religious freedom. Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston

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