Agriculture offers little chance of escaping poverty in Africa

The Overseas Development Institute’s conference in London on 6 February 2018. [Charley Rountree]

LONDON: The rate of rural households in developing African nations “descending into poverty exceeds the rate of those sustainably escaping it”, according to a recent report of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

ODI’s Chronic Poverty Advisory Network (CPAN) conducted research into the extent to which government and NGO policy, as well as development programmes, contribute to sustained pathways out of extreme poverty, in light of the UN’s ‘Getting to Zero’ 2030 target.

At an ODI conference in London on 6 February, Dr Andrew Shepherd, CPAN’s head of programme, said that “governments spend a lot of energy on ‘growth from above’ approaches, which are the most rapid way to reduce poverty – if they can be engineered”.

“More emphasis needs to be given to ‘growth from below’ programmes, which enhance the informal economy,” he added.

CPAN’s research focused on rural households in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and Nepal, all of which have seen an influx of agri-based development programmes as a way to help those living below the poverty line.

Diversifying away

However, Shepherd communicated that opportunities for sustained employment in the agricultural sector in rural African regions are in decline. He said that “most people making sustained escapes from poverty are diversifying away from agriculture. Instead, they are investing in urban areas and non-farm occupations” where there is less strain on resources.

Providing an insight into Kenyan development policy was Dr Elvin Nyukuri, Research Fellow at the African Centre for Technology Studies. She said that the “key message born from field studies in rural Kenya was that although agriculture remained important, and farming was still a major route to poverty escape, agriculture [to reduce poverty] was becoming less effective.”

As competition for land ownership continues to rise, farmers are only able to obtain “small land holdings, where outputs are very small relative to the high cost of inputs,” she said, adding that “climate volatility means that farmers are increasingly vulnerable to poverty. The inputs to maintain farms are so high for such small yield that rural farmers are unable to make a profit.”

Vidya Diwakar, CPAN senior research officer, ODI UK, conducted field studies in Nepal investigating how gender norms can lead to households falling back into poverty.

The study showed that a large proportion of those falling back into poverty were divorced, separated or widowed women-headed households as they were marginalised by their communities due to gender norms.

She said: “Initiatives that work toward female empowerment must target social norms; single female-headed households are seven times more at risk of returning to poverty than male-headed households.”

“We conducted key informant interviews with women in the region; a key message was that female returning migrants faced greater difficulty than males in securing loans to start businesses, as banks think they’re less able.

“There was also a social stigma towards female migrants who engaged in domestic work, which is seen in Nepalese culture as degrading.”

Kim Abel Kayunze, associate professor of rural development at the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, Tanzania, said that female inequality was a key obstacle in the way of escaping poverty as divorced and widowed women were subject to land grabbing.

Land grabbing involves taking an area of land by force, usually for economic or military reasons. Kaynze said: “Land grabbing is an issue in Tanzania because most communities are patriarchal, and land is owned by men. When married in rural areas land is owned by the husband through a customary arrangement.”

“If the husband dies, the husband’s relatives can claim the land and his wife as their property. This social injustice can be avoided in urban areas where women are educated and can follow legal procedures to protect themselves.”

Dr Yisak Tafere, coordinator at the Ethiopian Centre for Child Research at EDRI, Ethiopia said that the main reason for households falling back into poverty was the lack of “social protection at the household level.

“Social protection mechanisms exist at the community level but need to go further than this. A policy which facilitates regulated but supported migration of rural families in urban areas is necessary.”

Lewis Temple, Chief Executive Officer at BRAC UK echoed this sentiment saying that “what is needed is a holistic model; social protection services enable people to sustain their escape through poverty.

“After you’ve been through the NGO or government programme a further mechanism which protects families from household or environmental shock needs to be established in order to make sustained escapes from poverty.”

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