Persistent Poverty in Africa:
Why and How You Can Help
Chris Barrett
Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management
March 24, 2014
Hosted by Heifer International chapter, Cornell University
The poor are in South Asia
Rapid, large-scale poverty reduction is possible …
as demonstrated by a generation of rapidly falling
global poverty rates, especially in East Asia.
The poor are
mainly in
South Asia
and no real
progress in
Africa in the
last 35 years.
Source: World Bank, PovCalNet
The ultra-poor are African
The big challenge is the persistence of
concentrated ultra-poverty … in Africa,
where it has almost doubled in a generation.
Source: World Bank,
In 1981 Africa was home to 12% of the
world’s ultra-poor … now >75%.
The persistence of
African ultra-poverty
Longitudinal data reinforce the story
Comparative Poverty Dynamics
- In the US, the median
- In rural Africa, we don’t
know the median spell
length! Most poverty is
chronic, with complex
and multiple causation.
Ngambo, Northern Kenya 2000-2 ($0.25)
of population
Percent of
poverty spell length is
only 4.5 months. The
overwhelming majority of
US poverty is transitory.
Fianarantsoa, Southern Madagascar
1997-2002 ($0.25)
Vakinankaratra, Central Madagascar
1997-2002 ($0.25)
United States 1993-94 ($15.05)
Continuous years in poverty
Sources: USA:
USA: Naifeh
Naifeh (1998).
(1998), Poverty
others: Barrett
et al.
Poverty line
line levels
all inJDS).
all in inflation-adjusted 2002 US dollars.
Becoming ultra-poor
Many Are Born Poor and Stay Poor
But Why Do Others Become Poor,
Replacing Those Who Escape Poverty?
1) Health Shocks (malaria, HIV/AIDS, etc.)
2) Conflict/war
3) Natural Disasters (drought, flood)
4) Unemployment
The public and private safety nets we take for
granted rarely exist in SSA
Staying ultra-poor
Once Poor,
Why Do People Remain Poor?
- Poor early childhood health/nutrition
- Limited education
- Lack access to finance to invest in livestock,
land, improved technologies
- Underdeveloped markets
- Social exclusion (race, gender, ethnicity, etc.)
… all keep the poor from making enough to
invest in growing richer … ‘poverty traps’
“May the odds be
ever in your favor”
Who has a real shot at escaping poverty?
Under-five mortality rate = 18%
Elem. school completion rate = 48%
14-16 yr old HIV/AIDS positive = 8%
Face regular violent conflict = ~20%
… Only 20-30% have a good shot at an African
middle class life under current education, health
and security situation
.. And most face a much higher likelihood of dying a
preventable, poverty-related death (cholera,
typhoid, measles, childbirth …)
Changing the odds
How Do Some Climb/Stay Out of Poverty?
- Maintain good health: avoid illness/injury
- Education
- Some cash to invest: savings, loans, gifts,
remittances … it takes $ to make $
- Reasonable, reliable access to markets
- Peace
… Not much different from the US!
All are scalable … we can change the odds
Why should we care?
- Golden rule
- Future markets/suppliers
- Prospective source of insecurity
- Conservation of forests, wildlife
- Controlling pandemics
How does the world help?
Net aid given by governments:
~7.5 ¢ per day per person (overstated due to “tying”)
Private gifts (foundations, companies and individuals):
~ 6 ¢ per day per person
Develop new technologies, better institutions, smarter
policies through businesses, governments, NGOs:
- health care (incl. lower pricing by drug companies)
- improved information/communications technologies
- agricultural, water, energy, transport and other
technologies (universities/research institutes)
- policy research (universities/think tanks)
- (good) job creation by businesses
Do your donations matter?
Ex: Heifer Int’l animal donation projects in Rwanda
Original survey of 406 hhs in 2 locations:
Ruli (Dairy cows) and Kirehe (Meat goats)
Three treatment groups: Beneficiaries vs. qualified
prospective beneficiaries vs. never will be beneficiaries
Central findings:
Dietary intake:
- Households that receive a dairy cow consume 9.34 more
liters of dairy per person, >3x intake of control hhs.
- Families that received a donated meat goat increased
monthly meat consumption by 0.20 kilograms per person,
~2x intake of controls hhs.
Source: Rawlins, Pimkina,
Barrett, Pedersen & Wydick
(2014), “Got Milk? The Impact
of Heifer International's
Livestock Donation Programs in
Rwanda on Nutritional
Outcomes,” Food Policy 44(1):
Child (0-5 yr) nutritional status:
- Meat goats: stat sig +0.5 SDs weight-for-age , +0.4 SDs weight-for-height z-score,
but a only a stat insig 0.1 SD effect on height-for-age z-score.
- Dairy cows: stat sig +0.5 SDs height-for-age z-score, but only a stat insig +0.4 SDs
weight-for-age z-score.
What can you do?
1) Recognize, be grateful for and make good use of
the opportunities you have here in the US! Young
Africans only dream of your opportunities.
2) Be informed and speak up to our political leaders
3) Sponsor a child, buy loved ones alternative gifts
for holidays and special events.
Luke 12:48: “To whom much has been given, much is
Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of
thoughtful, committed citizens can change the
world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
“Most of the people in the world are poor, so if we knew the
economics of being poor we would know much of the economics that
really matters. Most of the world’s poor people earn their living
from agriculture, so if we knew the economics of agriculture we
would know much of the economics of being poor.”
- Theodore W. Schultz
Opening sentences of 1979 Nobel Prize in Economics lecture
Africa is the world’s most agrarian/rural continent.
CALS majors have uncommon capacity to help!
If you had been
born to a poor
woman in rural
Africa, what would
you want others to
do for you?
Thanks for your interest!

Persistent Poverty in Africa: Why and How You Can Help