A look back at some of Africa’s major food crises shows conditions still faced by many Africans today: poverty, drought, conflict, and environmental degradation due to overgrazing, deforestation, and other types of environmental damages.
1968 to 1980s — A drought in the Sahel region led to 1 million deaths in Mali, Chad, Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso.
1980 to 1981 — Drought and conflict led to widespread hunger in Uganda.
1984 to 1985 — Famine in Ethiopia: Drought in the northern highlands and problems delivering aid led to about 1 million deaths and massive displacements.
1991 to 1992 — The Somalia famine was caused by drought and civil war.
1998 to 2004 — During the Second Congo War, more than 3 million people died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, mainly from starvation and disease.
2011 to 2012 — The Horn of Africa hunger crisis was responsible for 285,000 deaths in East Africa.
2015 to 2016 — A strong El Niño affected almost all of East and Southern Africa, causing food insecurity for more than 50 million people.
2017 — 25 million people, including 15 million children, needed humanitarian assistance in East Africa. In September, inter-communal conflict in Ethiopia led to more than 800,000 people becoming internally displaced.
2018 — Africa was home to more than half of the global total of acutely food-insecure people, estimated at 65 million people. East Africa had the highest number at 28.6 million, followed by Southern Africa at 23.3 million, and West Africa at 11.2 million.
2019 — Food security is deteriorating and expected to worsen in some countries between October 2019 and January 2020.
Q&A on Poverty
Although poverty is often discussed in terms of dollar amounts, quality of life is also part of the conversation. Living in poverty means a life of struggle and deprivation.
Children living in poverty often lack access to a quality education. Sometimes it’s because there’s not enough quality schools, their parents cannot afford school fees, or because impoverished families need their children to work. Without a quality education, children grow up being unable to provide for their own children — thus the generational cycle of poverty.
Living in poverty also means not being able to afford a doctor or medical treatment. It means no electricity, limited shelter, and often little to no food on the table. For young children, improper nutrition can mean stunting and wasting that permanently impact their development. In impoverished countries where many people lack access to clean water and sanitation, poverty means the spread of preventable diseases and the unnecessary death of children.
Historically, poverty has been calculated based on a person’s income and how much he or she can buy with that income, but new multidimensional measures are more holistic.
Since 2015, the World Bank has defined extreme poverty as people living on $1.90 or less a day, measured using the international poverty line. But extreme poverty is not only about low income; it is also about what people can or cannot afford.
Absolute poverty is when a person cannot afford the minimum nutrition, clothing, or shelter needs in their country.
Relative poverty is a household income below a certain percentage, typically 50% or 60%, of the median income of that country. This measurement takes into consideration the subjective cost of participating in everyday life. For example, plumbing is a necessity in some places; without plumbing, a person could be considered impoverished. However, in other places plumbing is a luxury. Relative poverty is useful for considering income inequality within a country.
Multidimensional poverty acknowledges that poverty isn’t always about income. Sometimes a person’s income might be above the poverty line, but their family has no electricity, no access to a proper toilet, no clean drinking water, and no one in the family has completed six years of school.
looks beyond income to measure a person’s healthcare, education, and living standards to determine poverty levels. It was developed in 2010 by the U.N. Development Program and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative.
Within the categories of health, education, and living standards, there are 10 key indicators of multidimensional poverty that include nutrition, child mortality, years of schooling, school attendance, cooking fuel, sanitation, drinking water, electricity, housing, and assets. If a person is experiencing deprivation in three of more of these standards, then he or she is multidimensionally poor.
The Global Multidimensional Poverty Index offers a thorough look at poverty and can provide guidance for the specific interventions necessary in each country to eliminate poverty.
Poverty is measured by each country’s government, which gathers data through household surveys of their own population. Entities like the World Bank provide support and may conduct their own surveys, but this data collection is time-consuming and slow. New forms of high-frequency surveys using estimates and mobile phone technology are being developed and tested.
A poverty line, also called a poverty threshold, is the line below which it is difficult, if not impossible, to afford basic needs. The poverty line is determined in each country by adding up the cost of meeting minimum needs, such as food and shelter. Household incomes that are too low to afford minimum needs, such as food and shelter, are below the poverty line.
The income necessary to afford meeting minimum needs typically sets the poverty line for a country. Poverty lines can then be compared between countries. The international poverty line is the standard poverty line for measuring poverty globally. However, relatively new measures such as the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index include measurements of health, education, and living standards, all as signs of poverty.
Poverty lines are not the same in all countries. In higher income countries, the cost of living is higher and so the poverty line is higher, too. In 2017, the World Bank announced new median poverty lines, grouping countries into low-income, middle-income, and high-income countries and finding the median poverty line for those groups:
The international poverty line, currently set at $1.90 a day, is the universal standard for measuring global poverty. This line helps measure the number of people living in extreme poverty and helps compare poverty levels between countries.
As the cost of living increases, poverty lines increase too. Since 1990, the international poverty line rose from $1 a day, to $1.25 a day, and most recently in 2015 to $1.90. This means that $1.90 is necessary to buy what $1 could in 1990.
In addition to the lowest-income poverty line at $1.90, the World Bank also reports poverty rates using two new international poverty lines: a lower middle-income line set at $3.20/day and an upper middle-income line set at $5.50 a day.
The term “war on poverty” was coined by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In President Johnson’s first State of the Union address, he acknowledged that one-fifth of Americans were living in poverty and called for “a national war on poverty.” With his war on poverty, President Johnson launched Medicare and Medicaid, expanded social security benefits, solidified the food stamps program, and subsidized school districts with a large share of impoverished students.
Recent estimates for global poverty are that 8.6% of the world, or 736 million people, live in extreme poverty on $1.90 or less a day, according to the World Bank.
In the United States, 12.3% of the population, or 39.7 million people, live in poverty — with an income of less than $33.26 per day — according to the 2017 census.
These numbers are calculated based on income and a person’s ability to meet basic needs. However, when looking beyond income to people experiencing deprivation in health, education, and living standards, 1.3 billion people in 104 developing countries are multidimensionally poor, according to a 2018 survey by the U.N. Development Program.
The root causes of poverty are not only lack of access to basic necessities of life like water, food, shelter, education, or healthcare. Poverty is also caused by inequities including gender or ethnic discrimination, poor governance, conflict, exploitation, and domestic violence. These inequities not only lead a person or a society into poverty but can also restrict access to social services that could help people overcome poverty.
The places most entrenched in poverty are fragile contexts, which can be entire countries or areas of a country. In fragile states areas, children and communities face higher rates of poverty due to political upheaval, past or present conflict, corrupt leaders, and poor infrastructure that limits access to education, clean water, healthcare, and other necessities.
Poverty can be a trap. For someone to get out of poverty, they need opportunities such as an education, clean water, medical facilities nearby, and financial resources. Without these basic elements, poverty becomes a cycle from one generation to the next.
If families are too poor to send their children to school, their children will have a difficult time earning an income when they grow up. If a community lacks clean water, women will spend much of their day fetching water instead of earning an income. If medical facilities are far away, a parent loses income every time they take a sick child to the doctor.
Natural disasters and conflict can add to the cycle of poverty or add people to it . When a natural disaster strikes an impoverished community without functional public institutions, families are more vulnerable and often lack basic resources to recover, thus further entrenching a community in poverty or jeopardizing one that had recently emerged.
We can help end global poverty by identifying what is causing poverty in a particular community and then determining what needs to change. Because poverty looks different in various places and is caused by different factors, the work to eradicate global poverty varies on the context.
AU Watch works with a “Theory of Change” for each community. In partnership with the community members, we determine the desired outcomes for that community and identify key steps to reach that outcome. The desired outcomes might be the same for many communities, but the path to get there depends on the context and the resources available.
Perhaps infrastructure needs to be improved with new schools, medical clinics, or access to clean water. Or maybe, people need more economic resources to help boost their income so they can better provide for themselves and their families. Regardless of the solution, in order to ensure poverty doesn’t return, the work must be sustainable. So, the community must be involved in each step.
To end extreme poverty, the U.N. estimates that the total cost per year would be about $175 billion, less than 1% of the combined income of the richest countries in the world.
Since 1990, more than 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty and child mortality has dropped by more than half. Reducing extreme poverty rates was a central goal in the Millennium Development Goals — eight goals signed by all United Nations member states in 2000 with a goal to achieve them by 2015. Since then, there has been much progress made in reducing global poverty.
The Sustainable Development Goals are a plan of action for countries worldwide to unify in a global partnership for the benefit of people, the planet, and prosperity. By 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals aim to end extreme poverty for all people everywhere and at least cut in half the proportion of people living in poverty in all its forms. The United Nations’ member states adopted this goal to end poverty as one of 17 goals in September 2015.
AU Watch is working to pull up the root causes of poverty’s weeds and plant the seeds of change. We see the multidimensional reality of global poverty, and so our work targets the biggest challenges: hunger and food security, clean water, health, education, economic empowerment, gender equality, disability inclusion, spiritual poverty, disaster relief, and child protection.
With our donors’ support, in a single year we are working to:
As a child-focused organization, AU Watch sees Agenda 2063 as the promise of Africa. Our development approach focuses on the whole of Africa and seeks to empower their families, local communities, and partners to address the underlying causes of poverty, so children and the community can prosper.
Since poverty is different in each context, AU Watch works with communities, families, local leaders, and children themselves to identify solutions and transform lives. We are expanding our focus to fragile contexts because, although they are difficult places to work, they are also where the most vulnerable children increasingly live. By 2030, it is estimated that 80% of the world’s extremely poor will live in fragile contexts.
As one of the largest Christian humanitarian organizations in the world, we have the infrastructure, experience, and relationships needed to bring about lasting change. With more than 65 years of fieldwork, we are making fullness of life possible for children and families.