Extreme Poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa

The number of people (in millions) in Sub-Saharan Africa living in extreme poverty - Source: World Bank

The extent and effects of poverty are particularly severe in East Africa, a region which has one of the highest concentrations of extremely impoverished people in the world. Situated in Sub-Saharan Africa, East Africa consists of the countries of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. Combined, these countries have a total population estimated at just over 153 million people and of which 54 percent, 82.5 million people, live in extreme poverty and 76% of the population, nearly 117 million people, live on less than $2.00 a day.

East Africa Population & Poverty Statistics (in millions of people)

Despite the higher poverty rates compared to the Sub-Saharan average, there are have been improvements in quality of life and human development indicators in the region. Enrollment in primary school has increased as have average lifespans. Several of the region’s countries have lifted several million people out of poverty over the last 17 years and the East African economy continues to grow at an impressive rate. The discovery of natural resources such as oil and natural gas are fueling excitement about the potential for wealth, growth and prosperity.

East Africa is fast becoming integrated – socio-economically, politically and in the development policy arena. Since the early 2000s, the regions’ leaders have been collaborating to build common economic and social policies, and creating regional institutions such as the East African Legislative Assembly and the East African Court of Justice. In the last decade, progress on regional integration is being seen in a generally positive light, with the business world in particular taking advantage of the benefits and opportunities from integration.

However, it is too early to draw overly optimistic conclusions about East Africa’s prospects for equitable development.  During the time period when countries like Uganda and Rwanda were lifting millions out of poverty, Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi actually suffered an increase of poverty- with an extra 8.2 million, 4.9 million and 1.5 million people respectively falling below the extreme poverty line. Coupled with rapid increases in population sizes, this intensifies the challenge with people in pockets of chronic poverty missing out on the new opportunities.

Percent of national population living in rural areas

Additionally, the statistics can mask grim realities which may turn out to be barriers for economic growth and permanent eradication of poverty in the region. Many East African children who finish primary school are still unable to continue to secondary school. Malnutrition and stunting still remain chronic problems.  Recent examples from countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia highlight that the discovery of profitable natural resources have the potential to be a curse or a blessing. Not only do poor communities risk being displaced through extracting processes, but their share of the profits from the resources could be quite limited.

There is a pervasive feeling that the economic conditions have worsened in the past five years. In the 2012 Tanzania Afrobarometer Survey, 40 per cent of adults felt that current economic conditions in Tanzania were very bad, compared to 25 per cent in 2008. In 2012, 62 per cent of Ugandans felt that their living conditions were at least fairly bad compared to 42 per cent just two years earlier. In Kenya, 84 per cent of adults described the current economic conditions as either ‘very bad’ or ‘fairly bad’ in 2011, a 30-point jump from 54 per cent in 2005.