Mail & Guardian
world-renowned scholar of public policy, Yehezkel Dror recently
emphasised that policy and politics "closely interact, often overlap,
and cannot be separated even analytically". This seemingly obvious
point has far-reaching implications and concurs with thinking by other
In 1992 Martin Ravallion said poverty measurement and public policy issues are often inseparable. For this reason the Critical Thinking Forum's recent focus on poverty is commendable because sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where poverty is not declining.
A 'crisis point'
Christopher Barrett and his co-authors, using the World Bank's 2005 data, estimate that there is a "population-weighted poverty gap of 42% for sub-Saharan Africa relative to the $2 a day per capita international poverty line".
In Africa, unlike the Latin American region, dealing with poverty is not just a matter of redistribution. Our per capita incomes, with exceptions of course, are too low and GDP per capita incomes have been negative for a long time.
Scholars from other disciplines are increasingly grappling with solutions for poverty eradication; even economists have been trying to understand its dynamics better.
The recent studies, such as those led by Ravi Kanbur, examine the role of and dynamics in communities that impact on poverty levels.
The measurement of poverty in the context of each nation's resources -- as gauge of poverty reduction failures -- has also been explored.
The Critical Thinking Forum panellists made important points regarding poverty in Africa: some argued persuasively that poverty is indeed a global problem; some alluded to the role of Africa's political history; some highlighted the importance of regional dynamics; some on the complexity of poverty; and the weaknesses in African states. One point worth mentioning, though it narrowly applies to the South African context, is that there seems to be a consensus that we have reached a "crisis point".
The failed promise
As I listened to some of the fellow panellists, I was haunted by an intriguing question: what are we really going to do with capitalism?
I recalled Hernado de Soto's Mystery of Capital and wondered about the reasons why the poor are unable to unleash the promise of capitalism. Increasingly, it seems that we need a whole "new world order".
De Soto's reasons in relation to property rights imply that we must ensure that African bureaucracies guarantee property rights, especially for the so-called "poor".
On poverty measurement, it has been argued that the definition of poverty is critical. This informs the developmental goals of the kind of society that is envisioned.
In most African countries, the definitions of poverty are largely based on money-metric measures as reflected in adopted poverty lines.
Many theorists have been critical of this approach, arguing that poverty is a complex and a multidimensional socio-economic phenomenon (though how one accurately measures the multidimensional nature of poverty remains unresolved).
Most countries have adapted Amartya Sen's conception of poverty and development broadly.
But the human capabilities that Sen provides us with as a framework remain contested. What exactly are those critical capabilities and who determines them? This is where perhaps the desire by many states for a national vision or longer-term developmental agenda becomes particularly insatiable.
When looking at Africa, two points seem fundamental. Firstly that poverty can be seen as not just a question of redistribution but is largely a matter of equitable growth.
Secondly poverty is a "social construct" and therefore it will take sustained human ingenuity to foster an environment where the poor are able to create wealth and feel a part of the respective nations.
It is here that I think history might judge most of us harshly: we continue talking on behalf of the poor while our appreciation of the geopolitical forces that shape the experiences of the poor and the socially excluded worldwide is wanting.
For this reason I find the argument persuasive that poverty is a "social construct" of human creation in a world devoid of morals and compassion. It seems that each country determines what kind of poverty it can tolerate, how long it wants to tolerate it and how vigorously it will deal with it.
This idea is not difficult to comprehend because we constantly fail to explain why about a billion people go to bed hungry while millions more are suffering from lifestyle diseases such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension.
Through "reasonable" and sustainable economic growth, radical redistribution regimes and strategies that enrich the assets of the poor we surely will gain some mileage.
Why the poor are poor
In trying to understand why the poor are poor, three strands of theoretical explanations hold.
Some theories place the poor as the architects of their own precarious circumstances. Other theories blame the nation state for being impotent in the face of emerging tragedies for which immediate solutions abound.
Some may choose to place the global geopolitical structure at the centre of the genesis and persistence of poverty.
The timing to deal directly with all these issues seems right as the African peer review mechanism has made important proposals on how Africa should be attending to the challenge of poverty.
Also, for Southern Africa, the recent pronouncements by the Southern African Development Community heads of states' summit on matters of poverty give impetus to the poverty eradication project.
The timing is right because the United Nations is crafting a programme for the second decade of poverty eradication (2008 to 2017).
In addition the United Nations Development Programme is undertaking a first ever Human Development Report for Africa. For us here in South Africa, the timing seems very opportune.
Africa is asked to answer whether the generations tasked with emancipating the continent from deprivation are indeed succeeding.
It is not the time to blame one generation or one person or one institution. We should perhaps uphold the "pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will", as Antonio Gramsci advised.
Some of the matters are clearly analytical and empirical ones, so we should engage with them accordingly. This does not mean that we must not do what we must do.
Dr Vusi Gumede is a chief policy analyst in the South African Presidency and a board member of the Southern Africa Trust
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