What Works for Africa’s Poorest?

20 March 2017

Three GDI researchers, Professor David Hulme, Dr David Lawson and Dr Lawrence Ado-Kofie, have edited a volume studying why policies and programmes work to reduce poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa – and why sometimes they don’t.

Book cover

There is growing recognition that extreme inequality is harmful – from IMF studies on its negative effects on overall economic growth, to widening inequality cited as a top global risk by the World Economic Forum. We know that if policies don’t work for the most disadvantaged populations, then we all lose out. We also know that the poorest people rarely benefit from poverty reduction programmes, and this is especially true in some Sub-Saharan Africa nations.

Despite often impressive growth rates, the continent’s prosperity isn’t trickling down to the poor and the very poor, with much of the wealth created by ‘Africa rising’ captured by urban elites and offshore international businesses. It doesn’t help that looming on the horizon are a number of structural problems, which include the end of the commodity ‘super cycle’, the breaking of the wave of democratisation, and growing adverse effects of climate change.

“With an increase of almost 200 million African in deep/extreme poverty [between 1990 and 2012], it is difficult to celebrate the ways in which contemporary globalization is incorporating the continent into the world economy”

David Hulme, David Lawson and Lawrence Ado-Kofie

Yet, the editors advise against falling into a new era of Afro-pessimism, advocating “the emotions that need to be fostered are outrage about the lack of political and economic change in many African states and in the international relations of 21st century globalization, and tempered optimism”. The examples of innovation and learning the edited volume presents can incrementally contribute to improved prospects for the economic and social advancement for Africa’s poorest people.

Working to reach the poorest involves considering multiple layers of exclusion and deprivation as well as trade-offs between competing groups. It’s complex. But it isn’t impossible:

“Poor African men and women, bureaucrats who want to do their job, committed professionals, resilient aid-programme managers, NGO field staff, and other like-minded local politicians are making practical progress and are deepening the understand of ‘what works’ for Africa’s poorest people.”

David Hulme, David Lawson and Lawrence Ado-Kofie

Grounded in evidence and research but stepping away from theory, What Works for Africa’s Poorest delves into the field to examine policies and programmes and the mechanics of how they work with specific groups of poor people in a specific context.

What Works for Africa’s Poorest looks at who Sub-Saharan Africa’s extreme poor actually are, how they can realistically be reached, and whathas (and hasn’t) worked for them so far, exploring the lessons that emerge along the way. Chapters analyse a variety of innovative programmes in eight countries, including life-stage specific initiatives that promote infant survival and childcare; fast growing interventions such as cash transfers and other social protection programmes; employment policies, including the role of public works and “graduation programmes”; and efforts that focus on girls and women to reduce gender inequalities. Though there are some pan-African policy prescriptions, the overall evidence points to the need for poverty reduction programmes to be context specific and carefully adapted at the national or even sub-national level.

Following in the footsteps of East Asia focussed What Works for the Poorest, What Works for Africa’s Poorest  is a unique cross-section of country-specific case studies combined with cross-country analyses of important programmes, written by practitioners, academics and policy advisers, providing valuable insight into poverty reduction policies on the African continent.

Many agencies such as Oxfam have large areas of programming focused on the poor – for instance around cash transfers and social protection – and yet we would be wise to remain humble in our claims that we always reach the poorest of the poor. What Works for Africa’s Poorest is therefore a timely study into why policies and programmes work – and why they don’t. With a strong approach to evidence and research, and clear analysis but a determination to avoid generalised policy conclusions, this volume should be invaluable to practitioners, NGO staff, policymakers, and donors agencies.

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International

After 50 years of “development”, the number of Africans living in dire poverty remains tragically and disgracefully high. This book brings together important new insights on the understanding that outsiders themselves must achieve before they can begin to think about reaching the poorest and changing their reality.”

Ian Smillie, author of Freedom from Want and Diamonds

If responding to extreme poverty was easy or obvious, the world would surely have figured it out by now. But it’s neither easy nor obvious, so we need the types of context-specific insights exemplified by these excellent chapters, which are grounded in an informed dialogues between careful research, hard-won experience and ethical advocacy.”

Michael Woolcock, World Bank and Harvard University



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