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Assisting the escape from persistent ultra-poverty in rural Africa
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Center on Food Security and the Environment

April 27, 2011

This paper was prepared for Stanford University’s Global Food Policy and Food Security Symposium Series, hosted by the Center on Food Security and the Environment, and supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.


Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is home to two-thirds of the world’s ultra-poor today. This paper offers current thinking on the structural causes of the spatially concentrated, persistent ultra-poverty that has plagued Africa for a generation and some key entry points for facilitating Africans’ escape from persistent ultra-poverty.

The increased recognition of persistent ultra-poverty has rekindled long-dormant interest in poverty traps. The essence of a poverty trap is that there exists one or more low equilibrium level(s) of well-being in which people appear caught unnecessarily. Small adjustments fail to move people out of those equilibria sustainably. Rather, systems must change, major positive shocks must occur, or both. And in the absence of systemic change, recurring adverse shocks only drive more people into the trap.

The ultra-poverty trap that characterizes much of rural SSA today is intimately caught up with (i) the bidirectional interrelationship among hunger, ill-health, low productivity, weak institutions and natural resources degradation, all of which become manifest in low incomes, (ii) poor initial conditions associated with health and nutrition, especially early in childhood, but also with the state of infrastructure and the natural resource base on which rural livelihood disproportionately depend, and (iii) uninsured risk exposure, which is especially severe in rural areas and in agriculture. The closely coupled nature of these problems adds substantially to the challenge of addressing any one of them on its own and thereby makes integrated strategies essential. 

The available theory and evidence suggests that the policy focus must fall squarely on stimulating a smallholder food productivity revolution. Toward that end, the paper concludes by identifying and explaining key entry points for assisting the escape from persistent ultra-poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

  1. Build and protect the productive asset endowments of the ultra-poor
  2. Improve the productivity of the ultra-poor’s current asset holdings
  3. Improve risk management options for the ultra-poor
  4. Facilitate favorable transitions out of agriculture

Although the topic of persistent ultra-poverty would seem to lend itself to a pessimistic ending, the future for Africa is actually rather hopeful. The East Asian experience demonstrates that mass, rapid escape from persistent ultra-poverty is feasible. Real agricultural output growth rates are accelerating in SSA, nearly doubling from the 1980s rate so that per capita food output is growing again, helping reduce rural poverty rates in countries enjoying increased agricultural productivity. Finally, the  policymaking and donor communities are now appropriately focusing on how best to stimulate investment incentives, productivity growth, risk management and productive transitions out of agriculture. These broad foci are appropriate and reasonably well-grounded in both theory and empirical evidence.  

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