What did Liberia and Benin do wrong?
Or, a better question, what did Cape Verde do right?
There must be lessons to draw from the news that Cape Verdeans – along with citizens of 21 other African countries – are living better lives than they were three years ago.
Based on face-to-face interviews with more than 52,700 citizens in 33 countries in 2014-2015, Afrobarometer reports that in two-thirds of those countries, “lived poverty” has decreased compared to the previous survey round in 2011-2013. That means fewer people are going without life’s basic necessities – they now have enough food to eat, clean water, access to needed medicines or medical care, enough fuel for cooking and a cash income.
This is good news for Africa – and, importantly, for Africans. The continent’s decade of economic growth is well documented through official indicators, but until now, there’s been little evidence that this growth was translating into better lives.
Afrobarometer’s Lived Poverty Index (LPI) is based on how often survey respondents went without basic necessities during the previous year. Compared to three years ago, such shortages were less frequent in 22 countries, more frequent in five countries (including Liberia and Benin), and about the same in five others.
To be sure, poverty remains widespread in Africa. Almost half of all respondents say they went without enough food (46 percent), clean water (46 percent) or needed medical care (49 percent) at least once or twice during the previous year. And many of them did so “many times” or “always.”
But Africa isn’t uniformly poor; countries differ enormously in their levels of lived poverty. People in Gabon and Togo went without basic necessities at about 18 times the rate of those in Mauritius, and four times as frequently as residents of Cape Verde and Algeria.
And many countries experienced remarkable changes for the better. Cape Verde managed the greatest reduction in lived poverty: The average person went from reporting one or two experiences of scarcity of most necessities to recording no shortages. Thus the question: What did Cape Verde do right?
Like most African countries, Cape Verde has enjoyed – and contributed to – the continent’s recent economic growth (on average 4.8 percent annual growth in gross domestic product [GDP] for the period 2006-2014). So, is economic growth finally paying off in people’s lived experience?
Maybe. But the relationship between GDP growth and lived poverty is weak and inconsistent – and it hardly explains Cape Verde’s progress or Liberia’s further decline. Cape Verde is merely average when it comes to GDP ($6,520 per capita in 2014). And its average annual GDP growth for 2006-2014 (3.7 percent) is just half the rate in Liberia – where lived poverty increased more than in any other country.
Here’s a better explanation: Lived poverty tended to decrease in countries that had invested the most in building local infrastructure. Afrobarometer surveys record the presence or absence of electric grids, piped water and sewage systems, paved or tarred roads and cellphone service in the thousands of communities they visit. And it turns out that at both the individual and country levels, better infrastructure goes along with less lived poverty.
Not coincidentally, Cape Verde consistently showed some of the largest gains in infrastructural development over the past decade.
This is not conclusive evidence; more study and time are needed to confirm the downward trend in lived poverty and to tease out reasons. But it’s a heartening possibility that countries may be able to pave roads out of poverty, to build – quite literally – better lives for their citizens.
Robert Mattes is director of the Democracy in Africa Research Unit in the Centre for Social Science Research, University of Cape Town.
Boniface Dulani teaches at the University of Malawi and is Afrobarometer’s operations manager for fieldwork.
E. Gyimah-Boadi is executive director of Afrobarometer and of the Center for Democratic Development, Ghana.