The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why extreme poverty still haunts rural Africa

In nations like Mali, we know too little about where the rural poor live.

Women buy fresh produce at the market in Gao, Mali, in 2017. (Jane Hahn for The Washington Post)
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New data suggests that by 2030, nearly nine out of 10 of the world’s people living in extreme poverty will be sub-Saharan Africans. Despite the images of urban slums that usually accompany stories of poverty, the vast majority of these people will be rural dwellers. We know the last frontiers of extreme poverty are “fragile states,” those with weak institutions and histories of conflict.

No country exemplifies this challenge better than the West African Republic of Mali. The country was once a development darling with a seemingly stable democracy and a growing economy. But Mali’s progress came to a halt in 2012 when a rebellion in the north of the country led to a coup. Mali’s instability has since metastasized into a shifting set of insurgencies and local conflicts that make development difficult.

But a challenge of equal proportion is one that does not grab headlines: providing basic services in the countryside. Central to the problem: We lack basic knowledge about where the rural poor in Mali, and other sub-Saharan African countries, actually live.

Ninety percent of poor Malians live in rural areas. Yet policymakers’ geographical understanding of rural Mali is rudimentary at best. Despite a growing appreciation for the spatial dynamics of poverty, we still tend to think of rural dwellers as inhabiting villages that can be represented as fixed points on a map. This assumption gives us an inaccurate picture of how and where the poor live. While development policies account for mobility, urban-rural linkages and diverse livelihoods, even these sophisticated strategies overlook a basic fact: Villages are not really villages.

What we know as villages are actually constellations of settlements sometimes numbering in the dozens and frequently dispersed across large territories. In fact, the term village itself is largely a colonial creation referring to a single settlement that was designated as the lowest level of public administration. That administrative system, which fixed villages on the map, belied the shifting patterns of settlement that preceded it.

But mobility, not settlement, is how people across the Sahel region have avoided conflict and found opportunities. This system of “escape” reflected the sparse populations and land abundance that characterized many parts of the Sahel until the past few decades. Mobile groups would access new territories and resources by entering into what are called “host-stranger relations” with people who had already settled the area and claimed land rights. Hosts loan out farmland to newcomers, who become their long-term guests but remain “strangers” in the sense that they rarely. if ever. obtain controlling rights to the land they inhabit and cultivate. Although conflicts did occur, the system was highly effective at accommodating newcomers’ need for land and political belonging, which have long been intertwined in the region.

Fast forward to 2018. This system of property and political relations is critical to addressing poverty in the Sahel, which, by any measure, is the poorest region in the world. Through a combination of high birthrates, slow urbanization and fragile political institutions, global extreme poverty is increasingly concentrated in rural parts of the Sahel and its neighbors. A recent World Bank analysis revealed Mali has done a good job reducing poverty rates, but the overall number of people living in poverty has remained unchanged because the rural population continues its steady growth. A similar story can be found in neighboring Niger, which has the highest birthrate in the world and has seen its rural population more than quintuple since independence.

Rural populations continue to expand in these countries because people there still depend on agriculture to make a living. Certain rural households will earn additional income through a member working in the capital city or another country, but those living in extreme poverty typically lack access to any other productive resources besides land.

These same host-stranger relationships remain critical to accessing land. People settle where they can find land but, in doing so, frequently give up access to schools, health clinics and other basic services. My research in rural Mali shows the political inequalities of host-stranger relations have become embedded in formal institutions, ultimately favoring certain settlements over others in the distribution of public resources. Although the system of rural mobility and settlement abandonment has largely disappeared, its cultural and political fabric has become law. This means settlements with the village designation will receive funds for a school or water pump while its neighbors do not.

Farming settlements are often more than 10 miles from the nearest village where services are located. Over time, these settlements can become much larger than the village, because people are attracted to farming opportunities. This does not mean, however, the government or NGOs will begin providing them with services. In fact, the government may not even know the settlements exist because, on paper, they are part of the village.

The easiest way to address this problem would be to provide services based on demand. As settlements grow, authorities would allocate the necessary resources for the requisite infrastructure in those places. However, local politics make the issue of resource scarcity even more complicated than it already is. Officials are often unable to take such a technocratic approach when local leaders would rather see a well dug in their village than in a neighboring one. This is not without reason as even officially recognized villages have growing, unmet demands for wells, schools and birthing clinics.

Africa’s youths have become a hot topic among global policymakers. A key question seems to be whether the continent will experience a demographic dividend — an economic boost from its young workers — or a demographic time bomb. As birthrates in rural areas remain high, a critical yet overlooked part of this question is whether rural youths are getting what they need to make this dividend happen. The imprint of centuries of mobility in rural Africa mean that it is a challenge to accurately place them.