Why is Africa the Poor Continent when More Poor People Live in South Asia?

When you begin to talk about global poverty, attention immediately jumps to sub-Saharan Africa.  There is the familiar trope that tells a kid to eat his food because there are starving kids in Africa.  However, if someone was to randomly select an actual hungry child, it is more likely that the child would be South Asian than from sub-Saharan Africa.  Extreme poverty follows a similar pattern. Using the World Bank’s estimates and their definition of living on less than $1.25 per day as extreme poverty1, 507 million people live in extreme poverty in South Asia-of which 400 million come from India- as compared to 414 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.  These disparities beg the question why poverty is so linked with sub-Saharan Africa when a poor person is more likely to live in South Asia.

An obvious explanation is that perceptions of poverty result from the percentage of people living in poverty rather than the absolute number of people.  Although I think there is some truth to this explanation, it is not the whole picture.  While sub-Saharan Africa has the highest proportion of its population living in extreme poverty,this is a quite recent phenomenon.  In 1990, South Asia excluding India had 62% of people living in extreme poverty while sub-Saharan Africa had 57%, and India was just 6% below.  In 1981 sub-Saharan Africa had 33% less of its population living in extreme poverty than China and was actually better than the average for the developing world.  I don’t think this link between sub-Saharan Africa and poverty has rapidly evolved but instead existed well before it became the region with the highest percentage of people living in poverty.  Really, I think both percentage of people living in poverty and the absolute number are not particularly influential on perceptions of global poverty.  Very few people actually know the statistics and most people have extremely limited contact with information on global poverty.

This idea of Africa as the home of poverty exists on two levels.  The first is in popular imagination, or the parent telling their kid that there are starving kids in Africa.  As it necessarily reduces a place’s people to their poverty, I don’t think any place should be seen as the home of poverty in this fashion, especially a place as vast and diverse as Africa.  The starving kids in Africa trope is similarly insulting as well as making little logical sense.  Still, without endorsing this viewpoint this post will explore why Africa is seen as such.  The second level is where efforts aimed at reducing this poverty, such as development and aid programs, choose to focus.  This level is closely related to and heavily influenced by the first.  The relation is very dangerous, as inaccuracies not only lessen the positive impact of efforts to reduce poverty but also exacerbate the harm they can cause.

I find one main reason for disparities between actual global poverty and perceptions of it justified, and this is the difference in the strength of states.  Aid and development organizations do not and should not focus their attentions on countries with strong states.  Rather than go to a country where the government can provide services, they go to countries where this is not happening.  The majority of poverty in South Asia comes in India, and although its government is far from perfect it has not experienced the coups and state failure that have often occurred in sub-Saharan Africa.  China, too, has a strong state.  International organizations have not focused as much on India and China despite the huge numbers of people in poverty largely because there were strong states that could address poverty.  Indeed, they have seen massive reductions in poverty over the last 30 years and state policies have been central to their success.  Given the large influence aid organizations have over popular perceptions of poverty, it is to be expected their focus on African countries would affect the public.  Even though commercials appealing for donations may have depicted an African country because it had a weak state and aid organizations could be effective there, a viewer would still come to associate Africa with poverty.

However, I think a main reason for the association between Africa and poverty is continuing colonial and racial attitudes.  The idea that Europeans needed to save Africans from their poverty and backwardness was a large motivation for colonizing Africa.  Modern development and aid organizations are in part descendants of this ideology and still often share many of these same attitudes.  Popular imagination of a poor Africa is similarly descended from colonial ideas.  Colonization of China was tiny in comparison to African countries, and while India was heavily colonized it was less focused on ideas of saving primitive peoples than African colonization.  That there is less of a historical tradition of thinking of Asians as helpless and poor is a large reason for modern associations of poverty with Africa rather than Asia.

Race was a huge part of the colonial ideology of saving poor Africans.  The blackness of Africans was frequently emphasized, and this continues to influence our modern perceptions of race.  While I do not have proof, I suspect that images of a starving black African child would resonate more strongly than a starving Indian child.  Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the country with the most NGOs per capita in the world, Haiti, has a larger percentage of its population that is black than any other country in the Americas.

The way we currently envision global poverty is wrong.  It is nearly as frequent for a person living in poverty to live in India as in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, and it is quite a bit more likely for them to live in South Asia as a whole.  Even in sub-Saharan Africa, however, people living in extreme poverty are in the minority.   When it comes to international organizations combatting poverty, it does make sense for efforts to focus more on sub-Saharan Africa than south Asia, but this shouldn’t be because they are operating under false assumptions.


1All definitions of poverty have faults, particularly when defined by income like this one is.  However, it is the easiest definition to use for comparing different regions.