‘Poverty remains greatest threat to Africa’


HARARE – Given that Africa has entered the new millennium with very little improvement in the way it has been conducting its affairs over many years and the fact that the present systems and models of governance and leadership look most unlikely to produce radical changes that may lead to poverty being at the very least reduced, on the contrary, all likelihood points to poverty getting worse and entrenching itself.

The Daily News caught up with Chief executive officer of African Leadership Convention, Davison Todson Gomo, to speak about the issue of poverty in Africa with more emphasis on Zimbabwe.

Q: Can you define poverty, what is poverty?

A: The famous Wikipedia says; Poverty may be defined as either absolute or relative. This definition vividly illustrates the fact that poverty must be viewed in the context of a country’s general state of development. Often we hear of American poverty which by all accounts is relative because the general socio-economic conditions in America are much better than those in Africa.

Whereas when viewed from the African perspective, poverty is generally absolute because very few people have access to basic and essential needs.

In fact, poverty is a reflection of failure of public policy, economic and social exclusion and lack of political will to confront poverty decisively. Poverty is a dangerous social evil that leaves those exposed to it unable to meet requirements for food, shelter, health, clothing, education and opportunities for jobs.

We need not go too far to see that as most of our people are a living witness to the desperate day to day unacceptable poverty conditions.

Q: What causes poverty?

A: Generally speaking, the causes of poverty are many and diverse. For example, conflicts are responsible for the destruction of public infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, roads and bridges etc.

The rise of corruption propelled by those meant to stop it and its consequences are there for everyone to see.

In fact, corruption transfers state and community resources into the hands of few people leaving much of society totally stranded with very  little recourse to the judiciary system as it is also controlled by the privileged classes who use it to protect their loot and interests.

Lately in Africa and Sadc area to be specific, the occurrence of droughts has had a devastating impact on agricultural production and productivity and millions of people who depend on agriculture as a source of livelihood are left extremely exposed to hunger and poverty.

Q: How is poverty in urban areas?

A: Although it is generally believed that urban dwellers often have a much better life, but the last few years have clearly demonstrated that with the economies performing well below par and governments literally showing little capacity to provide answers to these problems, the situation in urban areas is already bad and deplorable. The poverty situation in rural areas drives more and more young people into urban areas in search of job opportunities.

This is where the Sadc framework to combat poverty should kick into action to assist to stem the drift into cities when there is no capacity to absorb more people. The increase in street vending is essentially a confirmation of the shrinking economic base and not an exhibition of entrepreneurial talent.

The cities cannot cope with an uncontrolled population growth and influx. Unfortunately, this development has led to the mushrooming of urban squalor on a huge scale. It is these urban poor who are most indigent and as such, are on the periphery of society.

If this problem is not addressed seriously by all nations within Sadc, there is a real chance that xenophobic behaviour that we witnessed in South Africa to a large extent and recently in Zambia will continue to show its ugly head.

Some people move into neighbouring countries in search of jobs and business opportunities but because most of the countries suffer from the same condition of underdevelopment, locals resent immigrants for fear of being squeezed out of opportunities.

Q: How do we then deal with poverty?

A: Some argue that poverty is a mindset. The big question is whose mindset? Surprisingly, authorities live in denial of the reality of poverty and often choose to see poverty a transient phenomenon.

Unfortunately, the universal image of Africa and its people is one of poverty.

If you are of African origin and you happen to be travelling around the world, people can be forgiven for always raising questions around the issues of poverty because that is the only major thing Africa is known for and about.

The world is awash with images of school children learning under deplorable conditions, clinics that have no medicines, people sleeping on the streets, villagers looking for food in the wild, drinking water from unsafe sources and disorganised urban transport systems, dysfunctional local authorities, the list is endless.

Africa looks like a place where people are in self-help mode permanently.

The big question is; where are the responsible authorities when poverty continues to wreak havoc on the population?

Q: What has been Sadc’s response to poverty?

A: In August 2006, the Sadc  countries accepted the reality of poverty amongst the member states and the region as a whole.

What is interesting as it is important is that Sadc member states were not reinventing the wheel.

They developed their strategy guided by the Millennium Development Goals and the Strategic Plan of the African Union Commission.

At continental level, there was recognition that “political instability, corruption and the difficulty in consolidating democracy” would leave the continent unable to address effectively the problem of poverty.

At Sadc level, the Council of Ministers was convinced that poverty posed the major threat to development and stability of the region.

Sadc correctly identified that among other challenges, “high levels of malnutrition, illiteracy, unemployment, under-employment, declining life expectancy and unsatisfactory access to basic services and infrastructure needed sustain basic human capabilities” was a serious challenge for the region.

It has to be said that except for its wide spread nature, the profile of poverty in Sadc meets the general worldwide description of it.

Q: What has been some of the challenges facing Sadc when it comes to poverty?

A: Millennium Development Goals, Policy after Policy, Conference after Conference, including Summits have come and gone and the general poverty and marginalisation through civil strife, inappropriate policies, instability and fragile economies continue to be part and parcel of our daily lives.

It is time that we accept that poverty is a national and Sadc wide crisis. To look at this from any other way or angle is missing the point.

The current generation of leaders may not pay for it. However, the next generation will not be excused for even one single moment because the people have had enough of the same song for nearly the entire period of our freedom.

Freedom yes but poverty is certainly totally unwelcome. It is not as if we have no resources at all. Sadc is home to some of the sought after minerals and other natural resources. Why not use them to eradicate poverty?

The irony of it is that we have somehow allowed the resources to enrich other countries and a few from our midst.

It is hard to see how we can sustainably carry on this way without risking sinking our people into deeper poverty.

We have been duped to believe that we live in a boarderless world and somehow we have accepted this notion very uncritically.

While Foreign Direct Investment is great but it has to be managed so that it does not increase our debt burden.

Ostensibly, the idea of Foreign Direct Investment is to enable us to raise receipts that we can use to pay off our debt but regrettably, we usually end up with more debt and less gains.

Q: How strategic are the World Bank and International Monetary Fund(IMF) in all this?

A: By the same vein, we need to look very closely at policy regimes from the World Bank and the IMF we cannot avoid them because we already owe them money.

The biggest challenge is that these institutions are like pouring your money into a bottomless pit. You never come out of the debt problem based on their advice.

The debt issue contributes massively to the existence of poverty as we lose potential resources to the International Financial Institutions.

This is a big international and economic relations problem. Effectively, when these institutions propose strategies as a remedy to our failing economies, the focus is primarily on saving their interests because after all they claim that we often drive our economies to a halt through our misplaced priorities, mismanagement and corruption.

Since our countries suffer from technology, financial, markets and leadership deficit, it makes some of the home grown solutions weak and unable to provide answers to industrialisation and value addition strategies.

Q: And what happens when the population realises there are no opportunities for them?

A: We have already demonstrated the causes of poverty and how its existence can put a country and its people on stress mode. It so happens that when the population realises that all gates to opportunities to decent livelihoods are closed they resort to whatever means that is available to make ends meet.

Generally, the population starts by resorting to informal and illegal activities within their own borders.

However, sooner or later, they cast their eyes beyond the boundaries of their own countries. Incidentally, citizens are likely to be exposed to illicit business activities which include cross boarder informal trade that generally promotes corruption and squeezes locally produced manufactures as foreign produced goods are preferred. This is where the problems have the potential to create serious foreign policy challenges.

Q: How does trans-border crime play out in these circumstances?

A: One of the major areas of concerns is trans-border crime such as poaching of endangered species, dealing in the sales of precious minerals illegally, illegal entry into another country in search of employment opportunities and human trafficking mostly for prostitution purposes or demeaning jobs.

There are concerns about the potential of dangerous drugs crossing borders and young people become susceptible drug abuse which in itself creates serious social problems.

These problems are real and common place in the Sadc region and unless countries find a way to manage the challenges mutually and through co-operation treaties, the potential for conflict remains high.

The fact that the integration process remains only a declared intent among the member states leaves each country rooted in its own domestic policies and these by nature are inward looking policies that are at variance with the objectives of the Sadc Treaty and various protocols that are aimed at creating greater integration opportunities.

Essentially, it must be recognized that if a member country remains trapped in poverty for long, the possibility of economic refugees becomes a huge challenge and can spillover to other member states.

Q: Can poverty lead to conflict?

A:  Yes, this is also true in cases where poverty leads to conflict, for example Tanzania is heavily affected by the instability in Burundi and is forced by good neighbourliness and foreign policy objectives to act in order to manage a crisis that is forced on its border towns and villages by a conflict in another country.

It is unavoidable to enhance security on a country’s borders to prevent illegal entry of persons. A case in point is the tension between Zimbabwe and Botswana on border control issues. The cases may not be vicious but they remain uncomfortable and unnecessary.

Botswana had to erect fences on some parts and stretches of its border to prevent the entry of border jumpers from Zimbabwe.

On the eastern side of Zimbabwe, there are problems that have to do with the smuggling of second hand clothes that are banned in Zimbabwe.

This situation arises because incomes of Zimbabweans are falling thus forcing people to resort to illegal trade in banned items. Given that the generality of the population in most Sadc countries is relatively poor, member states must find a way to manage intra-regional movement of people and trade.

However, because the poor cannot afford to pay for all the customs and duty regimes, they prefer to use illegal means to bring in goods from across the border.

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