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On the Challenges of Discussing Precarity in Africa

Despite robust signs of growth [fr] in Africa in 2012, precarity remains an ever-present problem right now for the majority of people living in Africa; 47% of Africans live on less than one euro per day [fr].

Inequalities are undoubtedly broadening but the very concept of precarity in Africa is also rapidly evolving. In fact, it seems increasingly odd to try to find solutions to precarity without involving the population who are most at risk of economic insecurity.

Defining poverty

The concept of poverty or precarity is by definition subjective and depends on the point of view. Still, it is important to define the scope of issues encompassed within the notion of precarity to evaluate all the possible solutions. The question is, who are the poor and what are they suffering from?

Nomads in Morocco by Antonioperezrio Flickr (CC-NC-2.0) originally published in the article <a href="">on solutions to poverty in the world</a>

Nomads in Morocco by Antonioperezrio Flickr (CC-NC-2.0) originally published in the article on solutions to poverty in the world

Rangot Tsasa of the Democratic Republic of Congo asks the question “Are we really poor?” [fr]:

La pauvreté est l’insuffisance de ressources matérielles, comme la nourriture, l’accès à l’eau potable, les vêtements, le logement, et des conditions de vie en général, mais également de ressources intangibles comme l’accès à l’éducation, l’exercice d’une activité valorisante, le respect reçu des autres citoyens. [..] quand des jeunes désoeuvrés tuent et volent au su et au vu des autorités en place, devrions-nous interpeller les parents qui sont responsables de l’éducation de base ? Pas de boulots, rien a faire, on se retrouve dans les rues.

Poverty is the lack of material resources such as food, access to clean water, clothing, housing and general living conditions, but also intangible resources such as access to education, the exercise of a rewarding activity, respect received from other citizens. [..]  when unemployed youth kill and steal right in front of police authorities, should we hold the parents responsible for not providing basic education? We have no jobs, nothing to look forward to and we eventually end up in the streets.

In Senegal, Seydina Oumar Touré explains on the site Good Governance Africa that there are several dimensions of poverty [fr]:

Lorsqu’on interroge la population sur ce que signifie « être pauvre », 90% invoquent avant tout la définition la plus classique de la pauvreté qui retient comme critère : un niveau de consommation inférieur à un seuil minimum de subsistance. Une large majorité des Dakarois (87%) définit parallèlement la pauvreté en soulignant l’incapacité à influer sur ses conditions. Enfin, 84% des individus l’associent à des conditions matérielles d’existence difficiles ou à la faiblesse du capital humain.
Mais il convient de souligner que plus les individus sont démunis du point de vue monétaire, plus ils mettent en avant les différentes dimensions de la pauvreté. En effet, ils sont relativement plus nombreux parmi le quartile des revenus les plus faibles (comparé aux quartiles plus riches) à caractériser la pauvreté par diverses formes telles l’incapacité à influer sur ses conditions ou la marginalisation/exclusion.

When we asked people what it means to be “poor”, 90% mentioned above all the most common definition of poverty: a consumption level below a minimum subsistence level. Still, a large majority of Dakar residents (87%) also define poverty as the inability to influence one's own conditions. Finally, 84% of people associate it with difficult material living conditions or the shortcoming of human capital. But it should be noted that when people are poor in terms of money, they place more emphasis on the other dimensions of poverty. In fact, they are relatively more numerous among the quartile of lowest income (compared to the richest quartile) to characterize poverty through various forms such as the inability to influence its own condition or in terms of marginalization/exclusion.

The struggle against the marginalization and exclusion is a topic that is now also very present on the European continent due to the continuing economic crisis in Europe. An initiative for the implementation of a universal basic income argues that a basic minimum income could reduce this feeling of exclusion for the impoverished population.

How do we make the voices of the poorest heard

Unfortunately the voices speaking on the various dimensions of poverty are too rarely heard in the media. The proposed solutions in terms of public policies in the countries most concerned with poverty are based on econometric estimates which do not homogeneously agree on their definitions of poverty. Many proposed solutions have been put on the table.

Michel Ndoedje in Cameroon thinks there cannot be sustainable solutions to poverty without first clearly defining its causes [fr]:

au Cameroun par exemple le salaire minimum est de 28 000 FCFA et dans la plupart des cas moins que cette somme, une fille de chambre ou de ménage touche 15.000 FCFA. Alors que le ministre Secrétaire, le Général de la Présidence des pays l’Afrique Centrale, en plus de leurs salaires qu’ils reçoivent une prime de pétrole de plus 2 500 000 FCFA par jour [..] On serait tenté de se demander en quoi ceci est pertinent dans la discussion qui nous intéresse ? Eh bien, quand toute la richesse est concentrée aux mains de quelques uns, la monnaie ne circule pas dans toutes les couches de la société et même le plus entreprenant des citoyens ne trouve personne pour acheter ce qu’il produit. Pas de production pas d’emploi et même quand il y a des emplois, ce sont des emplois de 25 000 fcfa à 28.000 fcfa ! Le nombre de ceux qui ont des richesses pour acheter étant limité, ainsi que leurs besoins individuels, les basses couches de la société se contentent de survivre et non de vivre le temps qu’ils peuvent et de mourir silencieusement.

In Cameroon, for example, the minimum monthly wage is 28,000 FCFA francs (1 FCFA= $0.002 USD) and in most cases, it is less than this amount for a maid who receives about 15,000 FCFA. While the Minister Secretary, General of the Presidency of the countries of Central Africa, in addition to their salaries all receive an oil premium of more than 2,500,000 FCFA per day [..] It is tempting to ask how is this relevant to the current discussion. Well, when all the wealth is concentrated into a few hands, money does not flow to all the layers of society and even the most enterprising citizens cannot find anyone to buy what they produce. So no production, therefore no jobs and even when there are jobs, they are paid only 25,000 FCFA to 28,000 FCFA! The number of people who actually have purchasing power is so limited and therefore, so is their individual needs.  The lower class of society simply tries to survive while they can and then go on to die quietly.

The debate on aid and trade as solutions to precarity often refers to the fact that the dignity of beings requires a sustainable solution involves personal development and the possibility of living without resorting to external assistance. This concept also emphasizes the fact that many do not consider themselves part of the weakened population and do not feel the need to express a precarious social situation.

Thus the needs of populations in precarious situations are often heard through the media and other NGO partners. The organization Panos has chosen to interview farmers directly south of Madagascar about their situations and transcribe their views with minimal editorial filter. Here's the video of his interviews around the world:

Many activists who are passionate about Africa as “the continent on the rise” believe that it is important that the continent is seen as a land of opportunity and not as a problem to be solved. From that perspective, the emphasis is often solely put on economic growth as a solution to poverty.

Given that premise and the fact that only a limited number of indigent persons have access to the conversation on the fight against poverty, is it still even relevant to discuss precarity in Africa? In other words, does the conversation makes sense if the people most affected by poverty cannot have their say and that the discussion is limited to an exchange of ideas between technocrats?

Seydina Oumar Touré notes that among the poorest people in Dakar, the perceived level of one's own life and the effectiveness of programs [fr] against poverty differ at several levels:

87% des ménages du quartile des plus démunis ont des niveaux des revenus en deçà de ce qu’ils estiment comme le minimum requis pour une vie décente [..] Pour la capitale sénégalaise, il s’avère que 12% seulement des individus estiment faire partie du quintile des plus pauvres. Ils ne sont que 30% à être réellement convaincus de l’efficacité des politiques. Les plus pauvres – censés être les principaux bénéficiaires des politiques – doutent autant que le reste de la population sur les résultats de la stratégie mise en oeuvre.

87% of households in the poorest quartile have income levels below what they consider to be the minimum required for a decent life [..] Yet in Dakar, it turns out that only 12% of people believe that they are part of the poorest quintile. Only 30% of the population is truly convinced of the effectiveness of public policies against poverty. The poorest – the supposed main beneficiaries of policies – are as skeptical as the rest of the population about the results of the strategic implementation (of public policies).

Isabelle, from the Central African Republic, tries not to isolate herself from the rest of society [fr], despite her precarious financial situation:

Pour ne pas tomber dans la dépression, Isabelle continue de s’engager dans diverses actions : active dans une démarche de partenariat entre femmes françaises et centrafricaines (qui échangent sur les difficultés rencontrées dans les deux pays), elle accueille aussi en tant que bénévole les migrants

So as to not to fall into depression, Isabelle continues to engage in various activities: active in a partnership between French women and women of the Central African Republic (who share the difficulties encountered in the two countries), she also volunteers as a clerk for immigrants.

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