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Review of The African Poor: A History


By Mahmood Messkoub

The African Poor: A History. By John Illife. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. ix + 377, £14.95.

This book came out nearly ten years ago, in a decade when Africa was going through one of its most devastating economic crises.  A crisis which was compounded in some countries by famine, civil war, and droughts.  In the 1980s the modest positive economic growth of previous decades was reversed, so was the commitment to the eradication of poverty as one of the lynch pins of development strategies.  Those who lost most were the African poor, whose standard of living fell even further as basic food prices rose and public services deteriorated and introduced user charges following World Bank and IMF inspired structural adjustment programmes (that had the support and blessing of the national elite and property classes).

Worst of all has been the strategic shift away from state and public action against poverty and the now fashionable emphasis on the private sector, private initiative and NGOs as the agents of change in Africa and the rest of the developing world.  Can it work, has it ever worked, anywhere?  There is no better way to begin answering such questions than by drawing on the history of the poor and poverty, and that is why Illife's book makes such an important reading and contribution to the study of poverty.

The book begins with a chapter on The Comparative History of the Poor  in which the author draws on the history of poverty in other continents to set up his analytical framework for the study of the poor and poverty in Africa.  Following the French Historian Jean-Pierre Gutton, Illife distinguishes between “structural poverty, which is the long term poverty of individuals due to their personal or social circumstances, and conjunctural poverty which is the temporary poverty into which ordinarily self-sufficient people may be thrown by crisis.” (My emphasis.)

He further draws a “distinction between the structural poverty characteristic of societies with relatively ample resources, especially land, and that characteristic of societies where such resources are scarce.”(4)  In the latter case it is the access to the complementary resources that characterises the poor: ability to work the land or having access to labour of others in land rich societies, and access to land in land-scarce societies and an inability to sell their labour at a price that could meet their subsistence needs.  The notion of poor for Illife is more one of absolute, in his words “extreme”, rather than relative poverty.  Poverty refers to the lack of means to “maintain physical efficiency.”

Important in Illife's categorisation is the way in which access and ownership of resources by people, a consequence of the institutional arrangements in any society, are combined with the demographic factors and society’s resource base to distinguish the poor from the non-poor.

These categories and themes permeate the book.  Illife argues that the structural poverty in pre-colonial Africa was mainly due to lack of access to labour.  The structural poor were the disabled, the elderly and the very young, who could not draw on family resources to make a living.  Landlessness as a cause of structural poverty came later, slowly but surely.  “In colonial Africa it was limited to certain areas of ruthless alienation or unusual population density.  However, the landless were spared from extreme poverty if they could sell their labour.”  This possibility was gradually narrowed down with the rise in population and slow growth of demand for labour coupled with lack of access to land and other resources.  The unemployed joined the ranks of the disabled and the old.

Access to land or other resources however is not a guarantee against poverty.  As far as conjunctural poverty is concerned Illife identifies two factors - climatic and political insecurity - as being the main causes of famine and mass poverty in pre-colonial Africa.  In such crises political and other means were used to exclude large numbers of people from the society's resources, greatly depleted by the crisis. Not all the “conjunctural poor” who  survived “natural” and political calamities were able to build up their resource base, and thus a new group of “structural poor” were born.

Are the poor the helpless lot in need of support and charity?  An image reinforced by the famines of the 1980s.  Help they certainly need but helpless they are not.  It is a credit to the poor that they continue to survive against all odds.  Institutional support for the poor was very limited in Africa, but informal benevolence in societies little influenced by Islam and Christianity did exist and flourish, “implying indigenous evolution of the idea that the poor merited special sympathy - a notion virtually absent from Greece or Rome.”(7)  Moreover, family and above all the poor’s own efforts were their best means of survival.

The above generalisations are based on careful study of the poor and poverty in a variety of African societies in the  pre-colonial, colonial and post-independence eras.  In his attempt to chart a general history of the poor by trying to capture the common denominators in diverse societies in Africa, Illife is limited by the paucity of documented work on the poor.  The structure of the book in part reflects this.  The history of the poor begins with the pre-colonial Christianity in Ethiopia (Ch.2) and the predominantly Islamic regions (Ch.3), both with relatively well documented histories.  The similarities between the Islamic and Christian societies are striking. The poor “were the handicapped and unfortunate individuals who lacked family care, supplemented periodically by victims of political or climatic insecurity.”(47)  Support for the poor came mainly from their own ranks and initiative, supplemented by personal generosity rather than by institutional religious support. The story then moves on to cover areas where poverty was a consequence of the power of a minority over the resources of the societies (Ch. 4 on Poverty and Power).  In the pre-colonial West African coast, while in some cases the poor were distinguished by their lack of access to land, in the main they lacked  sufficient labour, either of their own or their family.  In chapter 5, Poverty and Pastoralism, poverty emerges because of lack of access to cattle.  The poor could survive in these societies by offering their labour either as slaves, or in reciprocal arrangements, or for a wage.

The European colonialists arrived in the midst of this differentiated society for its riches, but had to deal with its poor!  Poor relief institutions based on the European model, but with  much harsher screening rules than those applied in Europe, came to Africa, coupled with private and missionary charity. The latter becoming a significant source of organised support for the poor. The book continues with two chapters on poverty in South Africa, 1886-1948, (Ch.8), and its transformation (Ch. 14), on rural and urban poverty in colonial Africa (Chs. 9-10), and care of the poor (Ch. 11).  The other chapters are devoted to a case study of leprosy (Ch.12) and poverty in independent Africa (Ch. 13).

This book has important implications for poverty alleviation policies and institutions that are designed to combat poverty.  Both categories of the poor have to be dealt with.  Palliative measures like famine relief designed to reduce mortality, important and necessary as they are at times of crisis, should be complemented with long term strategies  not only to build up the resource base of the structurally poor and guarantee their entitlement to the most basic means of livelihood, but also to reduce the vulnerability of those who are on the margin of poverty.  This has been the key to successful poverty alleviation strategies.

The current debate on the social impact of adjustment could also benefit from the approach of Illife's work.  Adjustment policies would often and suddenly confront those with meagre resources with increased costs for education, more expensive foods, medical charges, school fees, possible retrenchment, wage freeze, etc.  Adjustment policies should not only contain measures to protect the vulnerable population from price rises, and user charges, but they should ensure that a new group of structurally poor is not created.

A short review of this kind does not do justice to this book.  It should be read to be fully appreciated.  It is a must for students of Africa, development and all those concerned with poverty and how to eradicate it.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 60 (1995), pp. 54-56]

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