Interview with Hailu Mekonnen, AfDB’s Chief Poverty Reduction Specialist "Poverty in Africa is a Wake Up Call"

12/07/2007
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Question: You are the Bank Group's Chief Poverty Reduction Specialist. Could you let our readers know what your duties entail?

Answer: Indeed, my position is "Chief Poverty Reduction Specialist", but I am an economist by training who ended up working on poverty reduction under serendipitous circumstances. This is to say I did not take a single course in poverty analysis during my training.  Without going into the details of these circumstances, I would like to highlight that anybody working on economic development in Africa can and should be a "card carrying" poverty specialist, irrespective of his or her academic background.  I harbor this feeling because of my understanding of what poverty in Africa is.  What is poverty in an African context?  Regrettably, poverty in Africa, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa is a combination of: 

  • low income with limited purchasing power;
  • chronic malnutrition and persistent hunger  including lack of adequate shelter and clean water supply;
  • not being able to obtain medical care when sick and losing children and family members to illness brought by preventable diseases, especially infectious diseases;
  • the inability to go to school, read, write or speak properly;
  • the need to travel long distances, on foot, to purchase inputs, sell outputs, seek employment,  or fetch water and fire wood;
  • vulnerability to droughts and other environmental problems such as deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion and over-exploitation of fisheries and other natural resources; 
  • high income and gender inequality, especially in access to productive assets  such as land,  social services,  and employment opportunities;
  • a sense of powerlessness, lack of hope,  loss  of dignity and control over ones life; etc

Given the above "operational" definition of poverty (synthesized from different sources to underscore its multidimensionality) and the relatively high incidence of poverty in Africa, I hope it is not too much to ask ourselves (at the end of each working day) the question: What did I do today to reduce poverty in Africa?  In other words, if there is the political, institutional, intellectual, and professional will, there will always be a way to reduce poverty.

To answer your question more directly, as part of my responsibilities, I try to examine the opportunities and constraints in addressing the various dimensions of poverty in Africa through Bank interventions. This is especially the case with ensuring nd influencing  the poverty specificity of  macroeconomic and sector policies; Bank support for Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs); and the preparation of documents involving Country Strategy Papers, economic and sector work, applied research, capacity building of institutions, programs, and projects.

Question: It is asserted worldwide that over the last decade, Africa has witnessed more poverty than any other part of the world. How true is this assertion?

Answer: Before I respond to this question, it is important and prudent to remind ourselves that the continent is heterogeneous in many respects.  It is heterogeneous economically, socially, politically, and even spiritually. Yes, spiritually because if we are serious about contributing to poverty reduction significantly and permanently, we can not operate in a spiritual and ethical vacuum. But for this interview, I will focus on the heterogeneity involving economic and social considerations.

Overall, it is evident that the structure of the economies of North Africa countries is somewhat different from  those of Sub-Saharan African countries.  There is also variation in the structure of the economies across countries within the Sub-Saharan Africa region itself. For instance, the opportunities and constraints in middle income countries such as Botswana,  Mauritius, Namibia,  and South Africa are different from those in the ADF countries of Central, East, Southern, and West Africa.

Obviously, these variations can lead to notable differences in the incidence, depth, causes, and potential remedies for poverty. This is the case for  the  sources  as well as quality of  pro-poor growth (e.g. agriculture, services,  manufacturing, tourism,  export orientation in an era of globalization,  etc  );  mobilization of domestic and  international resources to combat poverty;  the  level and effectiveness of public resources allocated  for poverty-relevant sectors;  the roles of public, private , and civil society organizations in poverty reduction; and  the types as well as quality of  public institutions put in place to develop,  implement, and evaluate  poverty  reduction polices, programs, and projects useful  for the  timely  achievement of  the  Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

With this long and possibly well known caveat, I would like to note that  the incidence of poverty (on the basis of the poverty line of a dollar a day) in North Africa is less than 2 percent.  The corresponding rate for Sub-Saharan Africa is a little over 40 percent. As a summary, permit me to restate the often quoted statement: despite improvements in the policy environment and respectable growth rates in many countries since the mid 1990s, Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region that is unlikely to achieve the MDGs by 2015. And 2015 is only 8 years away. In addition, even in some of the middle income countries, there is widespread poverty.  In general, the high incidence of poverty in Africa  is  a  wake up call not  only  for  all  Africans but also for all  responsible  citizens of  the world.  In my view, this call should be translated into collective and sustained efforts that maximize the number of African countries capable of achieving all or most of the MDGs by 2015. Does this sound like a dream? Yes, it is a dream but one that should inspire immediate and sustained actions by policy makers and development practioners in all fields.  How do we act? By developing and implementing appropriate policies, allocating sufficient resources for poverty-relevant sectors, building the necessary staff and institutional capacity, and harmonizing (within and across institutions) activities in ways that are consistent with the requirements for the achievement of the MDGs.

Question: The Bank Group’s mandate requires it to help fight poverty on the continent. How much of this has been achieved over the years?

Answer: Let me state upfront that assessing the impact of interventions at the country level both by the Bank and its development partners continues to present several analytical challenges.  Fortunately, there is a global effort to develop approaches that would allow the assessment of the impact of interventions. For instance, the international call for enhancing development effectiveness, policy harmonization, and concrete results on the ground is linked to the collective determination to improve the lives of the poor.

Within the Bank, a number of initiatives that have a high potential to enhance its contributions to poverty reduction have been "launched" in the last few years.  The implementations of some of these initiatives including those related to NEPAD,  access to rural water supply, regional integration, infrastructure, good governance, etc are well underway. It is noteworthy that the ongoing efforts are directly and indirectly related to the promotion of sustainable growth, poverty reduction, gender equity, environmental protection, and the achievement of the MDGs.  However, in the best interest of brevity, I would like to focus on what the Bank is doing in terms of the implementation of its  Policy on Poverty Reduction which was approved in 2004.

Overall, the policy is comprehensive in that Bank support for PRSPs, development effectiveness,  policy harmonization in a country-led environment,  and the achievement of the MDGs  feature prominently in different sections of the policy.  The Sustainable Development Division tries to facilitate the implementation of the policy through  its dissemination,  staff training  not only on the elements of the policy but also on the essentials of poverty analysis at different levels (for example, the third session on the training of  Bank staff in the Economics of Poverty was held in June 28-29, 2007 at the Africa Hotel), the articulation of the need to promote poverty reduction as the guiding principle in the work of Country Teams as well as the Bank-wide Review Process.

But the persistence of some impediments continues to hinder the implementation of the policy effectively and consistently.  For instance, the participation rate in poverty-related training could be more than what is observed.  Part of the problem is time constraints, especially those facing staff in the Operations Complex. The incentive structures vis-à-vis activities of Country Teams and the Review Process are also somewhat weak. As a result, the challenge to mainstream poverty reduction meaningfully in Country Strategy Papers, Economic and Sector Work,  applied research, and  Bank interventions at all stages of the project cycle , to me, is quite formidable.  In particular, partly due to lack of adequate number of poverty specialists in the Operations Complex,  work on poverty reduction is perceived as primarily the responsibility of the Sustainable Development Division.  If this observation is correct and widespread,  the implementation of the Bank’s Policy on Poverty Reduction is likely to be undermined.

Overall, to move the Bank’s poverty reduction agenda forward, at least three types of commitments are needed.  The first is commitment (in collaboration with RMCs and their development partners)  to understand better the immensity,  multiplicity, and causes of poverty in Africa. This requires adequate human and financial resources to collect and analyze household surveys in as many African countries and sectors as possible and accumulate knowledge on the incidence, depth, causes, and remedial policies.  The second is commitment to inform lending and non-lending operations (by the Bank and its development partners) on the basis of the findings of such analysis and sectoral knowledge. And the third is commitment to design, thoughtfully, poverty-specific policies and programs, implement them effectively, and assess,  periodically but consistently, the impact of such interventions on the lives of the poor.

Question: Following the Bank Group’s efforts to reduce poverty on the continent, what policy advice would you provide to the institution to enhance these efforts if you had the opportunity?

Answer: First, allow me to reiterate that the Bank's existing policy on poverty reduction is quite comprehensive.  Let me, therefore, emphasize the importance of implementing the various elements of this policy consistently and wholeheartedly. As I highlighted earlier,  doing so requires more human and financial resources  so that  the poverty dimensions of polices, economic and sector work,  and applied research  are enhanced and  the poverty-specificity of Bank interventions  are strengthened.  It also requires more champions and mentors at all levels, i.e., in different Departments and disciplines/professions so that Bank staff work together more effectively on the basis of the shared objective of poverty reduction.

Secondly, I would strengthen the education dimensions of work on poverty reduction by giving more prominence to the role of tertiary education in poverty reduction in an era of increased globalization –this without losing sight of problems of inequality that a focus on tertiary education is likely to generate. The expansion of this aspect of poverty reduction should draw from the mixed experiences with the focus on primary education (where problems of quality have emerged) at the expense of tertiary education.  
Finally, I would highlight that the Bank adds even more value to the overall poverty reduction and good governance agenda by introducing ethical dimensions of development  through a series of seminars on Ethics and Development within the Bank and in its RMCs.

Question: Some people say that the Bank and similar institutions think that the best way to solve problems of poverty in Africa is by throwing money at it. Do you agree with this assertion?

Answer: This is a tricky and straightforward question at the same time.  It is very difficult to waste money if you have clear, realistic and quantifiable objectives, adequate capacity and unwavering commitment to achieve them. This is what work on poverty reduction in Africa requires.  But if your objectives are not clear, you are only tangentially or partially committed, and you do not have the right skills-mix, then you are likely to waste money. I hope I am not being overly simplistic if I say that these days, more than any other time in the history of humankind (be it in Africa or elsewhere), having adequate access to financial resources is a sin-qua-non to live a decent life.  Therefore, the trick is to use the available money, especially public resources mobilized to help the poor in areas that will empower the poor to overcome their poverty themselves,  for example  on investments that increase their land and labor productivity.  Given the high incidence and depth of poverty in many African countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, the need for more domestically and internationally generated financial resources is unquestionable.  The persistent challenge for institutions working on poverty reduction, therefore, is to use whatever resources are made available in poverty-relevant sectors consistently, effectively, and judiciously. One way to do this is for policy makers to “walk the talk” regarding the fight against poverty and corruption at the same time.  Unless public statements about achieving the MDGs are accompanied by adequate resources, the achievement of the MDGs will take much longer.  The good thing is that both the national and international environment for combating poverty is more encouraging than ever. I strongly believe that in the coming years and decades, more and more resources allocated for work on poverty reduction will be used effectively. But we have to be vigilant on all fronts.

Question: Large infrastructure projects are considered by many experts as prerequisites for poverty reduction. Do you share this view?

Answer: Indeed, the role of infrastructure  in poverty reduction is quite significant. Clearly, a well-developed infrastructure is crucial not only for the promotion of broad-based and equitable growth but also for the timely and efficient delivery of essential social services to the poor, facilitation of regional integration,  and  creation of employment opportunities both within and across countries.

For instance, reduction in distances to schools, health services, water supply systems,  input and output markets for agricultural products, etc  have notable  and quantifiable impact on improvements in the welfare of the poor in rural areas in general and women in particular. I would alike to note that these issues are succinctly presented in the Bank’s Policy on Poverty Reduction. It is, however, important to link interventions in this sector to the demand and priorities expressed by the Bank's RMCs through their PRSPs and related development programs.  In other words, the Bank (or other development partners) does not have to lend for every major sector. But it should be knowledgeable about all sectors in a given country and this knowledge should inform its interventions and those of others to fight poverty in all its forms.

For instance, even if countries do not come to the Bank to borrow money for the education sector, the Bank should make sure that these countries and their development partners come to it for policy advice and depth  as well as breadth of knowledge on education.  After all, this is an era of a holistic approach to development. Accordingly, the Bank needs to be fully aware of the interrelationships, analytically, within and across sectors, even if it does not lend in every sector.  In this respect, the Bank’s ongoing effort to broaden as well as deepen its analytical capacity in economic and sector work and to become a knowledge institution is a welcome development.

Question: Do you have additional remarks regarding what you do at the Bank?

Answer: Yes.  Given this  opportunity, I would like to quote a remark by  a famous religious leader  named Hillel – I came across  this remark while reading Kenneth J. Arrow’s  (one of the two winners  of the Nobel Price for Economics in  1972)  philosophy of life.  Hillel, who lived many centuries ago, remarked:  “If I am not for myself who will?  If I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?  I believe the notion of individual responsibility, compassion, and immediate and positive action towards other human beings is embodied in this remark. This is also Kenneth Arrow’s view—that the basic element of a good society is the centrality of others. Amartya Sen (also a Nobel Price winner for his work on welfare economics  including poverty in 1998) and Adam Smith (the father of Modern Economics) have also devoted their lives to analyze what it takes to improve the lives of less fortunate citizens.  What is interesting about Amartya Sen and Adam Smith is that they are not only well known economists but also moral philosophers.  Last but not least, I concur with William J. Baumols’s (another eminent economist) remarks (a remark stated in his philosophy of life) that "there are few crimes more heinous than poverty".

It is, therefore, very clear to me that work on poverty reduction should be guided by a healthy dose of economic and moral considerations. If not, I am afraid the following passage in Leo Tolstoy’s book entitled "What Then Must We Do" (a book about poverty during his time) will apply to those who do not "walk the talk" regarding the ongoing fight against poverty:  "I sit on the neck of a man, and having crushed him down, compel him to carry me—though I assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his condition by every means necessary in my power—except by getting off his back".

It is very difficult to say - with absolute certainty - who is sitting on the necks of poor men and women, why, and for how long.  But the Bank and its development partners are and should be in a relatively better position to make all the necessary financial, intellectual, human, and "moral" resources available to ensure that the burden that is crushing the poor men and women of Africa down is removed immediately and permanently. And what are the elements of this burden? Chronic food insecurity, hunger, malnutrition, especially children and women; illiteracy; low labor and land productivity; gender based inequality, powerlessness, loss  of dignity at the present and  hope in the future, etc most of which are problems that  development agencies  should be  prepared  to address on a day to day basis.


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Speaker

Name: Hailu Mekonnen Title: AfDB’s Chief Poverty Reduction Specialist