Social Upheaval and the Structure of Poverty in Africa

Beyond the speculation on whether social unrest will spread to other nations in the Arab world lies the fact that some 40 percent of the Egyptian population lives on less than two dollars a day.
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Amid the non-stop political news about the social uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, one item in the background of news consciousness strikes a chord. Beyond the reporting on massive demonstrations in Tunis and Cairo calling for the end of authoritarian rule, beyond the speculation on whether social unrest will spread to other nations in the Arab world, lies the fact that some 40 percent of the Egyptian population lives on less than two dollars a day.

What does it mean to live on less than two dollars a day? Most North Americans and Europeans know little about poverty in their own nations, let alone about the dire conditions in North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. Journalists and celebrities swoop into crisis zones and report on famine and the daily struggle to survive. While these images raise consciousness--as well as some much needed funding--they only scratch the surface of social life in places like Egypt, Tunisia and the nations of sub-Saharan Africa where the specter of entrenched poverty is the norm rather than the exception.

So what does it mean to live on less than two dollars a day? Because I've never lived in Egypt or Tunisia, I cannot speak to the social conditions in those countries. But I have lived in the Republic of Niger, the poorest nation in the world, where I spent seven years working as anthropologist who lived in rural villages in which people lived on one dollar a day.

Here's what its like for someone in Africa living on one or two dollars a day. You live either in a mud brick house with a dirt floor or a straw hut with dirt or sand floor. There is no heat for cold nights and certainly no air-conditioning for hot days. You have no running water and no indoor plumbing. Water for drinking, cooking or cleaning has to be fetched from a neighborhood well or from a stream. More often than not, the water is not fit to drink, but you have no choice, which means that you and your children suffer frequently from gastrointestinal diseases. Your toilet is a hole dug in your compound. If you live on the outskirts of town, you relieve yourself in the unoccupied bush. Breakfast is warmed up leftovers from the evening meal. During lean months when the food that you grew begins to run out, you may have skip lunch. Dinner consists of mush made of grain--millet, sorghum, or, if you're lucky rice. Getting to eat one chunk of meat is a luxury. Your children are frequently hungry. You have little if any medical care and so you and your children have to live with or die from intestinal parasites, skin infections, or upper and lower respiratory infections. If that's not enough, you probably have suffered from malaria and someone in your family is probably infected with HIV/AIDS. You are illiterate and while some of your children attend primary school and learn to read and write, dire economic necessity forces you to take them out of school and put them to work in the household or in the fields. This self-repeating cycle creates a system, a structure of poverty-- in which people die unnecessarily simply because they are poor.

If these long entrenched conditions are so dire, why has it taken "the people" so long to rebel against the authoritarian regimes that oppress them by reinforcing structures of poverty? There is no simple answer to this fundamental question. When I first lived in Niger more than 40 years ago, the living conditions shocked my sheltered North American sensibilities. Even so, I found Nigeriens living on one dollar a day to be surprisingly resilient. Heath care was insufficient. Water was sometimes in short supply. And yet, people somehow got on with their lives. In subsequent years, I have witnessed a continuous decline in the quality of life in Niger. Global dynamics has made it harder and harder for people to live in places like Niger, Tunisia or Egypt. Perhaps conditions have deteriorated so much that the aforementioned reservoirs of resilience have dried up, which means that people have at long last reached a tipping point at which they are compelled to take to the streets and call for substantive change.

Regime change alone will not solve the social and economic conditions that have fueled the social uprisings in North Africa. When present and future leaders in North and sub-Saharan Africa begin to listen to the poor and respect their resilience, when they understand what it means to live on less than two dollars a day, then and only then will the poor begin to see their lives improve.

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