COVID-19 has pushed extreme poverty numbers in Africa to over half a billion

By Baldwin Tong, PhD candidate, MODUL University Vienna, Department of Sustainability, Governance, and Methods

This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.

The global economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a large setback of the international community’s goal to achieve SDG 1 of “no poverty” by 2030. Extreme poverty around the world is increasing, the first time that has happened this century after decades of global poverty reduction. Over 700 million people worldwide are currently estimated to be living in extreme poverty. Global poverty headline numbers have therefore returned to approximately 2015 levels meaning that the world has lost almost 5 years in its effort to end extreme poverty due in large part to COVID-19. The following analysis is based on data from the World Poverty Clock.

Over 70% of global poverty is in African countries

While poverty rates had been slowly increasing on the continent since the beginning of the SDG period (less than 1% in the previous 2 years), from 2019-2020, the number of people living in extreme poverty in Africa is projected to jump by approximately 8% to nearly 520 million Africans. This is around 40% of the entire population of 1.3 billion on the continent. 

African countries that are projected to experience the highest increases in extreme poverty in 2020 are Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Poverty is expected to increase by nearly 13 million people in Nigeria, pushing the total estimated number of Nigerians living in extreme poverty to over 105 million which is over half of the 205 million population. The increase in the DRC in 2020 is projected to be nearly 4 million, pushing the total number of people living in extreme poverty to 66 million. This means that with a current population of almost 90 million, around 3 out of every 4 Congolese in the DRC are living in extreme poverty. 

Source: World Poverty Clock

The other countries that are expected to see the highest increases in extreme poverty in Africa such as Sudan and Angola will see much smaller overall increases (1.5 million or less), however, cumulatively, the ten Sub-Saharan African countries found in the chart represent over 40% of the increase in extreme poverty worldwide this year.

COVID-19 has caused a great deal of economic uncertainty throughout the world. Millions of Africans who were on the lower rungs of the middle class have seen their incomes plummet due to rapidly vanishing jobs and a lack of social security. As a result, millions of people from this group are being pushed back into poverty. Recent estimates indicate that the number could be around eight million. Regions that were already economically vulnerable pre-pandemic are now in need of more targeted support from the international community to ensure a sustainable and inclusive recovery in the coming years.

A big step backwards to start the new decade

How will Africa recover? The next year is expected to be as challenging as the start to the new decade. While extreme poverty is forecasted to increase by another 2% on the continent next year, the good news is that this is expected to be the peak. Poverty reduction is projected to start in 2022 but is expected to be slow at first. However, the poverty escape rate will start to speed up around 2025 and barring other serious global or regional events, this trend will continue until the end of the decade. But, by 2030, around 495 million Africans are projected to still be living in extreme poverty.

Given the global setback due to COVID-19, the achievement of SDG 1 by the end of this decade now seems more unlikely than ever before, especially in Africa. If current trends remain the same, nearly all Sub-Saharan African countries will fall short of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 with the notable exception of Mauritania and Gabon. However, there are signs that economic activity is returning in certain parts of the world. While the expected speed of the recovery is still unknown, especially as many countries are currently going through a second wave of COVID-19 infections, it is important that the global community ensures that the economic recovery prioritises inclusive growth which accelerates poverty reduction. Only then will the world have a chance at eradicating extreme poverty by the end of this decade.