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How limited is Western knowledge concerning poverty in Africa?

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Words bSiobhán O’Toole

Dr Michael Kwame Dzeamesi posed this question to his audience this Wednesday afternoon through his informative and thought-provoking seminars and discussions on, ‘How Africans Define Poverty’, and ‘Political culture and Democratic Governance in Africa’. Dr Dzeamesi aimed and succeeded to highlight the realities of poverty in Africa, and the difficulties concerning our definition of this ambiguous term.

Despite the vast amounts of advertising and charitable fundraising by organisations such as UNICEF and Oxfam, and biennial British telethons such as, Comic Relief and Sport Relief, much of the western world remains ignorant regarding poverty in Africa, including the causes and subsequent effects of this upon real people. Professor Peter Barberis, a Departmental MA Co-ordinator in the Politics and Philosophy department, noted that it was a great ‘pity’ that we had not experienced a thorough talk on Africa over the past year, and that he was ‘very grateful’ for Dr Dzeamesi ‘repairing that definciency’. This feeling seemed shared by the event’s nodding and smiling audience, which included Dr Janet Mather, a Principal Lecturer and Programme Leader of the same department, who attended along with her third-year Politics students.

The initial seminar on the difficulties of defining poverty was part of a three-hour event, an ‘African Afternoon’ held in the Geoffrey Manton building, and was followed by a fascinating discussion spearheaded by third year Politics students, who focused upon their in-depth research on differing African states and their individual relation to poverty.  The event dedicated its last segment to Dr Dzeamesi’s own research in the form of an academic staff and student research seminar, which delved into the controversial topic of ‘Political Culture and Democratic Governance in Africa’.

Dr Dzeamesi, who has a PhD in Foreign Policy and Conflict in Africa from the University of Lancaster, jolted his educative discussion with an invigorating exploration of poverty as an extremely ‘complicated and elusive concept’; Dr Dzeamesi noted that it is regarded ‘much too simply’, not only here in the West, but also among Africans themselves. The definition of poverty shifts depending on the area and a family’s individual circumstances and cultural beliefs. In rural areas of Africa the cost of living is much less compared to the urban, however, 70% of Africans live rurally and they constitute the people who are the most impoverished; therefore, it is extremely difficult to understand poverty on a large scale without looking at individuals and their experiences. In addition, it is important to consider differing perceptions of poverty, as Dr Dzeamesi pointed out, whilst we in the west equate wealth to the possession of material things, many if not most Africans do so through the possession of cattle; in the north, or bands of maize (corn) in the south, for example.

In order to convey individual experiences of poverty, Dr Dzeamesi introduced us to a 2003 case study of which he was involved, in southeast Ghana (his home country), which focused on ‘village-level research on poverty and hunger alleviation’. The research identified, through close work with the local people, three categories of poverty. The three categories included people ranging from those who could afford to eat twice a day, to those who were not guaranteed a meal and whose survival was reliant on the kindness of others (most people included in the study struggled to send their children to school). Despite some individuals viewing others in the village as rich because they could manage one meal a day, all participants, when asked what they thought of poverty, answered that it was a lack of satisfaction from basic human needs, such as: water, food, sanitation, housing and medical care, including people who were dependent on others for survival. 

Following this discussion on the significance of a lack of basic human needs—and relative poverty—in regards to the causes of  insufficiency,  third year Politics students divulged their  fascinating, independent research on African countries such as: Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Uganda, Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa and Mali. Their work revealed differing causes of poverty in Africa, with one student noting that ‘corruption massively affects poverty’, while another disclosed that, ‘too much reliance on one commodity’, such as cocoa, can significantly affect impoverished communities.

The event was indeed captivating and inspiring, Wasim Ahmed, a second year student of Geography and International Politics found the event ‘stimulating and extremely helpful’ in regards to his current studies and interests, as did I. Dr Dzeamesi, Dr Janet Mather and her Politics students certainly challenged us and asked the probing question, how much do we know, or want to know, about poverty in Africa?  

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