Inequalities in sub-Saharan Africa: what role for social policy

An interview with Jimi Adesina


Holder of the South African Research Chair in Social Policy at the University of South Africa, Professor Jimi O. Adesina discusses the dimensions of inequality and social policy solutions in sub-Saharan Africa in this interview with the Inclusive Policy Lab. You can read his article, Inequality in sub-Saharan Africa:  dimensions and drivers, in the World Social Science Report 2016 here.
Could you walk us through the progression of inequalities in sub-Saharan Africa over the last two decades? Why are they pressing and where are they taking us, if they remain unchecked?
Adesina: It may be better to take a much longer view of the trend in inequality than the last twenty years. Such a longer view will reveal the underlining factors that are driving inequality, globally and in sub-Saharan Africa, specifically. The leading factors that precipitated the resurgence in levels of economic inequality were the rolling back of an earlier regime of highly progressive taxation coupled with the active role of public authorities in social investment and social transfer; in other words, active and progressive social policy regimes.

If we restrict our horizon to the last twenty years, using household consumption data, four trends are evident. We now have countries with rising levels of economic inequality, countries with an inverted ‘U’ shape in their inequality trend, those with ‘U’ shaped inequality trend, and still others with declining trend of economic inequality. What we know, of course, is that consumption data tends to underestimate levels of inequality. Once we shift the focus to wealth inequality, the picture becomes abysmal in several countries. The wealth Gini Index for South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Nigeria is between 81.4 and 84.0.

In sub-Saharan Africa, what Frances Stewart [1] refers to as horizontal inequality – i.e., group inequalities – is as important as individual and household inequality, if not more… Both in its vertical (individual) and horizontal (group) dimensions, heightened levels of inequality are major sources of social instability. The level of state fragility that we see in many countries in the region undermines the prospects for economic development and social cohesion. High levels of inequality tend to coincide with high levels of poverty and precarity for the majority in many of our countries. These become explosive when they are the defining elements of horizontal inequality. Reducing the currently high levels of inequality is as important as tackling the crises of poverty and lack of structural transformation of the economy.
While critical, you point to the fact that the income and wealth dimension should not be approached in isolation. Why are the rest of the dimensions important?
Adesina: Income and wealth inequality are important dimensions of inequality, but the problem with viewing them in isolation, analytically and in policy terms, is that we will miss their entanglement with other dimensions of inequality: racial, ethnic, gender, religious, and class or in terms of education and health outcomes, among others. In the absence of the moderating impact of public authorities’ delivery of social services and addressing horizontal inequality, reliance on market forces tends to exacerbate the effect of economic inequality. In a country like Nigeria, a child from the poorest quintile was twenty-three times less likely to have attended school than a child from the richest quintile. Similarly, the key drivers of health inequality are wealth inequality and the mother’s level of education—which is itself implicated in wealth inequality. The toxic effect of compounded multi-dimensional inequality is that it is socially corrosive. It undermines social cohesion, undermines trust in public institutions, and weakens the bond between the state and its citizens… Addressing inequality starts with understanding its multi-dimensional nature.

Based on your analysis, what shifts in social policy would you then advocate for to reduce inequalities in sub-Saharan Africa? What has succeeded, and what do you think should be replicated or taken further as promising agendas?

Adesina: The idea that social policy instruments can be used to mop-up the diswelfares of economic policies focused on possessive individualism does not work… What is required in sub-Saharan Africa is a conception of social policy that works in tandem with economic policy. A commitment to the principles of solidarity and equality is important in reducing inequality and poverty and advancing economic development.
And there are examples of different aspects of this… Tanzania’s success as a nation-building project is associated with its deliberate use of social policy instruments and greater emphasis on equality. The design of education provision—moving children from one part of the country for their secondary education in other parts of the country, along with public-provisioning—has been a central component of a slew of policy instruments designed to build social cohesion… Deliberate emphasis on public health campaign, provision, and immunization campaign has meant that immunization coverage in Rwanda is close to 99%. Public provisioning of education, with a focus on universal coverage that includes the middle class, was central in many African countries, after independence, in ensuring human capacity development, social mobility, and enhancing cohesion.

Social policy worked in much of the post-War Global North not because it ‘gave money to the poor’ but because it combined progressive taxation with social investment and social transfer. In the better performing countries, it involved concerted efforts to keep economic and social policies in tandem, rather than for social policy to serve as the mopping-up device for the diswelfares of economic activities; it involved a focus on social investment driven by robust public institutions.

The answer to the future of reduced inequality is available in our past. What we need is the ideational and policy nerve to apprehend it.
What would you say has failed as a social policy response to inequalities in the region?
Adesina: We know that the orthodox neo-liberal mantra of ‘getting the price right’ and rolling back the state did not work and has been a disaster for sub-Saharan Africa. Poverty worsened, and inequality was exacerbated in the region. Extensive social dislocations deepened rural and urban precarity. The depletion of public investment in health and educational institutions meant that the Middle Class and the wealthy abandoned public institutions for private ones or sought services abroad.

However, in spite of the return of poverty and inequality to the policy agenda, there has not been a commensurate ideational and policy nerve to learn from what worked in the past, not only globally but in Africa as well, and re-orientate public efforts in that direction. The dominant policy agenda remains by-and-large market-oriented. Health care provision efforts have, more often than not, been about expanding the market in financing and provision. The same applies to education services. Response to poverty remains largely focused on extreme poverty with cash transfer regimes that deliver fairly paltry amounts to its beneficiaries. Yet, this drive to ‘just give cash to the poor’ is driven by external actors with little or no evidence that this is what the poor prefer.

Social policy is important for addressing vertical and horizontal inequalities or poverty, but not just any social policy. In the context of such widespread issues, social policy should be concerned as much with raising the productive capacity of the people as it is about redistribution. In the context of horizontal inequality, social policy should be concerned with enhancing social cohesion or nation-building tasks.
-          Jimi Adesina is a professor at the College of Graduate Studies, University of South Africa and holder of the South African Research Chair in Social Policy. The South African National Research Foundation supports his work.
This interview has been edited for this platform.
The author is responsible for the facts contained in the article and the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the Organization.
[1] Stewart, F. (2016) Horizontal Inequalities in World Social Science Report 2016, Challenging Inequalities: Pathways to a Just World, UNESCO Publishing, Paris. Accessible at: