Why poverty eradication is Rwanda's new liberation war

In a month when Rwanda is marking twenty one years since the liberation victory that ended the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, the World Bank (WB) on Wednesday also made public its latest poverty assessment report covering the period between 2001 and 2011.
Cows for Girinka Project arrive at Kigali International Airport in November 2011. The cows were distributed to households so as to fight poverty. (File)
Cows for Girinka Project arrive at Kigali International Airport in November 2011. The cows were distributed to households so as to fight poverty. (File)

In a month when Rwanda is marking twenty one years since the liberation victory that ended the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, the World Bank (WB) on Wednesday also made public its latest poverty assessment report covering the period between 2001 and 2011.

The last such assessment was conducted in 1997, just three years after liberation; Rwanda then, was characterized by deep and widespread poverty, rock bottom health indicators, pervasive hunger and food insecurity.

If the Rwanda of 1997 met that of 2015, the two would never recognise each other; possibly, the later would be speeding away in a sleek Mercedez-Benz only to spot the former under a shade by the roadside, looking sickly, weak and hungry.

With compassion, Rwanda2015 would slowdown, roll-down the windscreen and offer some compassion to Rwanda 1997; relief is what most people needed then. Not anymore today.

Rwanda is the true definition of transformative economic growth and the World Bank which has witnessed that journey, as a vital development partner, acknowledges in chapter one of its report that the period under review was indeed a ‘decade of poverty reduction.’

Clearly, after ending the Genocide, the next phase of war was to liberate Rwandans from the consequences of war which included poverty.

Nonetheless, the poverty assessment report underlines that although the government has won numerous battles against poverty, more efforts are required to win the war.

What’s poverty in Rwanda’s context?

There’s a major difference between Rwanda’s frugal national poverty line and the generic international $1.25 a day standard.

According to the national poverty line, Rwanda’s poor population is 45 percent; the international yardstick puts that figure at 63 percent.

That’s because to measure the incidence of poverty, Rwanda uses a customised absolute poverty line based on the minimum food consumption basket that offers the required number of calories for a Rwandan adult involved in physically demanding work.

Based on that formula, an adult Rwandan should consume at least 2500 calories per day; the cost of those calories in money terms forms Rwanda’s food poverty line also regarded as extreme poverty line.

An adult who can’t afford those calories per day is regarded as extremely poor and that population currently forms 24 percent of the total poor, not 45 percent.

Most poverty economists commend Rwanda’s formula as more frugal, given that it looks at food, the most important basic human need and an individual’s capacity to afford the cost, which directly relates to income.

Rwanda’s food poverty line amounts to Rwf83,000 per adult per year based on 2011 food prices which was the equivalent of US$0.68 per adult per day.

When amplified with an allowance with basic non-food consumption, the overall poverty line shifts to Rwf118,000 annually or US$0.96 per adult per day. In other words, ‘poor’ means a Rwandan household where each adult spends less than $0.96 daily.

The most recent national living standards survey found that in 2010/2011, 45 percent of Rwanda’s population lived below the national poverty line, 24 percent considered extremely poor (living below the national food poverty line).

The poverty map

The assessment report provides a snapshot of poverty in Rwanda which indicates that the South-Western part of the country is most vulnerable with five districts in that part of the country having poverty rates ranging from 60 percent to 73 percent.

The report suggests that the poverty line in those five districts allegedly forms 23 percent of Rwanda’s total poor population.

Poverty is lowest in Kigali’s three districts of Kicukiro, Nyarugenge and Gasabo with rates ranging between eight and 26 percent; and the three districts of North-Western part of the county with rates between 20 and 35 percent.

The Northern Province district of Gicumbi, though not among the poorest in terms of poverty rates, the study found, accounts for the single largest number of poor people mainly because of its huge population size.

Rwanda’s poverty map isn’t very different from other countries’; the rural areas tend to be the most vulnerable.

For instance, half of the country’s rural population lives below the poverty line compared to 22 percent of the urban population, the report says.

More than 90 percent of Rwanda’s poor population lives in the rural areas and the rural-urban ratio of poverty was found to be corresponding to the capital city vs. the rest of the country divide.

“Outside the capital city of Kigali, poverty is invariably high, ranging from 43 percent in the Northern and Eastern Provinces to 57 percent in the Southern region,” the report notes.

Poverty & education

The study found a close link between poverty and education levels; that was unsurprising. According to the report, lack of education is one of the most salient features of the poor.

Only 20 percent of the heads of poor households completed primary school education and less than 4 percent attained at least some level of secondary school education.

“Education beyond Primary School seems to have the highest correlation with poverty; the headcount among households whose head completed primary school is still high at 42 percent but drops sharply to 20 percent if the head attended a few years of secondary school,” According to the report.

In fact the study found that only 5 percent of households with a head who completed secondary education are poor sending a clear signal that education is the key out of poverty.

Without an education to equip them with technical skills for other forms of employment, 80 percent of the poor households have a main occupation in Agriculture either in subsistence farming or farm labourers working for a small wage.

An interesting finding in the World Bank’s poverty assessment report is that households closer to a land border are significantly better off.

“Households living in districts that border another country are less likely to be poor, such households have higher consumption levels,” the study found.

For instance rural households living closer to Rwanda’s border with DRC have a consumption level of 22 percent higher than comparable households living in other districts within the same province.

Also interesting is the study’s finding that female headed households in Rwanda are not at risk of poverty.

Defeating poverty

Between 2001 and 2011, Rwanda experienced a strong episode of growth which resulted into poverty reductions; the report notes that the driver behind that evolution was an increase in agriculture production which boosted incomes and household consumption.

Agriculture’s GDP share reduced from 45 percent in 2001 to 34 percent in 2011, but the sector remains the main occupation for at least 70 percent of the country’s working labour force, the report notes.

That makes agriculture the most important sector where government efforts to eradicate poverty can earn most returns, especially through improved productivity and a move away from subsistence to give way for commercial practice.

The report especially commends the contribution by Rwanda’s poverty reduction strategy regime from 2001 to 2005 and the economic development and poverty reduction strategy between 2007 and 2012 which helped reduce poverty levels to 45 percent.

EDPRS2 is now in its second phase and it intends to further drag down poverty levels through 13 social protection programmes including Ubudehe and Girinka that directly benefit the poor.