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Inadequate welfare systems letting African poor down

Africa is a continent of extreme inequalities where the richest few enjoy privileges akin to the rich in the developed world while the majority poor lack basic infrastructure and services. The poorest citizens have lost memory of their last proper meal while the rich cannot define, let alone understand poverty. While poor people walk miles in search of water, rich people have big swimming pools in their backyards! The legacy of colonialism has been the skewed development that sees urban settlements with better infrastructure and services while rural areas have been deprived of basic facilities.

In apartheid South Africa and colonial Zimbabwe social policy was highly racialised with white citizens benefitting disproportionately from the welfare system in comparison to the rest of the population. During the same period, black Africans in rural areas were hardly cushioned from poverty while those in urban areas only received assistance as workers but not as citizens yet whites received full state protection from the hazards of poverty.

The advent of independence has brought very little respite for the majority black poor in rural areas, instead both absolute and relative poverty have increased and urban areas have experienced a steady increase in deprivation as has been a sharp rise in the white poor.

Of interest is how poor people are protected from the risk of their poverty; how effective the welfare systems are in ensuring the social security of citizens at risk such as the elderly people, the unemployed young people, women and children. I will discuss the welfare system in Africa, using some examples from but not limited to South Africa and Zimbabwe, particularly looking at how African governments are meeting their social responsibilities.

At which point is a person categorised as poor or how do we define poverty? Perceptions of poverty vary across the globe due to different social, cultural and economic norms and values which make the concept increasingly difficult to measure. However, to enable a feasible working framework on poverty alleviation attempts have to be made to reach some relative consensus in our perception of poverty.

There are two perspectives of poverty: the economic and the human development notion. In monetary terms, poverty is viewed as simply falling below a certain income threshold; some consider an annual income less than half the average income in a country as being insufficient to sustain a decent living. The UN defines all people who live under US$1 a day as being poor (Kaumen, 2006). Along the same lines, the World Bank’s definition states that

A person is considered poor if his or her income level falls below some minimum level [poverty line] necessary to meet basic needs…What is necessary varies across time and societies. Therefore poverty lines vary in time and place, and each country uses lines which are appropriate to its level of development, societal norms and values

World Bank

The two definitions are fairly good working definitions in so far as they highlight the almost universally accepted importance of income in meeting people’s needs although the UN does not take into consideration the inflation variations in time and place, US$1 does not buy much in Zimbabwe today, for instance, hence the need to re-examine the UN economic definition of poverty, perhaps raising the US$1 threshold. The economic bias in defining poverty is deficient in that it somehow measures human welfare in monetary terms only thereby giving too much credence to material possession yet neglecting the person.

The human development element of poverty considers poverty as being the deprivation of those opportunities and choices that are essential for a long healthy life, freedom, dignity and decent standard of living (Kaumen, 2006). An even more detailed definition is offered by the Scottish Poverty Information Unit who point out that

People live in poverty when they are denied an income sufficient for their needs and when these circumstances exclude them from taking part in activities which are an accepted part of daily life in that society.

Scottish Poverty Information Unit

The Scottish Poverty Information Unit looks further than just physical needs but also the social participation of members in the various activities within their community. The definition looks at the social impact of poverty on the individual which may include effective exclusion from the mainstream society for example children not attending school and adults without proper housing provision. I believe the human development dimension to poverty is more useful in that it focuses on people’s life opportunities and the impact that material deficiencies may have on their overall wellbeing.

The human development index (HDI) focuses mainly on the conditions experienced by humans rather than their economic wealth which does not necessarily give an insight into their general wellbeing. The HDI also accommodates the varying norms and values due to cultural and social differences in the world meaning that individual governments strive to meet their locally defined basic social needs over and above those prescribed by various international governing bodies.

Whenever poverty is discussed the concept of welfare is the natural companion. In this article ‘welfare’ is defined as the

provision of services to meet some of the basic social needs of citizens, including needs of food, shelter, health, education for all and additional care for vulnerable adults and children

Alcock and Craig, 2001 p1

There are various ways by which the basic needs are met including the active participation of the state (welfare state), charity both local and international, extended family network, donor agency and other non-governmental organisations. The active involvement of the state in assisting its citizens invokes the concept of the welfare state that Sandmo (1995) in Pestieau (2006 p4) describes as that

subsection of the public sector, concerned with redistribution…and the provision of those social goods which have a strong redistributive element, like health care and education.

Sandmo, 1995

In short, the welfare system refers to the various, often interconnected, activities carried out by the state, private organisations and individuals and other interested parties with the objective of delivering defined basic social needs to less fortunate people. Basic needs are not necessarily universal hence different societies will at different times require specific assistance dependent on their specific circumstances of which the population demography and the level of development are significant.

Furthermore, the way the needs are met is a historical and socio-cultural manifestation as much as it is a function of the economic ability and political will of the providers. For most of African governments the task at independence was to redress the apparent racial imbalances in the provision of services as such, the focus has been or should have been on developing rural areas and adopting truly inclusive welfare systems. It is for this reason that affirmative action has been central in major government programmes namely, health and education.

Supporting the less fortunate is an integral part of African societal existence. Even before the introduction of formal welfare systems Africans helped each other in various ways, for instance Kings sanctioned the use of some of the loot from raids to support the poor and cows could be loaned from the rich to the poor people. In some communities, fields under the jurisdiction of a chief were collectively ploughed and yields reserved for such contingencies as drought and feeding destitute members.

Today communities are still dependent on that form of welfare where the family, neighbours, good neighbourliness and reciprocity are vital. Members must be willing to help and participate in communal activities if they are to receive any help in time of distress.

There are many well-coordinated voluntary activities carried out by communities to help people living with AIDS and the elderly members whose immediate families may not be living in the locality to offer help. More striking is the innovative presence of non-formal credit schemes that offer favourable credit lines to members and at times to non-members at a relatively higher interest rate.

The schemes or clubs (Zimbabwe) or societies (South Africa) vary in size while membership is open to all members of the communities who can afford the nominal monthly fees and they not only offer credit but also play an important role in paying for funeral costs, and buying groceries which are shared amongst members at the end of the year.

Welfare support is by no means an alien concept in the African society what is perhaps a relative novelty is the involvement of the modern state. The commitment to welfare systems varies across governments in Africa. In South Africa, social security is a constitutional right for all citizens. Chapter 2(27) of the bill of rights notes that

‘Everyone has the right to have access to…(c) social security…(2) The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of each of these rights’.

Chapter 2(27) of the bill of rights, South Africa

In the early 1980s Zimbabwe provided universal free education and primary healthcare service but a stagnation and later contraction of the economy in the late 1980s and 1990s, respectively and the consequent economic structural adjustment programme caused massive cuts on public spending. That led to the adoption of the 1998 Social Welfare Act that provides limited public assistance to destitute persons incapable of work and to elderly people aged 65 years and above through the Department of Social Welfare.

Although still theoretically available, the Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM) now hardly offers any help to deserving Zimbabwean school children. Also cuts in government funding have led to local authorities charging fees for healthcare.

Botswana on the other hand provides comprehensive support to elderly people, disabled people and all orphans aged below 18. It will not be an exaggeration to suggest that in most African states welfare is not particularly a constitutional obligation. Even the most comprehensive South African bill of rights notes that the state ‘must take reasonable legislative and other measures…to achieve progressive realisation of each of these rights’ What constitutes reasonable measures and does that mean the state can withdraw any form of help at its discretion?

Although people in formal employment command better and often more reliable pension part funded by companies with the workers contributing the rest during their service, most citizens are reliant on relatives, neighbours, charitable organisations and the state for welfare support. For most African governments, the challenge is meeting the present and future needs of the young population. The demography is characterised by a very large proportion of children aged 14 years and below thus the governments prioritise education and health but the welfare systems often fall short of what one may consider as reasonable social security.

The South African social security system is the envy of many in Africa in that it includes a wider category of potential recipients such as elderly people, disabled people; it targets specific groups such as women and children in rural areas who are more exposed to poverty due to the historic imbalances in development and welfare provision. Limited assistance is offered for foster parents but none for adoptive parents yet. Botswana also offers a wide range of welfare services through its various departments to an equally wider interest group.

However, in Zimbabwe very limited help is offered to elderly people, pregnant women and mothers of very young children. Zimbabwe has also taken a rather unusual, if not illegal approach to welfare by taking over land owned by the mainly white commercial farmers to resettle black peasant farmers. In the process, white citizens and the mainly black former labourers have been left destitute with no support from the state. This raises yet another question: has the affirmative action been carried far enough or too far?

Many black people are still jobless and whites in Africa have been systematically excluded in the job market especially in the public sector in an attempt to redress past imbalances. Is it justifiable that young white people are denied opportunities because of historical conditions for which they had no contribution?

Welfare provision in Africa is best described as welfare mix as it comprises the state, churches, local communities and charitable organisations, both local and internationally funded. In all African countries citizens are expected to take care of themselves first and use the state as the last resort. This raises the fundamental moral question of how much of the welfare burden should the state shoulder and how much should be the citizens’ responsibility? How poor should an individual be before state intervention is deemed necessary?

I believe African states should define poverty within their context and draw clear legislation that will oblige the state to help those who fit within that definition irrespective of the perceived ability or preparedness of their communities to help. Young unemployed people should be considered for help.  A system based on diffusion of responsibility lacks accountability and is hardly of benefit to the target groups that it purports to care about. Surely governments cannot work on the assumption that some unknown benefactor will assist the needy.

Looking at the welfare systems in Africa, it is quite apparent that there is a gap in government assistance. Young people who have never been employed do not qualify for state help yet it is not their choice to be jobless. The same applies to retrenched workers whose pensions run out; they do not receive any assistance until they reach their pensionable age that is 60 and 65 years for women and men, respectively.

The lack of social cover for young people leads to an abnormal distributive dimension of elderly and disabled people’s pensions in that the money is eventually used to maintain households (often three generational) on top of qualifying individuals. The impact that that has on the wellbeing of the official recipients has yet to be studied but one would assume the thinly spread payouts do not meet the needs of individuals as envisaged by the state. For payments to be of significant value to the beneficiaries, it might be imperative to factor in the size of the household when paying out pensions.

The African family setup is very different from the nuclear Western European families hence African governments will have to come up with unorthodox ways of calculating elderly and disabled people’s pensions. Clearly the current one size fits all is neither fair nor an efficient way of using public funds: some people maybe overpaid while others are grossly underpaid depending on the socioeconomic standing of their household.

There are other major problems with the implementation of social security policies not least the poor publicity, poor service offered by civil servants, unnecessary bureaucracy, corruption and the politicisation of the system. A welfare system is only as good as its effectiveness and fairness as perceived by the target population; good publicity is vital to ensure all citizens benefit. However, it would appear governments are bent on making savings through poorly publicising welfare services so as to keep claims relatively low. Many qualifying people lack the knowledge to make their cases for state benefits.

For those with a know-how of the welfare system, the experience at the hands of discourteous civil servants can be off putting as is the bureaucracy. Corruption is also rampant due to the lack of clarity and consistency in the implementation of welfare programmes. For instance, assessment of individuals can be done by any one of social workers, head teachers, local councillors and any influential local politicians. This leads to a duplication of duties and inefficiency within the system as decisions can be revised any moment.

Perhaps the most serious problem is the politicisation of welfare by some governments, the best example being Zimbabwe. Deserving people can be denied help due to their political allegiance as is evidenced by the unfair land redistribution programme that has seen white citizens forced out of the land and supporters of the ruling party being the main beneficiaries.

There is a dilemma for African states that are on the one hand being forced to pursue market-based economies (that naturally discourage increases in public spending) yet on the other hand growing poverty dictates that spending on welfare programmes should be a logical course of action. I also believe the burgeoning debt and unfair global trade rules hamper local industrial growth and the full participation of African states in the global economy.

The result is large scale industrial collapse, dwindling foreign currency earnings and massive unemployment, in other words the welfare case is increasing yet the financial ability of the state to cope is decreasing. For most states, the challenge is not only how to distribute resources but also what to distribute. However, I still believe African governments have an obligation towards the poor members of the society and if priorities are shifted from military spending to social investment poverty can be alleviated in Africa.

Decentralisation of welfare services to local authorities with the central government playing an overseer role can greatly improve efficiency and save financial wastage within the system. Local governments should, if possible, seek to work within existing traditional forms of welfare making appropriate adjustments to meet contemporary needs. For instance, legislation can be drawn in which community informal credit schemes are formalised and have access to low interest bank loans with the government acting as a guarantor. 

Ideally some members could be trained in basic financial management and accounting with the local authorities providing auditing services.  In turn the community-based creditors will make credit available to their members.

What I see as an advantage of these community run credit schemes is that membership is open to all residents regardless of political affiliation thereby playing an important role in reaffirming community social cohesion. Another significant advantage is that credit is made accessible to people who would otherwise not be accepted by formal banks, these may include unemployed young people wanting to start income generating projects or existing irrigation projects in rural areas in need of new equipment.

Churches and voluntary organisations have always played an important role in providing for the poor, governments should provide grants and make regulations for seeking additional local and foreign funding easier. Private sector participation in social provision is another avenue that can be pursued by offering tax incentives. There are also opportunities in promoting voluntary work and using that to train and retrain young people and retrenched older people in new skills that keep people relevant to both the job market and the social life of their communities.

This article has highlighted a disturbing lack of social security for the majority of the population although most states do attempt to provide for elderly people. I believe African governments need to review their welfare systems and consider decentralisation of services to improve both efficiency and accessibility. The welfare system should be seen as an ongoing but temporary measure to help poor people achieve long term independence. The current exclusion of young unemployed people from the welfare system is morally wrong and unjustifiable in the context where the job market is contracting giving young people limited choices within the formal sector.


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