Drawing lessons from China’s poverty alleviation strategies for African countries

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In Africa, poverty is a key concern as one in every three people is living in extreme poverty, constituting 70% of the world’s poor, according to data from The Brookings Institution. 

The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living on less than $1.90 a day, or about $700 per year. However, one humanitarian aid organization argues that poverty is not strictly about measuring household income, income inequality or the need for economic growth. Rather, poverty is about the fact that millions sleep hungry, there is a lack of access to clean water, shelter and healthcare. 

Living on the very edge of existence in this way means that:

  • Extreme poverty leads to hunger. According to a report on human development published by the United Nations (UN), more than a quarter of the hungry in the world live on the African continent. One-fifth of people living in Africa are considered malnourished, giving the continent the highest rate of malnourished people worldwide.  
  • Extreme poverty means that the average life expectancy of the population is decreasing and the number of orphans is increasing. Loss of labor is noticeable in agriculture and leads to reduced food production.
  • Due to chronic malnutrition, many African children suffer from growth disorders such as stunting causing physical and mental underdevelopment in children.

If nothing is done to change the situation, the World Bank estimates that by 2030, nearly 90 percent of the world’s poor will be living in Africa. This is worrisome because the year 2030 is also the United Nation’s deadline for eliminating poverty in all forms in line with its Sustainable Development Goals.

However, as far as poverty reduction is concerned, Africa can look to China as a source of inspiration as just two months ago the country declared victory over extreme poverty.  China is a good benchmark for Africa as the country was at the same level of development as Africa in the 1970s but is now the world’s second-largest economy. 

China announced that it was able to lift 800 million people out of extreme poverty following the painstaking implementation of carefully designed, decades-long poverty reduction programs. 

According to Xinhua, since the start of reform and opening-up in 1978, China has adjusted the standard for absolute poverty several times to keep it in line with the country’s social and economic development.  China’s current threshold for extreme poverty amounts to $1.69 a day at current exchange rates, 21 cents-a-day less than compared to the World Bank’s global threshold of $1.90. 

“For more than 40 years, I’ve worked in counties, cities, provinces and the central government of China. Poverty alleviation has always been a vital part of my work and I devoted most of my vigor to it,” Chinese President Xi Jinping once said as he embarked on poverty reduction efforts.

One African country hoping to follow China’s footsteps and eradicate poverty within its borders is Kenya. The East African country hopes to make the leap forward and aims to lift 3.5 million of its citizens out of poverty by 2030.  Kenya hopes to reduce the percentage of its people in extreme poverty from 20.9 percent to 4.3 percent, according to Brookings Institution. 

China had set a goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2020, and the country’s leaders did not back down from the goal. One county on the road to poverty eradication within the country is Meru county. Through the leadership of Governor Kiraitu Murungi, the county has embarked on a plan to eradicate poverty.

Governor of Meru County, Kiraitu Murungi

Governor Murungi says that before any strategies and policies are set up, the mindset of the people must change.  

“I think the biggest problem as far as the fight against poverty is concerned is a psychological one, we need to decolonise the minds of our people from poverty because for many years people were used to a culture of handouts, the culture of being given, a lot of people expect free things” 

“A mere election of a leader will not pull people out of poverty. The leader has to work with the people and develop the strategies which will remove them from poverty,” he said. 

Agriculture

Agriculture has been the backbone of the country for the last 50 years, but outdated farming methods, lack of access to agricultural knowledge, are threatening food production in many parts. Therefore, to transform Kenya into a prosperous one means adopting new methods of farming.

Adhere Cavince, a scholar of international relations with a focus on China-Africa relations,  argues that for African countries to feed their rapidly growing population of 1.2 billion people, they must move beyond traditional, one-dimensional agriculture into a multifaceted enterprise driven by science and technology. In this way, the continent can realize higher inputs, low consumption, high quality and efficiency in its agricultural value chains.

He goes on to say that China’s poverty reduction in rural areas, anchored on agriculture modernization, offers good insights for Africa’s socio-economic transformation. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the nation’s agriculture has undergone a series of improvements spanning land reforms, agricultural cooperatives and marketization. Hoisted by modern farming methods, targeted institutions as well as progressive policies, the shift from subsistence to comprehensive agricultural production economically empowered China’s rural majority and formed a key component of poverty reduction.

Governor Kiraitu says that the focus of his county is to move away from traditional forms of agriculture “that were practised by our grandparents” and modernise agriculture, increase productivity and open new markets.

“We have decided that we have to try to move away from rainfed agriculture because it is unreliable, people work too hard and sometimes get nothing especially when the drought comes,” Governor Kiraitu said.

The county just two years ago ventured into sweet potato farming after a report by the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that in lower parts of Meru county, climate change and poverty were enormous threats to the people’s health hindering the acquisition of vital nutrients.  In an attempt to salvage the situation while addressing the malnutrition problem, farmers in the county began planting orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, a new variety of sweet potatoes rich in Vitamin A and drought resistant. 

A farmer from Meru County displays the orange fleshed sweet potato, a new variety that has been planted in the county.

The county has also ventured into the planting of new cash crops as a new income-generating stream.  

“We have introduced new cash crops like macadamia and avocado by providing seedlings cheaply to our farmers,”

“We are trying to diversify our cash crops so that we do not continue to rely on the traditional ones like coffee and tea. In the future we hope to be able to get money from macadamia, avocado, potatoes,” Governor Kiraitu said. 

Education

According to the United Nations, lack of education is closely linked to poverty because those who can not read and write have little chance of getting a skilled job and thereof build their livelihood. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly said that education is key in breaking the inter-generational transmission of poverty. “Children living in poor areas must be ensured of fair access to quality education”, Xi has said time and again.

China’s poverty eradication campaigns focused on improving education, among other measures. The government’s budgetary spending on education remained above 4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019 for the 8th consecutive year. In 2018 alone, nearly 100 million students from families with financial difficulties were subsidized nationwide.

A former street child in Meru receives practical skills in mechanics

For example, Meru county has been involved in a rehabilitation program for street children. The former youth from the streets across towns in Meru have been receiving hands-on training and experience on real-life practical work to give them the much-needed skills that will turn them into key contributors in the efforts of transforming the County as well as uplifting their own lives. 

“The street children rehabilitation program is our own unique way of trying to address the problem of youth poverty and youth unemployment. We are trying to come up with ideas of empowering our youth, fighting unemployment, hopelessness and despair which is driving them into drugs and alcoholism,” he said. 

Former street children undergo training on discipline, behaviour change and counseling.

In addition, the youth are continuing to receive training on discipline, behavior change, guidance, counseling and encouragement from religious leaders, social scientists and other experts as per Governor Kiraitu’s agenda to ensure that they receive complete transformation to become responsible and dependable members of the society, irrespective of their backgrounds.

Tourism

Meru’s Governor, Kiraitu Murungi and China’s Executive Director of Mt. Huangashan Administrative Committee (HSAC) Mr. Wu Wenda

Beyond agriculture and making education more accessible to the youth, Meru county is also hoping to generate more income by boosting its tourism sector. Meru is a unique area where no two places are alike. The county is home to the tallest mountain in Kenya and the 2nd tallest in Africa. Animal lovers can also visit the Meru National Park which offers a thrilling experience of viewing all the Big 5 and a plethora of other wildlife.  

In 2019, the county government of Meru partnered with China  in efforts to uplift tourism in the county. The governor signed an agreement between Mt. Kenya National Park and Mt. Huangshan National Park of the Huangshan City, Anhui Province of the People’s Republic of China. The pact was signed to pave way for closer engagement between authorities managing the two parks, with Meru County seeking to identify and exploit the massive tourism potential Mt. Kenya, by learning from the success of Huangshan Park.

Scenic views from Mt. Kenya and Mt. Huangshan. / CGTN Africa

Through the partnership, governor Kiraitu hopes that Meru county will begin to receive tourists in the millions similar to what happens at the Huangshan Mountain.

“When we visited the yellow mountains in China we were informed that they usually get an average of a million tourists annually, if we got close to that here in Kenya we would really celebrate,” he said. 

The governor hopes that post the COVID-19 pandemic which has affected business and partnerships, more collaborations between China and the County government will be fostered. 

“We have learned a lot from the people of China and most importantly we have learned their culture of hard work.

People have to work hard, there are no shortcuts, you can not fight poverty just by talking and singing, you have to work hard like the Chinese do,” he concluded.

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