Austerity is not the answer to Africa’s colliding crises: it’s time to invest massively in public services and decent jobs

Anthony Kamande Debt, Inequality, Research

Our continent faces droughts and spiking prices that are pushing millions into hunger and poverty, a debt crisis and the ongoing pandemic. So why are countries cutting billions in spending? Anthony Kamande introduces a new Oxfam Pan Africa briefing based on our index that scores governments on how committed they are to cutting inequality

Informal settlements
Cover image of the new Oxfam Pan Africa report “Africa’s extreme inequality crisis: building back fairer after COVID-19”, showing informal settlements in Kiberia, Kenya, with the affluent Kilimani neighbourhood in the background. (Photo: Victor Oluoch/Oxfam)

Africa is facing colliding crises from the pandemic, to drought and climate change, to debt crisis, to a sharp spike in food and commodity prices, which are all accelerating poverty, hunger, inequality, and vulnerability. And this is in a context of already widespread extreme poverty across the continent. Two in five people live in extreme poverty (under $1.90 a day), while over 1.1 billion people live on under $5.50 a day.

So how well are governments doing at tackling this extraordinary combination of crises? A new report launched today by Oxfam and Development Finance International (DFI) tells a story of inaction, with even the few governments who are doing a little better at fighting poverty and inequality still grossly underperforming in comparison with the global top performers.

The new report, “Africa’s extreme inequality crisis: building back fairer after COVID-19“, is a continental briefing that draws on insights from the Commitment to Reducing Inequality (CRI) Index developed by Oxfam and DFI. The index scores and ranks 158 global governments on three areas – public services, tax and labour rights – that are pivotal to reducing inequality. It sets out a comprehensive plan for African governments, the African Union and the international community, including the EU, to significantly reduce inequality, eradicate poverty, accelerate growth, and reduce insecurity throughout Africa.

‘Debt servicing for African nations is now an extraordinary six times spending in healthcare, and accounts for 51% of all tax revenue… The international community needs to help address this crisis through debt cancellation’

The economic impact of the pandemic

While Africa has largely avoided severe COVID-19 deaths and infections recorded in other parts of the world, it has not avoided economic catastrophe.

The pandemic pushed close to 40 million people in Africa into extreme poverty as millions lost jobs and income reduced. Inequality, which was already at an extreme level pre-pandemic, has increased, too. The richest 1% of the African population now owns 33% of the African wealth, while just six richest African billionaires own more wealth than the bottom 50%, some 650 million people. Gender, racial and spatial inequality continue to haunt the continent.

African governments found themselves in a tight fiscal spot in responding to the pandemic as revenue dwindled while pandemic-related expenditure ballooned. Weak social safety nets in most countries worsened the situation. Overall, low-income countries in the continent spent 3.1% of GDP on COVID-19 related fiscal measures while developing countries spent 5.3%, largely on increased health spending and social safety nets. Most of this spending has been clawed back.

Although the IMF and the World Bank stepped up financial support to the continent, this has been inadequate compared with the magnitude of the pandemic. (The Bank committed $39bn while the Fund has provided close to $38bn through loans, $710 million through debt cancellation and $33bn worth of Special Drawing Rights.) 

The burden of debt and looming austerity

Such inadequate support amid a fiscal squeeze from the pandemic has exacerbated the debt situation in the continent. Spending on essential public services has been hit as governments prioritise debt repayment. Debt servicing for African nations is now an extraordinary six times spending in healthcare, and accounts for 51% of all tax revenue. And as local currencies depreciate against major currencies because of higher inflation rates and hiking of interest rates by central banks in wealthier countries, debt servicing is becoming even costlier.

To reduce the fiscal deficit and address the debt burden, African governments are introducing austerity measures, some with the encouragement of the IMF. Our estimate shows that 43 Africa countries will cut expenditure by $183bn cumulatively for the next five years to 2026. During the first year of the pandemic, the IMF encouraged 33 African countries to pursue austerity policies. We see the impact of austerity in our everyday lives across the continent: for example, in Kenya, cooking gas prices doubled as prices were pushed up by taxes on cooking gas imposed after the IMF agreed a $2.3bn loan in 2021.

Food insecurity and hunger

Food insecurity is another crisis bedevilling the continent, in large part because of climate change that lies behind the worst droughts in 40 years. On top of this, the war in Ukraine has disrupted food supply chains, leading to a spike in commodity and food prices, worsening the situation. In East and West Africa, 48 million people are experiencing a severe hunger crisis, with 18 million more on the verge of extreme hunger in the next few months. In Kenya, 2.8 million people are facing starvation. Food prices could also push about 40 million more people into extreme poverty. Most of them can be expected to come from Africa, especially Sub-Saharan Africa, where food accounts for 40% of households’ spending.

Africa was inadequately prepared for the pandemic

The impact of the pandemic and multiple crisis has been made much worse by the fact that Africa was inadequately prepared. Spending on essential services such as health and social protection has historically been dismal (see table below), with less than a half of the population having primary healthcare coverage. Only a third of the elderly people have access to an old age pension. Tax collection is wanting, averaging 29% of what could be collected in each country. Before the pandemic, about 67% of workers were in precarious employment, meaning that they were not enjoying existing labour rights.

African spending on health, education, social protection, and agriculture

Source: Commitment to Reducing Inequality 2020.

So what can be done? Start by building resilience and vaccinations

So what can governments and the international community do? Well, an urgent priority must be to build resilience and strong societies that can withstand future shocks. That means overturning the planned austerity and investing in quality, affordable and accessible universal health, education, and social protection, and scaling up investment in small-scale agriculture, while raising domestic revenue through progressive taxation.

Another top priority is vaccine inequality. There is an urgent need is to fight the pandemic by vaccinating 70% of the region’s population by June 2022.

To enhance comprehensive continental efforts to fight inequality, the African Union should develop a joint continental action plan to set clear targets and accelerate measures to reduce inequality and poverty. The recent AU protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Citizens to Social Protection and Social Security agreed at the last AU summit is a good starting point and member states now need to ratify and implement it at national level.

The international community also has a crucial role. First, it should help address the debt crisis in the region, including through debt cancellation and restructuring and increased aid to the continent to build back better. Second, it should mandate the IMF and World Bank to ensure that all AU country strategies, programmes and policy advice focus on reducing inequality, and contain specific measures to achieve this.

Such debt cancellation can help African nations reject the policies of austerity that can only increase the misery, poverty and hunger of millions. It’s time to reverse course and instead invest massively for an inclusive recovery and a fairer future for people across the continent.


Anthony Kamande

Anthony Kamande is inequality research coordinator at Oxfam International

This blog is written in collaboration with the team at Oxfam Pan Africa. Read the full report: Africa’s extreme inequality crisis: building back fairer after COVID-19 – the Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index: Africa briefing. A separate new analysis by Oxfam also shows how the IMF’s COVID-19 loans are pushing poorer nations into austerity measures.

Want to join the debate over the next steps for African economies? Register here to join our panel discussion of the report on 26 April from 12-2pm GMT/UST (3pm-5pm Nairobi time). You can also follow @OxfamPanAfrica on Twitter for the latest on the report release.

This blog is also published on the Equals site, where you can find more blogs and podcasts about global inequality.