West Africa has had an impressive economic growth in the past two decades. In many parts of the region, this has been matched by a significant reduction in poverty. However, for most countries, the benefits of this unprecedented economic growth went to a tiny few, increasing the gap between the richest people and the poorest.
Today, inequality has reached extreme levels in the region. While a small but growing group becomes fantastically rich, a majority of West Africa’s citizens are denied the most essential elements of a dignified life like access to quality education, healthcare and decent jobs.
In 2019, we revealed that the wealthiest 1% of West Africans owned more than everyone else in the region combined. Yet, West Africa’s governments were the least committed to reducing inequality than all other regions of the African continent.
While this indifference would be a tragedy at any time, it is more so during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has worsened the depth of inequality in the region.
Following attacks by armed groups, Saleye and her family fled and took refuge in the village of Mangaïzé, in the South-West of Niger. Many women like her are the sole carers for their families, as their men cannot return because of insecurity. Saleye sells water cans to earn an income. Sometimes she collects leftover crusts to cook for her children. Photo: Tagaza Djibo/Oxfam
The worst economic crisis in decades: Covid-19 is pushing millions into poverty
Despite relatively low levels of infections and deaths, West Africa has not been spared the economic fallout from the pandemic. The immediate impact was staggering and widespread, with a loss in GDP estimated at $48.7 billion and a loss of working hours equivalent to 7 million jobs in 2020. Surveys from eight countries showing that more than 60% of citizens reported losing income or work due to Covid-19.
The pandemic has exposed how woefully unprepared West Africa was, despite its earlier experience of Ebola. When Covid-19 hit, most of West African citizens had inadequate access to healthcare and lacked social protection and labour rights to cope with the pandemic. As of September 2021, less than 4% of them have been fully vaccinated.
Yet, while the majority have been battered by the effects of the pandemic, the story is quite different for the region’s wealthiest people who have dramatically increased their fortunes.
Let's look at the numbers
The three richest men in West Africa saw their wealth increase by $6.4 billion in the first 17 months of the pandemic, which is more than the funds it would take to vaccinate all West Africans.
The wealth of these three billionaires could lift 18 million out of extreme poverty and they would still be as rich as before the Covid pandemic.
The UN estimates that the pandemic will result in 16.5 million more people living in poverty in Nigeria in 2030 while the same number for Burkina Faso is expected to be 2.3 million more people.
Nigeria loses $2.9 billion a year due to tax incentives to corporations, while its health budget is the third lowest in the world (3.6% of the overall budget). 40% of the population does not have access to healthcare services.
In Sierra Leone, large corporations pocketed 92% of government pandemic support funding, while 1.5% was spent on social protection. Only 1% of poorest children complete secondary schooling.
The least committed region in Africa to reducing inequality
The Oxfam’s Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index measures government policies and actions in three areas that have proven to reduce inequality significantly: public services (education, health and social protection), taxation and workers’ rights.
In 2021, it shows that West African governments are again the least committed to reducing inequality in Africa. Most critical health and socioeconomic support measures in response to Covid-19 were temporary and did little to reduce inequality. They have been replaced with austerity measures while triggering a sharp increase in debt.
The index reveals that 14 out of 16 West African nations intend to cut their national budgets by a combined $26.8 billion over the next five years. This would be enough for governments to provide full vaccination for West African citizens and provide one year of quality primary education for 71 million children.
Aguiratou Ouedraogo is a farmer in Burkina Faso. She is 39 years old, mother of 7 children. She fetches water from a well to water her market gardening crops, with the help of a female farmer with whom she shares the agricultural plot. Photo: Samuel Turpin/Media Active for Change.
West Africa is at crossroads
This massive raid on public finances is happening at a time when infections rates are increasing in most countries and deaths from Covid-19 are at their highest in the region. It will push millions more West Africans into poverty and hunger and potentially trigger the worst inequality crisis in decades. Women will be impacted more severely due to their very high concentration in low paid informal jobs and unpaid care work.
It is not yet too late to change direction. The Covid-19 pandemic offers West African governments a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest massively in public education, health and social protection, to tackle joblessness and precarious work and to use more progressive taxation of income and wealth to pay for this.
Increasing their tax revenue by just 1 percent in the next five years would help them raise $56.89 billion. This is more than enough to cancel the planned $26.8 billion budget cuts and build 600 fully equipped hospitals across West Africa.
The combination of budget cuts, rising debt and a slow recovery due to global vaccine inequity risks bringing the West Africa inequality crisis to new heights. It’s time for West African governments to act decisively. Unless they significantly close the gap between the richest and the rest, ending extreme poverty will remain a dream.