Poverty reduction must become central policy for African governments, says Higgins

Impact of climate change and depletion of natural resources meant economies had to change, which involved risks and opportunities for poor people, President tells Soweto meeting

President Michael D Higgins at the University of Johannesburg, Soweto Campus, yesterday, where he delivered the keynote address, Challenges and Opportunites in Africa, on the 16th day of his 22-day official visit to Ethiopia, Malawi and South Africa. Photograph:  Chris Bellew/Fennell

President Michael D Higgins at the University of Johannesburg, Soweto Campus, yesterday, where he delivered the keynote address, Challenges and Opportunites in Africa, on the 16th day of his 22-day official visit to Ethiopia, Malawi and South Africa. Photograph: Chris Bellew/Fennell

 

Poverty reduction must become a central plank of the policies African governments implement in the coming years to transform their economies into environmentally sustainable models, President Michael D Higgins said in South Africa yesterday.

Speaking to students at the University of Johannesburg in Soweto on the subject of challenges and opportunities in Africa, Mr Higgins said the impact of climate change and the depletion of natural resources meant economies had to change, which involved “both risks and opportunities for poor people”.

“The shift to sustainability, if managed ethically and fairly, offers the possibility of making economies more inclusive and of directing new economic opportunity towards people who are currently excluded from economic growth and prosperity,” he said in his keynote address, before adding that this would not “just happen”.

Highest growth rates

African countries have seen some of the highest economic growth rates in the world over the past decade, with many expanding by more than 5 per cent annually despite the negative impact of the global recession on markets.

Yet while such growth was impressive, the fact that many people in these countries remained in poverty demonstrated that economic progress does not necessarily improve the lives of the poor, said Mr Higgins.

Putting in place active and responsive policies that have the specific purpose of ensuring the transformation to economically sustainable markets prioritising the poor was the best way forward, Mr Higgins said. However, this would require political will and leadership.

Making such interventions also depended significantly on the ability of marginalised communities to exert influence over policymakers, he added.

Among other things, governments needed to: ensure people’s rights over land instead of facilitating acquisitions by external investors; opt for thousands of small-scale energy systems for remote communities rather than investing in big power stations that only serve those already connected to the grid and direct climate change finance to the poorest households.

‘Empowerment’

“Empowerment of those living in poverty is both a critical driver of the fight to end poverty and one of its most important metrics. The right investments in economic and social infrastructure combined with legislative and regulatory measures supporting basic rights – to decent work and to gender equality – are important building blocks of economic empowerment,” said Mr Higgins.

“We need to re-legitimise and revitalise public policy. This means we must reinvest governments and the political process with the duty and responsibility to define social objectives for the economy,” he said.

“This is the only way in which states and governments can have the ability to make a real social contract with their citizens and deliver on it,” he concluded.