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Inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa: What do we know so far?

The complexities of inequality include poverty and a weakening of social cohesion. If inequality is to be successfully combatted, an in-depth understanding of these issues is essential. The problem is that stakeholders are still missing key elements to drive effective public policies. Measures of inequality, and existing studies in low and middle income countries, rarely showcase the entire spectrum of inequalities, or their impact on societies, which are key in reaching SDG 10 “Reducing inequality within and among countries”, as well as other closely linked SDGs such as SDG 1 ‘’End poverty in all its forms everywhere’’, and SDG 5 “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. 

To build a coordinated response to one of the most alarming global challenges of our time, DG INTPA – in line with the 2017 European Consensus on Development – prioritises tackling inequalities in its partnership with African partner countries. Initiatives such the Research Facility on Inequalities and the Africa-Europe Week – taking place in Brussels from 14 to 18 February 2022 – fall under this commitment to an AU-EU partnership that works to bring greater, fairer and more inclusive prosperity.

Sub-Saharan Africa in the spotlight

Very little attention has been paid to African inequality dynamics in high-profile international debates on changing global inequality – despite the fact that African dynamics will become increasingly important to the global inequality discussion. Within the continent, recent years have seen distributional issues becoming more central due to the importance of inequality in inclusive growth.

Therefore, a key question arises: What can we say about African inequality both to promote better analysis and better policymaking in addressing it?

An attempt to answer this question is made by the research paper Inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa: A review paper (henceforth, the Review Paper) published in the context of the Research Facility on Inequalities1.


1. Reliable data on inequality is needed

There are a number of African countries which are absent from the profiles of inequality in Africa and, perhaps more importantly, that have no quantitative picture of their inequality to use in framing policy. This is not always due to the absence of data. After all, nearly all African countries have surveys that are used to assess their poverty situations. Consumption data is often used as best practice in these poverty assessments. However, such data is less adequate for inequality assessment as this consumption picture often underestimates the well-being of those at the top-end of the distribution. It is important to augment this consumption picture with income, and even wealth data, as the basis for understanding inequality and framing policy. Such data has its own challenges, and far fewer African countries have access to adequate income data, and even fewer to tax data.

“Some data is not always better than no data’’.

What is your view? Share your experience with inequality data gathering!

In sum, whether due to no data or inadequate data, the lack of an information basis for action and policy is a gap that needs to be filled as a priority. Each of the major reports on African inequality that are used in the Review Paper to illustrate big picture lessons on African inequality gave detailed attention to issues of data quality. Based on these interrogations, they all made use of only a sub-set of African countries for which they had data. This raises the key point that some data is not always better than no data. A particular concern of these reports was that a flawed data set in a county data series leads to an inaccurate assessment of the trends of inequality in that context. This inaccurate diagnosis can then lead to inappropriate policy and societal responses. Thus, even countries that regularly gather data on consumption, income, assets and even wealth need to be continually vigilant about the quality of such data.

2. The continent presents heterogeneity in inequality levels and trends

The reports discussed in the Review Paper yield an important consensus. The continent is not characterized as having a homogenous inequality level or a homogenous trend in inequality over recent years. There is great variation in the levels of inequality across the continent, with a concentration of high inequality in Southern Africa, which dwindles towards the Sahara and the north of the continent. Taken together, the levels of African inequality are very high by global standards, with SSA containing seven of the world’s ten most unequal countries. There is a heterogeneity too across countries in changes in inequality since the 1990s. We cannot say that inequality has increased or decreased in Africa during the last few decades, as sub-regions – and sometimes countries within the sub-regions – have witnessed both increases and decreases in inequality over this period.

3. Africa presents specificities with regards to drivers of inequality

The discussion of drivers of inequality in the Review Paper highlights important African specificities – intersecting factors within households, communities and local and national economies – that have to be grappled with to understand any African context. The complexities of household formation and composition – such as the high frequency of polygamous households in some countries – sit right at the heart of one’s access to resources, and of the accurate assessment of inequality in any African context. Similarly, the analysis of social mobility and inequality dynamics in the Review Paper shows that, as in developed countries, wealth and assets boost livelihood and employment opportunities in any African context. However, the specific sources of wealth and assets that are important in African contexts are often not those that dominate the contemporary international inequality literature. For example, access to and ownership of land needs to account for the fact that in some areas land is still communally held. Then, the prevailing legal and normative rules around this land, and around other assets, are key to understanding de facto biases in wealth and access to assets that result in fundamentally different livelihood trajectories and mobility by gender and age.

4. A deep urban-rural divide characterises the inequality landscape

Moving outwards to look at African contexts per country, it is clear that Africa’s inequality landscape is characterised by a deep urban-rural divide. This correlates with inequalities in many important dimensions of foundational well-being, such as education, health (including child nutrition) and fundamentally different labour markets. That is, much of the observed difference in rural-urban outcomes is driven by other socioeconomic factors, which are in turn associated with urban-rural divides. The key point is that many Africans are going to reside in rural areas and are going to depend on rural opportunities for the foreseeable future. This is not to deny the growing importance of urbanisation, and the need to understand urban contexts. For example, another key African specificity is the need to integrate the informal sector into any analysis of the role of labour market inequality.

“Another key African specificity is the need to integrate the informal sector into any analysis of the role of labour market inequality”.

Do you have other African specificities in mind?

However, the point is that African inequality analysis always requires analytic attention be devoted to both rural and urban contexts, and the linkages between them.

The particular nature of inequality in Africa needs to be measured and included in the analysis of African inequality, regardless of the international trends in inequality measurement or the demands of global comparison. Of course, some characteristics of African inequality will overlap in important ways with inequality in many developing country contexts, and therefore in the global discussion over inequality. The Review Paper aspires to bring African inequality back into the global discussion, and also to strengthen the case that low and middle income country specificities warrant central attention in this discussion, assuming that the goal of this discussion is to overcome global inequality and not just to measure it.

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About the Research Facility on Inequalities: First Phase 2017-2020

  • Granted with 4 million euros delegated by the European Commission's Directorate-General for International Partnerships (INTPA), the first phase of the Research Facility on Inequalities was set up for the 2017-2020 period. Coordinated by Agence Française de Développement, this first phase enabled 22 projects to be carried out in some 30 countries and the publication of around 100 research papers and public policy dialogues.
  • The objective of this phase of the Facility was twofold: (1) to better understand socio-economic inequalities, their determinants, their evolution and their effects in order to better respond to them in terms of public policies; (2) to promote common strategies on inequalities between EU Member States, in the framework of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Three types of project were implemented in the first phase of the Research Facility on Inequalities: (1) Global projects to study the determinants and dynamics of socio-economic inequalities in developing and emerging countries; (2) City and country projects that respond to the needs of partner countries and aim to support them in developing public policies to reduce inequalities; (3) Projects that provide tools for better analysis of inequalities in order to better respond to them in terms of public policies and development strategies.




1 The Research Facility is funded by DG INTPA and coordinated by Agence Française de Développement.

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last update
19 May 2022

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