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Rise in poverty and hunger shows need to expand social protection in Africa amid COVID-19 economic turmoil

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for African governments to strengthen social protection systems and fulfill people’s rights to social security and an adequate standard of living, Human Rights Watch said Monday. Many African governments introduced measures like cash transfers and food assistance in response to the rising poverty and hunger occasioned by the pandemic, but most households received no support. The World Bank forecasts that the Covid-19 crisis will have pushed an additional 29 million Africans into extreme poverty by the end of 2021.

“The Covid-19 crisis has wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of millions of households across Africa, leaving families hungry and desperate for help,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Right Watch. “African governments should urgently invest in the social protection systems needed to ensure that Africans can endure the pandemic’s devastating economic impact with dignity.”

Between March 2020 and August 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 270 people in Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda about the impact of the pandemic on access to food and livelihoods, and government efforts to respond. Researchers spoke to affected individuals and families, health workers, government officials, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations, international financial institutions, and bilateral donors, among others.  

In Kenya and Nigeria, Human Rights Watch documented job losses, falling income, and widespread hunger among people living in poverty in Nairobi and Lagos. In Kenya, the research also highlighted an increase in violence against women and girls during Covid-19-related lockdowns and curfews. In Ghana and Uganda, researchers examined an increase in child labor due to the pandemic. In Cameroon, the research highlighted corruption and a lack of transparency in the government’s use of funds intended to address the health and economic impacts of Covid-19.

Interviews in Nigeria, Ghana, and Uganda were conducted by or in conjunction with partner organizations, including Justice & Empowerment Initiatives (Nigeria), Friends of the Nation (Ghana), and the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (Uganda).

People interviewed in all five countries said that lockdowns, travel restrictions, and other measures imposed to control the spread of the virus, coupled with a pandemic-linked economic downturn, decreased their access to food and other essentials. In Ghana, a 14-year-old girl said that, after losing access to free school meals because of school closures, she worked nine hours a day gutting and scaling fish. “If I don’t do it, life will be tough for all of us,” she said.

Most people interviewed reported that they had not received any government support. “The state hasn’t helped us,” said a hotel secretary from Douala, Cameroon, who struggled to pay for her children’s food and schooling after her salary was cut by two-thirds.  

The lack of unemployment support, child benefits, and other forms of financial or in-kind assistance for people who lost jobs or income reflects the weaknesses of African social protection systems. Data from the International Labour Organization (ILO) reveals that fewer than 20 percent of Africans had access to any social protection whatsoever in 2020, or when data for their country was last available.

Many African governments sought to close gaps in social protection coverage during the pandemic by introducing measures like cash transfers and food assistance. But Human Rights Watch found in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda that the programs introduced or expanded reached only a fraction of households needing support.

“We keep hearing rumors about the government sharing money and food, but I haven’t seen any in my area,” said a mother of seven from Lagos State, Nigeria, who lost her job as a cleaner in March 2020 due to Covid-19-related closures.

Research in Kenya and Nigeria also revealed that corruption has at times prevented the limited available social assistance from reaching those who need it most. In Kenya, Human Rights Watch found evidence that local officials and politicians in charge of enrolling people in a Covid-19 cash transfer program ignored eligibility criteria and directed benefits to their relatives or friends instead. Other deserving households received no assistance. “We demonstrated at the chief’s office because other people were getting support while we didn’t,” said a schoolteacher from Nairobi, who lost her job during the lockdown and struggled to feed her four school-age children.  

The risk of corruption has been increased by inadequate oversight over funds lent for Covid-19 response by international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Human Rights Watch research into anticorruption requirements in emergency loans provided to Cameroon and Nigeria, as well as Ecuador and Egypt, found that the information governments disclosed about how they had spent IMF funds varied widely and was inadequate for meaningful oversight.

Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to fulfill the right to an adequate standard of living, including the rights to food, water, and adequate housing, and the right to social security, which are also recognized as entitlements under African human rights law. The right to social security requires countries to provide people with healthcare, old-age, child, unemployment, and other benefits needed to obtain an adequate standard of living, including in times of economic crisis.

“For many African governments, the Covid-19 pandemic was a wake-up call that investing in social protection systems is vital not only to ensure that people have access to food and other basic goods but also to their country’s economic resilience,” Segun said. “Now the challenge is to improve and expand the temporary measures introduced to build robust and transparent programs that will permanently protect people’s right to an adequate standard of living.”

Today News Africa

Today News Africa is the number one U.S. - Africa news organization based in Washington, District of Columbia. The publication focuses on relationships and interactions between the United States and Africa.

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