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Briefing paper

The profile of world poverty is changing dramatically. This briefing paper focuses on one of the most troubling but least explored aspects of that change: a marked increase in the share of global extreme poverty accounted for by children in Africa. While the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include a collective pledge by governments to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 for ‘all people everywhere’, as things stand that pledge will be broken for African children. Updating projections presented in an earlier paper, we estimate that 304.7 million sub-Saharan African children (aged 0–19) will be living in extreme poverty in 2030. These children will account for 55% of world poverty in 2030, compared with 43% in 2018 – and over three times the share in 2000.

These figures have troubling implications and, left unattended, child poverty in Africa will derail the SDG project. Yet the policy response has been muted, with few African governments prioritising child poverty within their overall poverty reduction strategies. Despite its own evidence on human capital and emerging poverty trends, the World Bank has not adjusted its poverty eradication approach to reflect the weight of child poverty in Africa either. The International Monetary Fund is doing valuable work on SDG financing, but it has not altered its fiscal policy advice or loan conditions to reflect the imperative of child poverty reduction. The same can be said for aid donors, UN agencies and civil society organisations.

There are no blueprints for success in combating child poverty, but policy-makers can draw on a wide evidence base to inform policy design. Redistributive economic growth underpinned by progressive taxation and more equitable public spending holds the key to accelerated poverty reduction – and the evidence set out in this paper points to the case for putting the most deprived children at the centre of redistributive policies. We identify five critical areas where public policies need to respond to child poverty: cash transfers, increased and more equitable public spending, adolescent children, fiscal policy, aid partnerships.

The time has come for African governments, donors, international agencies and civil society organisations to develop coherent responses to the challenge of child poverty. The credibility of the SDGs and, more importantly, the future of a region’s children depend on it.

Key messages:

  • The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) envisage an end to extreme poverty for ‘all people everywhere’. That goal is drifting out of reach for one group of people in one region: children in Africa.
  • On current trends, 305 million African children – two in every five – will be living in extreme poverty by 2030, accounting for over half of all global poverty. On average, 87 million will be born into poverty each year in the 2020s.
  • The interaction between slow and unequal economic growth, demography and the incidence and depth of initial poverty is the primary driver of the increased presence of African children in the global poverty profile.
  • Failure to tackle child poverty will jeopardise efforts to achieve a wide range of SDGs. Childhood poverty is associated with increased risks of ill-health and mortality, malnutrition, and reduced opportunities for learning.
  • Changing this will require urgent and concerted effort. Social protection programmes have a key role to play, alongside increased and more equitable spending on child-related services.
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