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Once poor, forever poor? The title of Andrew Dabalen’s blog post could sum up the CV of the man who became the World Bank’s chief economist for sub-Saharan Africa on 1 July.
His job description is as short as it is complex to implement: to analyse pressing problems and structure relevant policy and institutional reforms to address them. Dabalen, who was born in Kenya and educated in the US, specialises in international development (MSc, University of California, Davis, 1992) as well as agriculture and natural resources (PhD, University of California, Berkeley, 1998).
The dynamics of poverty
During his two decades at the World Bank, he led research and poverty assessment work in various African and Central European countries, including Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Nigeria, Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. In 2016, as chief economist for poverty and equity policy implementation, he analysed the impact of China’s presence on poverty in Africa. He said: “Many African countries that depend on trade with China will be unable to provide essential services to their poor people. This poses the danger that poverty will stagnate or even increase. There is a real risk here.”
Through his work and insights into the statistical method of comparing data, the new chief economist is one of a number of high-profile researchers who have helped transform the nature of the World Bank from an institution that primarily served large economies to an innovative organisation that understands the dynamics of poverty in Africa.
This approach has allowed the Bretton Woods institutions (along with the IMF) to better focus their efforts on three key areas: better-financed programmes, debt relief to facilitate poverty reduction and technical assistance to reduce the income gap with advanced economies. A notable policy shift was observed, for example, in the power sector where the World Bank encouraged concessional lending for infrastructure and the sector’s privatisation from the 2000s. This was aimed at stimulating sustainable development and financial assistance in countries, such as Kenya, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe.
Dabalen has of course been tackling the consequences of Covid-19, always from a practical point of view, so that he can propose concrete policy solutions as soon as possible in order to prevent poverty from becoming entrenched. In his analysis published on the World Bank website, he explains how governments must first get a clear picture of the level of poverty in their country, and who it affects, before developing a policy.
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However, the pandemic has created new poor people who need to be identified before they can be helped. To do this, the economist is convinced that we need to move away from official data. “We propose that governments use unofficial, yet useful data. This could be information collected by self-help communities, cooperatives, and telephone companies. In the medium term, the idea is to build a universal database that will allow even a very locally targeted group to be helped according to their specific needs,” he says.
Nevertheless, the real test for a poverty-reduction practitioner like Dabalen is the impact of his work when he is at the helm, which is mostly measured by objective data. He has co-authored regional reports on equal opportunities for children in Africa, vulnerability and resilience in the Sahel, and poverty in a booming Africa. He has published a number of scientific articles and working papers on poverty measurement, conflict, welfare outcomes and wage inequality.
The Kenyan economist’s first task will be to spearhead the implementation of various policy responses to the spiralling inflation that is hitting marginalised and vulnerable communities across the continent hard and threatening to undermine poverty reduction measures.
In a turbulent global context, he says, one must prepare for the worst in order to preserve the progress made: “To build effective resilience against future global shocks such as pandemics, global warming or conflicts, it is necessary to invest in digital infrastructure to make it more affordable and accessible to all, just like water and electricity. Subsidies for local production also need to be strengthened: many African countries are too small to finance this effort, so an urgent commitment to regional resilience is needed.”
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