Poverty has a long history in Africa. Yet, the most conventional and influential history of African poverty is a very short one. As told by the World Bank, the history of poverty starts in the 1980s with the first Living Standard Measurement Study. This history of poverty by numbers is also a very narrow one. There is a disconnect between the theoretical and historical underpinnings of how academics understand and define poverty in Africa, and how it has been quantified in practice. While it is generally agreed that poverty is multidimensional and has certain time- and location-specific aspects, the shorthand definition for poverty is the dollar-per-day metric. This article reveals how particular types of knowledge about poverty have gained prominence and thus shaped the dominant interpretation of poverty in Africa. It argues that, based on other numerical evidence, the history of poverty in Africa could be radically different from the dominant interpretation today.
Published in the Journal of African History