Martin Ravallion is open to the idea that African poverty has been improving to the last 15 years, but he is cautious regarding the quality of our data and methods:
Maxim Pinkovskiy and Xavier Sala-i-Martin (PSiM herafter) have confidently claimed that “The conventional wisdom that Africa is not reducing poverty is wrong” and that “African poverty is falling and is falling rapidly.” This sounds like good news. But is it right?
We must first be clear about what we mean when we say “poverty is falling”. What many people mean is falling numbers of poor. However, PSiM refer solely to the poverty rate—the percentage of people who are poor. (There is no mention of this important distinction in their paper.)…
Here we agree: aggregate poverty rates have fallen in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) since the mid-1990s. Shahoua Chen and I came to exactly the same conclusion in our research, for the World Bank’s global poverty monitoring effort, although our methods differ considerably and (no surprise) I prefer our methods.
However, Chen and I also point out that the decline in the aggregate poverty rate has not been sufficient to reduce the number of poor, given population growth…
Two points to note here: (i) Chen and I show that the poverty decline in SSA tends to be larger for lower poverty lines (in the region $1-$2.50 a day) and (ii) PSiM’s method attributes the entire difference between GDP and household consumption to the current consumption of households, and they assume that its distribution is the same as in the surveys. These assumptions are very unlikely to hold, and they give an overly optimistic picture.
In effect, PSiM are using a lower poverty line than us…
PSiM do not tell readers just how few survey data points they have actually used after 1995. Indeed, readers of their paper may be surprised to hear that there is any uncertainty about the trend decline since the mid-1990s; their main graph has 30 annual data points since 1995. But these are not real data points in any obvious sense; rather they are synthetic (model-based) extrapolations based on national accounts and growth forecasts.
We have national household surveys for all but 10 of the 48 countries in SSA since 1995. However, for only 18 countries do we have more than one survey since 1995; for 30 countries, there are is at most one survey since 1995.
As we warn explicitly in our paper, this is not yet sufficient survey data to be confident about the (promising) downward trend for Africa’s aggregate poverty rate that PSiM have announced with such confidence.
Hopefully we will see a confirmation of the emerging downward trend for Africa in the years ahead, as more (genuine) data emerge.
HT: Larry W-S.
Addendum: Blattman beat me to it and has more thoughts.