Institute of African Studies - Columbia University

The History of Poverty in Africa: A Central Question?

Event Details

The History of Poverty in Africa: A Central Question?
The conference is open to all and registration is not required. Guests must present a form of ID to enter the building.
March 6, 2014 - 6:00pm to March 7, 2014 - 8:00pm
The Heyman Center (

In the popular mind, Africa exemplifies poverty. Media coverage focuses on destitution. Recent focus on a growing elite serves to emphasise the abject condition of the majority. This discourse depicts African poverty as timeless or as gripped in a worsening spiral. Africanist historians have long called for the historical study of the African poor with the argument that the most ‘useful’ or ‘usable’ aspect of African history could be to find solutions to poverty in Africa by developing historical understanding of the phenomenon.

The poor are difficult historical subjects: they leave behind them little evidence of their lives. This problem is compounded by orality, which endured longer among the poor. Nonetheless, historians have sought to write the history of the impoverished. This has resulted in work on topics from the importance of reciprocity in assistance to the particular ways people have responded to famines; from the gendered nature of poverty to the changes in poverty brought about by colonialism and neo-liberal reform.

But questions remain: how do we, how should we, approach the history of poverty? What definitions do we use to delimit the poor and how do those definitions shape our studies? How has ‘wealth-in-people’ shaped our understanding of economic inequality? How have ideas of poverty and wealth in Africa changed? To what extent is it meaningful to talk of ‘African poverty’?

Nearly four decades after Terence Ranger’s call for a ‘usable African past’ and over a quarter century since John Iliffe’s history of the very poor in Africa, this is an apt moment to step back and consider these questions in light of the work that has appeared in the intervening years. This conference seeks to achieve that by bringing together a wide range of senior and junior scholars working on the history of the poor and of poverty in Africa, from the first millennium to the late twentieth century.

Conference organizer: Rhiannon Stephens, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Columbia University; Contact:

The conference is open to all and registration is not required. Guests must present a form of I.D. to enter the building.

Program of Events

Thursday March 6th, 2014
6:00PM – Opening Keynote Address: Jane I. Guyer,
- George Armstrong Kelly Professor, Department of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University “Paupers. Percentiles. Precarity. Analytics for poverty studies in Africa.”
7:30pm – Opening Reception

Friday March 7th, 2014
9am – Panel I: The (mis)Measure of Poverty
Chaired by Gregory Mann, Columbia University
-Gareth Austin, Graduate Institute Geneva, “The History of Poverty in Ghana: Reflections from Recent Research.”
-Morten Jerven, Simon Fraser University, “African Poverty by Numbers.”
-Klas Rönnbäck, University of Gothenburg, “Measuring Material Living Standards in Pre-colonial West Africa.”

10:45am – Panel II: The Poverty of Food
Chaired by Megan Vaughan, CUNY- Graduate Center
-Abigail Neely, University of Minnesota/Yale University, “Hlonipha and Health: Livelihoods, Taboos, and Nutrition in mid-Twentieth Century Pholela, South Africa.”
-C. C. Fourshey, Susquehanna University, “Nyakusa Food Security and Safwa ‘Poverty’ 1700-1900: History of Poverty and the Language Surrounding It.”
-Vincent Bonnecasse, LAM/CNRS, “Statistical Comparability and Racial Incomparability: Conceiving Hunger in French West Africa under late Colonialism.”

12:15pm – Lunch

1:45pm – Panel III: Gender of Poverty
Chaired by Rhiannon Stephens, Columbia University
-Milcah Amolo Achola, University of Nairobi, “Poverty, Ignorance and Disease: Maternal and Child Health Policy for Nairobi During the Kenyatta Era.”
-Shobana Shankar, SUNY-Stony Brook, “Poverty and the Religious Imagination in Northern Nigeria.”
-Laura Ann Twagira, Wesleyan University, “Wealth-in-Women: Demographic Crisis and Food Production at the Office du Niger (French Soudan), 1935-1946.”

3:30pm – Panel IV: Rural Poverty and Urban Poverty
Chaired by Mamadou Diouf, Columbia University
-Abosede George, Barnard College, CU, “Who is a Poor Child? Reflections from a Multigenerational Survey of Childhood in Twentieth Century Lagos.”
-Laura Evans, University of Cape Town, “Structural Unemployment, Gender and Poverty in Apartheid’s ‘Dumping Grounds’.”
-Alice Wiemers, Otterbein University/Notre Dame University, “‘Capitals of the Poor’: Spaces of Poverty and Poverty Reduction in Northern Ghana, 1942-2012.”
-James Giblin, University of Iowa, “Tanzanian Poverty in the Period of Villagization.” 5:30 pm – Closing Discussion, Chaired by Rhiannon Stephens, Columbia University