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Major causes of poverty in low income countries: Sierra Leone Case Study

Major causes of poverty in low income countries: Sierra Leone Case Study


Low-income countries or LICs have income per capita not more than $875 on an annual basis (World Bank 2006).  By simply this, a layman can assume that people living in a nation that is within an LIC classification can be considered in poverty.  This assumption is concretized when comparison is done between countries because an LIC is the lowest strata in world when classifying countries against their Gross National Income or GNI.  Poverty is the inability of individuals to satisfy their needs that leads to being hungry, lack of shelter, being sick, having no access to school, jobless and fear of the future.  As suggested, poverty is having no power, not being represented and lost of freedom. (Photo: Abubakar Kamara)

War and social disorder (Ruf War in 1991).  Whether country-versus-country or tribal conflict, the same adverse effects are massive.  Infrastructures for transportation and communication are destroyed as well as arable lands while the productive time of the people are diverted to rage against their enemies.  Instead of economic growth, the trend becomes backward and stability is achieved only after the conflict is mitigated or completely settled.  In Sierra Leone, hundreds of thousands of population have perished after a decade-long war while others are displaced and became refugees. Their productive capacities to help their families as well as the economy are lost while younger generations would likely not be fit to study due to aspiration for revenge to their loved ones.

Sierra Leone, although rich in natural resources, people there cannot resolve poverty that led to the deaths of half a million of people due to violence, famine and disease.  The war, which begun in 1991, is the primary cause of reduction in national output and increased in internal debt.  The national budget that should go to economic development is used to finance the war.  As a result, not only the productive capacity is sacrificed but also the capital to build infrastructures necessary to maximize the productivity of labor.  The extent of the aftermath of war is so massive that countries that are involved in conflict would end up in lost-lost situation.  For example, Ethiopia and Eritrea warfare seized both of the countries’ economic hopes that boosted foreign countries to interfere in economic development by waiving foreign debts. 

When war ensues, it indicates that a country expresses some form of resistance against some form of oppression perhaps against their nationhood.  When patriotism is called for outburst on every citizen, individual needs or even life are undermined by the love of country.  Due to this, poverty as the aftermath of war is accepted over handing down the pride of the nation.  People will not work instead hold ammunitions, government will focus their time on war-related strategies and national resources are directed to succeed in the war.  On the other hand, when social disorder escalates, it indicates that people are willing to be apprehended, physically hurt or even jailed just to bring their opinions and aspiration in a more aggressive manner.  There is a problem to be solved first before they can act in a stable and generally accepted ways.  In effect, they are not fully fit for to earn for a living because earning is only a secondary goal for them.  Much more when their participation in social disorder like civil war caused them their lives or physical and emotional state to employment wherein poverty is likely to trickle down on their families.

War causes death to the supposedly working population. In Sierra Leone 5000,00, In Burundi, 200,000 deaths resulted in an ethnic-based war while Congo experienced 3.5 million fatalities amid violence .  When population is reduced, the productive capacities of those who died are not exploited while their families would experience difficulty in substituting for earning-ability of family heads.  This situation caused slower growth for LICs due to lower outputs.  In addition, war induces the economy and the people to persist employment in subsistence farming.  There is no sufficient infrastructure to support industry improvement, foreign investments are not confident to the future of the country and most people observe employment security by working in independent farms.  However, in Sierra Leone, the emotional damage the war had instilled in the minds of the survivors produce de-motivation to prosper because survival is the cornerstone of daily living.  It can also induce civil rebellion against the government as the latter does not protect the public that can impede any strategic recoveries being proposed by authorities.  Due to this, social disorder is seemingly an effect of warfare.

The damages of war take long time for healing and recovery.  Physical damages are hard for LIC to build anew while emotional ruptures are even harder to disregard in such a short span of time.  Every government of an LIC war-inflicted country, therefore, is confronted with two expensive and long-term policy aims.  The rate of recovering physical damages like destruction of transportation links or educational facilities should be compatible to the rate of emotional improvement that the people are showing. Since LICs have minimal resources and budget, they must allocate them in recovery goals that can result to enforcement of emotional and physical challenges after war.  However, this is difficult and requires deep government knowledge about the sympathies of the majority of the public.  With too much ambiguity on the success of the methodology, war is the most crucial concern of any governments because it can destroy traditions, economy and sovereignty is single collusion.  Without security that a country will receive war threats in the future, an LIC would continuously try to fund military resources amid any austerity measures or growth plans.  Fear and vulnerability to war can also shift funds allocated to poverty strategies towards unpredictable security threats.

Topography and weather adversaries are natural bounties of any LIC country which make them uncontrollable especially when a nation facing them is one who lacks capacity to intervene through advanced technology.  Burundi, Malawi and Central African Republic are all LICs that are landlocked whiles our dearly cherished country is blessed with natural harbor.  This means that they are limited to land in access of resources without the aid of the sea (Raballand 2003 pp. 520+).  According to studies, being landlocked leads to reduction in economic growth due to absence of sea outlets and there is a problem on transportation of trade.  As topographical hindrances to growth is only mitigated by advancement in technology which LIC lacks, being landlocked is a major cause of poverty since its resolution is determined by economic growth.  When there is no growth, there is hardly any technological breakthrough or alternatively resources to outsource the needed technology. 

Being landlocked is the cause why most of LICs have agricultural dependence.  And the lack of technology shows in their inability to diversify their agricultural portfolio and undermine the ability of their arable lands.  For example, Burundi and Ethiopia are LICs that highly depend on coffee while other nations in top 20 LIC list have their own common crop (WB 2006).  In addition, the contribution of the weather calamities such as typhoons on economic problems that are caused by agricultural difficulties also suggested that traditional farming is eminent and common crop is the leader in export earnings.  In effect, key role of agricultural performance to LIC is very vulnerable to devastating and unpredictable nature of the climate.  As they are landlocked, there is limited access to alternative source of revenues making the situation far more badly.  The problem is ultimately intensified when an LIC such as Rwanda engages in subsistence farming where most of the population depends on agriculture to suffice their basic needs and do not have access to work aside from farming and other related jobs. 

Sierra Leone is rich in diamonds while Niger has abundant supply of uranium (WFB 2006).  However, being landlocked, the transportation costs for their minerals are twice as costly as those countries that have coastal facilities (Raballand 2003 pp. 520+).  As these countries depend on industries related to these single-mineral bounties, they loose pricing advantage compared to other countries producing the same minerals.  This negatively contributes to LIC competitiveness limiting the capacity of mineral-related industries to operate on its full capacity.  In effect, such industries create sub-optimal job opportunities and provide a minimal source of income and source of earnings for the population.  Being landlocked left these LICs no choice but to continuously depend on the sub-optimal job generation capacity of their mineral-related industries.  This choice tends to be secured by the idea that climate changes are far more insignificant to mining than subsistence agriculture.  People would likely prefer industry-related jobs than agriculture if only of course they are educated enough and their culture appreciates relatively more demanding job in a factory or mining site.

Being landlocked prevents a country from enjoying the vast resources seen in aquatic topographies.  Most LICs are limited in exploiting their arable lands.  However, in the case of Tanzania that has only 4% arable lands, being highly dependent in agriculture as the main source of employment, export earnings and gross domestic product or GDP is a risky scenario.  This is concretized by the fact that weather conditions in the country are hampered by unpredictable climatic changes.  With the presence of water resources, the country may elude the weaknesses of the agricultural sector and diversify topography risks.  In addition, being landlocked also post higher mobility of citizens to go out of the country and sue their productive capacities in other regions.  Alternatively, illegal immigrants or even terrorist can have relative ease to enter the country for self-vested interests.  And when conflict ensues between neighboring countries, a landlocked topography increases the risks of that country to get involved in the conflict like destruction of transportation links and disruption of partnership with parties in the conflicting sides.

Once the country is landlocked, it has greater access to cross-border information regarding the meaning of quality of life.  In effect, when it neighboring country is also in poverty, it has bigger chance for the LIC to maintain its position in terms of comparative assessment.  The idea brings to the fore that the African region has the most component countries that belong to the top-20 LIC list.  This is because they are landlocked and the nearest country in their borders is inflicted with poverty problems.  As a result, there is minimal motivation to increase growth endeavors until neighboring countries initiated or show some signs of their own.  With minimal exposure to information technology while most areas still believe in traditional cultures and significant role of tribal wars, lifestyles in the developed nations is likely not be observed and appreciated.  The presence of foreign missionaries, educators and investments may produce positive results in fighting poverty but as long as social, cultural, economic, political and technological comparisons with the neighboring countries are in tact, landlocked topography still plays a crucial role in poverty issues.         

Corruption and mismanagement in the government is different from war and natural endowments of a country.  As the former is likely triggered by elements against the government and the latter has no human intervention, government actions that caused adverse economic and social reactions are completely the reverse.  Instead of mitigating poverty, they are the primary impediments to its resolution because the money that should have gone to the public is spent by the powerful few.  Since this minority operating the government is likely to be in relatively well-off lifestyles, families who are poor continue to be poor and even be in worse scenario.  The majority poor are helpless because they cannot mitigate their own incapacities without government aid.  Alternatively, when leaders are incompetent, decisions will not be respected by the population or could seem hostile to other countries and foreign donors.  Peace will be broken and prosperity will not be attained.

Although outside the top 20, it is useful to note that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh obtained highest corruption levels in Asia and in the latter rankings of the LIC list.      When officials are housing corrupt minds, public service is equivocal as their primary goal.  They can maintain family businesses, refuse transparency and propose strategies anything for the sake of self-vested interests.  Poverty reduction schemes are set aside and the people are not given due attention.  Worst, foreign aids that are intended for such feats are not realized instead diverted to channels such as projects and other investments that financing can be easily manipulated by the same officials initiating the foreign negotiations and planning the creation of dubious projects.  In simple terms, the public does not receive the maximum attention that public officials should provide in the nature of their service.  The public continues to pay higher utilities, basic commodities and resolve economic problems on their own that can lead to extreme cases such as theft, kidnapping and money laundering.  Since corruption is a source of power against the voting populace and upper hand against opposing candidates, it will remain as long as there is election and political oppositions or fractions.

Further, even though the government is acting in good faith and does not resort to corruption to gain advantage, acting in good faith alone does not constitute productive leadership.  Perhaps on its feat to signify unity among its states, Ethiopia’s land tenure system positioned the government to own all land and the population are long-term tenants.  This led to industrial stagnation as entrepreneurs and prospective businessmen cannot access loans through land collaterals to start a business.  With most LICs have singular industry economy, the country faces pressure to supply employment through a vulnerable situation which makes people helpless when a turnaround scenario disposes them to be laid-off.  Poverty cannot be addressed without growth and economic boom can only be achieved by industrial diversification to create more jobs and assure jobs security.  Another lack of official’s decision-making prowess is manifested in Gambia’s withdrawal of its partnership to a major foreign buyer of its primary product of groundnuts.  Many people lost their jobs and foreign earnings used to buy imports became minimal leading to more expensive commodities for the people.

Most of the positive prospects in the economy of LICs are embedded in the capacities of their governments to produce turnaround decisions.  For example, most donations and debt relief of foreign institutions have certain conditions that the government must accept and implement.  However, the inability of the government to measure the cost and benefit trade-off of such submission may lead to depletion of natural resources, social disorder and cultural imperialism.  Short-term gains in debt relief can entail commitments to follow certain bilateral agreements which can lead an LIC to war side-by-side with the donor country.  Alternatively, there is also probability that political ideologies will be implanted in these grants that can lead to adverse effects to the governance and sovereignty of the LIC in question.  There would come a time that LIC would be acting to the best interest of the donor country to the defeat in the own interest of the people.  As poverty reduction should be experienced in the grassroots of the society, foreign collaboration would only impede appreciation especially to opposition officials and patriotic population.  In this difficult time of decision-making, the government should be able use micro- and macro-factors that can be variables before ensuing to foreign contracts and treaties.

An LIC is in poverty primarily because of macro-economic factors such as level of income.  It is obvious that the country has weak economy and abrupt growth is not a plausible thing to do.  The government must be able to effectively communicate this to its people and also make them aware that advantages and disadvantages of foreign relationships.  The government must determine whether there is a need for election or it can use surveys and the media to determine the pulse of the people regarding growth strategies.  There are many alternatives for the government to arrive at certain decisions.  However, without sheer competency and value-judgment, a government’s action can overlook the importance of public participation and can define poverty alleviation in its singular definition.  Adversely, a government that has an established integrity will receive public confidence with growth policies.  These characteristics cannot be obtained if the government is corrupt and incompetent.

Illiteracy and lack of education are being experienced by most of LICs like Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Central African Republic and Togo (WFB 2006).  Its effect is evidenced by prominence of unskilled labor competent enough to exploit any foreign investments and capital expenditures.  Literacy is very crucial to a country’s economic development because people cannot appreciate growth if they are not educated.  This idea is concretized when they do not secure earning jobs due to lack of education and employment competitiveness.  Illiteracy can also cause disunity among opposing ideals and aspirations that can exacerbate public governance and household freedom.  People cannot fully understand government policies that can lead to speculations which often disrupt goals embedded to strategic planning and implementation.  It can lead to rebellion and hate to officials.  As a result, literacy issues have the potential to start a civil war, impede government-led strategies and deepen the blurred gap between ordinary people and officials-in-power.  (War in 1991)

To show the role of education in any national growth effort, LIC examples are substantial.  First, most LICs depends on agriculture because the workforce do not have mental and social guides towards hastening their inner skills.  Educational institutions are either very minimal to accommodate aspiring learners or social structures and values do not appreciate education at all relative to other issues such as child-bearing for women and traditional hunting, farming and heralding for men within a tribe.  On the other hand, it can be argued that natural resources can offset issues pertaining to lack of education.  However, Tajikistan, one that is rich in water resources, does not pose steady growth and will only maximize its water-bound resources after finishing its hydro-electric plants.  Without education, even an LIC that is rich in natural bounties cannot sustain and exploit its natural treasures.  Advancement in technologies that can make any resource-exploitation activities more efficient are created due to knowledge incompetence of most of the people.  Outsourcing can be very expensive.  As a result, education is necessary to complete the elements for maximizing national resources and other bounties.

Madagascar heavily relies on agriculture with apparels as its primary export product.  The country is vulnerable to important foreign earnings due to economic concentration on apparel.  In case of price changes, the country can experience economic instability that can affect all sectors of the economy.  On the other hand, Bangladesh has a huge population primarily employed in agriculture without export advantage being experienced by Madagascar (WFB 2006).  In effect, it is more vulnerable to instability because a rising population cannot be easily absorbed by agriculture industry while the lack of accompanying industries can certainly affect unemployment levels.  These two examples show how an educated populace is better-off than uneducated ones because when the former is obvious foreign investments as well as government spending will be confident enough to create new industries that can exploit precious human resources and competencies.  In the contrary, the reverse is true when there is an absence of human resource confidence.  The problem can create a vicious cycle because a government that believes that its citizens are not well-educated can easily apply corruption and mismanagement knowing that people would hardly retaliate due to ignorance of the law or political system and its connections to economic development.    

Quality human resources are the cornerstone of development.  When the population is skilled in a particular field, production will be continuous while slack time can be minimized due to minimal training requirement.  When they are educated, growth policies can be appreciated in academic terms and the government can have minimal impediments to its implementation.  When body of knowledge is diversified, different industries will flourish to the advantage of preventing industrial concentration on one sector. Quality human resources also makes the products of a country globally competitive suitable for exportation which can accelerate development due to inflows of valuable foreign currency reserves.  In addition, an educated citizen is aware of his rights and opportunities for growth as like acting a civilized citizen.  When this happens, social disorder would not likely happen and the people have abilities in surviving amid difficult times because they feel that they are not vulnerable.  In the contrary, when one is not educated, the fear of ignorance will deter hopes for brighter future while current status suggests long-term symptoms without opportunities for growth.

Pakistan belongs to LIC list but is considered an underdeveloped nation.  Underdevelopment can mean that a country has the necessary elements for growth, but due to costly confrontation against neighboring India, growth policies are impeded.  However, when human resources are differentiated due to diverse learning opportunities, other ideologies can surface such as defocusing warfare investment and towards other worthwhile activities and feats.  Being homogenous is a result of lack of education.  When the population does not resist in huge investment for military purposes, it means that there are only few members who exceed subsistence farming.  Only few well-educated citizens are not enough for the government to hear the grievances of the majority.  In the contrary, when most of the population would know their right to resistance and the advantages of it, the government may change its policies.

Industrial contraction or an economy that focuses on one-product as source of comparative advantage can suffer against income inequality.  Usually triggered by the presence or absence of natural resources present in LIC boundaries, government officials decide what specific industries would generate financing focus.  With limited financial capacities while foreign aid can only be rationalized by a lucrative proposal, prioritization is a key component in decision-making.  However, such inevitable financing priority produces industry bias where main beneficiaries are those who are geographically near the natural resources and those that are knowledgeable about them.  For example, Uganda, an LIC who has sizable cobalt and copper reserves, recently raises minimum wages to counter the effects of inflation.  Having informal agriculture as the primary industry, national workforce that supposedly benefits the wage increase is concentrated in cobalt- and copper-related industries because formal employment contract are likely to be present.  In effect, inflationary measures are not really effective to the extent that it can be felt by common citizens.

Over-dependence in agriculture as a primary source of income for LICs is inevitable.  But when confronted with unpredictable weather and landlocked geography, they should be able to diversify the economy to other industries for stability and not following Rwanda that has its primary foreign earning products in the name coffee and tea.  Aside from agriculture, cobalt and copper is produced in Uganda, uranium in Niger and diamond in Sierra Leone (WFB 2006).  In the contrary, aside from these secondary industries, investments have no where to go.  There is only a partial resolution to natural factors that can disrupt agricultural outputs.  The common idea is that agriculture is used for domestic needs while secondary industries are used for export earnings.  But secondary industries are yet to be followed by substantial investments in tertiary industries.  There is an obvious industry contraction.  As the country focus on one industry for economic surplus while discounting for subsistence agriculture, problems of illiteracy and lack of government concern to improve educational system deepens because people would believe that studying other body of knowledge is not essential for being employed in a common industry.  There is no incentive for individual growth, thus, people will continue on rely on subsistence living.

Industrial contraction is the same as economic stagnation.  In Ethiopia, Diaspora’s money is kept in the tight hand of only few and there is minimal economic advantage that can be derived from the situation.  However, when subsistence farming is improved and industries begin to flourish, Diaspora will be more willing to invest their hand-tight wealth in the economy to help the government pump-prime the building of necessary infrastructures, employment and fighting inflation through purchasing imports with a stronger currency.  The evidence of Mozambique showed that through escape from subsistence farming and abruptly creating multiple industries such as aluminum smelting, hydroelectricity, titanium extraction and garment production can be a huge contributory factor to pay down the country’s excessive debts.  Its budget can now focus on direct economic spending aside from debt servicing.  When there is single-industry dependence, poverty cannot be addressed on a long-term basis because the threat of global changes and governmental actions would hamper the employment opportunities that can be derived in minimal industries.

Incompatible population growth is especially significant when an LIC has an economy that has slower economic growth vis-à-vis its population.  India and Bangladesh are among LICs that are experiencing the negative implications of this situation.  India is fostering still traditional village farming which means that crop harvest and production are still inefficiently carried out.  This can have adverse implications in sustaining domestically-generated food security.  Further, two-thirds of Bangladesh population is employed in agriculture with rice as the most important crop.  Without booming population, the poverty can escalate because industries cannot flourish as most of the population is still in subsistence agriculture.  When population cannot be controlled in a manner that it is compatible with the economic conditions, poverty cannot be remedied rather escalate as the country would suffer from required spending with little source of revenue to sustain such services.

In Sierra Leone, especially  capital  city Free town, the problem of overpopulation inconsistent with poverty indicators is eminent.  When a poor family does not obtain education as they are employed in subsistence agriculture, their younger generations are likely to not afford schooling while parents can influence the same dependence on agriculture.  When this is embedded over a large scale of population, relatively less productive, labor-intensive and vulnerable citizens would control the majority of a country.  In effect, the economy can receive sub-optimal performance from economic actors while inefficiency would persist because advancement in technologies and inflow of revenues is slow.  It will result to lesser infrastructures, educational institutions and obsolete government services which are not helpful in mitigating poverty.  Since it is a global trend that poor families would exhibit large family size compared to their wealthier counterparts, most of the former members may not afford schooling leading to contribution of relatively non-competitive labor skills and subsistence type of occupation.    

When the government has to spend more than it has allocated, external debts will pile-up and the continuous debt relief of donor countries will not post solution to economic needs.  This happens when the population is too large amid most of them are in poverty.  They cannot afford to go in school and present more competencies in the economy.  Lack of education will ensue and the contribution of exports will substantially be reduced.  When people in poverty multiply faster than those in wealthy families, the government completely lost in its effects.  First, it is confronted in buying more expensive imports to be consumed by those who are wealthy while providing subsidies for those many that cannot afford.  It can increase taxes (Goods and services) to support this feat but the working population may see this as negative impact to their daily consumption needs especially with raising prices of goods.  A large population that is not productive can lead to the scenario of inadequate health families, educational institutions and public utilities that can hamper basic and security needs.  When not addressed properly, the population can escalate and their needs would be financed by foreign donations.  They cannot escape poverty because most of the citizens also experienced the same situation.  As a result, the effect of being landlocked on inter-country comparisons is more substantial in intra-country evaluations. The poor will compare their status to most of the people and will be satisfied to know that they are at par.       


Main causes of poverty in LICs are those that commonly experienced by many LICs.  Most of them are landlocked and recovering from remnants of warfare.  Main causes can also be considered a larger and more aggressive component in poverty issues in which a number of consequences in their occurrence is observable.  For example, illiteracy and lack of education has attachments to the occurrence of war as people seek for survival while it can also lead to industrial contraction because of lack of differentiation in skills and values.  Third, main causes are also factors in which human intervention can result to its resolution like the inability to address poverty needs when authorities are corrupt and incompetent.  At one point, the government can be thought of being the sole responsible for the present status of its country and be liable for excessive poverty incidence.  Lastly, main causes are those that have direct connections with the economy because LICs are primarily poor due to inability of its population to have higher per capita income.  Incompatible population with poverty indicators has vast economic implications especially in the aspect of regulating export and import trades. 

Why agriculture as the primary source of income and employment of LICs is not considered main cause of poverty incidence?  Agriculture cannot main cause of poverty because it is an obvious characteristic of every LIC.  Saying alone that agriculture is a main cause of poverty is too broad and inappropriate.  However, when the elements of topography and weather are inserted in analysis, it would be clear that agriculture has characteristics that are susceptible for uncontrollable risks.  When the factor of industry contraction is presented, it can be argued that agriculture as main-stay of the country to produce export earnings is insufficient and does not impose diversification strategies.  There can also be arguments that the nature of political set-up is also a main determinant of poverty.  However, the structure of politics alone does not necessarily results to effective management.  Specific human characteristics that affect decision-making will bend the promises of either democratic or totalitarian way of rule.

By Abubakar Kamara, United Kingdom

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