How to Sustain a Living? Urban Households and Poverty in the Sahelian Town of Mopti

By Harts-Broekhuis, Annelet | Africa, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

How to Sustain a Living? Urban Households and Poverty in the Sahelian Town of Mopti


Harts-Broekhuis, Annelet, Africa


During the last ten to fifteen years Africa's urban population has had to deal with diminishing incomes and the increasing cost of living. Even the real wages of urban workers in the formal sector fell, sometimes so dramatically that a growing proportion of wage-earning households were pushed below the poverty line. Both the security and the stability of employment in the formal sector declined, partly owing to the implementation of structural adjustment programmes. As a result of these trends the distinction between earnings in the formal and informal sectors become blurred (Jamal and Weeks, 1988), At the same time, rural--urban migration has continued, leading to steady growth in the number of people dependent on informal-sector activities for their subsistence.

Urban households can be expected to take steps to safeguard or better their position and spread risks in order to survive should their sources of income run dry. Most such measures will be similar to those of rural households (Corbett, 1988)--although, of course, they do not focus primarily on agricultural production: diversifying the sources of income, maintaining social networks which can be relied on for help in time of need, depleting household reserves by selling possessions, consuming less or changing patterns of consumption and ultimately, in times of total distress, turning to charity. (See, for a detailed overview, Rakodi, 1995.)

The reactions of urban households to poor or deteriorating economic conditions are influenced by a variety of factors. First, their socio-economic position. According to some authors (Jamal and Weeks, 1988; Herbert and Thomas, 1990) the primary classification of the urban population has to be between the poor and the wealthy. We can expect the ability of households to protect themselves against economic hardship and their ability to cope with reduced earnings or lack of income to differ accordingly.

A second factor is the household's migration history. In the view of Baker and Claeson (1990), African households, urban and rural alike have traditionally been multi-occupational, and this pattern will presumably intensify as households spread their risks and their members' activities--geographically and occupationally--in times of crisis. In their view the differences in subsistence activities between the rural and the urban poor are diminishing as the economic situation deteriorates. The results of other research (Harts-Broekhuis and de Jong, 1987; Jamal and Weeks, 1988; Thomi, 1989; Gugler, 1991) have shown that some urban households supplement their livelihood from agricultural activities. Many of the new urbanites live in a dual system and maintain strong ties with their rural origins and kinfolk. This does not imply that they always derive additional income from agricultural activities. Only those who have left family members behind in their home village to safeguard their interests or those who have invested capital or (their own) labour in agricultural activities are able to complement their urban earnings with rural income. The urban worker whose wife (or wives) and children have stayed behind in his home village can more appropriately be called an absentee villager than a townsman. Migration to town and the search for urban earnings must be seen as the coping mechanism of a rural dweller. These points emphasise the need to draw a distinction between the different categories of urban dwellers based on the length of their stay in town in order to study the coping mechanisms adopted by urban households faced with economic difficulties.

Third, the composition and size of households will also influence their ability to cope. From Latin American research we know that big, complex urban households turn out to be better-off than small ones (Murphy, 1991; Selby, 1991). Probably this can be explained by the same mechanisms that are responsible for the more favourable position of bigger households in the rural areas of Mali, mentioned by Toulmin (1986): greater opportunities to diversify their sources of income, resulting in decreased risk of becoming dependent on a single source; reduced demographic risks, in the sense that the loss of labour through illness, migration or death can more easily be overcome; and, finally, advantages of scale as more labour and capital are available for more lucrative activities. …

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