Post 3: The Cheetah Generation

In my Post 1, I introduced the notion of a “poverty trap”: the idea that poverty is a social construction in which the poor become entrapped. One specific type of poverty trap that may potentially have wide-ranging implications on the productivity and health of an individual is the hunger-based poverty trap. In the 2nd chapter of their book, Poor Economics, Banerjee and Duflo present the hypothesis that, when the poor can only afford the minimum amount of food to survive, they are left with little energy, motivation, or mental capacity to work harder or earn more money.

This is a compelling argument, when one sits down to imagine what living on the brink of starvation must feel like. For most of us, it is already hard enough to get out of bed in the morning when we consume 2000+ calories a day. Can you imagine how much harder it would be for someone who has only had 1200?

This desperation provides an explanation of the “witch killings” that occur periodically during times of drought in Tanzania. When food is scarce or money is low, families in Tanzania suddenly realize that an elder who lives with them is a “witch,” and they are thus exiled from the village or killed. Similar happenings occurred in India in the 1960s, when young girls “happened” to have more tragic accidents during times of drought, but had the same number of accidents as young boys when food was plentiful.

However, Banerjee and Duflo ask us to look at the situation of the poor a little more closely. Studies of spending habits of the poor when they receive a little extra money show that the money is not 100% contributed to the food budget, and more expensive, good-tasting food is purchased in place of higher calorie foods. This is contrary to the idea of a hunger-based poverty trap, in which we would imagine that any extra money would go directly towards high-calorie foods in the hopes of gaining more energy and boosting future earnings. Thus, Banerjee and Duflo conclude that a hunger-based poverty trap is nothing more than a hypothesis.

The authors do discuss evidence that children who do not receive the right nutrients during their younger years – whether that be from malnutrition, eating low-nutritional foods, or infection by worms – are less likely to have higher IQs and more likely to earn less money over their lifetime. Parents who can afford to feed their children enough calories may not realize the value of feeding their children healthy and nutritious food; likewise, parents who have enough money to buy deworming medication for their children are unlikely to pay for it. It’s likely that these people don’t know the importance of good nutrition and health and are wary of outsiders telling them what to do.

Some economists are placing hope in what Radelet describes as the “cheetah generation” in his book Emerging Africa. This “new” generation is composed of wise, ethical leaders and problem solvers who are willing to contribute hard work, innovation, and brain power to resolving some of Africa’s biggest issues, like nutrition and children’s healthcare. The cheetah generation, according to Radelet, can be associated with the new ideas necessary to bring about lasting change, the technology and entrepreneurship to increase efficiency and improve economic situations, and the transparency and accountability necessary for a government to be run well and for the people. This is in contrast to the “hippo generation,” which is often seen as the slow-moving complainers who contribute little effort to fixing the problems of their authoritarian governments.

For example, the cheetah generation can be seen making lasting impacts in Rwanda. Looking through the lens of the Sustainable Development Goals, we can see that progress is being made in Rwanda. The GDP of the country has increased from $1.73 million in 2000 to $8.09 billion today, and growth has never dropped below 4.68% in the last 10 years. Additionally, the number of people in poverty has dropped 15% since 2005, though 70% of the population is still living in poverty. The number of students completing primary school has risen from 22.5% in 2000 to 66% currently, with the completion rate by female students showing an even steeper rise, from 20.9% to 72%.

Ethnic tensions have existed between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi people since the 1960s, cumulating in violence during the 1990s and the genocide of 800,000 Tutsi people in 1994. Thankfully, a new government and constitution helped to alleviate much of the ethnic tension and violence, and the Human Development Index has increased significantly since the 1990s. Today, the HDI in Rwanda is at 0.483.


Overall, these statistics show that progress towards some of the SDGs is being made. For example, poverty levels are declining, meeting SDGs #1 and #2. Male and female students are staying in school longer, contributes to improvements in SDGs #4, 5, and 10. Rwanda has seen the establishment of a new government that has helped establish peace in the country and begin to eliminate discrimination based on ethnicity, as SDG #16 calls for. There is hope that Rwanda’s situation will continue to improve, as members of the cheetah generation continue to contribute their energy and innovation to bettering Rwanda.

Banerjee and Duflo. Poor Economics.
Human Development Reports: Africa. United Nations Development Program.
Radelet. Emerging Africa.
Rwanda. The World Bank.
Sustainable Development Goals: 17 Goals to Transform Our World. United Nations.
The Rwandan Genocide. The History Channel.

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