Poverty has many faces. It includes extreme or absolute poverty, relative poverty and social exclusion. Extreme poverty and underdevelopment continue to plague the region with hundreds of million of people, particularly women and children, affected. Poverty is not just about the lack of access to financial resources but also the lack of other resources required for survival; poverty is the denial of opportunity. Extreme poverty has been described as “poverty that kills,” depriving individuals of the means to stay alive in the face of hunger, disease and environmental hazards (UN Millennium Project 2005a). Relative poverty refers to the level of inequity and inequality – the differences between rich and poor.

The health burden due to HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases is a major factor for such underdevelopment. For example, malaria which kills more than 900 000 people in Africa per year (WHO 2001), mostly women and children, has been described as a slow-onset “tsunami” (Sachs 2005) whose impact is shielded from television cameras while its devastating effect on household security and national development is massive. It is a major threat to human well-being in Africa. As long as extreme poverty and disease continue to ravage the people in Africa, the realization of NEPAD goals, the objectives of Poverty Reduction Strategies and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will continue to be elusive. The MDGs are a “life-and-death issue” (UN Millennium Project 2005a) seeking to address the most extreme aspects of poverty. Achieving them is but one stepping stone on the path to overall African aspirations for development and human well-being. The goals for hunger and disease relate to human capital. The goals for water and sanitation and slum dwellers are part of those for infrastructure. The goal for environmental sustainability is part of protecting natural capital (UN Millennium Project 2005a).

Poverty, poor health and education, poor economic performance and environmental degradation are liabilities; they impede the region’s ability to realize the opportunities provided by the environment for development. With vast natural resources in Africa and the majority of the people directly dependent on agriculture and these natural resources for their livelihoods, it is ironic that the highest percentage, globally, of poor people are found in the region. Poor people cannot invest in the environment nor do they have the power and resources to limit damage to local resources, particularly where ill-conceived policies and greed are factors in, for example, soil nutrient depletion, deforestation, overfishing and other environmental damage (UN Millennium Project 2005a). The vicious circle of poverty exacerbates environmental degradation, which in turn limits opportunities for development.

While the formulation and implementation of Poverty Reduction Strategies as a policy response has gained currency in Africa, the weak integration of environment into these strategies has partly contributed to poor performance so far on MDG7. However, countries such as Zambia, Ghana and Mozambique have progressively improved the environmental contents of their strategies, providing useful leads for the other countries. Given the intricate links between environment and other facets of poverty, persistent neglect of environmental issues in the Poverty Reduction Strategies can undermine the prospects for sustainable growth in the medium term and, therefore, of poverty reduction and the attainment of the other MDGs. The Commission for Africa recommendation that African governments include environmental sustainability in their Poverty Reduction Strategies is in recognition of this strong environment-poverty linkage (Commission for Africa 2005).

Africa has the highest rate of urbanization in the world (3.4 per cent) and poverty in these areas is likely to be a growing problem. These slums are home to 72 per cent of Africa’s urban citizens. That percentage represents a total of 187 million people (UN-HABITAT 2003).