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The paper reviews the history of the concepts used to depict poverty in Africa. “Pauperism” is a legal concept, deriving from early modern law in Britain, which frames individual situations, places the paupers under specific rights and duties, and was applied in early colonial situations. Percentile is a economic-demographic concept, implying class difference, indexed to measurable or imputed monetary income, which became an instrument of government in the colonial world mainly after 1945, moving into the international comparative world after the era of independence. In the neoliberal era after 1989, the concept of precarity, and a focus on realizable assets rather than income, has taken higher profile than an emergent replacement for the comparative-percentile approach, sometimes now depicted as “living on $2 a day”. The paper indicates the conceptual and political implications and challenges of each of these depictions.
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