Africa’s Children: Everyone’s Future

Statement by Kul C. Gautam
Deputy Executive Director, UNICEF
At the TICAD Ministerial meeting
Tokyo,  3 December 2001

Solidarity for Africa is a common theme of most intenational conferences these days. The largest gathering of world leaders in history, at the United Nations Millennium Summit last year confirmed the international community’s readiness to support Africa’s efforts to address the continent’s underdevelopment and marginalization. The G-8 Summits of the world’s mightiest economies contain an obligatory statement of priority support for Africa. Africa is singled out in virtually every major U.N. conference as deserving special attention. African leaders themselves at their Summit in Lusaka in July 2001 launched the New African Partnership for Development (NEPAD) which makes a compelling case for investing in Africa. And here we are assembled in a Ministerial meeting to prepare for the third Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD III).

If words and paper commitments made a real difference, Africa would now be on the path to becoming a Tiger economy, thriving in democarcy and good governance.

Yet the reality, especially of sub-Saharan Africa, presents quite a contrast.

Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 11 percent of the world’s population, but its share of the world economy is barely one percent; its share of world trade is xx percent; and foreign direct investment has now dipped to below 1 percent.  These figures confirm why S-S Africa commands so little real weight in global affairs.

Yet NEPAD makes a plausible case that “ the continued marginalization of Africa from the globalization process and the social exclusion of the vast majority of its peoples constitute a serious threat to global stability”.

Why should a region comprising such a small share of the world’s population, and even smaller share of the world’s economy pose such a threat to global stability? And why should it command such global interest as at this meeting?

This is so because from the point of view of world peace and prosperity, and especially from the vantage point of children, sub-Saharan Africa indeed represents a development challenge of global proportions.

Despite its relatively small population and even smaller economy, S-S Africa accounts for 43 percent of the world’s child deaths, 49 percent of maternal deaths, 70 percent of people with HIV/AIDS and a staggering 90 percent of AIDS orphans. Achieveing the international community’s goal of sharply lowering global under-five mortality, maternal mortality, HIV/AIDS infection rates, and other health, nutrition and educational goals therefore hinges on progress in S-S Africa. Even if the rest of the world, including the most populous countries of Asia, achieved  such international development targets as reducing infant and maternal mortality, if Africa failed, the world as a whole would fail to achieve the millennium goals.

The world cannot develop in peace, dignity and prosperity when large numbers of children in a whole continent face death, malnutrition and illiteracy over a prolonged period.

The future of Africa’s children, therefore, ought to be a matter of global concern. The well-being of Africa’s children does impact on all of our futures.

It is with this realization, that UNICEF attaches the highest priority to Africa’s children – not just in words but in deed. Forty percent of UNICEF’s staff worldwide work in S-S Africa and 46 percent of UNICEF’s regular resources are allocated to programmes in this region.

If poverty is the greatest obstacle to Africa’s progress, investing in children ought to be the first step towards overcoming it. Poverty causes lifelong damage to children’s minds and bodies, turning them into adults who perpetuate the cycle of poverty by transmitting it to their children. This is why poverty reduction must begin with children, who account for half of Africa’s population.

If human development is about creating an opportunity to lead a long, healthy, creative and productive life, then a good start in life – especially in the first few months – is critical to the physical, intellectual and emotional development of every individual. Poverty in early childhood can be a handicap for life. Damage suffered due to malnutrition, ill health and inadequate care during childhood impedes future learning and often cannot be repaired later in life.

The vicious cycle of poverty is inter-generational. Malnourished girls grow up to become malnourished mothers who give birth to underweight babies. Parents lacking life skills are unable to optimally feed and care for their children. Illiterate parents cannot support children in their learning process. These children, in turn, then run the risk of becoming the next generation of the poor, uneducated, sick and productive citzens.

Giving children access to an integrated package of basic social services of good quality is one of the most effective and efficient ways to combat poverty. Ensuring access to basic education, primary health care, adequate nutrition and safe water and sanitation is not only a fulfilment of basic needs and human rights, it also contributes to economic growth. Indeed, investment in children today is the best guarantee of equitable and sustainable development tomorrow.

The African Common Position adopted by the high level Pan-African Forum on the Future of Children held in May 2001 in Cairo and later endorsed at the OAU Summit in July 2001 in Lusaka contains a set of specific goals, targets and strategies aimed at   creating  an “Africa Fit for  Children”.  To realize this vision for an Africa fit for children would require  focussed actions in 4 priority areas:

1.  Combatting HIV/AIDS: The HIV/AIDS pandemic has now become the greatest threat to  Africa’s development, and for the realization of of the vision of Africa’s renaissance enshrined in the New African Partnership for Development. This pandemic is not just a threat to people’s health. It is now a threat, in many African countries to their national security and human survival. It exacerbates and deepens many of the interlocking problems that affect the region, including poverty, discrimination, poor access to basic social services, armed conflict and the sexual exploitation of girls and women.

Africa has no future unless the HIV/AIDS pandemic is stopped. This pandemic must be fought with the same determination as countries of Africa fought their wars of national liberation against colonialism and apartheid – but with even greater sense of urgency.

Fortunately, we now have many good examples of effective interventions that are producing good results in preventing HIV/AIDS. At present these all operate on a small scale, pilot basis. They are now ready to be taken to large scale implementation.  Investment in preventing HIV/AIDS is investment in saving Africa from a downward spiral of self destruction. There is no higher priority for the foreseeable future.

2.      Girls’ Education: Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for over one-third – 40 million – of the world’s children out of school. Two-thirds of them are girls. Investment in basic education, with emphasis on girls, is one of the most effective ways to combat poverty and unfold a virtuous cycle of social upliftment.

Girls’ education is undoubtedly a “best buy” for Africa. The social benefits of girls education include increased family incomes, delayed marriage, reduced fertility, lower infant and maternal mortality, better nourished and healthier children, greater opportunities and life chances for women (including their empowerment to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS), and greater participation of women in political social and economic decision-making.

It is estimated that an additional $2 billion per year would enable African countries to ensure universal access to quality basic education. There are few other investment opportunities with comparable payoffs.

3. Early Child Development: