Africa: Continent Makes Major Gains in Improving People's Lives, Says UN Report

Schoolchildren in Botswana, which has jumped eight places up on the UN's Human Development Index in the past five years. Girls can expect to stay in school for 12.8 years and boys 12.5 years in Botswana, while women can expect to live for an average of 70 years and men 65 years.
4 November 2010

Cape Town — Ethiopia has emerged as Africa's top performer in improving its people's lives over the past 40 years, says a major United Nations report published today. But while most African countries have made major gains, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe are the only three countries in the world in which people's situation has worsened over the period.

The 2010 Human Development Report, published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and entitled "The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development," examines progress in health, education and income, as measured by a "human development index" (HDI) which ranks 135 countries for which comparable data are available.

Ethiopia ranks at number 11 in the world for improving human development since 1970, the report said. Botswana, at 14th place, Benin at 18th and Burkina Faso at 21st place, are among what the UNDP calls the world's "25 top movers" over the last four decades.

If progress is measured over the past 10 years, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda and Uganda emerge among the "top 10 movers," says Jeni Klugman, the report's lead author.

But the DR Congo, Zamiba and Zimbabwe have a lower human development index today than they did in 1970. "These are countries that have suffered from one, or more, of a combination of factors - the Aids epidemic, armed conflict and political instability,” Klugman adds.

Nevertheless, the DR Congo and Zambia have made enough progress in the last decade "to reverse the long-term negative trend," says a UNDP news release issued with the report.

Most African nations have shown significant progress on education, the UNDP says: "Sub-Saharan Africa’s average literacy rate nearly tripled in percentage terms over the past four decades, rising from 23 percent in 1970 to 65 percent today."

But health remains a serious concern, especially as a result of the impact of HIV/Aids.

According to the UNDP, "average life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa is now 52 years, up from 44 years in 1970, but still the lowest of any region in the world and far behind the average of nearly 70 years for the 135 countries in the HDI trends analysis.

"In 2010, Lesotho had sub-Saharan Africa’s lowest life expectancy, at 46 years, while the Comoros Islands lead the region at 66 years. In six countries life expectancy has fallen since 1970: DR Congo, Lesotho, Swaziland, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe - countries where AIDS prevalence rates still exceed 15 percent."

What is the Human Development Index?

In an introduction to the report, economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen explains its importance: "In 1990 public understanding of development was galvanized by the appearance of the first Human Development Report. Led by the visionary Mahbub ul Haq, it had a profound effect on the way policy-makers, public officials and the news media, as well as economists and other social scientists, view societal advancement.

"Rather than concentrating on only a few traditional indicators of economic progress (such as gross national product per capita), 'human development' accounting proposed a systematic examination of a  wealth of information about how human beings in each society live and what substantive freedoms they enjoy."

The UNDP news release adds: "The Human Development Reports and the HDI challenged purely economic measures of national achievement and helped lay the conceptual foundation for the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, calling for consistent global tracking of progress in health, education and overall living standards."

This year's report includes three new indices:

The Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index

This index examines data through what Klugman calls "the lens of inequality." She explains: "The HDI alone, as a composite of national averages, hides disparities within countries, so these adjustments for inequality provide a fuller picture of people’s well-being.”

The Gender Inequality Index

Gender inequity, measured by factors such as maternal mortality rates and women’s representation in parliaments, is assessed for the first time. “The Gender Inequality Index is designed to measure the negative human development impact of deep social and economic disparities between men and women," says Klugman.

The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI)

The report features a new measure of poverty which looks at household-level factors, from basic living standards to access to schooling, clean water and health care.

"About 1.7 billion people — fully a third of the population in the 104 countries included in the MPI — are estimated to live in multidimensional poverty, more than the estimated 1.3 billion who live on $1.25 a day or less," says the UNDP.

This index shows that sub-Saharan Africa has the highest incidence of multidimensional poverty in the world: 458 million people, or 65 percent of the total population of the 37 sub-Saharan African countries studied.

The report is "editorially independent" of the United Nations and is released annually. The 2010 report analyses data for the last 40 years and marks the 20th anniversary of the launch of the report.

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