The level of human development in sub-Saharan Africa, judged by how long people live for, how well they are educated and how much they earn, has improved by more than a third in the past three decades, according to a United Nations report published recently.
The UN Development Programme’s 2018 Human Development Index (HDI) shows that although sub-Saharan African nations still dominate the list of the world’s least developed countries, the average improvement in quality of life has grown by 35 percent since 1990.
The index measures human development by three indicators: “a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and having a decent standard of living”. The UNDP says it was created “to emphasise that people and their capabilities should be the ultimate criteria for assessing the development of a country, not economic growth alone”.
Thirty-two of the 38 countries in the UNDP’s “low human development” rankings are African, with Niger, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Chad and Burundi at the bottom of the list.
But these countries’ rates of improvement, coming off a low base, are generally higher than those in more developed countries. Fifteen of them show growth in human development averaging more than one percent a year since 1990. Rwanda, Mozambique and Mali improved on average by more than two percent a year.
At the other end of the scale, seven countries in Africa as a whole (including North Africa) now fall into the index’s second-highest ranking of nations – those with “high human development”. They are the Seychelles, Mauritius, Algeria, Tunisia, Botswana, Libya and Gabon.
Over the past five years, Botswana has shown the most impressive progress, improving its position in the rankings by eight places. Other African countries which have improved their position relative to others in the past five years include South Africa, by six places, Senegal (five places) and Togo (five places).
Although Libya remains highly developed relative to nearly half the world’s countries, its position has plunged 26 places in the past five years. The UNDP points out that the countries which show the steepest declines are those at war: Syria fell 27 places and Yemen 20 places.
Health, judged by life expectancy at birth, has improved considerably, says the UNDP. On average Africans live 11 years longer than they did in 1990. But differences across the world are still “massive”, it says in a press release.
“A child born today in Norway, the country with the highest HDI, can expect to live beyond 82 years old and spend almost 18 years in school, while a child born in Niger, the country with the lowest HDI, can expect only to live to 60 and spend just five years in school. Such striking differences can be seen again and again…
“In Sub-Saharan Africa there are on average 39 primary school pupils per teacher, followed by South Asia with 35 pupils per teacher. But in OECD* countries, East Asia and the Pacific, and Europe and Central Asia there is an average of one teacher for every 16 to 18 primary school pupils.
“And, while in OECD countries and East Asia and the Pacific there are on average 29 and 28 physicians for every 10 000 people respectively, in South Asia there are only eight, and in Sub-Saharan Africa not even two.”
The UNDP report accompanying the index notes that progress since 1990 has not been steady: “Some countries suffered reversals due to conflicts, epidemics or economic crises . . . Sub-Saharan Africa . . . had losses in the 1990s, when conflict and the HIV/AIDS epidemic caused life expectancy to drop dramatically.”
But over the next decade, from 2000 to 2010, the region went from the second-slowest to the fastest-growing region in the world.
“In sum,” adds the report, “there have been significant advances in human development [across the globe] over the past few decades, especially in low human development countries, up 46,6 percent on the HDI since 1990.
“But some countries have suffered serious setbacks — sometimes erasing in a few years the gains of several decades. And the gaps in human development across countries, while narrowing, remain huge.”