Africa, a continent in need

HOW DID the living tragedy that is Africa come into being? While other parts of the developing world have seen rapid economic growth, Africa is the only continent to have become poorer in the past 25 years. By the year 2000, approaching half the world’s poor were in Africa, compared with 10 per cent in 1970.


Many African States experienced periods of political instability in the past four decades or so, involving coups, military rule, civil wars and regional conflicts. Some of this was a direct result of the Cold War, when rival ideologies courted allies in Africa and often backed corrupt dictators.

One consequence was vast flows of refugees and displaced people. More than four million refugees still remain outside their own countries. Foreign borrowing left many countries with huge debt repayments and economies declined. Corruption deepened and was estimated in 2002 to cost African nations almost 150 billion dollars a year. Africa is also the continent worst affected by HIV/Aids; this is having a devastating effect on societies and their economies.


Although there was some economic and social progress immediately after independence, from the 80s most economies saw little or no growth for a prolonged period. Investment and the creation of new jobs failed to keep up with population growth. Increasing numbers became trapped in poverty.

The burden of debt – much of it accumulated in the ‘70s – spiralled and became a major obstacle to development. Between 1980 and 1995, Africa’s external indebtedness almost trebled, according to some estimates. Annual repayments to creditors on this sum – put at 295 billion dollars at the end of 2002 – now exceed the amounts many countries spend on health and education. Trade with foreign countries failed to take off, but African leaders complained of unfair barriers.

Development of basic infrastructure – vital to economic activity as well as improved health and education – also suffered, particularly in rural areas where most people still live. It is estimated that, overall, just over 20 per cent of the 682 million or so people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to electricity and that the continent produces about three per cent of global output.

Basic sanitation needs still present a problem

Access to supplies of clean drinking water and sanitation is still a problem for hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. Fetching water can involve frequent long journeys on foot and is a task that usually falls to women and children. It is estimated that these water fetching journeys take up to 40 billion hours a year – time which could be spent in productive work or at school.

Recent figures suggest more than four out of 10 people still have to rely on sources of water (such as rivers or ponds) that could make them ill or kill them. Even in some urban areas, many people do not have water on the premises.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 80 per cent of all sickness in the world can be blamed on unsafe water and poor sanitation. Waterborne illnesses include those where diarrhoea can be a fatal symptom of many diseases, which killed about 707,000 people – many of them children – in Africa in 2002, the WHO says. But the major cause of death for under-fives is malaria, another preventable disease.

Human cost

One unforeseen challenge has been the advent of HIV/Aids, which has thrived amid the poverty. Although sub-Saharan Africa is home to 10 per cent of the world’s population, it now accounts for some two-thirds of all those living with HIV/Aids. Rates of infection vary widely. As a result, life expectancy has fallen below 40 years in nine countries – worst affected being Zambia (32.7 years) and Zimbabwe (33.9 years) – according to UN data.

Recent projections suggest that if more is not done to stem the epidemic, 89 million more Africans could be affected in the next two decades – up to 10 per cent of Africa’s population.

The majority of those who fall victim to HIV/Aids are adults in their prime, the most productive members of society. Millions of children have lost one or both parents. Often it falls to older siblings or surviving grandparents to care for the family left behind.