In poverty battle, a few reasons to smile

Despite spots of success, greater efforts are needed
From Africa Renewal: 
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Although Africa's gender gap remains wide, some countries have made strides in expanding girls' education and improving women's political representation.Although Africa's "gender gap" remains wide, some countries have made strides in expanding girls' education and improving women's political representation.
Photograph: UN Photo / John Isaac

Much of the recent reporting about Niger could lead readers to believe that beyond political turmoil and tragic famine, nothing else is worth the attention. Yet, the United Nations reports, the West African nation can claim a major — but underreported — achievement: in absolute terms, it is among those few countries in the world where child mortality has declined the most.

In Niger, the rate of deaths of children under five fell from 305 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 165 in 2008, according to World Bank data. And even though Niger’s rate of child mortality remains high, such an accomplishment is particularly significant given the many hurdles the country faces, including recurrent instances of serious food insecurity.

In fact, Niger’s case reflects a wider trend across Africa in recent years. Progress is indeed taking place, despite the many challenges. But more is needed to attain the world community’s global anti-poverty objectives.

Ten years ago in 2000, as a new millennium dawned, world leaders assembled at the UN in New York and decided it was the right time to give new impetus to the goal of combating widespread poverty and misery across the globe. They made a solemn promise in an official declaration and identified eight objectives, known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), to be attained by 2015. These include halving poverty and hunger; improving access to health care, water and education; providing women and men equal opportunities and protecting natural resources for future generations.

A decade later, major advances have been recorded in most parts of the world, but far more challenges remain. In recent months, two UN reports have painted a mixed picture of success and shortcomings, particularly in Africa.

Yet the positive signs are there (see “Africa’s hard road”). “Africa has, since the mid-1990s, arguably been making the greatest progress towards the goals,” writes Shanta Devarajan, the World Bank’s chief economist for Africa. “The poverty rate has been declining at about one percentage point a year. There is some evidence that child mortality in Africa, after stagnating for some time, is beginning to fall sharply…. And in primary [school] completion, if you take 1999 as the starting point, the fastest progress has been in Africa and South Asia.”

Another report by the Overseas Development Institute in the UK and the UN Millennium Campaign suggests that on most of the MDGs, some African countries have registered impressive progress in absolute terms. Poverty has been reduced in 76 per cent of African countries, the report finds. Eleven of the 20 best performing countries (also measured in absolute terms) are among the poorest countries in Africa.

Yet nowhere else are efforts more needed to reach the targets set for 2015. On virtually all of the eight objectives, the continent is lagging behind the rest of the world. If current trends persist, warns the most recent “UN Millennium Development Goals Progress Chart,” efforts to reach the objectives will fall well short in the sub-Saharan African region.

This uphill challenge highlights the gravity of the continent’s problems. Africa’s proportion of poor people is larger than that of other regions. So is its share of people living with HIV/AIDS. Greater effort is therefore needed because the road to prosperity for the majority is far longer and much steeper than elsewhere. Nevertheless, as various studies have shown, good political leadership, strong accountability and adequate budgetary allocations can help overcome such objective hurdles to bring success.