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People receive food aid
Image: WFP/Rein Skullerud

Tackling Africa's vulnerability

Stefanie Duckstein/ lw
July 24, 2014

Sub-Saharan Africa remains low on this year's UN Human Development Index. But economic growth in these countries means they could be in a position to provide social security to the most vulnerable, experts suggest.


The first message sounded promising: "Africa is enjoying higher levels of economic growth and well-being." said Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, the director of the Regional Bureau for Africa in the UN Development Programme (UNDP). He added that in the last three years, many achievements have also been made in income, health and education. Rwanda and Ethopia showed the fastest growth, followed by Angola, Burundi and Mosambique, the latest UN Human Development Report showed.

But then there is the other side of the coin. Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the greatest disparity between rich and poor in the world. 585 million people live in poverty or at risk of poverty – that equates to 72 percent of the region's population.

Increasing vulnerability

One cause for the continued poverty is an increasing sense of vulnerability and insecurity, which affects whole nations as well as individuals, Khalid Malik, director of the UN Human Development Report explained. But who is vulnerable and in what ways? "People's vulnerability is influenced by the capabilities of health and education. If you are better educated, richer, you can deal with risk better. And the context you inhabit, the position you are in, is also important. If you are in the minority in a country, it matters," says Malik.

Lagos, the Nigerian capital
Although it is Africa's strongest economy, Nigeria is plagued by inequalityImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Migrants, women, children, older people and indigenous people are the groups which are most at risk of becoming marginalized in society. A change in their circumstances, such as losing their job or falling ill, can quickly result in these people losing their livelihoods. "80 percent of the world lack social protection, 12 percent of the world suffers from chronic hunger and nearly half of all workers - more than 1.5 billion people – are in informal or precarious employment," Malik said.

A growing population – an increase in responsibilty

This vulnerability is far less pronounced in industrialized countries than in poorer, developing nations. Every year, UNDP examines 187 countries and comes up with a figure for their development, summarized in the Human Development Index (HDI). At the top of the list is Norway, which is ranked as "very highly developed," followed by Australia and Switzerland. Germany is in sixth place. But the bottom third of the list is primarily made up of countries from Sub-Saharan Africa. The lowest ranked country at number 187 is the central African country Niger.

The high levels of poverty in Africa are also due to a growth in the population, said Ruth Müller from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. "The greater the growth of a population, the more people have to be provided for." Despite good levels of economic growth, providing for their large populations, whether with food, education or health services, is a huge challenge for African countries in their current economic situations.

Developing countries too poor for social security?

One way of protecting people is through social security. According to Malik, developing countries are also in a position to offer this. "You're talking about three to five percent of GDP in the case of low income countries. So it's possible to do this," he said. "And the gains are quite large because it leads to greater prosperity."

Khalid Malik
Khalid Malik. 'Africa is enjoying higher levels of economic growth'Image: UNDP

Müller agrees with the theory that poor countries could afford to provide social security. "It's important to have a net which will protect people on a long term basis by preventing them from falling into poverty, so that they are able to make plans with a sense of security. Then a family would be in a position to say, okay, I have a livelihood, I can send my children to school and also stay healthy." It is only with this kind of security that development is possible, Müller believes.

Malian refugees in a refugee camp in Niger
Refugees fled from Mali to neighbouring NigerImage: picture-alliance/dpa

High birth rates are a significant obstacle to progress in African countries, Müller points out. If they were to drop, "then at some point a demographic bulge would develop," an employable population generating income. "When this bulge appears and the jobs are there, an economic machine is suddenly set into motion. And if education is invested in at the same time, that would ensure that more and more economic growth is generated," said Müller.

Global issues – global answers

Many of Africa's problems go beyond national or regional concerns. The financial crisis, climate change, refugees – the issues are often global. For this reason, the issues must also be dealt with on a global level, the UNDP report recommended. It suggested that approaches which go beyond the scope of short term emergency aid are the way forward.

Ruth Müller
Ruth Müller believes African countries can afford social securityImage: Reiner Klingholz

The central African country of Niger, for example, recently had to deal with acute food shortages after a series of droughts. Meanwhile, in neighbouring Mali, Islamists were fighting for power, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes – and travel to hunger stricken Niger.

Multilateral organisations like the G-20 (the 20 biggest industrial and emerging countries) would be good candidates to take on the responsibility in this kind of situation, the report said.

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