Zimbabwe and Eritrea, which often find themselves bottom of the class on many global rankings, are among the notable sub-Saharan countries that have made significant progress on critical indicators in a major new United Nations report.
Zimbabwe, which usually gets a bad mark on governance, recorded the fastest rise in the proportion of women holding seats in parliament, one of only two countries reviewed that increased this ratio by more than 20 percentage points, the other being Grenada.
As of last year, women now hold 47.5% of the seats in the upper house, after a”zebra list” provision contained in a new constitution took effect last year, the annual Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) progress report said.
Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, led by the long-ruling autocrat Teodoro Obiang Nguema, also ranked top in increasing gender parity, with increases of more than 15% points in the lower houses. Much of this rise was due to legislated or voluntary quotas.
Women in sub-Saharan African now hold 23% of all seats in single or lower houses of national parliaments, above the global average of 22%, with more women also holding the “hard” ministerial portfolios such as Defence, Foreign Affairs and Environment.
Empowering women is one of the indicators under the MDGs, set in 2000 and which aim to halve extreme poverty and hunger in the world by 2015.
Other aims are to tackle issues such as maternal and childhood mortality, AIDs, education and access to clean water.
While the world has reduced extreme poverty—measured as those who live on less than $1.25 a day— by half since the baseline 1990 year, some 1.2 billion people still struggled to make ends meet globally.
Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 48% of these, the highest of any of the regions. Nigeria accounts for 9% of the region’s absolute poor, while the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was home to 5% of these. The two countries, together with India, China and Bangladesh account for almost two-thirds of the world’s extreme poor.
According the report, more sub-Saharan Africans are living in extreme poverty now than in 1990, with the region at least 15 years off from meeting the poverty MDG. It is of note that the region’s population grew 54% between 1990 and 2012, while the poverty level rose by 43% over the same period.
The region has over the same period cut poverty rates by 12 percentage points, but the expanding growth, conflicts and a shrinkage in international aid make the timely completion of the MDGs an uphill climb.
There is however a plethora of good news in the other pillars. Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea and Liberia are among the top performers in reducing the mortality rates of children under five, even as the region has 16 times the average for developed regions.
In 2012 one in ten children in sub-Saharan Africa—3.3 million— did not live to see their fifth birthday, with pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria accounting for most of these deaths.
Benin, Madagascar, Rwanda and Tanzania have made the most effort to have children under five sleep under treated nets, at over 70%, while Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria have under less than 20%.
The sub-Saharan Africa region has also reduced maternal mortality from 990 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 510 deaths for the same number of deliveries as at last year, but still accounted for 62% of the 289,000 deaths last year. Nigeria accounted for 40,000 of these; 14% of the total, while Sierra Leone has the highest maternal mortality rate, at 1,000 deaths per 100,000 live births.
However, one in every two women is now attended to at least four times during pregnancy by a healthcare provider. The rise of contraceptive use by women has also doubled since 1990, at 26% prevalence, but sub-Saharan Africa still has the highest unmet need globally.
Southern and Central Africa saw the sharpest declines in new HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infections at 48% and 54% over the last 20 years, but the region had 70%—1.6 million—of the new infections in 2012.
Some 35.3 million people were recorded as living with HIV in 2012, suggesting a losing battle even as anti-retroviral therapy use rose. The report alarmingly notes that there has been no substantial decline over the past decade in new infections among people aged 15-24, despite special efforts targeted at this vulnerable group.
The region has also improved access to an improved drinking water source by 16 percentage points between 1990 and 2012, even as population rises. But 62% of the region’s urban population still lives in slum conditions, with the report urging the building of more streets to combat this.
Sub-Saharan Africa has also increased net enrolment in schools, with 78% now in school, but this is at risk from the fall in official development assistance, which fell nearly 6% in 2013, to $29 billion, and the rise in conflicts.
Africa is home to 34 of the 48 least developed countries (LDCs), which are highly dependent on aid. For the first time since 2002, aid to basic education fell from $6.2 billion to $5.8 billion.
Countries like Rwanda have also increased girls enrolment to 98%, compared to 95% for boys, while Guinea, Benin and Senegal have significantly narrowed the ratio.