The United Nations has released a closely-watched ranking that measures the quality of life and that shows that while all regions including Africa are making forward steps, that pace is uneven and even slowing.
The UNDP’s 2014 Human Development Report (HDR) study, titled “Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience”, found that sub-Saharan Africa continued to dominate the lowest human development indicators: the bottom 18 countries were all from the region.
This year’s report outlines Human Development Index (HDI) values for 187 countries. The global HDI average now stands at 0.702 while sub-Saharan Africa’s is the lowest at 0.502, just behind South Asia at 0.588.
Progression towards 1.000 shows the highest attainable level. Under 0.550 represents low human development, 0.550–0.699 for medium development, 0.700–0.799 for high human development and 0.800 or greater for very high human development.
Since 1990 the HDI has been an important measure of progress for developing nations—as a composite index of life expectancy, years of schooling and income.
There are a few notable mentions. Niger came in last on the index, with a HDI of 0.337, narrowly beaten by DRC with an HDI of 0.338. Several African nations had a big slip. The biggest decline was in strife-torn Libya which fell five places to 55th position. Equatorial Guinea and Senegal both fell three positions. Other notable declines, by two spots, were Cape Verde, Egypt and Mauritania.
A number of HDI indicators demonstrated why sub-Saharan Africa ranked poorly.
For inequality-adjusted HDI—a measure of inequality that takes into account how each country’s progress is distributed in the three HDI dimensions – the highest value loss was sub-Saharan Africa at 34%.
Inequality is a considerable threat to human development, because it reflects inequality of opportunity. It can harm growth, poverty reduction and the quality of social and political engagement. High inequality can also affect stability between groups.
Gains but key areas overlooked
For health, the highest inequality was also in Sub-Saharan Africa at 37%. Though there have been improvements, some areas such as malaria, the number one killer of children in the region, have been neglected.
The region has the highest share of children in the world under the age of five, as well as the highest share of young people in their population at 20.2%. High numbers of these two groups represent a vulnerable portion of the population that have a high dependency.
It also means that governments will need to ensure enough employment opportunities for young people or face social and political unrest. As the report notes, “recent social upheavals show that a mismatch between increasingly educated young people and employment opportunities can yield alienation and despair.”
Despite recent improvements, the share of workers in vulnerable employment also remains very high in sub-Saharan Africa, at 77% of total employment. Additionally, 40% of workers in the region still live in households earning less than $1.25 a day per person.
The breaking out of several armed conflicts across the continent this year has led to increased vulnerability for human development, forcing many to flee their homes and livelihoods with women and children accounting for 80% of the world’s refugees and displaced persons.
Between 2012 and 2013 more than one million people fled their countries of origin due to conflict and persecution. Many were from African countries namely; eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mali, Sudan, Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan. The report adds that in some areas of West and Central Africa, “lawlessness and armed conflict continue to threaten human development advances, with long-term repercussions for national progress”.
Even though poverty is declining, the UN notes that many people live just above the poverty threshold and generalised shocks could easily push them back into poverty. The share of people just above the poverty threshold was largest in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific.
Not all bad news
But it is not all bad news. There were some African success stories. Zimbabwe made a notable HDI climb, rising four positions to 156th. Morocco and Zambia also went up the HDI ladder by two positions each. First on the “Africa” list was Mauritius with a HDI score of 0.771. Seychelles (0.756), Tunisia (0.721), Algeria (0.717), Botswana (0.683) and Egypt (0.682) followed.
When focusing on the Millennium Development Goals, Africa has over the last 10 years made “great strides in instituting political and economic reforms that are starting to bear fruits,” the study notes.
From 2010-2013 Africa’s HDI went from 0.468 to 0.502, an increase of 0.034. Although the continent still has a lot of ground to cover, in comparison South Asia documented an HDI improvement of 0.15.
The HDR states that these gains include net primary school enrollment, gender parity in primary education, the representation of women in decision-making, some reduction in poverty, immunisation coverage, and stemming the spread of HIV/AIDS.
This year’s report took a people-centred approach, paying particular attention to the ‘structurally vulnerable’ groups of people and their impact on HDI as these were the individuals who would be most affected by economic, social and environmental shocks, which are key to sustaining and advancing human development.