It’s time to beat poverty

2011-02-03 12:34

At the turn of the millennium, world leaders and experts in a broad range of fields agreed on an ambitious ­programme to reduce poverty and promote development worldwide.

The programme took shape under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) and was named the ­Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Eight goals considered to be targets globally achievable by 2015 were set.

They are to eradicate ­extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce the child mortality rate; improve maternal health; combat HIV/Aids, ­malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop a global partnership for development.

Progress so far has been monitored in various ways, the most recent being the September 2010 Review Summit at UN headquarters in New York.

It emerged that some regions did better than others, notably strong-growth countries such as China and India. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, however, are unlikely to meet the MDGs.

Poverty is one of the biggest challenges facing Africa and the rest of the world, and many problems can be traced back to it – that we know all too well.

The way I see it, we have two options: We can complain about it, or we can act decisively to do something about it.

I will provide two examples of what can be achieved when an institution decides to take ­action – with a particular focus on Africa.

The innovative “tea-bag” water filter developed at my institution, Stellenbosch University, has been in the news lately.

Scientific American magazine chose it as one of “10 World Changing Ideas”.

It was developed by a team led by our dean of natural sciences, Eugene Cloete.

The little filter looks like an ­ordinary tea bag. It fits into the neck of a standard water bottle and delivers clean water as you drink from it – one litre per filter.

The outside of the tea bag is coated in nanofibres containing a biocide, which means that it is ­incredibly effective at both filtering water and killing bacteria. Any chemical pollutants in the water are absorbed by activated carbon granules.

The filters are disposable, biodegradable and, best of all, cheap.

Estimates are that the cost will be no more than 35c a filter when mass production starts soon.

Clearly, this invention can have a big impact.

At least 300 million people in Africa do not have ­access to safe drinking water. That means they run the risk of contracting a life-threatening disease every time they take a sip of water.

The tea-bag water filter offers them hope, and that is why it forms part of Stellenbosch University’s Hope Project, which is aimed at deploying the key strengths of higher education – teaching and learning, research and community interaction – to the benefit of society.

We decided to focus on five themes distilled from the MDGs: the eradication of poverty and related conditions; and the promotion of human dignity and health, democracy and human rights, peace and security; as well as a sustainable ­environment and a competitive industry.

We are convinced collaboration is the way to go, which brings me to my second example.

On ­African University Day, November 12 last year, six leading African universities signed a multilateral memorandum of understanding to establish ­PANGeA, which stands for the Partnership for ­Africa’s Next Generation of Academics.

The ­institutions involved are the universities of ­Botswana, Dar es Salaam, Makerere, Malawi, ­Nairobi and Stellenbosch.

We have joined forces to learn from each other, develop our capacity together, improve our ­doctoral programmes and coordinate research.

Johan Groenewald, the coordinator of Stellenbosch University’s Graduate School, points out that one of the reasons why human capital is in short supply in Africa is that the continent has, over ­decades, been experiencing a debilitating brain drain.

We continue to lose some of our brightest minds as they pursue opportunities for further study or work in more developed parts of the world.

The result is that Africa is not coming up with enough home-grown solutions to its developmental challenges.

Mark Swilling of Stellenbosch University’s School of Public Leadership argues that the fact that Africa trails on nearly every MDG indicator is at odds with the new wave of optimism which is sweeping across the continent as economic growth rates climb.

Africa’s real gross domestic product has ­increased by 4.9% a year since 2000, more than twice what it was in the 1980s and 1990s. ­

However, Africa’s growth is related to the worldwide boom in commodities because it relies heavily on the export of primary natural resources.

As such, the continent cannot escape the ­resource depletion challenges that face the rest of the world. Real wealth accumulation per capita will not keep up with population growth unless economic growth rates are decoupled from resource depletion rates, and unless resource rents are reinvested in human capital development.

If Africa invests in a growth path that is as ­resource- and energy-intensive as that followed by the countries of the north, it might end up undermining the key conditions for development it is dependent on in order to eradicate poverty.

But how far is Africa prepared to go towards the building of rapidly growing green economies?

Will current infrastructure development strategies set up African economies to be resource efficient and low-carbon, or will they be built in accordance with the same criteria that have been used to build the unsustainable infrastructures in developed ­countries?

Developmental programmes can be summarised in terms of their impact on three key areas: people, institutions and the environment.

Institutions – be they government bodies or civil society structures – play an enabling role.

They lay the foundation on which efforts to ­promote human development and a sustainable environment can be pursued.

By continually ­posing the demand of relevance to institutions, one can ensure that they become and remain purposeful, involved in the actual needs of society.

Some say poverty will always be with us. I don’t think we have to accept that.

The time has come for us to join hands and defeat poverty.

» Botman is rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University, and vice-president of the Association of African Universities 

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