Human capital is critical. Africa must invest in health and education

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If Africa wants to really improve things for its youth, the two areas of investment focus need to be education and health. Picture: iStock
If Africa wants to really improve things for its youth, the two areas of investment focus need to be education and health. Picture: iStock

Every time I visit Africa, I am struck by two things that go hand in hand: the youth and the energy.

The median age on the continent is 18. Compare that to the median age in North America, which is 35.

These young Africans are inheriting a continent where fewer and fewer people have to struggle to survive and can instead devote their energy to planning for and investing in the future. The percentage of Africans living in poverty has dropped from 59% of the population in 1990 to 38% today.

Africa’s improvement in living conditions is one of the most important trends in recent history, and yet the data shows that it is also one of the most fragile.

Each year, our foundation releases a report tracking progress in the fight against global poverty and disease. According to current trends, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty could stop declining and could even start growing again.

Most countries in the region are continuing to make steady progress against poverty. Ethiopia, for example, is on track to eliminate poverty within a couple of decades. As a result, poverty is concentrating in a relatively small handful of countries beset by severe climate change, violent conflict, and weak governance.

By the mid-century mark 40% of the extremely poor people in the world will live in just two countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria. Together, those two nations will be home to almost 600 million people, and they are poor and fast-growing enough to offset the gains by their neighbours.

Some people both inside and outside the continent worry about what this large group of very young, very poor people will do when they are denied opportunities. Will they cause insecurity, instability, and mass migration?

But I think just as much about what they will accomplish if they have access to opportunities – if they grow up healthy, get an education, build businesses, dream up new inventions, and grow the global economy, the way that bright young men and women from around the world have always done.

The key to providing opportunities in the places where they are currently lacking is investing in what economists call, “human capital,” or the health and education of young people.

These investments are not the only ingredient of a healthy economy, but they have played a pivotal role in lifting nations like China and India out of poverty. Economic models show that they can do the same for Africa, growing the continent’s GDP by nearly 90% by 2050.

But first, African governments and businesses will have to invest more in their young people.

There are two areas, in particular, where they should focus this investment to maximise long-term growth prospects:

First, health: Most African countries have participated in the global revolution in child survival. Rwanda, just a few years removed from genocide, has built an effective health system from the ground up and seen the steepest drop in child mortality ever recorded. The next step is making sure children don’t merely survive but thrive. One third of African children are stunted, which means their brains and bodies aren’t developing fully. But there are proven strategies solving the stunting problem, and many have to do with food security.

For example, China was able to reduce stunting by nearly 70% between 1990 and 2010, in part because the country’s farmers adopted new agricultural technologies. African countries, most of which are still predominantly rural, must invest in agricultural transformation to fight malnutrition and poverty.

Second, education: Since 2000, the number of African children enrolled in primary school has increased from 60 million to 150 million, and the number of girls in school is now virtually equal to the number of boys. The next step is improving the quality of the education all students receive.

The data is spotty, but it suggests that more than half of students on the continent aren’t achieving minimum proficiency in math and reading. Low-income countries can achieve excellent results in their schools. Vietnam, for example, has a 97% literacy rate; in 2015, they were the poorest country to participate in international student testing, but still ranked 8th. Governments must learn how to transfer this success so that all students benefit. For most of human history, poverty was thought to be an inevitable part of the human condition, something that had always – and would always – exist. Over the past two decades, however, Africa has proven otherwise and shown the world that poverty is not an inevitable.

Whether more young Africans live in poverty – or more live to fulfil their potential – depends on the choices and investments we make today. I am hopeful we will make the right ones.

*Bill Gates is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation’s 2018 Goalkeepers report launched today and can be accessed at https://www.gatesfoundation.org/goalkeepers

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