OPINION | A perfect storm is pushing economies and children in sub-Saharan Africa into crisis

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The prospects of hundreds of millions of children in sub-Saharan  Africa has taken a dramatic reversal in the last year due to impact of Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and conflict, argues the writers.  Picture: iStock/ Kuarmungadd
The prospects of hundreds of millions of children in sub-Saharan Africa has taken a dramatic reversal in the last year due to impact of Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and conflict, argues the writers. Picture: iStock/ Kuarmungadd

Without rapid debt restructuring and relief, every week sees half-a-billion flow from the African continent to service lenders, money that is desperately needed by vulnerable households and children, write Mohamed M Malick Fall and Peter Holmes à Court.

It is unlikely, that in any 12-month period, at any time in human history, the prospects of hundreds of millions of children have taken as dramatic a reversal as has just occurred for sub-Saharan Africa’s next generation. 

The response to Covid-19, compounded by the ever-increasing impacts of climate change, renewed and expanded conflict, and the continent’s first simultaneous economic recession, have combined to make children the hardest hit.

2020 began with the prospect of modest economic growth, relative stability, and even a blossoming consensus on the actions needed to address the causes of climate change that is already impacting so much of the continent. When the African Development Bank (AfDB) released their Economic Outlook for 2020, it predicted growth of more than 3%. What happened next is well known: economies were thrown into a sharp recession, jobs evaporated, climate action stalled, schools and other social services came to a standstill, and so on.

The debate on the efficacy of the pandemic responses will continue for years.

Growing children, however, don’t have that luxury: the biology of brain growth and the opportunities for education are all windows that close quickly unless the right support is provided at the right time.

Case for easing of debt 

Never has there been a stronger case for immediately easing the debt burden on African nations, a case made in the 2021 version of AfDB’s Economic Outlook.

The message was reinforced by Nobel Laureate Professor Joseph Stiglitz, whose authority on the subject begins with the fact that, with Rashid et al, he predicted unsustainable debt levels nearly a decade ago.

The fallout of the Covid-19-induced economic crisis is beyond what individual nations can sustain and requires the concerted action of the international community.

Without rapid debt restructuring and relief, every weeks sees half-a-billion flow from the continent to service lenders, money that is desperately needed by vulnerable households and children. 

Through Unicef’s work across sub-Saharan Africa, we are now getting a better pulse on just how bad the situation is. 

An estimated 30 million Africans slipped into extreme poverty in 2020, with another 40 million at risk of the same in 2021 — the great majority of these being under 18 — while over 250 million students received essentially no schooling.

Inaccesible remote learning tools 

Unlike most of their peers in other regions, remote learning tools remain largely inaccessible. Millions of students are unlikely to ever return to school, forced to become permanent fixtures of the informal labour market or victims of early marriage. Reports of spikes in teen pregnancies are deeply concerning. 

Already entrenched climate emergencies, catalysed by recurrent cycles of extreme weather, are generating new levels of displacement and food insecurity, while increasing stunting and the proliferation of diseases like cholera and malaria. Again, children bear the brunt: two-thirds of preventable illness and deaths from environmental hazards are experienced by them.

Most sub-Saharan African nations have only nascent social protection systems, small-scale versions of the safety nets that are taken for granted in wealthier countries. At a time when African families need these programs to be expanded, shrinking revenues and rising debt repayments jeopardize government budgets to deliver basic social services. 

The G20 leaders committed "to do whatever it takes" to minimise the economic and social damage from the pandemic. Stieglitz added that:

"We have the tools to do it, we only need the political will."

Rich nations were able to avail massive public investments to ease the impact on families. These assistance packages — a form of cash transfers — are referred to as "relief" and "stimulus", in recognition that an additional benefit of helping families is that the funds go immediately into restarting the economy. 

African families deserve the same and their economies need the stimulus. This will only be possible with additional financial support that begins with sensible debt restructuring of the type advocated by the AfDB and Professor Stiglitz on Friday. 

Like anywhere in the world, families here need their children back in school, financial resources to help cover basic daily needs, and a fast and inclusive economic recovery.

Cash transfers have proven time and again to be the best-in-class method to offer both quick relief and build up resilience of individuals, households and national economies.

Simple interventions needed 

One simple intervention yields diverse impacts: reducing the need for child labour, improving food security, increasing access to health and education services, building a family’s resilience to both weather the next shock and recover from the last one. Cash transfers are an investment in children, human capital and economic growth all at once. 

Subjects like debt restructuring, the academic tones of Stiglitz, and comprehensive reports of institutions like the AfDB sound like cold economics and dispassionate numbers. However, now we have the opportunity to put finance and economics to work for Africa’s children at a time when their needs are greatest. We have a tried and tested policy tool in cash transfers and the next twelve months to prove that we indeed “will do whatever it takes” to build back the future of Africa’s children.

– Mohamed M Malick Fall is Unicef's Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa and Peter Holmes à Court is a businessman and philanthropist and author of ‘Walking with Giants’.

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