Photo: Graça Machel at the World Economic Forum on Africa 2010. CC BY-SA 2.0 - Photo: 2018

Africa – Realising The Promise of the Demographic Dividend

Viewpoint by Graça Machel

The author, who writes this piece following the recent publication of the Africa Report on Child Wellbeing and the African Child-Friendliness Index, is the widow of Nelson Mandela and former First Lady of both South Africa and Mozambique. She is Chair of the International Board of Trustees of the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF).

ADDIS ABABA (IDN) – Nelson Mandela famously said “History will judge us by the difference we make in the everyday lives of children.”

Africa’s rapidly increasing child and youth population is predicted to reach 750 million by 2030 and one billion by 2050, providing a unique window to overcome the challenges that plague Africa or leave us in complete disarray – a choice between a demographic dividend or a burden.

The continent could become home to a billion angry, under-fed, under-educated and under-employed young people – and even though our young people have the potential to transform Africa, if neglected, they could exacerbate poverty and inequality while threatening peace, security and prosperity.

As such, African governments need urgently to commit themselves to massive long-term investment in nutrition, health and quality education for children and young people if they are to avoid significant damage to the continent’s long-term economic and social development.

Children depend on governments for their well-being, freedom, dignity, protection, access to services and the fulfilment of their potential.

The state is the single most important force for ensuring children’s rights and well-being. Moreover, in conflict-ridden countries, governments are among those responsible for creating child friendly spaces to help support and protect children. Furthermore, the objective of these safe spaces is to restore a sense of normality and continuity to children whose lives have been disrupted.

During such dire times, governments and international agencies – in conjunction with civil society and the private sector – must work together to provide children with opportunities to develop, play, learn and strengthen resiliency either after a crisis or during a protracted emergency in a safe, child-friendly and stimulating environment.

The latest edition of the Africa Report on Child Wellbeing reveals a deeply worrying lack of progress on children’s nutrition, education, gender discrimination, law reform and budgets. The ACPF’s Child-Friendliness Index, which ranks 52 African governments according to progress towards realising the rights and well-being of children, shows some African governments take the issue seriously – but many do not.

We should applaud those governments in the ‘most child-friendly’ category, including Mauritius, Algeria, Tunisia, South Africa, Cape Verde, Egypt, Namibia, Seychelles, Swaziland, Morocco and Lesotho.

More concerning are those countries languishing at the bottom of the table in the ‘least child-friendly’ group – South Sudan, Central African Republic, Chad, Cameroon, Zambia, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea and Eritrea.

Then there are those which were relatively well placed a decade ago but which have since slipped down the table, including Zambia, Uganda and Cameroon.

What is remarkable is that the index shows GDP and national wealth are not necessarily related to a child-friendliness, as several of the very poorest African countries performed relatively well.

The report acknowledges some improvements in recent years. Africa’s children are generally healthier, live longer, are better schooled, and can aspire to a better life than those before. Governments are gradually becoming more child-friendly, with better protection from abuse and exploitation, improved laws and policies, and more money being spent on children than ever before. The continent’s child laws, policies and institutions are generally well developed and established, if poorly enforced and implemented.

However, this modest progress cannot hide the challenge that remains. Under-nutrition is the biggest problem – more than 30 percent of under-fives are stunted, and the actual number of stunted children in Africa has risen from 50.4 million to 58.5 million over the last 15 years.

Two in every five African children leave primary school without learning how to read, write or do simple arithmetic, and many teachers fail to reach minimum standards. Such poor quality of education threatens Africa’s ability to compete in an increasingly technology-driven global economy.

African girls across the continent from Cape Town to Cairo are still severely undervalued and are prevented from enjoying their full human rights. They are treated unequally under laws which discriminate, for example, on minimum ages for marriage – one in four girls get married before the age of 18 – and sexual consent, which shockingly sees more than one in three women (36.6 percent) in Africa reporting having experienced physical, and/or sexual partner violence.

Horrifyingly, six African countries have no legal protection for women against domestic violence! More than half of all girls have no access to secondary school education, while conflicts and crises increase their risk of being trafficked or suffering sexual and gender-based violence.

Budgets for children and young people remain unacceptably low in far too many countries, with spending on child-targeted social protection averaging less than five percent of GDP. Annual losses of around 65 billion dollars from corruption and illicit financial flows could instead provide families and children with much-needed health care, education and social protection.

Africa is at a critical point. The current social and economic well-being of its people and the future development of the continent could go either way. The African Report on Child Wellbeing 2018 sets out six areas for radical, transformative action which go beyond the conventional box-ticking approach to child rights. African governments must:

  • combat child under-nutrition;
  • enhance the quality of education for all ages;
  • embed respect for the human dignity of the child in all policies and programmes;
  • tackle rising unemployment and inequality;
  • ensure that no child – especially the poorest and vulnerable – is left behind; and
  • massively increase the amount spent on children, while ensuring budgets are managed transparently and efficiently.

If all this were to be achieved, the youth dividend resulting from the changing age structure could drive exceptional economic growth. This youth dividend would see us having the world’s largest workforce – which, if adequately tapped, into could be the key to us realising many of Africa’s development goals. [IDN-InDepthNews – 14 December 2018]

Photo: Graça Machel at the World Economic Forum on Africa 2010. CC BY-SA 2.0

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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