Sunday, August 19, 2012

Investing in Human Security for Africa's Development

There are a lot of people out there who will tell you that education is the key to the most critical, global problems of today. Education, they charge, will help the poor and disenfranchised rise from their situations and will make them eligible for high skill, higher paying jobs. This sounds appealing: all we need to do is rally donor support to build schools in poor rural areas, get a few NGOs on board to hire and train teachers, and then establish a sustained funding source for the new schools. When this is achieved, the impoverished will abandon their duties at home in order to earn an education at a local school, and then ascend to the elusive job market. In addition, the newly educated will alo be less prone to engage in violence and will have less kids, easing the pressures of conflict and overpopulation, respectively.

Unfortunately, this theory is almost totally an illusion, and a dangerous one at that. So is the idea that foreign investment in industries alone--and not in the living conditions of the very people participating in  and contributing to economic development--is the best way to bring prosperity to the most poverty-stricken continent on the planet. So what if there are bright and shiny new manufacturing plants in urban centers if they are inaccessible to the poorest of the poor? Conceding to Colin's point in the previous article, though, Africa has seen high growth in the past couple of years. But according to a recent UN report, the growth is concentrated in industries that extract and sell natural resources (oil, timber, precious metals, gemstones, etc.), which are completely unsustainable. The rise in GDP, and even GDP per capita, is illusory as it does not reflect which industries are profiting, whom within the countries are profiting, nor living standards. In other words, you could interpret the rise in GDP as a rise in inequality. The rich get richer and the poor are forgotten. So why are those living in extreme poverty stuck in their situations?

From UN Human Development Report 2007-2008. Indicates % of children under 5 with stunted growth (malnutrition/starvation)

Mass starvation and malnutrition. Poverty. Overpopulation. Disease. Violence. Corruption. These are arguably the most pressing problems facing the development of many countries in Africa and hit the poor particularly hard. Surprisingly, education really isn't the solution to any of these problems, and neither are many forms of investment. On a continent with a history as a victim of colonialism, politicized (and damaging) 'structural reforms' advocated by the Western-leaning IMF and World Bank, and failed neoliberal and Import-Substitution-Industrialization (ISI) economic and trade policies, sustainable solutions are long overdue. We've seen that so far most African countries have taken the short-term-solution route by exploiting their natural resources and selling them for profit, but this has done very little to help spur an equitable distribution of wealth. And as pointed out in a recent article in The New York Times, even China has joined the bandwagon in trying to tap into those resources (classic neoliberal trade policy that ends up enriching the Chinese workers in Africa and African elites while little to no resources are allocated to enrich the lives of millions). It would also seem that as a continent rich in natural resources, Africa has attracted the attention of Western nations that are ever-watchful of these assets. The sheer economic potential of Africa, in terms of their potential labor force and resource endowment, has led many powerful multinationals and countries to attempt to cash in, often under the veil of 'development assistance' and economic growth.

Investment can be a great way to build up certain industries within a developing country, but with the case of Africa, it is not and cannot be the main solution to the continent's needs. It creates jobs, but for whom? And who profits? Westerners are used to the idea that developing African countries means investment or financial/humanitarian aid. But I believe a combination of the two hits to the core of the future of development in Africa: Human security.

Imagine living in a place where the local water source (rare) is polluted, malaria and TB kill thousands and your geography is unfavorable to steady crop yields. If we are to develop African countries economically we must first develop the capacities of its people and their environment, which includes access to clean water, transport to local clinics and public educational campaigns advocating better hygiene, sustainable farming practices and prevalent diseases. Disease and malnourishment/starvation are the two most obvious obstacles to human security, as they claim the most lives. Disease and starvation kill off potential workers, leaving behind families with one parent, or more commonly, orphaned children. If we want sustainable economic growth through investment to be a reality, we first need to support the viable workforce by enabling rural communities to overcome water and food scarcity and to have access to medical treatment. Ultimately, the health (and therefore proximity to safe water, viable dirt for farming, and clinics) of the population determines workforce capacity and potential for more investment opportunities.

High mortality rates in some countries, especially in Africa, indicate that life expectancy is below average and infant mortality rate is high. From an economic point of view, impoverished families, facing disease and scarce food and income, have a higher incentive to have more children because they could grow up to be potential providers of economic and physical security for the family. However, if an impoverished family's social environment provided safe access to food, water, local markets and medical clinics, they would be far less inclined to have so many children. Of course some cultural and societal factors play into a family's decision to have more children, but as Jeffrey Sachs points out in his book The End of Poverty, in societies with higher measures of human security, birth rates were much lower. This hints at the prospect that investing in bettering the living conditions of both the urban and rural poor can give them access to modes of income (growing crops and markets) and enable them to actually participate in the economy.

Investing in human security won't be easy since it requires the international community to fund projects aimed at partnering with developing nations in Africa to increase economic opportunity. This means sustained funding over an extended period of time in order to invest in human development. We cannot invest in developing economies without investing in their human capacity to contribute to those economies. This in turn could even send a positive signal to MNCs, inviting them to invest in these emerging economies with sustainable workforces. In an upward-oriented cycle, by enabling the impoverished in Africa to participate in their micro- and macroeconomies and investing in more job opportunities, the economic development of Africa can become a reality. Not surprisingly, however, this will require donor countries to fund the development, which will all depend on political will and national interest. Whenever the world realizes that Africa's human and economic development is in everyone's best interest, we might just see a bright future for the continent.

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