Education will help to solve Africa's problems

From a speech by the US Treasury Secretary to the United Nations Conference on Women and Development
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The Independent Online

While there are certainly exceptions, sub-Saharan Africa stands out today as a region that still lags far behind. On average, output per capita in sub-Saharan Africa was lower, in real terms, last year than it was in 1960. In some countries it has fallen by more than 50 per cent. And the average individual income in a region of 600 million people is now only 65 cents a day. The region's share in global trade has fallen from 3 per cent in the Fifties to less than 2 per cent in the mid-Nineties - a decline that is estimated to have reduced national incomes by nearly $70bn each year, or just over 20 per cent of regional GDP.

While there are certainly exceptions, sub-Saharan Africa stands out today as a region that still lags far behind. On average, output per capita in sub-Saharan Africa was lower, in real terms, last year than it was in 1960. In some countries it has fallen by more than 50 per cent. And the average individual income in a region of 600 million people is now only 65 cents a day. The region's share in global trade has fallen from 3 per cent in the Fifties to less than 2 per cent in the mid-Nineties - a decline that is estimated to have reduced national incomes by nearly $70bn each year, or just over 20 per cent of regional GDP.

Africa's problems have no single explanation and differ considerably from country to country. But most observers attribute the downward divergence of the region in the past few decades to a number of factors, including: poor national economic policies; the prevalence of kleptocratic and corrupt governments; frequent civil and regional conflicts; and the challenges posed by the environment, which leaves Africa vulnerable to infectious disease and makes it more difficult to produce adequate food or trade with the global economy.

All of these problems are being exacerbated by the HIV/Aids pandemic. Of the 16 million deaths from Aids to date, 14 million have been African. Last year, the combined wars in Africa killed 200,000 people. Aids killed 10 times that number, overtaking malaria to become the continent's greatest single killer. Yet it is estimated that 90 per cent of the illness and death that HIV/Aids will bring to Africa are still to come.

As you know, women are increasingly bearing the brunt of HIV/Aids, both as the primary care providers and, among the young, as those who are often most vulnerable to the disease. In many places, HIV/Aids infection among young women is three to five times higher than among boys. On a continent where women perform an inordinate share of the physical labour and contribute in critical ways to the household economy, the debilitation wrought by Aids is especially cruel.

In a former capacity I undertook research that convinced me that girls' education represented the single highest return investment that any developing country in the world could make. Nothing that has occurred since then has led me to change my view. The World Bank has recently estimated that if sub-Saharan Africa had seen just the East Asian rate of improvement in the gender gap in education since 1970, GDP and living standards would be 15-25 per cent higher in those countries today.

Education always pays off. What is especially attractive about educating girls is the additional benefit that accrues to empowering the member of the household with the greatest capacity to alter the life prospects of the generations to come.

Letting girls go to school, learn to read and experience more of the world beyond their homes makes them better off immediately and enriches their families. The result, in country after country, is smaller, healthier families enjoying longer, happier lives. The cost of keeping girls in school for just one extra year more than pays for itself in the social and economic benefits in the form of higher incomes and smaller numbers of infant and maternal deaths.

Educating girls holds the further benefit of helping to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids. Studies in Zaire, Zimbabwe and elsewhere all suggest strongly that higher rates of female secondary school enrolment are associated with a much slower rate of transmission of HIV. And across the developing world, data confirm that levels of education are now highly correlated with the probability that women will practise safe sex.

That is why we are asking the international community to consider concrete, multi-year targets for substantial increases in World Bank lending for education - and to narrow the gap between girls and boys.

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