Exactly 40 years ago, on 16 June 1976, thousands of students in Soweto woke up and prepared to join a march in protest against the apartheid regime. They were speaking out against the discrimination they suffered at school as black children and the poor standard of the curriculum, and called on the authorities to respect their right to an education in their own language. The South African police released dogs and fired real bullets at the children. Police retaliation went on for two weeks. Hundreds of children were killed and hundreds more injured. The march by the Soweto students was suppressed with blood, seventeen years before apartheid finally ended.
As a reminder, the Day of the African Child is celebrated every year on 16 June, a commemoration launched in 1991 by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) – the predecessor of the African Union – as part of its African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which was adopted in July 1990. This states that: "children are tomorrow's nation builders and carry the hopes of the future".
This year the theme of the Day of the African Child is "Conflict and Crisis in Africa: Protecting all Children's Rights".
The African continent has the youngest population in the world. Children below the age of 15 account for 41% of the population, according to the recent report African Economic Outlook issued in 2016 – and the population is expected to increase by more than double, reaching 2.5 billion by 2050, according to projections.
Our children are Africa's future, a precious resource. But if the demographic burst the continent is experiencing can be transformed into a dividend and an engine for growth (as discussed during the recent Annual Meetings of the African Development Bank (AfDB) in Lusaka), it also shines more light on a number of challenges regarding health, quality of life, development, education and future prospects – battles the AfDB is fighting hand in hand with its member states and development partners. The Bank is working for a better future for Africa – and therefore its children, as shown by the top five development priorities, known as the High 5s, which were determined in 2015 under the guidance of its President, Akinwumi Adesina.
Health and child mortality: progress thanks to the MDGs
Africa has achieved considerable progress in recent decades. "African countries have made steady progress with gains in education, health and living standards", confirms the 2016 edition of African Economic Outlook, a joint publication of the AfDB, OECD and UNDP, before lamenting: "Progress is hampered".
Nafoussatou does domestic work in the neighborhood of Cocody, in Abidjan. To earn extra income she also collects empty plastic bottles, which she sells by weight. This brave mother, of which Africa has so many, spares nothing for her children: "The hardest things are health and studying. Without money you can't do anything: you can't care for them, send them to school, or give them a good education". The young woman has four children, but one died at the age of 15 due to a lack of care and medicine: "It was during the [post-election] crisis in 2011," she recalls. "One day, he woke up with a headache. In less than a month he was paralyzed and could no longer walk or use his arms and hands. Then he had a seizure and we rushed him to hospital but he had already died". Malaria? Meningitis? "We don't know," answers the young woman. She never had a chance to go to school and strives hard today to give her children an education.
Reducing child mortality was the aim of Millennium Development Goal (MDG) No. 4. The MDGs were succeeded by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the end of 2015.
Child mortality has fallen sharply in Africa, and this decrease accelerated between 2000 and 2013. The reduction in mortality for under-5s corresponds to 48 million lives saved in sub-Saharan Africa since 2000, states the World Health Organization in a fact sheet from January 2016. When comparing subregions, East Africa and Southern Africa have achieved more progress in this area than Central or Western Africa. "Angola, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger and Rwanda have experienced steep declines [in child mortality] in the two decades spanning 1990 to 2010," reports UNICEF. But, as highlighted in the joint report on MDGs issued in late 2015 by the AfDB, UNECA, UNDP and African Union, almost half of all deaths in children under the age of 5 years worldwide occur in Africa – compared with 29% twenty years ago, because the other world regions have also made progress in this area.
Nutrition: Investing in gray matter
Health is also a question of nutrition – another theme at the heart of the 2016 AfDB Annual Meetings. Malnourished children have growth delays, low weight and impaired learning abilities. Malnutrition in sub-Saharan African costs 25 billion USD per year, according to UNICEF.
"About 33% of African children live in chronic hunger, and 40 million under-5s have impaired growth, while child malnutrition in Africa has an economic impact of 2 to 16% of annual GDP," revealed Chiji Ojukwu, Director of the Agriculture and Agro-Industry Department of the AfDB, during the workshop "Africa Feeding Africa" which the Bank organized in April 2016 in Ibadan, Nigeria.
"The biggest contributor to economic growth is not physical infrastructure but [...] gray matter," announced Adesina in Washington in April 2016. He repeated the aim of the goals the Bank set up in his opening remarks at the Annual Meetings in Lusaka on 24 May 2016: "achieve food self-sufficiency for Africa in ten years, eliminate malnutrition and hunger and move Africa to the top of agricultural value chains, and accelerate access to water and sanitation". In addition to its High 5s, including "Feed Africa", which seeks to transform the agricultural sector to achieve food self-sufficiency, the AfDB recently undertook two actions to promote better nutrition in Africa: a 2 million USD agreement with Big Win Philanthropy and the Dangote Foundation; and the African Leaders for Nutrition initiative, launched with the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition (chaired by the former President of Ghana, John Kufour), the African Union/NEPAD, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Kofi Annan Foundation, Big Win Philanthropy, the Dangote Foundation, and the World Food Program.
"When the growth of our children is stunted today - the growth of our economies will be stunted tomorrow," declared Adesina in Lusaka in May 2016. "But when Africa's children are nourished and can grow, learn, and earn to their full potential, we will be able to unleash the potential of the entire continent".
Education: Training tomorrow's minds
"I wanted to be a pilot, but I've never been in a plane," explained Trésor, aged 8, his arms stretched out. I think I'm going to be a lawyer!" Trésor attends a school in Abobo, a neighborhood of Abidjan, and is proud to announce that once again he came top of his class, even after skipping a level at the beginning of the year and despite very high class numbers – more than 60 schoolchildren in his class.
Many children, however, still do not have the opportunity to go to school. Yet one of the MDGs was to "achieve universal primary education". In 2014 the theme of the Day of the African Child was "A child-friendly, quality, free and compulsory education for all children in Africa". Progress has certainly been made in recent decades, especially in terms of primary school attendance. Senegal is one of the good pupils, having allocated up to 5% of GDP to the education sector between 2000 and 2011. Thanks to this, Senegal's school attendance rate reached 79.4% in 2012, compared with 44.7% in 1990, according to the 2015 MDG report. Burkina Faso also made substantial progress, increasing its net school attendance rate from 36.7% in 2000 to 66.8% in 2012. Another promising factor is the fact that last year Côte d'Ivoire made school compulsory for all children between the ages of 6 and 16. However, in West Africa: "More than 1 million children aged 7 to 15 in the region are out of school, of which 380 000 left school within four years, putting them at high risk of dropping out altogether", according to the latest African Economic Outlook.
Times change, and Africa does too
The continent is undergoing soaring urbanization, which shines further light on all the challenges it faces.
To enable all children in Africa to go to school, to learn and to develop in positive conditions, as well as to shape the Africa of tomorrow, it is necessary to bring to an end the lack of electricity (more than 640 million Africans do not have access to energy and too many children take lessons in the dark or using street lamps), food insecurity and extreme poverty, and give them access to drinking water and healthy living conditions (pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, measles and HIV/Aids, which alone cause more than half of child deaths, are endemic in urban slums, due to the dreadful living conditions). The Bank's High 5s focus on these areas: Light Up and Power Africa – Feed Africa – Industrialize Africa – Integrate Africa – Improve the quality of life for the people of Africa.
Furthermore, because there are many brave women like Nafoussatou in Africa, we need to help mothers in order to help children. To achieve this, the Bank is paying increasing attention to development projects that operate to the benefit of young women. Recently, during its Annual Meetings in Lusaka, the AfDB launched the AFAWA initiative, "Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa", (see the video of the special session in Lusaka), a financing tool for the benefit of women.
Africa must take care of its children, since they are its best asset for a decent future. It must provide them with employment prospects and the promise of a future on their own land. The continent is fortunate to be the youngest in the world. All these African youths are potential Kelvin Does, the young man from Sierra Leone who, at the age of 12, invented a system of batteries to light up his village. Now aged 16 and still teeming with ideas and innovations, he was one of the star guests at the AfDB Annual Meetings in Lusaka (see his interview of the AfDB TV channel here).