Sub-Saharan Africa has seen impressive economic growth over the last decade. And the positive trend continues. In 2013, the region grew by an average of 5 percent – more rapidly than 70 percent of the world’s countries.
There has been progress on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the eight internationally agreed objectives to end poverty by 2015, including considerable improvements in primary education, gender equality and the fight against HIV/AIDS. However, many countries will not achieve most of these goals.
Our challenge is to ensure development and growth are inclusive, with access to services, resources and opportunities for participation equitably shared among all.
Vicious cycles of poverty
Across Africa, inequalities in income, health and education persist, restricting people’s options for building better futures. In many cases, these multiple layers of deprivation intersect and reinforce one another, trapping people in vicious cycles of poverty.
Some of these inequalities are known as “horizontal” because they are group-based, creating social and economic disparities based on region, ethnicity, religion, gender or language.
The examples abound. Across Africa, children in urban areas are twice as likely as those in rural areas to be in school. In addition, 70 percent of active men and 85 percent of active women are in vulnerable employment.
Such horizontal inequalities can prevent marginalized groups from participating meaningfully in elections and from being represented in the design and implementation of development policies, perpetuating exclusion.
In the absence of appropriate mechanisms for channeling disputes, building consensus and redressing these inequalities, struggles over power and resources can ignite violent conflict. For instance, the current violence in the Central African Republic is driven by a lack of space for political and social dialogue and an inability to address, in a participatory and inclusive manner, long-standing horizontal inequalities.
Furthermore, what started as a conflict over power and influence involving political elites, military groups and criminal gangs, took on religious undertones, spiraling into mass killings and separating Muslims and Christians that had lived in the same neighbourhoods.
Exploitation of ethnic differences can also be observed in South Sudan, where political groups are fighting over influence and resources. The fighting has trickled down to the community level.
Avoiding conflict and reducing poverty in Africa will require sustained efforts to promote inclusive development.
First, the continent faces the challenge of building economies that can create jobs and more equal opportunities for all. In many countries, better managing revenues from extractive resources holds the key to economic diversification and investing back into communities, through quality infrastructure and social services. In addition, developing agriculture, which employs up to 60 percent of Africa’s workforce, most of them women, can be another effective way to reduce poverty in rural areas, where many marginalized groups live.
Second, securing equal political representation for disenfranchised populations is key to ensuring they can participate in key decisions and enjoy the same levels of development at the national and the local level. When elections take place, political inclusion can also prevent vote-rigging, “winner takes all” politics and electoral violence, while involving youths is particularly important to avoid conflict. In Kenya, for example, the principles of equality and non-discrimination are now enshrined in the Constitution, attempting to eliminate the ethnic and regional tensions which fuelled the post-election violence of 2007.
Third, countries in Africa must equip themselves with effective national and grassroots mechanisms to build social cohesion and prevent conflict. Such mechanisms have been experimented in countries such as Ghana, where the National Peace Architecture has promoted community dialogue and raised early warning alerts since 2005. Others have successfully promoted recovery through cash transfers or local development schemes aiming to build trust among local communities, across ethnic and religious divides.
Fourth, social protection, for instance through public works, school-feeding programs or insurance schemes can play a key role in ensuring that poor and marginalized groups can recover from crises, absorb economic shocks and lift themselves out of extreme poverty. Social pension initiatives in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana and Namibia have been successful in that regard.
Hindering economic growth
Horizontal inequalities in Africa can have debilitating effects on human development and economic growth. In 2012, UNDP’s inequality adjusted Human Development Index (HDI) revealed losses of approximately 35 percent in levels of human development for most African countries, due to inequality in life expectancy, education and income across the population.
Making sure people from all backgrounds in Africa can lead equally long, healthy and productive lives is not only a human right but a smart economic and development measure. Working to redress these imbalances can have considerable impact in helping Africa to achieve the transition between economic growth to sustainable and inclusive human development.