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Save the Children

One in two: Children are the key to Africa's future

Save the Children


Posted with permission of Rob Gayton, Save the Children, London.
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Breaking Africa’s cycle of poverty

The failure to deliver sustainable development in Africa over the last 20 years has been compounded by a failure to put children at the centre of policy. African children experience routine violation of their basic human rights. Tens of millions don’t get adequate healthcare or education – many none at all. Millions more are victims of conflict, violence and abuse.

Developed countries have under-delivered on their promises to provide aid to the poorest in sub-Saharan Africa. Healthcare and education are chronically under-funded in many countries, and the poorest families are forced to pay – or go without – even the most basic services. The role of protecting the poorest and most vulnerable children is often left to the poorest government ministries. Children’s issues are often seen as an ‘add on’, and voices calling for action for children’s rights as special pleading.

Children – Africa’s future

Yet children make up half the population of many African countries, and the proportion is growing. They are Africa’s future, and hold the key to changing Africa’s fortunes. They are also the most vulnerable.

More than one in six children in sub-Saharan Africa don’t reach their fifth birthday, compared to one in 140 in developed countries.1 Most of these children die from diseases that are easily preventable or treatable, like pneumonia and malaria. On top of this, sub-Saharan Africa is being ravaged by HIV/AIDS. Around 2.2 million children are infected with the virus, and nearly 12.5 million have been orphaned by AIDS.2

Sub-Saharan Africa is the region furthest from achieving universal primary education, with the lowest numbers of children starting school. The number of out-of-school children rose by 17 per cent from 1990–2000, hitting an all-time high of 44 million.3 Nearly half of all children in Africa still fail to complete primary education.4

These are shocking statistics in 2005. At current rates, few of the Millennium Development Goals – including those to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty, to reduce child mortality, and for free universal primary education – will be met this century, let alone by 2015. But this year provides a unique opportunity. There is broad agreement about what developed countries need to provide – more and better-targeted aid, fairer trade and debt relief. African governments also need to focus on better governance and providing basic rights for all. But unless these polices focus on children, we will fail to break the cycle of poverty for future generations in Africa.

Table 1: Percentage of population under 18 years of age
Sub-Saharan Africa 51%
Uganda 57%
Mali 56%
Niger 57%
Angola 55%
Burkina Faso 55%
Somalia 54%
Chad 53%
DRC 53%
Rwanda 52%
Tanzania 52%
UK 22%
Source: UNICEF, State of the World’s Children, 2005

Summary of recommendations

Governments, donors and multilateral agencies must place children – their survival, development and protection – at the centre of policy and practice. Above all, to break Africa’s cycle of poverty, there must be an unprecedented level of investment in this generation of children.

Free essential health services and action on HIV/AIDS

All children have the right to healthcare and healthy populations develop better. Investment to develop sustainable basic health systems must be a priority in Africa. Two-thirds of childhood deaths could be prevented with better health services, targeted at and delivered to children.5 Governments and the international community must provide sufficient, predictable support so that health workers can be paid. Donors must stop imposing damaging policies that lead to cutbacks in health spending and poor families having to pay for their children’s healthcare. Children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS need extra protection.

  • The World Bank must stop promoting health systems that prioritise the economically active and start promoting a pro-poor system based on needs and rights.

  • User fees must be abolished and universal free healthcare made available to all children, including anti-retroviral therapy.

  • African governments and donors must develop and back action for children orphaned and made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS as part of their national plans.6
Universal free education

All children have the right to education. Good education benefits society overall, and is both an individual’s and a country’s best route out of poverty. Every extra year that girls spend in primary school improves the chances that, when they become mothers, their own children will survive and not have to suffer poverty. Education reduces the risk of HIV/AIDS, especially for girls and women. It must be a priority for every African government, and more aid must be provided so that all children have access to quality, free education. This means no charges or other costs – including for books and equipment – that prevent poor children going to school.

  • Universal, free, primary and secondary education must be provided to all African children. This requires sufficient, predictable funding by donors and governments, and an end to International Monetary Fund (IMF) policies that result in cuts to education spending.

  • Governments and donors must address the need to improve the quality of education and eliminate discrimination due to ethnicity, gender, disability or HIV/AIDS.
Economic justice for Africa’s children

The first Millennium Development Goal is to halve the number of people living in poverty by 2015. Yet the number of people living on less than US$1 and US$2 a day in sub-Saharan Africa has risen over the last 20 years.7 Economic development is crucial if today’s and future generations of children are to have any chance of escaping poverty. But economic growth alone will not necessarily help the poorest children unless it is specifically designed to benefit them and their families. More predictable and harmonised aid, without damaging economic conditions, is needed.

Thirty years ago, rich countries promised they would give 0.7 per cent of their GNI in aid. Delivering on this would provide another US$130 billion. Donors must stop imposing damaging conditions, such as the inappropriate opening of markets, cutting of subsidies, cutting back on public spending, privatisation and deregulation, and limiting expenditure on essential services that benefit the poorest families. They should back plans developed by countries themselves, especially those aimed at developing health and education systems. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa will never be able to stand on their own feet economically without fairer trade practices by richer countries.

  • African governments must deliver greater economic justice by prioritising the measures that eradicate childhood poverty in their budgets and being more transparent, accountable and participative, especially in the development of their poverty reduction plans.

  • Rich countries must back poverty reduction plans with enough resources. All donors should be putting 0.7 per cent of GNI into aid by 2010 and, in addition, making sure all Africa’s unpayable debts are cancelled.

  • Donors must stop imposing damaging conditions that reduce the income of the poorest families and reduce investment in health, education and social protection. Resources must be predictable and donors must align their support efforts.
Food security for children

Lack of food security is one of the main causes of malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa, and most childhood deaths are related to malnutrition.8 One in ten children under five are acutely malnourished,9 and it is usually the poorest families whose food supply is most insecure. Many children have to drop out of school and work, often in dangerous and exploitative situations, to pay for food for themselves and their families. Yet donors and governments are failing to tackle the causes of malnutrition and the fact that many families cannot provide sufficient food for their children. Direct food aid is not enough. International donors must take a much broader approach to protect livelihoods and provide long-term food security, with social safety nets and protection for those who are most vulnerable.

  • International action must deliver early warning and effective poverty analysis at the heart of African governments to prevent children going hungry – in particular livelihoods analysis rather than general blueprints that fail to recognise complexities.

  • Policies from governments and international institutions to reduce food insecurity must ensure marginalised rural populations are not left behind.

  • Food aid must not be tied to food supplies from donor countries.
Stop the war on children

Up to 100,000 children in Africa were directly involved in armed conflict in 2004.10 Children made up approximately 40 per cent of some armed groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2003,11 where nearly 4 million people have died as a result of the six-year conflict. Two-thirds of primary school-aged children in the country do not attend school12 and most child deaths in the DRC, as in other conflict-ridden countries, are due to preventable diseases. Distinctive strategies are needed to stimulate investment in children in so-called failing states or those affected by conflict. Failure to secure progress with children in these countries will mean the cycle of conflict and decline will not be broken. In addition to such strategies, the best hope for resolving Africa’s continued struggle with conflicts of regional scale must be through the African Union.

  • African states must ratify the Optional Protocol to the UNCRC on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. Governments must also adopt the Cape Town Principles13 to tackle issues around children on the demobilisation and reintegration of children associated with armed forces, not just ‘child soldiers’, and in particular develop measures for girls.

  • Those involved in African peacekeeping must be trained in the protection of children in conflict.

  • A ‘zero tolerance’ stance should be adopted towards violence, exploitation and abuse of children, backed by action against individuals and groups suspected of violations and a new international monitoring and reporting system.

  • Education must be provided to protect children during conflict, and as a central part of postconflict reconstruction programmes.
Transparency to tackle corruption

Oil, gas and mining, referred to as extractive industries, are a major source of revenue in many African countries. But, instead of benefiting sustainable development and children, Africa’s wealth of resources has often increased poverty and fuelled conflict and corruption. Children have paid with their lives as resources have been diverted from essential services, such as health and education, to pay for military and security spending, or through corruption. Mandatory regulations that require companies to disclose their payments to host governments could improve revenue use in Africa. By requiring companies registered on their territory to report their payments in all the countries in which they operate, rich country governments could directly improve the availability of revenue information to citizens in Africa. This would help citizens to hold their governments to account for the revenues that should be used to benefit the the population as a whole, including children.

  • Home governments must require multinationals in the extractive sector to publish their payments to host governments. African governments must disclose revenues they receive. Both must develop relevant access to information legislation.

  • International financial institutions (IFIs) must make revenue transparency a requirement of all loans, investments, underwriting and technical assistance programmes. The G8 and other home governments must use their influence through IFI boards of directors to establish and implement this.

  • A UN General Assembly resolution must declare the international community’s support for greater extractive industry transparency.


  1. 80 million lives: meeting the Millennium Development Goals in child and maternal survival, Grow up free from Poverty Coalition, Save the Children UK and CAFOD, 2003.

  2. 2004 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic, UNAIDS, 2004 & AIDS Epidemic Update, UNAIDS and WHO, December 2004.

  3. Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2005 – the Quality Imperative, UNESCO, 2004/5.

  4. Website reference:

  5. J Bryce et al ‘Reducing childhood mortality: can public services deliver?’, The Lancet Vol.362, 2003

  6. National plans should be developed and funded within the Framework for the Protection, Care and Support of Orphans and Vulnerable Children living in a World with HIV and AIDS.

  7. ‘Global Poverty Down by Half since 1981 but Progress Uneven as Economic Growth Eludes Many Countries’, World Bank News Release 2004/309/S, 23 April.

  8. 80 million lives: meeting the Millennium Development Goals in child and maternal survival, see above.

  9. The Fifth Report on the World Nutrition Situation: Nutrition for Improved Development Outcomes, Reports on the World Nutrition Situation, UN System Standing Committee on Nutrition, 2004. Website reference:

  10. Child Soldiers Global Report 2004, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers

  11. Global Survey on Education in Emergencies, Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, 2004.

  12. Global Survey on Education in Emergencies, see above.

  13. Cape Town Principles and Best Practice on Recruitment of Children into the Armed Forces and on Demobilization and Social Reintegration of Child Soldiers in Africa, UNICEF, New York, 1999.

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