ZongoNews Editorial: Towards Sustainable Development in Africa: the necessity of public investment in human capital by Juliette Torabian

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Juliette Torabian is Senior Expert, Education and sustainable development  for Shepperson and Shepperson Consultants Ltd 

It is evident that there is a positive correlation between public investment in education and health with the sustainable development of societies. 

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According to World bank’s Africa overview (2014), despite weak commodity prices and unfavourable global financial conditions, African countries have experienced a growth rate of 4.5% with a robust economic activity in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2013 leading to 10% decrease in the percentage of households living under the 1.25 US$ a day. However, it is not the rise in households’ income but public investment in human capital that can facilitate a sustainable development. 

Economic growth does not automatically mean better health and education for all. In many emerging African countries increased income of the household may lead to an increase in their use of ‘empty calories’ such as junk foods rather than an increase in their consumption of more nutritional foods. This appears ‘logical’ as the variety and not the quality of food is associated with symbols of modernity and prosperity (Todaro and Smith, 2012). Thus, despite economic growth, three-quarters of the 162 million malnourished children under 5 live mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia (EFA GMR, 2013). In addition, even with increased income, informal gendered rules prevail in many societies and prioritize boys’ education and health over those of girls, particularly in rural Africa. The Sub-Saharan Africa is, hence, the region that is lagging behind in achieving the universal primary education (UPE) goal with almost 22% of its school aged children being out of school. 

Public investment in education and health bears a triple impact towards sustainable development of African countries. Education and health act as means of development by enhancing people’s productivity and income; they are direct ends in human development as they help increase autonomy and civic and political participation and therefore, promote individuals’ capabilities; likewise, investment in education and health are mutually reinforcing and pave the way towards sustainability. 

Public investment in education and health has proved to be the key to poverty reduction and sustainable human development. A series of comparative studies in rural areas of India, China, Thailand, and Uganda confirm that investments in rural education and health facilitated the highest poverty eradication impact followed by investments in agricultural R&D and rural roads (Fan et al., 1999, 2002, 2004a, 2004b). Public investments in human capital in the Seychelles, for instance, has led to the country being ranked as the 46th in world (HDI index). However, despite economic growth and an increase in household income, some other African countries like Zimbabwe, Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone demonstrate lower educational attainment and lower HDI ranks (African Outlook, OECD, 2013). Likewise, Equatorial Guinea has the highest per capita income in Africa, yet 80 percent of the public investment is spent on large-scale infrastructure projects and only 2 to 3 percent is allocated to education and health (HRW, 2017) resulting in 46% out-of-school children at primary level and the lowest vaccination rate in the world. 

Sustainable development in Africa can be achieved through comprehensive legal and political initiatives that promote public investment in education and health as priorities. The best strategy towards sustainable development is not merely the economic growth and the rise in households’ income; it is rather tailored public investment in education and health that facilitates capabilities of the poorest of the poor through participatory and community-based projects. As Sachs (2014) rightly stated, there is no reason why Africa should continue facing challenges in the future. 

Investing in public education and health sectors can lead to increased social inclusion and participation and ensure environmental-friendly growth. With its growing population, the old continent urgently needs such targeted investments in human capital to secure a sustainable development.