Levels of human well-being affect the range of opportunities available to people and the kinds of choices they are able to make. Health and education, as well as access to material assets, directly affect capabilities and, in turn, impact on the environment (MA 2005). African nations rank, on average, lower than any other continent on the Human Development Index (HDI). In recent years there has been a decline in the quality of life, as measured by the HDI, in many African countries (UNDP 2005).

Although there has been an improvement in quality of life across the globe, Africa has lagged behind in some key areas:

  • Half of the population in Africa lack access to health services. Health challenges are monumental in a region with the highest rates of fertility, maternal and childhood mortality, malnutrition, two-thirds of world’s known AIDS cases, 90 per cent of world’s yearly malaria fatalities, and where half of the female population is illiterate.
  • In rural Africa, about 50 per cent of the population are without access to adequate water supply, and 70 per cent are without access to adequate sanitation (WHO and UNICEF 2004). In urban areas, about 20 per cent and 40 per cent of the population are without access to adequate water supply and sanitation respectively (WHO and UNICEF 2004).
  • Although there has been significant progress in education in Africa over the last two decades, there is much to be done. Primary school enrolment in 16 countries is below 60 per cent, and there are more children between the age of 6 and 11 out of school than was the case in the 1990s. The average adult illiteracy stands at 43 per cent.
  • Life expectancy at birth in SSA has been reduced from 50 in 1990 to 46 in 2002 (World Bank 2005a).

Poverty is both a
cause and effect of

MA 2005

The incidence of poverty and the pervasiveness of inequities, as discussed in Chapter 1: The Human Dimension, remain major challenges for development and sustainable environmental management. Poverty is both a cause and effect of environmental degradation (MA 2005). Poverty can be reduced by either increasing economic growth or by reducing inequity. For Africa to halve its poverty level by 2015, as envisaged under the MDG, it will need to achieve an average annual GDP growth rate of 7 per cent (AfDB 2004).

Gender inequity remains a challenge. Although African women have made tremendous progress over the past four decades, there is still a significant gap between rhetorical commitment to gender equity and actual actions adopted to address this. Most African countries continue to rank very low on the GDI although there has been some improvement in GEM (UNDP 2005). GDI focuses on levels of development including life expectancy, literacy, education and income, whereas GEM considers the extent of social inclusion through measures related to parliamentary seats held by women, the percentage of female professional and technical workers, and the ratio of female to male income (UNDP 2005). Important gains have been made in political representation, with Africa leading the world with the highest proportion of women in parliament (UNIFEM 2002). Nevertheless, economic and legal barriers associated with social discrimination continue to prevent women in Africa from improving their status and productivity, and from achieving their full potential. In many countries women continue to face the denial of basic human rights and are often victims of violent crime.

At independence, most African countries inherited a system where government was absolutely responsible for providing basic services and amenities almost at no direct costs to consumers. Over the years, the ability of government to meet the demands for providing basic services and utilities has decreased tremendously and the effect has been one of aggravating social conditions. Much has been said as to what is the right strategy for providing services in developing countries, particularly in Africa. The privatization of public services is a strategy being promoted in an increasing number of African countries. This involves the reduction of public subsidies and, in some cases, the introduction of cost-recovery measures. This development, while having some benefits, could present major causes for concern. For instance, access to clean water is a vital public health necessity and a basic human right and its privatization may lead to reduced access to safe water for poor communities. In Ghana, the recent moves towards water privatization are opposed by CSOs for this reason. Already, according to the Ghanaian Ministry of Health, half of all clinic visits in Ghana are due to water-borne illnesses. Privatization may further reduce access to safe and affordable water in urban areas.