Published on Africa Can End Poverty

Africa's great strides towards the MDGs

This page in:

This week’s Millennium Summit has given data mavens like myself motivation to take a second look at the development indicators for the countries where they work.

For Kenya (my current focus, along with Sudan) a rich source of information is the recently published report for the 2008-09 Demographic and Health Survey.

Below I’ve graphed several indicators from the Kenya DHS from 1998, 2003, and 2008-09. We see that there have been substantial gains along several lines. School attendance rates rose with the introduction of free primary education earlier in the decade. Vaccination rates increased sharply between 2003 and 2008. Access to improved water sources also expanded, and phone access jumped as the mobile revolution hit Kenya.























The picture for children’s health outcomes is mixed. The rate of child malnutrition dropped only slightly. At the same, child mortality rates plunged by 36%, from 115 per 1000 in 2003 to 74 per 100 in 2008. One of my current research projects is to examine the likely drivers of this spectacular improvement.

Broadly, the two main candidates are economic growth and improvements in health care and other interventions. A look at the national-level trends doesn’t seem to support the economic growth hypothesis; although Kenya did experience strong economic growth for most of the period, if fewer children were dying because families were wealthier and better able to take care of their children’s material needs, we would expect to see substantially lower rates of child malnutrition.

On the other hand, we might think that credit for the decline in child mortality should go to anti-malaria interventions. There has been a huge increase in the use of insecticide-treated bed nets, and various pieces of evidence suggest malaria rates have gone down. But this can’t be the whole story, because child mortality rates have declined even in areas of Kenya that don’t have malaria. This leaves us with a bit of a puzzle that I will tackle in the next few months. 

It’s striking that the child mortality decline is not limited to Kenya. In the figure below I’ve plotted child mortality rates using DHS data for all sub-Saharan African countries for which a DHS has been conducted since 2006. In every single one, child mortality rates have dropped markedly in recent years. (I produced these figures using the DHS STATcompiler tool.)




















This bit of positive news brings to mind the related much broader findings of the new book Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries Are Leading the Way by Steven Radelet, who demonstrates that the experiences of sub-Saharan African countries have been diverse and that many countries in the region have experienced steady economic growth, improved governance, and decreased poverty since the mid-1990s.

Radelet (2010) argues that five fundamental changes have driven the broader turnaround in the “emerging African countries” that he profiles: 1) more democratic and accountable governments, 2) more sensible economic policies, 3) the end of the debt crisis and major changes in relationships with the international community, 4) new technologies that are creating new opportunities for business and political accountability, and 5) a new generation of policymakers, activists, and business leaders.

Radelet’s case matches my sense of Kenya, which is much more positive now than before I moved to Nairobi a year ago. While I don’t want to minimize the challenges the country faces, there are many reasons to be optimistic about Kenya’s future including the overwhelming recent approval of Kenya’s new constitution, the spectacular expansion of home-grown mobile money transfer systems, the tremendous dynamism of the private sector, and the improvements in human development indicators I highlighted at the beginning of this post. 

I think many people have the impression that all of Africa is permanently mired in poverty. But the reality in the ground is much different: great strides are being taken in Kenya and in many other places on the continent.


Gabriel Demombynes

Manager of the Human Capital Project at the World Bank

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000