Published on Africa Can End Poverty

Investing in human capital and putting people first

This page in:
Photo by Sofiya Kozy Photo by Sofiya Kozy

Rose Tembo knows how easily her education could have ended in secondary school, years earlier than she wished, when her family ran out of money to pay school fees. She credits the help she received from the World Bank’s supported Girls’ Education and Women’s Empowerment and Livelihoods (GEWEL) Project in Zambia, for making it possible for her to complete her education and go on to university.

Low-income families in Zambia are benefiting from cash transfer programs that support women’s livelihoods and keep girls in school. Adaptive social protection programs are becoming increasingly important as people across the continent weather multiple shocks, including recurrent droughts, and the negative effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on local economies.

Thousands of miles away, off the coast of West Africa in Cabo Verde, Alice Bentoub is the reason people in her community were quick to agree to being vaccinated against COVID-19. Many did so to allow the tourism sector—so vital to Cabo Verde—to reopen in the summer of 2021. Cabo Verde’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contracted sharply by 14.8% in 2020 during the pandemic, one of the largest drops in GDP in Africa.

Getting vaccines to 400,000 people spread across 10 islands is no small feat but, thanks to a strong health system and a sound supply strategy, Cabo Verde has become a global model for COVID-19 response. Health teams, made up of nurses like Alice, hike rough, mountainous terrain to vaccinate residents isolated in remote villages.

In our Year 3 Progress Report on the World Bank’s Africa Human Capital Plan, we describe COVID-19 as a wake-up call for increased investments in human capital and preparedness, seeing in it an urgent need to strengthen systems for social services to help make people more resilient to shocks—including climate events and food shortages—all of which threaten lives today. We also explain the need for catalytic catch-up investments to recover the losses in human capital caused by the COVID-19 crisis, a crisis we know has erased years of progress in poverty reduction. And we explain why we need to improve data collection to measure the full impact of COVID-19 to help us build back better.

The COVID-19 pandemic not only made assessing and tracking progress very challenging, it also highlighted the importance of accurate, comprehensive data to make policy decisions. We’d like to capitalize on the success of the Service Delivery Indicators (SDI) surveys, which collect data in schools, clinics, and hospitals, providing the evidence countries need to improve the quality and accessibility of social services.

In the report, we explain that the World Bank is ramping up support for adaptive social safety nets programs, as well as strengthening delivery systems in the health, education, and social protection sectors, with strong support from the International Development Association (IDA), the World Bank’s fund for the world’s poorest countries. It was $15 million from IDA that helped Cabo Verde purchase and deploy COVID-19 vaccines, leading to coverage of 98% of the adult population with a first dose, and 86% of the adult population fully immunized, the fourth highest coverage against COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In our fight to build, protect, and utilize Africa’s human capital, we named seven gamechangers, including increasing World Bank financing that focuses on multisectoral solutions. Since the Africa Human Capital Plan (HCP) began in 2019, Bank financing for human development—the components that build human capital—has exceeded its $5 billion a year goal, reaching $8.2 billion in FY2022. Our human development portfolios for health, education, social protection, and jobs have grown to $34.3 billion—another gamechanger.

In Zambia, we hope to meet our 2023 target of providing expanded social protection coverage to 30% of people living in the poorest economic quintile. Cash transfers like those that helped Rose’s family have helped tens of thousands of other families too. Primary school attendance is up (by 10%); families have increased the land they farm (by 18%); and support is enabling men and women to start small businesses and keep their children in school.

IDA20’s financing envelope of $93 billion, comes with a special theme on human capital, positioning us well for the next stepped-up phase of the Africa HCP that invests in inclusive, adaptive, and accountable human development systems.

Despite global and Sub-Saharan Africa’s overlapping crises—including the war in Ukraine and regional armed conflicts—countries have been making important investments in their human capital, which has helped them weather the shocks of the crises. Even though progress towards our Human Capital Index (HCI) 2023 targets has been slow, it is progress all the same. Under-5 mortality has dropped to 73 per 1,000 live births from 75; our target is 45. Stunting in children, prevented by better nutrition, has fallen fractionally, while learning-adjusted years at school have very slightly improved, despite school closures during the pandemic. These figures reflect incremental progress, not decline.

The need for countries to stay the course of building and investing in human capital is key. Revisiting our targets in the new, post-COVID-19 reality gives us the chance to pause and reset, turning lessons we’ve learned into robust multisectoral interventions that are inclusive, adaptive, and accountable. With strategic investments and focus, the HCI scores that stagnated in 2020 can once again begin to climb.


Dena Ringold

Regional Director for HD, Africa West and Central

Amit Dar

Director of Strategy and Operations for Eastern and Southern Africa

Join the Conversation

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