Perfect storm pushes children of sub-Saharan Africa into crisis

  • An estimated 30 million Africans fell into extreme poverty in 2020 – the vast majority of them are under the age of 18.
  • Half a billion dollars flow from Africa to its lenders every week, money that vulnerable children desperately need.
  • Time and time again, cash transfers have proven to be the best method of providing both rapid relief and building resilience.

It is unlikely that in any 12 month period, at any time in human history, the prospects of hundreds of millions of children have undergone such a dramatic reversal as the one to come. to happen for the next generation of sub-Saharan Africa.

The response to COVID-19, compounded by the ever-increasing impacts of climate change, the resumption and spread of conflict and the continent’s first concurrent economic recession, have combined to hit children the hardest.

2020 began with the prospect of modest economic growth across Africa and quiet optimism, a combination of relative stability and a flourishing consensus on the actions needed to tackle the causes of climate change that are already affecting so much of the continent.

When the African Development Bank (AfDB) published its Economic outlook for 2020, he predicted growth of more than 3%. What happened next is well known: economies have been plunged into a deep recession, jobs have evaporated, climate action has stalled and schools and other social services have shut down.

The debate over the effectiveness of pandemic responses will continue for years. Growing children don’t have that luxury, however: Brain growth biology and educational opportunities are all windows that close quickly unless the right support is provided at the right time.

Never has there been a better argument for immediate relief from the debt burden of African nations – an argument put forward in the release of the African Development Bank report Economic outlook for 2021. The message was reinforced by Nobel Laureate Professor Joseph Stiglitz, whose authority in the matter begins with the fact that together with Hamid Rashid, he predicted the unsustainable debt levels across the continent almost a decade ago.

Depth of recession - Africa and other regions 2018-2022

The fallout from the economic crisis induced by COVID-19 exceeds what individual nations can bear and requires concerted action by the international community. Without rapid restructuring and debt relief, half a billion dollars are flowing from the continent every week to service providers, money that vulnerable households and children desperately need.

Thanks to the work of UNICEF across sub-Saharan Africa, we now get a better feel for the gravity of the situation.

About 30 million Africans fell into extreme poverty in 2020, with another 40 million at risk for the same in 2021 – the vast majority of them under 18 – while more than 250 million students have virtually no schooling. Unlike most of their peers in other regions, distance learning tools remain largely inaccessible. Millions of students are unlikely to ever return to school, forced to become permanent members of the informal labor market or victims of early marriages. Reports of peaks in teenage pregnancies are deeply concerning.

Already entrenched climate emergencies, catalyzed by recurring cycles of extreme weather, generate new levels of displacement and food insecurity, while increasing stunting and the spread of diseases like cholera and malaria. Again, children are affected the most: two-thirds of preventable illnesses and deaths from environmental hazards are suffered by them.

Most countries in sub-Saharan Africa have only nascent social protection systems, small-scale versions of safety nets that are taken for granted in richer countries. At a time when African families need to expand these programs, declining incomes and increasing debt repayments are jeopardizing government budgets to provide basic social services.

G20 leaders pledged “to do whatever it takes” to minimize the economic and social damage from the pandemic. Stiglitz went further: “We have the tools to do it, we only need the political will.”

Rich countries have benefited from massive public investments to mitigate the impact on families. These assistance programs – a form of cash transfers – are called “relief” and “stimulus,” in recognition of the fact that an added benefit of helping families is that the funds are immediately spent on restarting the economy. .

African families deserve the same, just as their economies need to be boosted. This will only be possible with additional financial support that begins with reasonable debt restructuring of the type advocated by the African Development Bank and Professor Stiglitz.

Like everywhere in the world, families here need their children to return to school, financial resources to cover basic daily needs and a rapid and inclusive economic recovery.

The first human trial of a COVID-19 vaccine was administered this week.

CEPI, launched at the World Economic Forum, has provided financial support for the phase 1 study. The organization this week announced its seventh COVID-19 vaccine project in the fight against the pandemic.


The Coalition for epidemic preparedness innovations (CEPI) was launched in 2017 at the Forum’s annual meeting – bringing together experts from government, business, healthcare, academia and civil society to accelerate vaccine development against emerging infectious diseases and enable the access to these vaccines during epidemics.

Coalitions like CEPI are made possible through public-private partnerships. The World Economic Forum is the trusted global platform for stakeholder engagement, bringing together an array of multi-stakeholder businesses, governments and civil society to improve the state of the world.

Organizations can partner with the Forum to contribute to global health solutions. Contact us to find out how.

Cash transfers have repeatedly proven to be the best method for both providing rapid relief and building the resilience of individuals, households and national economies. A simple intervention produces diverse impacts: reducing the need for child labor, improving food security, increasing access to health and education services, building a family’s resilience to face the next shock and recover. of the last. Cash transfers are both an investment in children, human capital and economic growth.

Topics like debt restructuring, Stiglitz’s academic tones, and comprehensive reports from institutions like the African Development Bank can sound like cold economics and unbiased numbers. However, we now have the opportunity to put finance and economics at the service of African children at a time when their needs are greatest. We have a proven policy tool in cash transfers and the next 12 months to prove that we will “do whatever it takes” to rebuild the future of African children.

About Deborah Wilson

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