As I was reading through the 2010 Human Development Report released last Friday by the United Nations Development Program, I was disheartened to see that South Africa had dropped in the report's rankings. In the report's human development index, which ranks the world's countries according to national income, life expectancy, and literacy, South Africa this year ranked 110 out of 169 countries, down 6 levels from its 2005 ranking. For a country that has the lowest poverty levels on the African continent, what can explain South Africa's challenges? Perhaps even more important, what can be done to improve not only the country's ranking, but the lives of its individual residents?
In an honest (albeit ambiguous) answer to these questions, the report notes that there is no single model or uniform prescription for progressing human development. That makes sense, as some countries show improved rankings in spite of modest economic growth, while other countries show strong economic performance but minimal gains in health, literacy, or individual income. But what can explain the challenges faced by South Africa, especially when contrasted by the rapid progress made by other Sub-Saharan countries with similar demographics? Namely, Botswana, Benin, and Burkina Faso are all noted in the report as among the top 25 countries that have made the greatest progress in human development.
Health is certainly part of the picture. Countries with high adult mortality have a smaller workforce, less household income, higher unemployment, and, not surprislyly, lower quality of life. This is part of the explanation for South Africa's ruling ranking: a declining life expectancy due to the HIV crisis. With nearly one in five people infected with HIV, South Africa's life expectancy currently stands at 52 years. Other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Swaziland, Lesotho, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, simply have HIV prevalence rates above 15 percent and experience declining life expectancies. As a result, these countries show the slowest progress in human development. Although the explanation for South Africa's lower rank in the index is discouraging, it is at least simple and concrete. It is an easily understood cause and effect that, with the stabilizing of HIV infection rates as some reports show, can hopefully soon be reversed.
The realinchch to human development, though, is education. Education is the common denominator to bringing together all components of a country's development: national income, life expectancy, and literacy. It is education that leads to healthy societies and empowered citizens. Educated people enjoy intellectual fulfillment, improved employment options, higher employment retention, and increased income. Educated people show improved health and quality of life, important outcomes for South Africans whose families and communities have been devastated by the AIDS pandemic. In South Africa, only a focus on education can improve the country's human development and improve the lives of its residents.
The full report by the United Nations Development Program can be found here: http://hdr.undp.org/en/