East Africa region's economy expands amid deepening levels of poverty and malnutrition

Saturday April 07 2012

The EAC charter puts people at the centre of integration efforts, but the welfare of East Africans themselves has not improved dramatically

The East African Community is experiencing steady growth in trade volumes among member countries in a context of deepening integration and increased international investor interest, but this is not necessarily translating into a better standard of living of the people of East Africa.

This is the fundamental message of the State of East Africa 2012 report, a comprehensive new survey by global think-tank Society for International Development (SID) that examines key trends in the region’s economy, demographics, infrastructure, human development and governance.

The report highlights the fact that, in the past decade, every economy in the EAC grew at a faster pace than its population, implying a collective rise in per capita income. But in truth, the number of East Africans living below the poverty line actually increased from 44 million to 53 million.

“We should all be getting richer, but the reality is, we aren’t,” says Aidan Eyakuze, SID programme director. “The reason for this is that inequality is both deepening and widening. Fewer people are enjoying the benefits of economic growth.”

EAC Secretary-General Dr Richard Sezibera, speaking at the report’s launch in Nairobi, said that equity and inclusion are critical. “The question we need to ask as a region is how can we benefit from the demographic dividend that an increased population bring us. We have to increase the skills base and entrepreneurial capacity. We can look to Asia for lessons, which did reap the benefits of the demographic dividend, or to Latin America, which failed to do so,” he added.
“But we’ve made headway in these conversations. Now we are discussing how we should share the wealth. Ten years ago, we were discussing how to get out of poverty,” said Dr Sezibera.

Trade between the EAC countries almost doubled from $2.2 billion in 2005 to $4.1 billion in 2010, although regional trade with the rest of the world expanded faster, meaning that the relative share of intra-EAC trade has stayed around 21 per cent since 2005.
“Europe enjoys 64 per cent internal trade; our 21 per cent is better than we thought, but we have to make efforts to do better,” said Betty Maina, chairperson of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers.


The region’s oil consumption rose from 96,000 barrels per day in 2003 to 144,000 barrels per day in 2010, with Kenya consuming more than all the other EAC countries put together. East Africa now accounts for 10 per cent of all mobile subscribers in Africa, with the number of mobile subscribers surging from just three million in 2002 to a staggering 64 million in 2010.

There has also been implicit integration of policy across the member states, such as drive for universal primary education, increase in healthcare spending, and an urgent new focus on infrastructure projects both within countries and across borders.

The EAC’s international profile has also been growing — the discovery of oil and gas in recent years, along with piracy off the Somali coast and the Al Qaeda terror link, make it an important geostrategic location. In recent months, at least three other countries in the wider East African region have expressed interest in joining the EAC — Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia.

“More countries have been knocking on the EAC’s door, because they see value in being part of the community,” said Mr Eyakuze.

But SID warns that despite deepening integration, the challenges facing the East African people have been intensifying. “The EAC charter puts people at the centre of integration efforts,” said Mr Eyakuze. “But the welfare of East Africans themselves has not improved dramatically.”

This is not to say that there have not been marked improvements in some areas. The region’s healthcare expenditure, for example, has risen dramatically in the past decade — Rwanda increased its spending fivefold from the year 2000 to $48 per capita in 2010. Uganda tripled its expenditure to $43 per capita; Kenya and Tanzania both doubled their healthcare spending to $33 and $25 per capita respectively. The statistics show that all the EAC countries record a significant improvement in the number of deliveries by a skilled birth attendant, from an average of 40 per cent in 2005 to 53 per cent in 2010. Maternal mortality too, has fallen in the region since 2000, from a high of 1,188 deaths per 100,000 births to 577 deaths.

“The health statistics show a better access to healthcare. But there is a very serious problem of chronic malnutrition in the EAC,” said Mr Eyakuze. “A quarter to a third of East African children are underweight or stunted, and this will affect them intellectually for life. So we are keeping them alive, but what kind of life are we condemning them to? What kind of future will the EAC have if a third of its citizens are intellectual underperformers?”

According to the Global Hunger Index published by the International Food Policy Research Institute, Burundi’s hunger situation has been classified as “extremely alarming” since 1990. Tanzania’s situation is “alarming,” while Uganda and Kenya are just marginally better at “serious.”

“High food prices are linked to a 62 per cent increase in cases of acute malnutrition in health centres and hospitals in Nairobi among young children between January and May 2011,” states the report.

Education, too, apparently suffers from this lack of long-term strategic planning. “Universal primary education has been the focus, and countries have made great efforts. But it seems everyone is caught flat-footed after primary. There is a dramatic drop in enrolment at secondary level — Kenya is the highest at just 45 per cent,” said Ahmed Salim, principal author of the report. The researchers say that there needs to be deeper reflection on the real reason for integration, in order to put the welfare of East Africans at the heart of integration.

“What these two examples suggest is that the focus has been on the immediate without investing in the less slightly dramatic but crucial long-term changes needed for East Africans to have a better life,” says Mr Salim.

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