The African Child: Key to Economic Growth

The African Child: Key To Economic Growth

Today, June 16, 2013 marks the International Day of the African Child. It has been celebrated every year since 1991 on June 16 and was first initiated by the Organization of African Unity to which Nigeria is a member. It honours those who participated in the Soweto uprising but also raises awareness of the continuing need for the improvement of the education provided to African children and also our responsibility to protect and respect the rights of children and their development in Africa.

The topic of children and their rights was described by Bill Gates as “A topic of critical importance to the world” – He said this while addressing the World Child & Youth Forum held in Sweden in March this year. However, it seems like this importance has not properly resonated at home here in Nigeria. While the rest of the world is making a serious commitment to support children rights and their development, especially the private sector, Nigeria does not appear to have received the memo. New statistics published by UNESCO last week showed that Nigeria maintained the highest ranking of greatest number of children out of school – 59 million children. The figures are alarming. The figures are also questionable, but nevertheless they do no good for the public image of our country.

There has been unparalled global interest in the survival and development of children and this interest was translated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and also in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to reduce child mortality, eradicate poverty and hunger and achieve universal primary education for all by 2015. It is no longer news that Nigeria will not achieve any of the eight MDGs by 2015, yet countries like Ghana, Rwanda, Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania are on target to achieving multiple goals. Ironically, seven of the eight MDGs have a direct impact on children (you cannot talk about gender/ empowering women without looking at the direct impact on the well-being of the child), which means that until Nigeria makes a serious commitment to support children’s rights we will not attain any of the MDGs and develop as a nation.

The responsibility lies with the private sector – the responsibility to invest in the African child and make a serious commitment to support the rights and development of the African child lies with the private sector. The World Bank, the African Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Economic Forum and have all confirmed over and over again that private sector development is critical to facilitating economic growth and reducing poverty and inequality in Africa. Indeed, Africa is now one of the most profitable regions for investment. Some predict that Africa needs 7-8% annual growth and the creation of 1 million SMEs – small to medium sized enterprises over the next 10 years-.

But it isn’t all about building roads and bridges and profit margins. Private sector investment must turn its directions to children – developing them and protecting them; and re-adjusting their attitudes to reach a deep understanding that supporting children’s rights is not corporate social responsibility but all about nation building. Until the private sector can understand this, the economic growth of this country will continue to be stunted.

Looking at the key areas of education, health (and nutrition) and child protection, our Nigerian billionaires and captains of industry can no longer switch off when the word “children” is mentioned. Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and other philanthropists like him continue to fight our fight.

He has just recently re-pledged his support to end child malnutrition and hunger at the Enough Food for Everyone rally in London on June 8th. But why is it that the West is leading this fight? We all agree that only Africa can solve Africa’s problems, so where are our African billionaires? Where are our Nigerian billionaires? Why haven’t they started a campaign to support Children’s Rights and be at the forefront of this critical topic that will map the future of this country?

Though Nigeria joined the G7 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition this past week, the press release from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development paid sole attention to Nigeria’s agriculture transformation and impacting the lives of 10 million farmers (the Agricultural Transformation Agenda). This is good but the press release made no mention of the importance of nutrition in the lives of the nation’s most important citizens and failed to note that the G7 Alliance is not just about food security but also about nutrition. In Europe, the 5-fruits/vegetables a day campaign has been circulated around schools for over a decade. In the public schools, every child between the ages of four to six years old is entitled to a free piece of fruit or vegetable a day.

Though this might be ambitious for us to achieve right now in Nigeria, nutritional targets can also be reached through milk. What is the government in conjunction with the private sector doing to ensure that every child in the public schools in Nigeria gets to drink a glass of milk each day especially when the cost implication is only between N10 (ten naira) and N20 (twenty naira) per child? There are indeed N10 naira milk sachets available in the market.

There is a hunger epidemic going on right now in our public schools. Even if malnutrition is not killing children it is sabotaging their mental development. How can a child learn on an empty stomach? A child in its first two years of life must get enough food to eat or else his brain is not going to develop as fully as it should. What does that say about our future workforce, our future consumers and our future leaders? Childhood experiences are crucial to the adults we become. If we do not enhance the position of children in our society today in the areas of education, health, nutrition and child protection, we will not be able to develop our economies and our societies effectively.

Investing in children is not only the right thing to do for their survival and quality of life, it is also vital for creating and sustaining broad-based economic growth and the essential key to nation building.

Date Published: Jun 16, 2013