Many left behind by human development progress in sub-Saharan Africa, UNDP Report finds

May 2, 2017

UNDP Country Director Ms. Amanda Serumaga makes her remarks during the launch of the Global HDR in Kenya

Women, girls, youth, the unemployed, people living in rural areas and those in conflict-affected areas are being left behind in myriad ways.

Sub-Saharan Africa is losing around a third of human development outcomes - higher than any other developing region – to inequalities in health, education and economic opportunities.


Nairobi, 2 May 2017: Despite outpacing global human development growth rates over 15 years, sub-Saharan Africa remains burdened by the world’s most uneven distribution of development gains, with women, girls, people living in rural areas, migrants, refugees and those in conflict-affected areas systematically left behind. Gender inequality remains a serious challenge to human development in the region.

These are among the findings of the Human Development Report 2016, entitled ‘Human Development for Everyone’, recently released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The report finds that although average human development improved significantly across all regions from 1990 to 2015, one in three people worldwide continue to live in low levels of human development as measured by the Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI is a summary measure of average achievement in key dimensions of human development: having a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable, and enjoying a decent standard of living.

Despite improvements in sub-Saharan Africa over the past two decades, almost 60 percent of people still experience deprivations in these three areas. Around a third of children under the age of five are malnourished and affected by stunting. Over 35 percent of adults are illiterate. Some 70 percent of working adults earn less than $3.10 per day.

“The human development journey has bypassed specific groups that face systemic barriers to overcoming deprivations. It is essential to know who is suffering, where and how,” said the report’s lead author and Director of the Human Development Report Office Selim Jahan, speaking at the presentation of the report today in Nairobi.

Understanding patterns of exclusion

The report notes that in almost every country, some groups are disadvantaged than others, exacerbating levels of vulnerability, and widening the inequality gap across generations. The report warns that the gaps are set to widen unless deep-rooted development barriers are urgently addressed.

Women and girls, rural dwellers, indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants and refugees are among those systematically excluded with fewer opportunities than others. For example, while women in sub-Saharan Africa tend to live longer, they also tend to be poorer, earn less, and have fewer opportunities in most aspects of life than their male counterparts.

The report indicates that the HDI for women in the region is 0.488 (classified as low human development) while that of men is 0.557 (medium human development). On average, the region loses an estimated US$95 billion annually to women’s lower participation in the paid labour force. In 2014, that figure soared as high as $105 billion.

At the global level, the report also notes that, while gender disparities are slowly narrowing longstanding patterns of exclusion, harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and forced marriage continue to hurt women and girls. Moreover, in 100 countries, women are legally excluded from some jobs because of their gender, and in 18 countries, women need their husband’s approval to work.

Time to root out entrenched barriers to development

In addition to women and girls, rural populations also suffer deprivations both overt and hidden. In sub-Saharan Africa, 74 percent of those living in rural areas live in multi-dimensional poverty - reflecting acute deprivation in health, education and standards of living - versus 31 percent of those living in urban areas, where the poor tend to be isolated, living in slums with lower access to services.

Moreover, migrants and refugees often face barriers to work, education and political participation: worldwide more than 250 million people face discrimination based on their ethnicity, the report notes among other examples.

Further, the report points out that even as many basic deprivations are being addressed in the region, new challenges are emerging. Key development metrics can overstate progress when they focus on the quantity, rather than the quality, of development. For example, while more children are attending school and the education gender gap is closing, pupil-teacher ratios exceeded 40 to 1 in 23 countries in sub- Saharan Africa in 2011. And dropout rates are still very high, at 42 percent.

While Kenya has shown progress in promotion of human development - in improving access to education, health and sanitation, with more people rising out of extreme poverty, several groups remain disadvantaged. For example rural-urban imbalances, as well as high levels of inequalities among women and men, remain a concern.

Kenya’s 2015 Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.555, ranks it towards the bottom of the medium human development group of countries and 146th overall in the world out of 188.  This score that is above the average of 0.523 for countries in Sub Saharan Africa. By comparison, Tanzania, is ranked in 151st place, Uganda in 163rd place and Ethiopia in 174th.

Policies that prioritize inclusiveness are key to closing gaps

The report recommends a four-pronged national policy approach to ensure that human development reaches everyone.

“Voice and empowerment, are key objectives of human development and a powerful means by which communities can achieve this includes ensuring that all groups are represented at the table when national priorities are being set.” Amanda Serumaga, Country Director, UNDP Kenya

First, it advocates reorienting universal human development policies to reach to those left out. Universal access to quality healthcare, education and other services are critical for extending human development to everyone. Ghana has made such efforts, including in early childhood education.

Next, it calls for removing barriers to particular groups with special needs, who may be disadvantaged by discriminatory laws and social norms. For example, gender gaps can be closed with policies that balance care work between women and men in the home or that use quotas to expand political representation among women, following the example of Rwanda.

Third, strategies can be put in place to make human development more resilient, such as for marginalized groups who are most at risk to public health crises and climate-related natural disasters.

Finally, the rights of minorities can be better protected with anti-discrimination legislation, a fair judicial system and improved access to legal assistance through, for example, legal aid services.

With the inter-governmental commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that includes the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, global attention has focused on leaving no one behind. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa can leverage this to build cooperation in the region and beyond to tackle persistent deprivations and inequalities. Regional and global cooperation will be especially important for reducing the vulnerabilities of marginalized groups to climate change, conflict and economic volatility.


Ngele Ali, Communications Specialist - UNDP Kenya  +254 798 481 008




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