GDP growth is on the upswing across East Africa. Life expectancy is rising again. But is prosperity irreversible and inevitable?
Maternal, newborn and infant mortality are declining rapidly. Life expectancy in Kenya is now estimated at 63 years. Enrolment in primary school remains high. Student numbers in secondary and university level are surging. Interest and investment in technical and vocational education are gathering momentum.
Access to electricity is high and rising, thanks to massive expansion of the national grid and the falling cost of solar power. Significant improvements in major trunk roads have cut travel time between far-flung villages and cities. The proliferation mobile telephony has revolutionised access to information and financial services.
Overall, life has improved for the majority of East Africans. But there is still so much to do. Rapid expansion of access to education, from primary to university level, has come at the expense of quality. About a third of children finishing primary school do not possess requisite levels of literacy or numeracy. Graduates from our universities are mostly functionally illiterate.
According to the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union, the doctor-patient ratio stands at about 1 to 17,000, against the WHO ratio of 1 to 1,000. Our schools are inadequately staffed. Agricultural extension services have collapsed. Smallholder farm productivity is in free fall. Pockets of hunger and chronic malnutrition still exist and will deprive our economies of vital human capital.
The rate of urbanisation has outpaced the capacity of our cities to plan and provide basic services such as housing, water and sanitation. About 80 per cent of the residents of Dar es Salaam live in unplanned settlements. According to the World Bank, Kampala could become a mega slum in less than 10 years. The city of Nairobi cannot provide clean water for its residents.
The path to sustained prosperity is neither certain nor inevitable. Our progress remains fragile.
The challenges presented by climate change, intense competition for and degradation of water, vegetation and soil resources, unequal distribution of growth, conflict and failing global leadership are complex, entwined and unprecedented on a global scale.
Across East Africa, debt levels are beginning to surge again. Commodity prices are in decline. Traditional job intensive sectors such as manufacturing and agriculture continue to defy growth.
Moreover, the youth bulge, rapid and unplanned urbanisation, anaemic public sector governance, a feeble civil society, jobless growth and a looming risk of violent extremism make our challenges more complex.
New ideas and innovations in governance, in the public and private sectors, must emerge to deal with the challenges that confront us. Grappling with these challenges will depend on imagination and creativity, cooperation and sacrifice from all of us.
We cannot afford the politics of rancour and division. Politics and governance must be about solving our most urgent challenges. Moreover, it’s not okay for citizens to stand pat and blame politics and government for everything that is wrong. We the people must live up to the sacred obligation of citizenship — enlightened engagement.
Dr Awiti is the director of the East African Institute at Aga Khan University