It’s exactly 15 years since I first boarded a plane to Lesotho. I was 22 then and had seldom strayed far from my Pennsylvania home. So, the next three years in the Mountain Kingdom left a life-long impression.
After returning to the US, I resolved to stay abreast of news from that corner of the world. It wasn’t easy, but I succeeded to some degree with the help of new friends, an Africa-focused job, and the globe-shrinking Internet.
But as time passed, headlines from Lesotho did less and less to satisfy my nostalgia – and tinged my memories with melancholy instead.
The news just never seemed to change. The country struggles with the same problems today that it did 15 years ago. Unemployment, political strife, and AIDS. All seem as intractable as ever.
But this article from the Economist lifted the gloom. It reminded me that all nations are a work in progress, and modern Africa’s record of progress is nothing less than extraordinary.
Living Proof of Progress
How might we gauge this progress?
I suggest we consider 15,013,767 uniquely special babies.
They come from across the continent — from the banks of the Nile to the Niger Delta and from the Kenyan savanna to the Namibian desert. But they share a common bond. All are living testament to Africa’s advancement.
You see, 15 years ago, the UN estimates that 156 out of every 1000 African babies died before their fifth birthday. Today, thanks to improved pre-natal care, vaccine delivery, better nutrition, fewer wars, and the humble mosquito net, that heart-breaking mortality rate has dropped by nearly 33%.
Take a look at this chart to see just how large an impact this has made.
[table id=86 /]Source: UN
What’s the difference between the hypothetical scenario and the actual one?
If the continent’s development had stalled in 1997, none of them would have lived beyond age five.
Now, thanks to the tireless and skilled effort of countless doctors, nurses, educators, civil servants, scientists, and peacebuilders, these babies survive to participate in Africa’s success story deep into this century and perhaps into the next.
Granted, the work is far from finished. Child mortality rates on the continent remain tragically high. But 15,013,767 children are progress’s living proof.
Oh, and guess what — 5,317 of these babies hail from a small, mountain kingdom named Lesotho.
Next week, I’ll delve into the implications of these falling mortality rates for African economies, so if you’re of a Malthusian bent, please hold your fire until then!