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The African Cliff
Alex Steffen, 3 Mar 05

I am by nature a man more moved by words than numbers, but every once in a while you see a chart which is absolutely stunning in its implications. This illustration of the "African cliff" dropped me in my tracks. Here's what widespread poverty, oppression and a massive unchecked epidemic are doing, today, to Africa. This is what a continent mid-melt-down looks like:





















We don't do bad news, in general, but some pieces of data are worldchanging in their power. This chart ought to be framed and hung on the wall of every political leader on the planet.

(via Dave Roberts)

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Comments

The vertical axis should start at zero. Even so, AIDS (etc) is devastating.

http://www.oneworldbeat.org/owb2005/ and also bells for Earth Day.

Symbolic, ok, but let's join and see how much noise, sound, music we make?


Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 4 Mar 05

I think you SHOULD "do bad news" when the bad news is world-changing, as this is. Also, "bad news" sometimes serves as context; it helps us understand how important the "good news" featured here really is.


Posted by: David Foley on 4 Mar 05

David, exactly. This puts much of our thinking on development in perspective.

There's a problem when hundreds and thousands of NGO's all set up their interesting little projects, but forget the big issues. Concentrating on certain priorities would be much more worldchanging.

Of course, many organizations only survive on the good will of first world donors, and many of the priorities on which more focus is urgently needed, simply aren't "sexy" enough to get sufficient funding. Many NGO's are pure marketing machines who must follow bourgeois trends in order to survive. They have nothing to do with reality.

On an other level (that of big pharma): we're living in a capitalist world, and AIDS is still not profitable enough, just like malaria and yellow fever. The ones who have the means of production are not interested in investing in little markets (although we're talking about millions of people). It's old fashioned marxist talk - again, not very sexy - but it's more relevant than ever before.


Posted by: Lorenzo on 4 Mar 05

One thing I fear most is a resurgence of real world re-colonialization.
In the capitals of the Western world, it's hot again to talk about colonialism. Some even openly shout we should get at it again.
This kind of disastrous pictures gives them gun powder. "See? When we were ruling Africa, people had a house, food, and a life. Now they die young, in misery. If Africans had to choose between death or racism, they'd choose racism." etc...


Posted by: Lorenzo on 4 Mar 05

I once discussed a very poor-taste plan for the establishment of a libertarian pirate utopia in Africa.

The plan was to ask for, say, 10,000 square miles and soverignty from a nation like Botswana in exchange for setting up a large factory cranking out cheap versions of patented anti-AIDS drugs by using that soverignty to set up a legal domain without patent law, protected from the prevailing patent consensus.

All that aside, it's a hell of a graph.


Posted by: Giles Benning on 4 Mar 05

That's a powerful graph, Alex, and an important reminder of the tragic impact of AIDS on the African continent. But it's misleading to title the image "The African Cliff". (I realize it wasn't your choice of title, but as a fellow contributor to WC, I'm going to debunk in this space, rather than on a blog I know less well.)

The five nations pictured in the graph above are five of the nations most powerfully impacted by HIV/AIDS. The impact of AIDS on the entire continent is not evenly distributed. While many southern African nations are experiencing adult infection rates of 25% or greater, many nations further north have been able to keep infection rates below 10%. While this still has a devestating impact on local populations, it means that life expectancy in those nations has increased, not declined, over the past few decades.

Using UNDP's online Human Development Report research tools, which draw data from the UN's World Population Prospects data set, I was able to compare life expectancies in sub-Saharan African nations between 1970-5 and 2000-5. Across that region, from 1970-75, life expectancy was 45.2 years; at present (2000-05), it's 46.1. While that increase is unimpressive and frustrating, it's actually slightly better than the increase seen in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states (from 69.2 to 69.6).

Looking individually at 44 nations in sub-Saharan Africa between these two time periods, 24 (55%) saw increases in life expectancy, while 20 saw decreases. Of the nations reporting declines in life expectancy, all but three nations (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire) are contiguous, forming a block that extends from Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic in the north down to South Africa.

These nations have been powerfully impacted by HIV, but have also wrestled with the enormous economic and social upheavals caused by the post-colonial exodus of (predominantly white) merchants and landowners who had controlled most of the local economy. Two of the nations on the graph - Zimbabwe and Kenya - have suffered through some of the worst corruption and kleptocracy imaginable during the period from 1970 to the present. The three West African nations where life expectancy has decreased are all countries that have hosted - or currently host - civil wars.

Of the 24 nations where life expectancy has improved are Nigeria and Ethiopia, the most populous nations in sub-Saharan Africa. Also included are nations where seemingly intractible conflicts have given way to peace - Angola, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau.

So here's my graph, which I invite you to hang next to "The African Cliff" in as many offices as you can gain access to.

Why is this important? (Why would I take time to critique a graph whose message and importance I agree with?) There's a terrible tendency for Westerners to encounter some of the hard facts about life in Africa and throw their hands up in despair. While I know that your reaction to a graph like this, Alex, is to redouble your efforts for social justice around the world, the reaction of many people is to dismiss Africa as hopeless.

Africa is an incredible mix of hope and hopelessness, regression and progress, challenges and victories. It's important to celebrate the victories while we mourn the failures.


Posted by: Ethan Zuckerman on 4 Mar 05

Bravo Ethan!


Posted by: Zaid on 5 Mar 05

Ethan, thank you for providing this perspective. What do you think best explains the differences among these countries? I'm asking about root causes; HIV being (perhaps) a secondary cause.


Posted by: David Foley on 6 Mar 05

hopeful article :D

http://economist.com/world/africa/displayStory.cfm?story_id=3715904

Rebuilding failed states

"What can the world do about state failure? Surprisingly, quite a lot."

cheers!


Posted by: glory on 7 Mar 05

Another thing that the graph doesn't show you is the incredible people who are battling the factors scourging these countries. I live in South Africa, and every time I meet a caregiver who is fighting Aids with no resources except her courage and lovingkindness, my heart clenches with love for my people; and I know Zimbabweans caught up in that dreadful mess, and I am simply awed by their bravery, which usually is not even heard fo outside the country.


Posted by: Mandi on 10 Mar 05

Another thing that the graph doesn't show you is the incredible people who are battling the factors scourging these countries. I live in South Africa, and every time I meet a caregiver who is fighting Aids with no resources except her courage and lovingkindness, my heart clenches with love for my people; and I know Zimbabweans caught up in that dreadful mess, and I am simply awed by their bravery, which usually is not even heard of outside the country.


Posted by: Mandi on 10 Mar 05



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