This month The Economist reports that Africa is currently experiencing significant falls in child mortality rates across the continent. Fantastic demographic news. In fact Michael Clemens of the Centre for Global Development names it “the biggest, best story in development”.
16 of the 20 African countries which have had detailed surveys of living conditions since 2005 reported falls in their child-mortality rates (that is, the number of deaths of children under five per 1,000 live births). Senegal, Rwanda and Kenya experienced falls of more than 8% a year. If this rate continues it would halve child mortality in those countries in about a decade.
Interestingly decreasing birthrates, first in the minds of many when discussing poverty in Africa, appear to have only a weak co-relation with the decrease in child mortality. That is because higher or lower birth rates are inconsistent across countries which have all experienced lower child mortality rates. The Economist reports:
The striking thing about the falls is how widespread they have been. They have happened in countries large and small, Muslim and Christian, and in every corner of the continent. The three biggest successes are in east, west and central Africa. The success stories come from Africa’s two most populous countries, Nigeria and Ethiopia, and from tiddlers such as Benin (population: 9m).
You might expect that countries which reduced their birth rates the most would also have cut child mortality comparably. This is because such countries have moved furthest along the demographic transition from poor, high-fertility status to richer, low-fertility status. But it turns out that is only partly true. Senegal, Ethiopia and Ghana all reduced fertility and child mortality a lot. But Kenya and Uganda also did well on child deaths, though their fertility declines have stalled recently. So it cannot all be just about lower birth rates. Liberia, where fertility remains high, did badly on child mortality—but so did low-fertility places such as Namibia and Lesotho. The link between mortality and broader demographic change seems weak.
Instead, sensible aid and economic growth appears to be working wonders. The increased use of insecticide-treated bednets which reduce rates of malaria appear to be a public health factor. In addition, Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda and Uganda have all had strong GDP growth and seen mortality fall, while Zimbabwe’s GDP fell and it’s child mortality rose, indicating a connection between these factors.
However the eclectic mix of circumstances specific to each country suggest that there is no single cause for the impressive fall. Whatever the cause, it is a statistic to celebrate.