Devastated by AIDS, Africa Sees Life Expectancy
By CELIA W. DUGGER
Published: July 16, 2004
Africa is getting poorer and hungrier as life expectancy continues its
steep decline in the countries hardest hit by the AIDS pandemic,
according to a United Nations report released Thursday. It said infants
born now in seven nations with high rates of H.I.V. infection could
expect to live less than 40 years.
The report, by the United Nations Development Program, also said the
sub-Saharan African region as a whole was getting poorer, with the
prospect that rising numbers of Africans will subsist on less than $1 a
day in the years to come.
Last year, the United Nations Development Program projected that it
would take Africa more than 140 years to halve the number of people
living in extreme poverty. But this year, as even that slight progress
is gone, its annual Human Development Report states that "no date can be
set because the situation in the region is worsening, not improving."
As Africa struggles with the world's heaviest AIDS burden, South Asia
and East Asia are making rapid progress in reducing poverty and hunger,
driven mainly by the advances of China and India, the two most populous
countries, the report found.
Africa's setbacks are a break from recent decades of progress. From 1960
to 2000, for example, life expectancy in developing countries rose to 63
years from 46. Africa was part of that progress until the mid-1990's,
when AIDS began seriously eroding its gains. The bleak statistical
portrait of sub-Saharan Africa, drawn from the 2004 Human Development
Report, does not spare South Africa, the region's economic powerhouse,
which celebrated a decade of post-apartheid democracy this year. It is a
discouraging portrait that the South African government sharply disputed
The report's summary measure of well-being - gauged by life expectancy,
literacy, school enrollment rates and per-capita income - shows that
South Africans are worse off today than they were when apartheid ended.
That finding is largely driven by falling life expectancy because of
AIDS, which the United Nations Development Program set at 48.8 years for
South Africa in this year's calculation.
Joel Netshitenzhe, a spokesman for the South African government, called
the United Nations' life expectancy estimate "nonsensical." South
Africa's Medical Research Council, a government-financed independent
body, estimated that life expectancy in South African had fallen much
less severely, to 55 in 2000 from 57 in 1995.
According to the South African government's assessment of its people's
well-being, based on the higher, national calculations of life
expectancy, South Africans are better off than they were a decade ago.
"We have interacted with the U.N.D.P. and demonstrated that some of the
data they used to come to their conclusions are inaccurate," Mr.
Fu Haishan, a statistician with the United Nations Development Program,
said the Human Development Report relied on statistics from the World
Bank and United Nations agencies that specialize in education, hunger
and population "to ensure minimum and common standards are used."
Mark Malloch Brown, administrator of the program, said in an interview
that he had had difficult exchanges with South Africa over the report's
findings. He called the life expectancy data for South Africa
"catastrophic," even as he recognized post-apartheid improvements in
education, electricity and water provision.
As to what South Africa needs to do, Mr. Malloch Brown said, "Fix the
South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, has been criticized at home and
abroad for being slow to aggressively tackle AIDS. More than five
million South Africans are infected with H.I.V. And unlike neighboring
Botswana, which started an effort to provide drug treatment to people
with AIDS in 2001, South Africa's treatment effort just got under way
The South African government spokesman, Mr. Netshitenzhe, defended the
government's AIDS effort, saying it had the continent's biggest
prevention program and expected to be providing drug treatment to 53,000
people by March.