Easing Poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa

Charlayne Hunter-Gault takes calls about her NPR series, which looks at poverty in six countries in sub-Saharan Africa. She wanted to find out how close the United Nations is to meeting its goal of cutting poverty in half on the continent by 2015.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is on vacation.

You may have heard stories on NPR this week about poverty in Africa. They're part of a series by NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault called Portraits in Poverty. She spent several months researching and reporting how poverty afflicts people on the continent. She wanted to find out how close the United Nations is to meeting its goal of cutting poverty in half by 2015. She found that in some countries things are getting better. But she also found that in many places, girls still aren't being educated, AIDS is undermining family structures and many women continue to die in childbirth.

Today, an opportunity for you to talk with Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Later in the hour, keeping explosives off airplanes, the latest in airport security. Plus, a story of survival in the Himalayas. Leo, the snow leopard arrives in the U.S.

But first, poverty in Africa. If you want to talk to Charlayne about her stories and the issues they raise, or if you've been to Africa and have your own observations, gives us a call. What can be done to address the problems brought on by poverty in Africa. Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. And our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault joins us now from studios in Martha's Vineyard. Thanks so much for being with us, Charlayne.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT reporting:

Happy to be here, Lynn.

NEARY: Charlayne, you reported from six countries on an array of issues. What ties all these stories together?

HUNTER-GAULT: I think there are a couple of things. I mean, the basic thing is that poverty is the number one issue confronting Africans. And there are a variety of things that tie them together. I mean, for example, the lack of infrastructure. And we know that many of the countries I've visited were involved in wars that went on for decades, in Mozambique and in Tanzania and other places. And once those wars ended, everything was destroyed, the roads and in particular the health systems.

And many experts have said that where health systems are in disarray, you can't bring a country back. You've got to have healthy people, A, because you need to keep your population healthy. But in order to recreate your country, to rebuild your country, you've got to have healthy workers and healthy families. And so, I think that's been one of the things that has been a thread, this destruction of infrastructure, the lack of clean, potable water.

But then there's another thing that I found and I guess I knew it. But when you get out there and you actually see it - I knew that AIDS was a problem, but I did not realize that now poverty has another grim companion. It is no longer war. It is AIDS. And so no matter what you're looking at - whether it's maternal mortality, or infant mortality, even the education of girls - you sooner or later trip over AIDS.

NEARY: Yeah. How did you decide on the countries you were going to visit? And how did you decide on which issues to focus on?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, I've written this book, New News Out of Africa, which talks about how Americans see Africa through the prism of the four Ds, death, disease, disaster and destruction. And I knew that poverty was probably going to be consistent with that prism. But I also wanted to look at places where some of these problems were being dealt with.

So for example, I chose Mozambique because even though the rate of infant mortality remains high compared to the standards in the industrialized world, they have made progress in reducing the rate of infant mortality with some very simple procedures. I chose Tanzania because even though the rate of rural poverty, especially as it affects women, is extremely high, there were some programs there that were actually getting women out of poverty.

So that's, I sort of wanted to say, hey, you know, this is a really bad situation but all is not lost. So wherever I could find something positive to associate with this predominately negative bit of statistics and realities, I went to countries that had both.

NEARY: One of the issues that you did focus on was this issue of educating women. That this is seen as key to beginning to solve some of these problems. First of all, why is it so key?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, there's a saying in Africa that if you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate a nation, and that I saw to be the case because educated women see to it that their children are educated. And when their children are educated, they become contributing members of the society. They're much more aware. They're much more likely to advocate for things, including their own human rights, which are still being abridged broadly throughout the continent when it comes to girls.

So it's women, educated women just have much more to contribute to the country that they are in, as well as the continent. So that's why it's so important. And they've been suppressed for so long, because in many countries, even today, women are seen almost as commodities. I mean young girls are being married off so that the family can have cows.

You know, they're traded for cows or sold for, you know, to the highest bidder for all kinds of reasons. So, you know, if you can get girls in school and keep them in school, which is a huge problem, even in countries - one of the reasons I went, for example, to Malawi was that, I'm sorry, Zambia. There they were having some success with girls' education.

But the problem is that girls get through elementary school, which is free, and that's helped to raise the level of girls going to school on a par with boys. But they look at high school, where they have to pay to go. They have to pay for uniforms. They have to pay school fees, etcetera. They don't have the money. They're poor.

And so, at about 5th or 6th grade, at which point they really are getting interested in education and really having dreams like every girl in the world, they suddenly don't see any possibility of fulfilling their dreams because they can't pay to go to high school. So they drop out.

NEARY: You know, I attended the U.N. Population Conference in Cairo in the mid-‘90s. And at that time, that conference was very much focused on women and on the education of women. Can you see whether there's been real progress on that issue in Africa in that last decade or so? I mean, is there a greater awareness? Because there are still, as you pointed out in some of your reports, there are still mighty cultural barriers to this.

HUNTER-GAULT: Yes. And I think I said Zambia, I meant Malawi. There are cultural barriers, I mean in Malawi, for example, I went to a village, and I've been in Africa now for 10 years and I've seen a lot. But it's such a vast continent with such vast problems that you can think you see a lot in 10 years, and then you go out and you see something you've never seen.

Like, there's a ritual that they do. It's an initiation rite for girls coming of age. And as she is coming of age, one of the things that is done in the village is that these men, the girls are taken off into the bush, and men known as hyenas because they wear disguises, actually have, the girls have to have sexual intercourse with them as an initiation rite.

And so with the help of UNICEF and some of the African women's organizations, they approached one chief and told him that, you know, this was spreading AIDS. They didn't talk about girls' human rights or anything like that, because they weren't ready for that. But they said, you know, this is spreading AIDS, and this is not a good thing. So you're going to have, it would be a good idea if you substituted something else for this sexual experience that these girls are being put through.

So they convinced this particular chief to come up with a potion of herbs that they find in the bush, sorry, in America they say herbs, there they say herbs, and have the girls drink the herbs as a way of cleansing themselves and substituting sex for the initiation rite. So they were able to do that in one village, but I'm told that there are other villages, not just in Malawi, but around the continent, where this kind of thing is still going on.

NEARY: I'd like to read an e-mail to you. This is from Rebecca, and she writes, “I was shocked and saddened by your story on the midwife crisis. As a Rotarian, I'm interested in how, as a world-wide organization, we might be able to apply our knowledge and corps of volunteers to this crisis, as well as other crises facing Africa. Are there reputable NGOs on the ground now? Where should I look? What should I be aware of?”

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, absolutely. In one of the pieces I did, in fact from, I think this one was from Zambia, I spoke with a UNICEF representative there who said it doesn't cost very much to train a midwife. I mean, in Mozambique, the midwives told me that before the government came in and began to give them instructions on how to deliver sanitary births, they were cutting the umbilical cord with the backs of snails.

And, you know, it's easy to change that. It's easy to train a midwife. This particular UNICEF person told me, her name was Lotta Sylwander, that you can train a midwife in a relatively short period of time, which will do two things. It will number one help deliver, have safe deliveries, saving mothers and infants. But it also would help solve the unemployment problem, which is vast around the continent.

This can be done in a year. UNICEF is doing it. There are other organizations. USAID is involved in doing it. But this is one thing I found all around the continent, that training midwives, particularly those in the rural areas where there aren't clinics, but if they can be taught to see or spot a potentially difficult pregnancy, like a breech, early enough on, they can get them to clinics and hospitals in the, you know, outside of the rural areas. So this would be an easy problem to solve, actually.

NEARY: Who is making a difference on the ground there now - NGOs or -

HUNTER-GAULT: You know, they're all doing such a magnificent job. CARE, for example, is making great inroads into the issue of women's poverty, rural poverty, through this village savings and loan program, which is providing funds where there are no banks and where there's no other credit.

I saw this on the ground, and even in Zimbabwe, which is a country going to the rags or, you know, the VS&L program is working. I think there are upwards of 300,000 and possible more women on the continent involved in these things where they are able, through their own investments, together, communally, to create funding for restaurants and all kinds of commerce.

NEARY: Charlayne, we're going to take a very short break now, Charlayne. We're going to continue our conversation with NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault about poverty in Africa when we return. The number, if you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. We're talking with NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault about her series of reports on poverty in Africa. She spent months traveling the continent. If you missed any of the series, you can hear it online. You can see photos and read her essay on women and poverty in Africa. Go to NPR.org.

Today we're giving you an opportunity to talk with Charlayne about the issues she has raised or your own ideas about what can be done to alleviate the problems in Africa. Give us a call at 800-989-TALK, or send us an e-mail to talk@npr.org.

And we're going to take a call now from Meg. Meg is calling from Tempe, Arizona. Hi, Meg.

MEG (Caller): Hello?

NEARY: Yes, hi. Go ahead.

MEG: Yes. Charlayne, I appreciate so much your report, and I think it's so important. I wonder to what extent you were able to see the work that Christian agencies are doing. 80 percent of all orphanages in the world are staffed by people from a Christian perspective, and I think that as well as it's important to support UNICEF and other organizations, I think sometimes the work of Christians throughout Africa is under-reported. What did you find?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, I think that there is so much poverty on the continent that there's room for everybody to come in and take a position and to do work to help alleviate it. I think the critical thing here, nowadays Africans are talking about, you know, as they take what I call in my book baby steps to democracy, they're talking about how to solve their own problems.

So I think it's very important for any of these agencies going in to involve the people themselves. I was so impressed, again in Malawi, with how the Africans themselves are working with these organizations, and I think that there's room for all of them because the problems are so enormous and so vast.

NEARY: All right, thanks so much for your call, Meg.

And we are going to be joined now by Steve Radelet. He's the senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C., and formerly the deputy assistant secretary of the treasury for Africa and Asia. Kind enough to join us by phone from Frankfort, Michigan, where he's on vacation. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. STEVE RADELET (Center for Global Development): My pleasure. Thanks, Lynn.

NEARY: Now, I know you see hope in some parts of Africa in the form of a trend toward democracy. Can you explain that?

Mr. RADELET: Yeah I do. In 1990, there were just four countries in Africa that were democracies. Today there are nearly 20. It's a silent change that rarely gets mentioned because it's only one country every few years that changes into a democracy. Some of these are quite fragile and may not last, but some actually have made quite a lot of progress.

I'm talking the first wave was really South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, Lesotho, at the end of Apartheid. But then with the end of the Cold War, it swept further north. Ghana, Senegal, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, even Kenya and Nigeria in the last few years have had elections. And most recently, in Liberia, where I've had the good pleasure to work over the last few months, the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected in Africa, where they're trying to get back on their feet.

So there's this revolution changing, sweeping throughout Africa that, it's actually a monumental change that so many countries would move towards democracy over this relatively short period of time of the past 10 or 15 years. In those countries, we're seeing faster growth in income, averaging 2 to 2.5 percent per year, which is better than the zero that it had been for many years before that. We've seen a sharp drop in infant mortality rates in those countries and longer life expectancies.

So there's a big debate going on about whether the improvements in income and health indicators is driving the democracy or it's the other way around. I actually think it's a positive circle with both helping the other. But there is this major change going on where there's some very hopeful signs, and we don't hear much about those countries. We hear more about the problems in Somalia and in Congo and in Sudan and places where war has continued, but these countries are quietly making a slow-but-steady progress.

NEARY: Charlayne, I believe that all the countries you went to for this series are democracies. Was that a coincidence?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, I mean, if you look at it through the prism of Steve, you know, what he just said, obviously that's the case. And I think that one of the things that these democracies have or are beginning to do is deal with corruption, which has been one of the big problems that has perpetuated poverty.

But now you've got African leaders at least laying down the principles for transparency, for accountability, for fiscal and economic responsibility and good economic management. So yes, I mean, democracy is bringing in new ways of doing business and respect for human rights, as well.

However, and I'd like to hear what Steve has to say about this, I think that this is a great trend, the baby steps towards democracy as I say in the book, but you know - and they're fragile, so they have to be supported. But they also have to deliver, which is why I think the international community needs to be involved and needs to see Africa through a different prism, not just the 4Ds of what I call the African apocalypse, death, disease, disaster, and despair. Because if these democracies are going to survive, they are going to need, certainly in the first instance, real international support.

NEARY: Steve?

Mr. RADELET: I think that's absolutely right, and there's no guarantee that just because they've moved to democracy and just because there have been free and fair elections in many countries that they will deliver in terms of income growth, poverty reduction, better health and education. And if they don't deliver, there's a great risk that they'll fall back into dictatorships and other kinds of weak and fragile states, which will be bad, obviously for them, but for the rest of the international community and for us, as well.

And so there are big opportunities for the countries themselves. They need to step up and take some tough decisions, and many of them are. But for the international community, as well, where through steps by opening up our trade a little bit and providing more significant financial support to countries that are using it well, we've got an opportunity to, you know, to help countries take this next step up the ladder.

NEARY: Are there any stable governments there that are not democracies that you can point to that are dealing with some of these issues that were raised in Charlayne's series?

Mr. RADELET: Well probably the best example of a non-democracy that's made a lot of progress in Africa over the last 15 years is Uganda, where President Museveni came in after the horrible, rapacious governments of Idi Amin and Milton Obote in the early ‘80s, and has introduced stability, some investments in health and education, gotten the economy going with poverty reduction. And they've made a lot of progress.

They are running into some political problems, as the president changed the constitution so that he could just stay on for a third term. There's been a lot of backlash about that, and so I think the gains that they've made are now somewhat in question, but they have done very well. So it's not just the democracies that have done well, but I think that it looks like those might be more sustainable than in places that have been non-democracies and there's some legitimacy questions.

HUNTER-GAULT: But I was also reading about Mauritania, because you know, Mauritania has remained, its leaders have remained in power through coup after coup after coup. And even they, in the last few weeks, have instituted some “democratic reforms,” although they remain, you know, not democratic.

NEARY: All right, we have a call on the line now from Bill. Are you there? From -

BILL (Caller): I am.

NEARY: Hi, go ahead, Bill.

BILL: Charlayne, what a topic, and if anybody ever wanted to ask themselves what in the world could I do to make the world better, Africa is one example where the simplest, smallest things can make a huge difference. I hope you would comment on the problem with child-headed households. Every 14 seconds there's a new family created of children without parents, whether it's because of AIDS or the war, and your experience, perhaps in Ethiopia or Eritrea or other areas where there are so many millions of children without parents.

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, one of the series, in fact the very first series that launched, started last Sunday, dealt with a 15-year-old in Lesotho, this tiny mountain kingdom surrounded by South Africa, where, you know, in a population of 2 million people, over 300,000 are HIV positive, and this is a real challenge because, you know, in Africa, orphanages and orphans are a foreign concept.

BILL: (unintelligible)

NEARY: Go ahead, go ahead.

HUNTER-GAULT: Yeah. Orphans are a foreign concept and so the infrastructure to deal with orphans is just not there. I mean, it's just beginning to be there. And they're still trying to figure out how you can maintain the African system of the extended family, it takes a village to raise a child concept. And yet this village is now buckling under the strain of tens of millions of orphans.

And in Malawi, let me see, was it Malawi? Yes, I think it was Malawi where the government is looking at how to take some of these grandmothers, and maybe some of them don't have as many grandchildren, and set them up in houses within the community so that the children can still remain within the community.

This is a serious challenge. But some people are beginning to meet it. It's just that governments are slow in supporting them. They don't even always have the resources, and one woman told me - this was not a part of the series but a part of some of the reporting that I've done - that they used to go to funerals and, you know, people would sit around at the wake the night before and say, ok, who's going to take this one and who's going take that one. And everybody would be fighting over who's going to take the children.

And she was telling me now people look up at the ceiling or down at the floor and don't say anything. That is so un-African.

LYNN NEARY, host:

Wow. So it's just really changing the nature of family and cultural ties, you're saying?

GAULT: That's right. And I think, again, this is where the international community can be helpful. The lady mentioned the Christian organizations. I mean, these kinds of organizations, along with the wonderful NGOs on the ground, like, for example, I didn't mention the World Food Program and ActionAid. World Food Program is feeding millions and millions of these young people, particularly who have to go to school in many places on empty stomachs and cannot, you know, even study.

But this is another area where I think the international community can be helpful in helping to support these orphanages in making them more African centered, you know. So that they can exist within the community, rather than removing the children from everything they know.

NEARY: Charlayne, I'd like to read from an e-mail from Eddy in Wisconsin, who asks, “Which part, if any, of Africa do you see the most hope? West, east, north or south? And can you speak about the so-called Millennium Challenge Account and if it is a good thing?”

GAULT: Well, you know, I'll let Steve talk about the Millennium Challenge Account if he's still on the air, because he probably knows -

NEARY: He's still with us, yes.

GAULT: Yeah, but, you know, there's, you have hope in every part of the continent, starting with South Africa, which is really, again, even though it is the economic engine driving the rest of the continent, it's democracy, young fragile 11 years old, but there are many successes within that country. You have Mozambique, which has still got a lot of poverty, but its economy is roaring. It's coming back.

But tiny little Botswana, which has a huge AIDS problem but which has a very well entrenched democracy, even Rwanda which has just come out of one of this past century's most horrendous genocides, it's country is coming economically. They're investing in high tech. and so you've got examples of progress all over the continent. Now maybe Steve can talk about the Millennium Challenge Account.

NEARY: He can in a moment, but first I just want to remind our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Steve Radelet, the Millennium Account.

Mr. RADELET: Yeah. The Millennium Challenge Account is a new foreign assistance program started by the United States in 2004 in an attempt to deliver aid a little bit differently than what's been done in the past.

And in this program, we first select a small subset of countries that have already demonstrated a strong commit to good development policies, where corruption is relatively low, where there are democracies, where they've made investments in girls' education and in health and they've got reasonably good economic policies. Twenty-three countries have been chosen worldwide and 11 are in sub-Saharan Africa. That makes them eligible to apply for funding.

And here, so the first twist is that we select the best governed poor countries. The second twist is that we then ask them what their highest priorities are, and they get to decide what the funding should go for, whether its roads or agriculture or health or irrigation or schools. Normally we go in and we strongly influence and sometimes directly tell countries what we're willing to fund. Here we're asking them to set the priorities and design programs.

Then as these programs develop, and they're now just getting off the ground, the third twist is that we're going to hold countries accountable for results. They'll be very specific results that the countries will put into their own proposals. What they hope to achieve over the first six months, 12 months, 18 months of a program. And the idea is that if countries achieve their goals, we'll continue to provide significant funding. If they don't, we're going to redirect it to places that can achieve the results.

So it's a different way to provide assistance. Right now, the funding for the program is about 1.7 billion dollars, which is about 10 percent of our overall foreign aid program. So it's not replacing the rest of our other aid program, but it's a new concept where we can get the money to countries that are really trying their best, give them a little bit more say in the program and then really have it results-driven.

NEARY: Right.

GAULT: Lynn, can I ask Steve a question?

NEARY: Sure, go ahead.

GAULT: Because, you know, the G8 has pledged something like $25 billion towards ending poverty by 2010, but there is a lot of, well, concern, if not skepticism, among Africans that they're actually going to fulfill their promises. I'd like to know what Steve thinks about that.

Mr. RADELET: Well, I think that they'll partially do it but not fully. This dates back to the G8 Heads of State meeting last summer where they pledged to double aid to Africa between 2004 and 2010. And in 2004, the level of total foreign aid was $25 billion, which sounds like a lot, but remember that our defense budget is $400 billion. And this is 25 billion from everywhere in the world for the 700 million people that live in Africa. It turns out to be about $30 per person per year. It's not much. But anyway, the pledge was to double aid from 25 billion to 50 billion by 2010.

My sense is that aid will increase, but not to the extent that the G8 pledged. The U.S. is increasing its aid to Africa through the Millennium Challenge Account that I just mentioned. Also through the Global AIDS Initiative, where we have significantly ramped up our funding with most of it going to sub-Saharan Africa to fight HIV/AIDS in Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania and several other African countries. And as a result of that we have increased our funding for HIV/AIDS by over a billion dollars a year - by a couple of billion dollars a year, actually - with the idea to ramp it up to three billion globally.

So we are increasing the aid. The U.K. is also increasing its aid, but it will not be the amount, my guess is that it will not come near to the pledge that was announced last year. And the amounts, even with the increases that are now underway, are still going to be relatively small in a global context.

NEARY: We are talking about Africa and poverty with Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR foreign correspondent who has had a series running on a number of NPR programs over the past week on this topic. This is your opportunity to ask her questions about that series. Joining us also is Steve Radelet, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC.

I'd like both of you if you will to stay on through the break and we're going to see if we can get some more calls. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. We are talking about poverty in Africa with NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault and with Steve Radelet, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC.

We'd like to get some calls in here now. We're going to go to Asomoa(ph) in Atlanta, Georgia. Thanks for being on TALK OF THE NATION. Go ahead.

ASOMOA (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

NEARY: Good.

ASOMOA: Good. I'm a Ghanaian. And I was going to comment about corruption in Africa. I think the West, including U.S., is doing a lot trying to help, you know, Africa fight poverty. But then without good leadership, I think, all the effort would be to no avail. Corruption is so great in African, especially in Ghana, the money and other stuff that's given to us is in somebody's pocket.

You know, in most cases you have to, you need to get a contract, you know, to do something in the country you have to, you know, agree to pay a percentage, you know, to the politicians. All these politicians are not faithful. They don't have the national interest.

NEARY: All right. Well let's see if we can get a response. Thanks so much for your call. We were talking earlier about the fact that there's a growing movement toward democracy among a number of African nations. Steve Radelet you were looking at that as a positive sign. This is the other side of it and that is corruption of government, which is a big problem.

Mr. RADELET: It's a very big problem. Not just in Africa but around the world. And unfortunately we found it even in the United States, with no surprise, in recent months. But it is a big problem, particularly in poor countries. Corruption tends to go hand in hand with poverty. Not exclusively, but often with poverty.

Because of the fact the countries are so poor, they can't afford the strong police force, they can't afford the good court system, they can't afford the kind of watch dogs, agencies that we have, to try to keep corruption in place. And so it's a difficult problem for low income countries that have very limited budgets and are trying to spread it amongst so many different things. Whether it's health emergencies or orphans that we were talking about or fighting corruption.

Having said that, there is some progress being made in some countries where governments have decided to take this on very seriously. And we're seeing people being thrown in jail for these kinds of offenses. We're seeing agreements being made with diamonds and natural resources, oil, for international groups to make the contracts open and transparence to the public so that people can see what has been agree to and what has not been agreed to. We are making some steps forward in this regard.

But in other countries you do see it slipping backwards as well, and there's no doubt that in many, many countries the problem remains prevalent and can get in the way of private business or aid programs or other kinds of things where progress is being made.

I've been working in Liberia recently, and the new president has come in. And with her strong will and backing from the international community, she's managed to increase government revenues by 40 percent in just six months by plugging some of the holes in corruption and by getting rid of some of the worst offenders.

So there are places where progress is being made. The former Finance Minister of Nigeria, Ngozi, made a lot of progress in Nigeria as well before being shifted over to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So it's a mixed record with some progress but a lot of room yet to go as well.

NEARY: Charlayne, if I could just turn in an opposite direction from macro to more micro, this is an e-mail from a listener who heard your series and she said you reported on a woman who'd gotten chickens from an NGO who had the chickens die after the NGO was gone.

“Does this mean my contributions to Heifer International are wasted? Supposedly they train the recipients to care for the chickens or cows or goats. Does Heifer International, or similar organizations if you don't want to be specific, make a significant positive difference?”

Here's this concern about am I doing something or not?

GAULT: Right, yeah, and that strikes at one of the themes in my book, that, you know, there's so much bad news that gets out that, you know, people who would ordinarily make contributions say what's the point. And I hope I haven't contributed to that, but this was one instance and only one instance, and it just sort of showed, I mean, there were a couple of places where I talked about situations where people just simply weren't given the resources and the technical assistance to make good on the investments that had been made.

But you know, I think you have both situations, and I don't think that that particular situation should dissuade you from continuing your contributions. Because, you know, this woman had a particular problem, and the NGO left thinking that everything was fine, and then it turns out that it wasn't. There might be all kinds of reasons for that.

But I don't think that a few bad stories should dissuade people from continuing to be committed on the continent, and even with the, I mean, I think it's very important to say, as Steve intimated, that there are some new rules of the road in Africa.

When I was in Malawi, I spoke with the International Monetary Fund, which is one of those which used to put in very strict conditionalities that many feel cause governments to, you know, have the wrong priorities, not to concentrate on health and education, but to concentrate on other things that didn't necessarily benefit the people.

And he was saying that Malawi has taken steps now to limit the corruption, and he was very complimentary. And coming from the International Monetary Fund, you know, praise from Caesar is praise indeed.

NEARY: Charlayne, thanks so much for being with us, and it was a terrific series. Thank you very much.

HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you.

NEARY: NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault. We were also joined by Steve Radelet, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. Thanks for being with us, Steve.

Mr. RADELET: Thanks, Lynn.

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African Women and the Struggle Against Poverty

Itumeleng Ntjana carries a bucket of water on her head. i i

hide captionItumeleng Ntjana, 15, walks miles a day around her village in Lesotho doing chores for the household she heads. It consists of Ntjana and her three younger sisters.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR
Itumeleng Ntjana carries a bucket of water on her head.

Itumeleng Ntjana, 15, walks miles a day around her village in Lesotho doing chores for the household she heads. It consists of Ntjana and her three younger sisters.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR

The Series

Africa map i i

hide captionCharlayne Hunter-Gault reports on poverty in six countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Doug Beach for NPR
Africa map

Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports on poverty in six countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Doug Beach for NPR

The open secret about poverty in Africa is that it has a woman's face, and its newest grim companion is not war, but HIV/AIDS.

Over several weeks, I traveled around the continent looking at what it would take to make "poverty history" — or at least to meet some of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals that would cut poverty in half by 2015. I found both hope and despair.

There's a reason for despair: the chance of a woman dying in childbirth is three times higher in Africa than in industrialized nations. Moreover, one out of every six children in Africa dies before the age of five.

Yet hope comes from medical practitioners and others, such as Lotta Sylwander, UNICEF's country director in Zambia, who insist that, even with limited resources, governments can bring down the rate of maternal and infant mortality by training local birth attendants. Sylwander told me training them could serve a dual purpose: "Skilled birth attendants can be trained in a year to actually do quite a lot... Giving that one-year training to quite a number of unemployed people — of which there are plenty in this country — I'm sure can do a lot."

AIDS and Infant Mortality

At a district clinic in Manica, about an hour outside Mozambique's capital, health-care workers have been able to save infants by convincing mothers from distant rural areas with potentially difficult pregnancies to come and live in a clinic facility for as long as necessary to ensure a safe birth.

But AIDS is threatening those gains. A growing number of pregnant women are infected. To prevent them from passing the virus to their infants through their breast milk, infected mothers were supplied with infant formula. But women in rural areas often lack access to clean water. And when the formula runs out, the mothers lack the money to travel back to the clinic. So they revert to breastfeeding, which passes along the virus to the infants they've saved.

Epidemic Devastates Families, Communities

Some 55 percent or 12.2 million women in sub-Saharan Africa are living with HIV/AIDS. In Lesotho, a tiny mountain kingdom surrounded by South Africa, the HIV prevalence rate among women between 25 five and 29 is more than 56 percent, according to a recent antenatal survey. Hospitals there are buckling under the weight of the large numbers of women suffering the ravaging effects of HIV.

But even as some have made it to the hospital, I found many more either too ill to get there or lacking resources. There is some hope: women of one village who have had access to anti-retroviral medication are thriving. They have banded together to help those who are shut in. But the healthier women are also limited by resources, which prevents them from traveling back into the mountains of Lesotho, even to determine how many are sick or dying. AIDS is threatening the very existence of that country of two million, where more than 300,000 are living with HIV/AIDS.

It is also here that you see the consequences for those not infected but affected by the epidemic. One young woman I met is typical of the growing number of AIDS orphans — millions of whom have lost one or both parents. In Lesotho, a child who has lost one parent is considered a half orphan. Fifteen-year-old Itumeleng Ntjana is one such child. While girls between 15 and 19 are six times more likely to be infected with HIV than boys, she so far is not infected, though she and her three young sisters have no protection from intruders and are constantly threatened with rape. She became the head of her household when her father died of AIDS complications and her mother abandoned the family.

The spread of AIDS is also complicated by cultural factors. As girls come of age in Zambia, they are subjected to a cleansing ceremony requiring them to have sex with older men called "hyenas" who come in disguise. With the help of UNICEF, some mothers have banded together to stop the practice in at least one village, but it continues elsewhere.

Rural Poverty and Women

Women in rural areas are hit hardest by poverty. Many are infected with HIV by husbands returning from work in the mines, often hundreds of miles away, where they patronize sex workers or even create second families.

Women must labor not only with this burden, but the burden of being the backbone of the rural economies, farming small plots, selling fruits and vegetables and providing the basic necessities for their families. Still, they have a hard time eking out a living. They often must travel long distances to the markets via dirt roads that are largely impassable, especially during long rainy seasons.

Some experts say hope lies in the kind of example set by Southeast Asian countries, which launched agrarian revolutions that successfully tackled infrastructure problems and created consumers in the rural areas. For that, you need political will.

Meanwhile, there is some hope in projects enabling women to become economically self-sufficient. I visited one money-generating project established by the humanitarian organization CARE. Its Village Savings and Loan Program provides small loans to women entrepreneurs in areas where no other lending institutions exist.

In the remote rural Tanzanian village of Soga, I saw women thriving, operating stands stocked with fruits, vegetables and dried fish, running restaurants and involving themselves in other commercial enterprises. Around the continent, upwards of 400,000 women are benefiting from VS&Ls — and even more from other forms of micro-lending.

Education Seen as Key to Ending Poverty

In the end, however, there is widespread agreement that the most fundamental way out of poverty for women and girls is education. It's often said in Africa if you educate a man, you educate an individual, but when you educate a woman, you educate a nation.

The United Nations hopes to bring the number of girls being educated up to the level of boys by 2015. Malawi has seen some success since free primary education was introduced there about 12 years ago.

But challenges remain. Many girls who complete elementary school can't afford high school, which isn't free. So they drop out because they see no hope of fulfilling their dreams — of becoming doctors, teachers, school inspectors (inspired, no doubt by Chrissie Kalichero, the one who showed me around), and even presidents.

During my walk through Malawi's tiny Mnjolo village, the little girls kept running up behind us, touching our clothing and giggling. I thought something was wrong, but when I asked, Kalichero, she told me that they were touching us with the hope of being like us. "They see us as powerful women, as role models," she told me with a smile. Then she pointed out that it was only girls and not the boys following us around.

All over the continent, the goal of gender parity in education is lagging, with severe consequences for eradicating poverty. Some blame a lack of political will; others cite resources or a combination of the two.

But the hope lies in the women on the continent who are finding voices for their aspirations, especially through women's movements like the Foundation for African Women's Advancement. And they are bolstered by the emergence of women leaders — still small in number.

But, like Liberia's new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the continent's first female elected as head of state, women are determined to make a gender difference in the way they do business. They reject the corruption that has also contributed to Africa's poverty and embrace a culture of human rights aimed at protecting them and their girls. They, too, are hoping for an African renaissance and they want to be a part of it — an equal part.

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