NPR logo 'Why Are They Poor?'

'Why Are They Poor?'

Girls collect water in the township of Khayelitsha. i

Girls collect water in the township of Khayelitsha near Cape Town, South Africa. Millions of African children lack access to clean water, basic health care and primary education. Jason Beaubien, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jason Beaubien, NPR
Girls collect water in the township of Khayelitsha.

Girls collect water in the township of Khayelitsha near Cape Town, South Africa. Millions of African children lack access to clean water, basic health care and primary education.

Jason Beaubien, NPR
Shacks at sunrise Khayelitsha township near Cape Town, South Africa. i

Shacks at sunrise Khayelitsha township near Cape Town, South Africa. Jason Beaubien, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jason Beaubien, NPR
Shacks at sunrise Khayelitsha township near Cape Town, South Africa.

Shacks at sunrise Khayelitsha township near Cape Town, South Africa.

Jason Beaubien, NPR

I was driving with my 3-year-old son through Guguletu, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa. Shacks cobbled together out of wooden boards, sheet metal, plastic sheeting and other materials stretched as far as we could see. Open sewers spilled refuse into larger ditches along the road. Outhouses teetered in the mud. In one of the richest cities in Africa, kids were hauling water in jerry cans from communal taps.

"Why are they poor, Dada?"

I wished I had an answer. It was a question that nagged at me for the four years I covered Africa. All over the continent, I'd ask myself: Why is this the poorest continent on Earth? What is it that's caused this and why isn't it changing?

This series attempts to look at some of the issues contributing to poverty in Africa. There are others — the legacy of colonialism, debt, racism. This series doesn't offer all the answers but rather it tries to look at a few of the factors that perpetuate poverty the continent.

There has been progress in parts of Africa in recent years on some issues. Economic growth in Angola and Mozambique has been impressive. Primary school enrollment in Malawi has jumped dramatically since 1991.

But the macro-view of Africa remains troubling. And as developing nations in Asia and Latin America play a greater role in the world economy, Africa is at risk of being left behind — even among Third World countries.

On many key development indicators sub-Saharan Africa has stagnated or, even worse, is moving backwards. Life expectancy is falling. HIV continues to spread. Incidents of tuberculosis and malaria are on the rise.

Over the next 10 years, the World Bank predicts that the number of severely malnourished children in sub-Saharan Africa will increase. Infant mortality rates have dipped recently but are still five times higher than in Latin America.

Africa has the highest population growth rate in the world and the worst rate of educating those children. Currently this continent, where the main source of revenue is agriculture, isn't producing enough food to feed its own people. To make things worse, food production per capita in Africa is declining.

Africans lack access to clean drinking water, sanitation and health facilities at rates unheard of in other regions.

Why is this?

"Why are they poor?" as my 3-year-old would say.

This series examines how armed conflict, poor agricultural practices, disease, lousy governments and foreign trade practices contribute to making Africa the poorest continent in the world.

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