Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

What is required now, more than ever before, is action. The financing architectures of many African countries need overhauling. They need to engender equity, child rights, transparency and accountability. Unless that is don, the many regional and international commitments that touch on children will remain mere political pronouncements.

Beco (not her real name) is a 15-year-old girl. She is still in her first year in secondary school, despite her advanced age compared to her classmates. At the age of 10 she was forced to dropout from school because her single mother died of birth complications in a rural village in Zimbabwe. Courtesy of one Good Samaritan in her village, Beco is now back in school. The lack of books, teachers and other educational materials in her rural school does not seem to discourage her from attending class every day. Her dream is to finish school, train as a doctor and help her family.

Many children in Africa are like Beco. They are, at some point in time, forced to drop out of school. Moreover, hundreds of thousands are sadly still out of school due to conflict, lack of fees and other factors. Primary school net enrolment in sub-Saharan Africa stands at 78%.[1]  Unfortunately, nobody seems to be wondering about what is happening to the 22%, which literally means a lot of children are out school.  Many children also live without appropriate parental care. Across Africa, there are millions of children like Beco going to very poorly built schools, with no electricity, poor water and sanitation facilities, no proper library services and often without trained and experienced teachers.

Consequently, millions of children on the continent are being left behind. 

Unicef estimates that over 2 million children in Africa die every year mainly because of preventable causes including diseases, malnutrition and hunger. The organization further estimates that 37% of all children in sub-Saharan Africa are stunted.[2] As if that is not enough, both at home and in school, many children in Africa are continuously exposed to several forms of violence. For instance, girls like Beco are forced to walk long distances to access education, fetch water and buy groceries for their families, making them twice as vulnerable to sexual abuse as their urban counterparts. 

Insufficient, ineffective and inequitable public spending on child-focused sectors and programmes stands as the biggest barrier to enjoyment of rights by all children.[3] To date, only 7 countries in Africa have at some point in time met the Abuja target for African governments to allocate at least 15% of their budgets to health. Furthermore, no African country has so far met the Dakar Commitment on Education for All to allocate at least 7% of its GDP to education, which should have increased to 9% in 2010. In 2014, with the exception of Malawi, Niger and South Africa, who have come close by spending between 5.5-7%, the rest of African states are spending below 5% of their GDP on education, well below the Dakar Commitment.

The Sustainable Development Goals, Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA) on Financing for Development and Agenda 2063 of the African Union are therefore timely and strategic. They constitute lifetime opportunities for African governments to mobilize domestic and international resources to increase and improve the quality of public investments in child protection, health, education, social protection, early childhood care and other child-focused sectors. These international commitments are a call to action, representing bold and renewed efforts to ensure no child in Africa is left behind. In view of these policy commitments, there is no better time than now for African states to consolidate gains made for children over the past decade, by taking bold actions to positively transform how they finance development.

Through Agenda 2063 - the African Union’s roadmap for economic growth and sustainable development - African governments made a commitment to “put children first” and to “fulfil their obligation to children as an inter-generational compact in order to develop Africa’s human capital; build effective developmental states as well as participatory and accountable institutions of governance.”[5]

The challenge is to make this happen. It is one thing to make a commitment and another to translate it into reality.

The benefits of investing in children are uncountable. Article 7 of the AAAA rightly acknowledges that public investment in children is a critical strategy for achieving peace, economic growth as well as inclusive, equitable and sustainable development for the present and future generations. A report by UNICEF suggests that for every dollar invested in child nutrition programmes in developing countries, there is a corresponding return of at least $3[6]. A World Bank study found that for every dollar invested in pre-school programmes there is an estimated return of at least $7.16[7].

Beyond benefits of investing in children, the costs of inaction to children, governments and to the entire African continent are too huge and far-reaching to contemplate. A malnourished child has on average a seven-month delay in starting school and potentially a 10-17% reduction in lifetime earnings [8]. Studies have also shown that there is a strong relationship between under-investment in children and conflict, inequality, crime, prostitution and other social ills. Failing to protect children from all forms of violence may cost individual countries up to 3- 6% of their gross domestic product annually.[9]

Investment in children is a right and a legal obligation. Article 4 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child requires all state parties to undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures - to the maximum extent possible of available resources - and where necessary seek international cooperation in order to implement children’s rights. Furthermore, through Agenda 2063, African governments made a commitment to empower children “through full implementation of the African Charter on the Rights of the Child”.

From these numerous commitments, what then are some of the concrete actions that African states should undertake to ensure sufficient, equitable, sustainable and effective public investments in children?

First, irrespective of their income status, every African state is obliged to institute comprehensive measures to mobilize sufficient resources to invest in children, especially from tax. Implementation of children’s rights costs money. Domestic revenue from effective and progressive taxation will continue to be the most significant and sustainable source of revenue for states to finance investments in children. Whilst most rich countries get an average of 35% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from tax revenue, African states are getting an average of 14%. [10] Weak tax systems, poor management of natural resources, generous tax incentives, corruption and illicit financial flows stand in the way of effective domestic resource mobilization by African states. The African Union High Level Panel on Illicit Financial flows, led by former president of South Africa, Mr. Thabo Mbeki, estimates that at least US$50 billion is siphoned from Africa annually, though tax evasion, avoidance and such other ways. [11] In addition, many African countries offer generous tax incentives to foreign investors in sectors such as agriculture and mining owing to the perceived competition between countries to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). Such incentives are usually given without any clear cost benefit analysis. To close these loopholes and consequently maximize their tax revenues, African governments should strengthen measures to broaden their tax bases; crackdown on corruption in revenue collection and management; combat tax evasion and avoidance by addressing issues such as mis-pricing, mis-invoicing and other profit shifting tendencies through strengthening national laws and fostering international cooperation on tax.

As required by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, African States should also seek international cooperation to mobilize other external resources. In particular, they should demand that rich countries honor their long-standing aid commitments, including allocation of 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income to official development assistance and 0.15 to 0.20 per cent of aid to least developed countries, of which majority are in Africa. African governments should also consider region specific innovative financing mechanisms to mobilize additional resources to invest in children. Lastly, African governments should only engage in responsible borrowing and not just amass loans without careful planning. Unsustainable debt has a child’s face; it eats into future investments in children. Should debt relief and debt swaps be offered by lenders, African governments should ensure that children get their fair share of the ‘freed’ resources that should have gone to debt repayment.

Secondly, in line with the overarching SDG focus on ‘leaving no one behind’, African governments should develop and implement fiscal policies and budgets that promote equity. This means specific fiscal measures should be undertaken to reach out to poorest and marginalized children, including in conflict, humanitarian and other difficult situations. In many countries, children are often least in the spending priorities of governments yet they constitute approximately 50% of the African population. Public budgeting should consider the different vulnerabilities and diverse situations of children. To achieve the equity goal, latest child rights data and statistics, careful planning and analysis of the practical and strategic needs of different categories of children are required. This information and analysis is central when making decisions on whether to be universalist or more targeted when making public spending decisions. The ultimate goal is that fiscal policy and budgetary measures should ensure that every child has access to opportunities for survival, learning, protection and development.

Thirdly, African states need to ensure that all allocated resources are spent well. Investing in children is not only about more money allocated to child-focused sectors and programmes; it is also about efficient, transparent and effective use of all available resources. Allocated resources should reach intended children. We cannot assume that what is written on paper ultimately reaches all children. The distributional effects of budgets should be assessed continuously using child rights. The role of open, inclusive and accountable public finance management systems cannot therefore be over-emphasized.  The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that globally 20-40% of health sector resources are wasted through inefficiencies, corruption and leakages [12]. Transparent, participatory and accountable public financial management systems help fight corruption.

Corruption in public finance takes away resources that should go towards survival, learning, development and protection of children. Corruption also reduces efficiency and increases inequality. According to Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perception Index, only Botswana, Mauritius, Namibia and Rwanda score above 50 where 0 is highly corrupt and 100 is not corrupt at all. [13] As a result of corruption, public resources are often not allocated to priority child-focused sectors and programmes. Instead, resources are channeled to sectors that offer the best prospects for personal enrichment of corrupt politicians such as big infrastructure projects and security related procurements where kickbacks are high. Regrettably, this takes away resources from sectors like child protection, education and health care. Child mortality rates in countries with high levels of corruption are about one third higher than in countries with low corruption. The African Union (2002) estimates that 25% of the GDP of African states, amounting to US$148 billion, is lost to corruption every year.[14] Studies have also shown that child mortality rates in countries with high levels of corruption are about one third higher than in countries with low corruption.

Lastly, in line with the spirit of SDGs and of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, African states are obliged to create formal platforms and opportunities for children and their representatives to meaningfully participate in planning and public budgeting. Opportunities should also be created for them to hold duty bearers to account for their commitments to children, including SDGs, AAA and Agenda 2063. Children have the right to form an opinion and to express their views on issues that affect them, in accordance with their evolving capacities. Children’s participation in public financing is not only their right, it is also a key strategy for helping states better reflect on issues affecting children, plan effectively and spend resources efficiently and effectively.

What is required now, more than ever before, is action. The financing architectures of many African countries need overhauling. They need to engender equity, child rights, transparency and accountability. Unless adequately resourced, the SDGs, AAAA and Agenda 2063, among other regional and international commitments that touch on children, would remain mere political pronouncements and commitments. As such, concrete measures ought to be instituted to save these policy commitments from being empty promises. The Africa we want is one that puts children first, where it matters most: in public budgets in order to reach every child. The extent to which African governments will mobilize domestic resources and ensure their effective use, will be a key indicator of Africa’s ability to generate solutions to its problems.

No child in Africa should be left behind.

* Bob Libert Muchabaiwa is the Investment in Children Manager for the Child Rights Governance Global Theme of Save the Children. He can be contacted on [email protected]. Views expressed in this article are those of the author and not official positions of Save the Children.

End notes



[3] Human Rights Council, (2015). Resolution A/HRC/28/L, Rights of the child: towards better investment in the rights of the child. Geneva: Human Rights Council.

[4] Africa Child Policy Forum, (2013), The African Report on Child Wellbeing 2013: Towards greater accountability to Africa's Children, Addis Ababa, African Child Policy Forum.

[5] Popular Version of Agenda 2063 See

[6] Rees N., Chai J., & Anthony D., (2012), Right in Principle and in Practice: A Review of the Social and Economic Returns to Investing in Children, UNICEF Social and Economic Policy Working Paper, New York, UNICEF

[7] Jacques Van Der Gaag & Jee-Peng Tan, (2005), The Benefits of Early Child Development Programs, An Economic Analysis, Washington DC, World Bank.

[8] World Bank (2012), Global Monitoring Report 2012, Food Prices, Nutrition, and the Millennium Development Goals, Washington DC, World Bank.

[9] Pereznie P. et al (2014), The costs and economic impact of violence against children, London, Child Fund & ODI

[10] World Bank, 2013, Financing for Development post-2015, Washington DC, World Bank

[11] African Union & United Nations Commission for Africa, (2015), Report of the High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows, AU/ECA Conference of Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, Addis Ababa.

[12] World Bank, 2013, Financing for Development post-2015, Washington DC, World Bank

[13] African Union & United Nations Commission for Africa, (2015), Report of the High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows, AU/ECA Conference of Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, Addis Ababa.




* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!

* Please send comments to [email=[email protected]]editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org[/email] or comment online at Pambazuka News.