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Human potential across the African continent is being squandered because of insufficient investments in education, health care, and skills training, according to King Letsie III of Lesotho, who spoke at the World Bank’s Spring Meetings in Washington, DC, on Thursday.

He was a part of a session on the World Bank’s Human Capital Index (HCI), which measures the well-being of youth as an indicator of a country’s economic health.

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“I have to keep repeating at every opportunity that sub-Saharan Africa continues to report the world’s highest rate of stunting among children,” he said during a keynote address. “This means that children fall sick more often, miss opportunities to learn, perform less well at school, grow up more likely to suffer from chronic diseases, and are economically disadvantaged in adulthood.”

He added: "With the fastest growing young population, Africa stands at the crossroads of a huge opportunity."

The World Bank created the Human Capital Project (HCI) in 2018 to give countries a new framework for viewing development — one that understands youth development as being critical to long-term economic sustainability. Now, during the Spring Meetings, the multilateral organization launched the Africa Human Capital Plan, committing $15 billion to improving educational and health outcomes throughout the continent.

King Letsie III, in particular, has become an outspoken champion of the movement — and for good reason.

Twenty-five of the 30 countries with the lowest human potential scores are in Africa, according to the HCI, and the region as a whole is enabling only 40% of its population’s potential.

There are various reasons for why the region is struggling, including the fact that 32% of children under the age of 5 are stunted, 2.9 million children under the age of 5 die every year, 50 million children are out of school, and 33% of the region’s 420 million youth, aged 15-35, are unemployed.

But many governments are committed to turning this around and some progress is being made.

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Dalitso Kabambe, the governor for the Reserve Bank of Malawi, spoke about how his country is dedicating more of its budget to ensuring that all girls receive a quality education. In Malawi, more than 70% of girls over the age of 15 have never received any qualifications from education, he said, and added that the country can gain $600 million annually through economic gains if it invests in education.

Empowering women and girls was a theme throughout the morning.

“If we have girls getting married at the age of 12, having children at the age of 15, we will not be able to reduce maternal mortality, childhood mortality, and stunting,” said Hafez Ghanem, the World Bank vice president for Africa. “We need our girls to stay in schools.”

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The conversations often returned to the idea that investing in youth has significant returns.

“We know that the investments we make to tackle malnutrition and stunting attract significant returns,” King Letsie said. “Simply put in monetary terms, for every dollar invested in nutrition, there’s a future economic return of 30 [dollars].”

In Rwanda, the government has championed human development since the end of the horrible genocide 25 years ago, and recently committed to spending 30% of its budget on education.

“The entire social fabric of the Rwandan social community was destroyed,” said Paula Ingabire, Rwanda’s minister of informations and communications technology and innovation. “Including the infrastructure for education and health care.”

She added: “We have to be very deliberate to empower women and girls, but also people with disability, because they to happen be a good proportion of the population who have gone through conflict and violence."

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Through its new human capital plan, the World Bank wants to make rapid strides in improving quality of life throughout the African continent.

By 2023, the plan calls for nearly halving the under-5 mortality rate, reducing childhood stunting by 25%, increasing the average time spent in school by 20%, bringing health care to 13.1 million more people, and reducing open defecation by around 33%.

These efforts will only be possible with committed and transparent governance, the speakers said.

“If a dollar is allocated, it must be spent on the right things,” said Julie Gichuru, a Kenyan entrepreneur and media personality.


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