Cambridge, Mass. — Beyond their important humanitarian role, efforts to educate children, to feed and house refugees, to treat HIV and other diseases, and other human development programs are an essential foundation for long-term economic development in Africa, according to MIT Sloan professor Tavneet Suri, a development economist who closely studies sub-Saharan Africa.
“A health threat is an economic threat,” said Suri, a native of Kenya. “Policies that affect education and health have more important consequences than people realize because they feed back into long-term growth,” she said. “Healthier, better-educated people are an investment in the future.”
Sufficient and sustained investment in human development can help turn around even seemingly hopeless situations, she noted.
“Twelve years ago, you would have given up on Rwanda, but look at it now,” said Suri. “What happened there was horrific and appalling, but the nation has since had a huge transformation. Tensions are not gone, but the economy is growing and the nation is has a lot more stability thanks to massive reconstruction and humanitarian relief, a somewhat stable political regime, and strong macroeconomic reforms that include more social expenditure on the part of the government . I thought it would take much longer for Rwanda to get back to where it is now.”
The transition has been in part due “to the immense international response,” which helped restore basic health and other social welfare infrastructure.
But just as investing in human development can help establish economic stability, untreated health and other problems, especially Africa's AIDs epidemic, could jeopardize hard-won economic stability, Suri said.
“AIDS is not just a threat to public health, but to the whole human and economic infrastructure,” she said. “Look at a nation such as Botswana. It has been a complete African success story by managing its natural resources well, having good political regimes and having many other positive attributes. But now it has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world (around 24 percent). In some parts of Kenya, the rate can be as high as 15 percent. This will very significantly affect both the population and economic growth.”
Suri hopes that nations such as Kenya and Botswana have sufficient social and other infrastructure in place to get HAART therapies for HIV to people. “But we are talking about significant portions of the population. Can these nations do enough investment to recover from such numbers?”
Successfully responding to AIDs and other human crises is essential for even relatively healthy African nations, said Suri. But she is hopeful even for parts of the continent that are in turmoil.”