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The State of the African Union

Too many African governments have not kept their development promises, and there is a vast gap between what is agreed at continental level and what is actually implemented in countries. The new “State of the Union” project aims to hold governments accountable, explains Irungu Houghton.

A few weeks ago I was in Kampala for the 15th African Union Summit, where Oxfam and partners were campaigning to get our leaders to invest more in healthcare. Heads of State met there for three days – during which time an estimated 40,000 African children and women died, mostly from preventable and treatable illnesses. At the end of the Summit, leaders from across the continent pledged to tackle this crisis and increase healthcare spending, especially for maternal and child health care. It sounds like a great success.

But this promise has been made before. In 2001 AU leaders pledged to invest 15 percent of their budgets in healthcare. Last year only six of the 53 nations had met this target, and most were not even close. The promises made in Kampala will be meaningless if they are discarded as easily as in the past.

So how do we change this? How do we ensure that this time is different?

We need to make sure that citizens hold our leaders accountable. That’s what the new State of the Union project is about – tracking what African governments have promised, and what they have actually delivered. We hope that holding them accountable can help bring real change in people’s lives.

The first State of the Union report draws on studies from ten key AU nations – Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Rwanda and Cameroon. Together these ten countries are home to 450 million people – imagine the impact if these countries alone kept their promises. Yet what the report finds is a long list of unfulfilled agreements, missed targets, and failure to invest in the development of the continent.

Africa’s food supply is another glaring example. AU nations have agreed to invest 10 percent of their budgets in improving agricultural production. In Malawi, Ghana and other countries that have increased public funding, small-scale farmers have flourished through improved access to fertilisers, seeds and markets. Yet most countries are still far from the target. Africa now imports a third of its grain, whereas it used to produce a surplus. Food crises are more frequent than ever. Many governments are even leasing fertile land to international companies, further increasing competition for scarce pasture and resources.

Africa is the world’s youngest continent – with 70 percent of the population under 30 years old. Yet last year, one in eight African children reportedly died before their fifth birthday. One in three still do not go to school. AU leaders have promised to bring new policies and investment that will cut child mortality. But while Algeria, Egypt and Rwanda have made considerable progress, the likes of Kenya and Cameroon have gone backwards and more children there now die preventable deaths than five years ago.

But – in the year that many AU nations celebrate the 50th anniversary of independence – it is not all bad news. Some genuine progress has been made. Countries like Kenya and Uganda have made great strides in providing free primary education. Policies such as free access to treatment for HIV and tuberculosis are becoming more accepted. Although serious corruption problems remain, Africa is today governed more transparently and democratically than it has been in decades. The report shows what can be achieved when promises are kept – Egypt for example has increased investment in healthcare professionals and family planning, and as a result has managed to half the number of Egyptian women dying in childbirth.

We all know that Africa has enormous potential. This year eight of the world’s 20 fastest growing economies are likely to be African. What matters now is how we realise this potential. Will our leaders invest in the next generations? Will they fund public services that give the poorest people a chance at life? Will they use the increasing wealth to deliver real development for all their citizens – or just to make the rich elite even richer?

Huge sums of money are spent on holding summits like the one in Kampala – but the money may as well have been thrown into the Nile if the only outcome is yet more empty rhetoric that is never turned into action. At the moment Presidents and politicians can get away with promising the world but never delivering.

The State of the Union project is about gradually building pressure from citizens all over Africa to make our leaders keep their promises and make real change.

Over the next few months, national citizens’ organisations will be asking questions of their governments. In January 2011, at the next AU Summit, these ten governments will be score-carded again. Lets hope that by then they have made some progress.

To find out more and get involved visit

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Written by Irungu Houghton

Based in Nairobi, Irungu is the Director of Oxfam's Pan Africa Programme, which works with partners across the continent to campaign and lobby governments and the African Union on everything from climate change to women's rights to access to health services.

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