New York Times, July 16, 2004
Devastated by AIDS, Africa
Sees Life Expectancy Plunge
By CELIA W. DUGGER
Africa is getting poorer and hungrier as life
expectancy continues its steep decline in the
countries hardest hit by the AIDS pandemic,
according to a United Nations report released
Thursday. It said infants born now in seven
nations with high rates of H.I.V. infection
could expect to live less than 40 years.
The report, by the United Nations Development
Program, also said the sub-Saharan African
region as a whole was getting poorer, with
the prospect that rising numbers of Africans
will subsist on less than $1 a day in the years
Last year, the United Nations Development Program
projected that it would take Africa more than
140 years to halve the number of people living
in extreme poverty. But this year, as even
that slight progress is gone, its annual Human
Development Report states that "no date
can be set because the situation in the region
is worsening, not improving."
As Africa struggles with the world's heaviest
AIDS burden, South Asia and East Asia are making
rapid progress in reducing poverty and hunger,
driven mainly by the advances of China and
India, the two most populous countries, the
Africa's setbacks are a break from recent decades
of progress. From 1960 to 2000, for example,
life expectancy in developing countries rose
to 63 years from 46. Africa was part of that
progress until the mid-1990's, when AIDS began
seriously eroding its gains. The bleak statistical
portrait of sub-Saharan Africa, drawn from
the 2004 Human Development Report, does not
spare South Africa, the region's economic powerhouse,
which celebrated a decade of post-apartheid
democracy this year. It is a discouraging portrait
that the South African government sharply disputed
The report's summary measure of well-being -
gauged by life expectancy, literacy, school
enrollment rates and per-capita income - shows
that South Africans are worse off today than
they were when apartheid ended. That finding
is largely driven by falling life expectancy
because of AIDS, which the United Nations Development
Program set at 48.8 years for South Africa
in this year's calculation.
Joel Netshitenzhe, a spokesman for the South
African government, called the United Nations'
life expectancy estimate "nonsensical."
South Africa's Medical Research Council, a
government-financed independent body, estimated
that life expectancy in South African had fallen
much less severely, to 55 in 2000 from 57 in
According to the South African government's assessment
of its people's well-being, based on the higher,
national calculations of life expectancy, South
Africans are better off than they were a decade
ago. "We have interacted with the U.N.D.P.
and demonstrated that some of the data they
used to come to their conclusions are inaccurate,"
Mr. Netshitenzhe said.
Fu Haishan, a statistician with the United Nations
Development Program, said the Human Development
Report relied on statistics from the World
Bank and United Nations agencies that specialize
in education, hunger and population "to
ensure minimum and common standards are used."
Mark Malloch Brown, administrator of the program,
said in an interview that he had had difficult
exchanges with South Africa over the report's
findings. He called the life expectancy data
for South Africa "catastrophic,"
even as he recognized post-apartheid improvements
in education, electricity and water provision.
As to what South Africa needs to do, Mr. Malloch
Brown said, "Fix the AIDS problem."
South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, has been
criticized at home and abroad for being slow
to aggressively tackle AIDS. More than five
million South Africans are infected with H.I.V.
And unlike neighboring Botswana, which started
an effort to provide drug treatment to people
with AIDS in 2001, South Africa's treatment
effort just got under way this year.
The South African government spokesman, Mr. Netshitenzhe,
defended the government's AIDS effort, saying
it had the continent's biggest prevention program
and expected to be providing drug treatment
to 53,000 people by March.
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