As the African Union celebrates its 50th anniversary, UNDP's administrator and former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark argues that tackling inequalities on the continent is central to lifting human development.
Fifty years ago, on 25 May 1963, leaders of independent African countries signed the charter founding the Organisation of African Unity in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The OAU sought to promote solidarity and unity among African states; to rid the continent of remaining colonisation and apartheid; and to promote co-operation for development.
Today, some of the world's fastest-growing economies are in Africa. Overall the continent's countries have averaged impressive growth of over five percent annually since 2004. This trend looks set to continue.
A significant number of developing countries have transformed themselves into dynamic emerging economies with growing global and geopolitical influence
Many African countries have made significant progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. Many more children, including girls, are getting an education than ever before. The proportion of people living in extreme poverty is falling. The numbers of women elected to legislatures is growing, and the tide is turning on HIV.
Thanks to targeted investments in the health sector, life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa surged by 5.5 years between 2000 and 2012, having stagnated between 1990 and 2000 - mainly because of HIV/AIDS.
Meanwhile, there has been an upsurge in trade, investment, and development cooperation with emerging economies, including South Africa, Turkey, Brazil, China, and India, which have themselves been successful in the fight against poverty.
Over the past decade, nearly half the financing of infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa was provided by governments and regional funds from elsewhere in the South. The spectacular increase in access to telecommunications in Africa has been largely driven by companies based in the South.
The rise of Africa is thus associated with a rising South overall. A significant number of developing countries have transformed themselves into dynamic emerging economies with growing global and geopolitical influence.
By 2020, the combined economic output of three key emerging economies alone – China, India, and Brazil – will surpass that of the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Canada combined as measured in purchasing power parity terms.
The human development consequences of this rise of the South have been profound: the proportion of people living in extreme income poverty dropped from 43 per cent in 1990 to 22 per cent of the world's population in 2008, with more than half a billion people lifted from poverty in China alone.
This good news has been the result of pragmatic economic strategies, innovative social policies, and the willingness of proactive developing states to invest in physical infrastructure and human development.
Africa's battle against poverty and hunger is not yet over, but at UNDP we have every confidence that it can be won and will be won. The challenge now is for Africa to get more poverty reduction from its growth. The opportunity exists too for a significant demographic dividend from the continent's youthful population, provided that there is investment in youth potential.
Tackling inequalities will also be central to lifting human development. Women, youth, people living with disabilities, minorities, and all those who are currently marginalised yearn for the opportunity to get ahead.
Fast and inclusive growth also needs to be green growth so that natural resources are sustained for future generations. While environmental threats such as climate change, deforestation, and pollution, affect us all, they hit poor communities the hardest.
Without significant progress in slowing ecosystem degradation, including global warming, sub-Saharan Africa's overall human development progress could be halted or even reversed by 2050, with potential consequences including more people being pushed into extreme poverty.
There is a need for much greater global ambition on and commitment to tackling and reversing environmental degradation as we move forward on poverty eradication.
Overall, there is a need for a global context which is supportive of Africa's development: one which sees pledges of more and better quality aid delivered; which sees a breakthrough in the stalemate in the WTO's Doha Round, and a new climate agreement; and which sees global institutions with greater voice and decision-making power for the South.
The leadership of the African Union, of which UNDP is proud to be a partner, is playing a large part in promoting economic and social development, good governance, and peace and security across the continent.
As we mark this fifty years anniversary, we look forward to Africa deepening, broadening, and accelerating human development.
UNDP looks forward to continuing its work in partnership with the African Union, its member states, and all partners on the continent and beyond who are committed to Africa's development.
Helen Clark is Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and the former Prime Minister of New Zealand