Concentrate on Africa's children

President Obama is convening the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit with over 50 African leaders in Washington D.C. next week. The event will have a strong focus on Africa’s long-term economic growth, under the theme of “Investing in the Next Generation.”

To us, the next generation is, quite simply, Africa’s children. Some may think that concentrating on the economic well-being of Africa has little to do with children, but we strongly disagree. The economic future of Africa is all about the well-being of children -- and with one in ten of our children dying every day, it would be a terrible missed opportunity for these most vulnerable children and their mothers to not be at the center of the conversation. Africa’s population is incredibly young, and getting younger. If we choose not to focus on the needs of Africa’s young people, particularly newborns and children under the age of five, the stated goal of “creating an enabling environment for the next generation,” will be nearly impossible to achieve.   In fact, investments in maternal and child health yields economic benefits including higher per capita incomes and increased labor force participation.


The U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit on August 5 and 6 offers an opportunity to boldly commit to prioritizing maternal, newborn and child survival in Africa. The good news is that there is such a bold plan. It is called Accelerating Action in Africa (AAA) and it is designed to dramatically accelerate the reduction of preventable maternal, newborn, and child deaths in Africa – specifically to SAVE MILLIONS OF MORE LIVES BY 2020. AAA focuses on four categories of proven interventions in 16 African countries and introduces an innovative new public-private financing mechanism. Building on foundations of evidence and experience, this initiative will combine the best practices in international development with new policy paradigms to scale up programs that will save lives.

This may seem like an unattainable goal, but there is historical precedence that this can be done. In the last few decades, the number of children dying from mostly preventable causes has dropped precipitously, from 12 million in 1990 to 6.6 million today - more than 40 percent.  In Tanzania, we reduced child deaths by nearly 70 perrcent over the last two decades. Our success was largely due to increasing the use of key health interventions, including vaccines, Vitamin A supplementation, and better prevention and treatment of malaria. 

In spite of these efforts, our work is not done: about 390 children under five in Tanzania still die each day -- mainly of preventable and treatable conditions.  We are committed to putting a stop to this.  That is why earlier this year, Tanzania launched a major national drive to end preventable child and maternal deaths. We have increased the number of health centers and dispensaries throughout the country. And we have committed ourselves to tackling the tragically high rates of newborn deaths. 

The U.S. has a strong bipartisan legacy of leadership on this issue, but with existing resources and commitments, the goal of ending preventable child deaths will not be met. It is clear more must be done.  Now – at this historic coming together of heads of state -- is the time to accelerate our efforts with a presidential initiative. In this vein we call on President Obama to join with African leaders to launch a truly collaborative partnership of modern foreign assistance.   The AAA proposal is unique as it is calling for the full deployment of one of the most promising tools for innovative financing of social goals: Development Impact Bonds.   This innovative financing mechanism will bring in new partners and investors who will provide upfront funding for interventions that have specific evidence-based outcomes that can be monetized against savings for existing government programs.  If these interventions achieve pre-agreed outcome measures, the private investor is reimbursed with an additional return on the investment using the capital gained by the savings.

Uniting American and African leaders from the public and private sector to tackle building the foundation of long term economic prosperity, the AAA proposal isn’t typical in any respect. 

As a result of the investments in maternal newborn and child survival programs and policy by Africans and from our friends in America, we now have the evidence to not only solve the problem but to create private investment opportunities to help enact solutions at a scale unimaginable until now.   This isn’t aid or charity; it’s economics and partnership.  Indeed, it’s potentially history.   

We ask that President Obama join with African leaders at the Summit to launch an international “Action Tank,” a group comprised of the brightest minds from governments, non-governmental organizations, international development, global health, nutrition, child survival and international finance sectors, who will be well equipped to tackle this unique challenge and design a truly innovative 21st century idea that solves a problem -- not just tinkers with it.  Presidential initiatives like this have been set up before and they have achieved incredible results. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has provided life-saving treatment for more than 6 million people.

It is time we do the same for the most vulnerable mothers and children in the world. The next generation – and Africa’s future -- depends on it.

Kikwete has been Tanzania's president since 2005. Shriver is president of Save the Children Action Network.