“I need more food, blankets, clothing, and support for schooling. I need more of everything”, says Melina*, who is in her late 70s. She fends for her three grandchildren, aged between two and 10, whose parents died in 2010.
Many older women in Mozambique are increasingly having to be mothers to their grandchildren because of poverty, migration or HIV and Aids.
When social services first contacted Melina and her grandchildren, they lived in a shack and the youngest child was severely malnourished. The family has since received food assistance and the toddler now looks well nourished.
Melina and children have moved into a room in a neighbour’s house while their new home is being built.
The three children finally have birth certificates and the older ones are attending school. The middle child writes his name on a piece of paper, and shows it around. And they sleep under mosquito nets.
A wide-ranging 2014 study by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) indicates that, over the course of the past decade, the situation of children in the country has improved significantly.
At the same time the study, Situation Analysis of Children in Mozambique 2014, shows that progress is not uniform across the dimensions of wellbeing. Despite the rapid growth of the economy, multiple economic, sociocultural and institutional factors are holding back more consistent progress.
Yet children today are better off than their parents or older siblings. More are surviving. A greater number of children have access to health services, an adequate water supply and sanitation, and more are attending primary school.
In 1997, two out of every 10 children died before reaching the age of five. In 2011 this figure was reduced by more than half. In 2003, only 37% of the population was drinking water from improved sources. By 2011 this proportion had risen to 53%. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of children in primary school increased by almost three million and the number of beneficiaries covered by social protection doubled in the past four years.
These advances are encouraging but not sufficient. Every year, more than 85 000 children still die before their fifth birthday, putting Mozambique at 172 out of 194 countries on the child survival list.
This can be traced to limited access to basic health interventions, particularly given that the majority of children do not sleep under a mosquito net. Furthermore, about two out of every five Mozambicans practise open defecation.
The death rate is also caused by chronic malnutrition, which affects 43% of children under five, and maternal mortality, with nine in every 200 women dying during pregnancy or childbirth since 2002.
School enrolment has stagnated over the past five years. The low level of educational achievement is becoming a matter of growing concern.
The situation in Mozambique is a textbook case of development in Africa – some positive results, but not enough to lift the country out of the poverty trap. Mozambique is 178 out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index, with children paying the highest price despite substantial development aid and poverty reduction programmes.
Mozambique, however, is a special case. It has been experiencing rapid improvement in its economy. Over the past decade, it has ranked among the top 10 fastest-growing economies in the world, averaging 7.5% a year, more than almost any other non-oil- producing sub-Saharan country.
Sadly, the lives and wellbeing of Mozambican children, who constitute 52% of the population, have not improved at the same pace.
This is not the resource curse of a mineral-rich country. It is the result of specific policy decisions prioritising investment in infrastructure and productive sectors over investment in human capital.
Despite an increase in per capita expenditures for children, the share of the total budget dedicated to the social sector has steadily decreased.
Although per capita education expenditure rose by 72% in real terms between 2008 and 2013, the share of the government budget dedicated to education decreased from 23.3% to 18.5% during this period, and the total budget is grossly insufficient to finance all the needs.
In a recent meeting in Maputo on Africa, Christine Lagarde, the director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), identified three policy priorities for Mozambique and Africa: build infrastructure, build institutions and build people.
The composition of Mozambique’s budget stops at the first stage.
Unicef does not disagree with the IMF’s policy priorities, but suggests the order should be inverted. Priority should be given to building people through the provision of quality education and affordable health services, supported by effective and sustained social protection schemes reaching all people in need. At the same time institutions at central and local levels should be established and strengthened to enable the delivery of quality services, reducing the urban/rural and north/south inequities. With capable people and institutions, Mozambique would be able to maximise the effect of new infrastructure, starting with clean drinking water and improved sanitation systems.
There is good news. Social protection is increasingly being recognised as a key tool for poverty reduction and investment in human capital, as Melina and her grandchildren experienced first hand. The government has made significant progress in recent years in establishing a social protection system, resulting in improved food security and an increased investment that families can make in education, health and productive capacity.
Donors and the United Nations are supporting these efforts with evidence-based advocacy for increased fiscal space for the social protection sector, and backing pilot programmes designed to be effective, easily scalable and financially sustainable.
The promotion of a social protection floor is not a fad of the development business. In Mozambique most of the growth has come from investments in infrastructure and extractive industries that have weak linkages to the rest of the economy and generate few jobs.
There will be no “trickle-down” effect to the poor unless specific policy decisions are made to redistribute the benefit of economic growth to the people in need, and to give a bigger slice of the cake to investment in human capital.
In the run-up to Mozambique’s national elections on October 15, with all parties balancing the interests of different groups of voters, the focus should be on those without a vote: children.
Only by investing in children can the resource curse be transformed into a mineral wealth dividend. It is our hope. It is the children’s right.
* Names have been changed.
Koenraad Vanormelingen is Unicef’s country representative for Mozambique.