This week we celebrated Nelson Mandela’s birthday and it is a time for us to reflect on the achievements of the great man. I was lucky enough to share a stage with him in Trafalgar Square in 2005 for Make Poverty History. Today we still share a belief that what we pledged to do that day can be achieved.
Since he left prison in Paarl in 1990 after 27 years, Mr Mandela’s continent has arguably undergone changes as dramatic as any other, certainly in recent years. The Millennium Development Goals have helped focus leaders from around the world on the task of halving extreme poverty and fighting preventable disease and the results have been dramatic.
In the field of health, maternal mortality in sub-Saharan Africa is down by over 40%, child mortality has fallen by 30%, in large part due to extensive vaccination campaigns which have seen more than 5.4 million children’s lives saved in Africa between 2000 and 2009. And new vaccines recently developed against some of the biggest killers of children – diarrhoea and pneumonia– will save even more lives in the coming years.
The progress made against HIV/AIDS is staggering. Nearly 4 million Africans have been placed on life preserving antiretroviral treatment since 2002. And we now know how to prevent mothers passing HIV onto their children.
In education more than three-quarters of children on the continent are enrolled in primary education, over 46 million of these children since 1999, as Africa’s teachers set out to create the continent’s leaders of tomorrow.
Each life saved and life changed is living proof of the incredible progress we have all helped achieve.
These statistics feed into a bigger picture about the how the rest of the world has come to perceive Africa. Once dismissed as the “hopeless continent” it is now home to six of the ten fastest growing economies on the planet and foreign investment continues to flow in. Premier League football team Sunderland Athletic recently announced a two-year shirt sponsorship deal with “Invest in Africa”. With its vast natural resources, innovative tech entrepreneurs and growing working-age population Africa’s potential has seen it described by fund managers as “the best investment story on the planet.”
These examples, whilst impressive, are only a checkpoint on the road to 2015. Mr Mandela knew as much in 2005 in Trafalgar Square saying: “As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.” We have achieved so much, but we cannot rest now that we are nearly there. Still 7.6m children die of preventable treatable diseases each year and a billion people go to bed hungry every night.
There is no reason to believe that we cannot finish the job. It is a long walk, but Mr Mandela is used to those. We have 1000 days between now and the deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals. It may not seem like long but a lot can change in 1000 days if minds are focused and leaders committed. In just over 1000 days from walking free from prison, Nelson Mandela and others managed achieve what was unthinkable to many: to peacefully end apartheid and draw up a road map for a new nation.
In honour of the man himself and in recognition of his 67 years of public service, people around the world are choosing to mark Mandela Day by giving 67 minutes of their time to help others, be it towards the MDGs or local projects. My pledge is to keep working for the MDGs and to rally others to do the same, whether it’s joining ONE or making your own Mandela pledge.
Because of what has been achieved in recent years in the fight against poverty and disease, an entire generation of us in our twenties, thirties and forties can realistically contemplate a world where these scourges can actually be wiped out. In a few years, we could see the elimination of polio, even the beginning of the end of AIDS. We can plan for a time when no child is born with HIV, when diarrhoea and pneumonia rarely claim lives, when famine is a Biblical notion, not a present-day obscenity, and when extreme poverty is on the way to being a thing of the past. These goals are within our grasp and we should be determined to achieve them. Let’s be determined to take some great strides forward – not only in our lifetimes, but in Nelson Mandela’s too.
This article first appeared on the Huffington Post UK website