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Why Poverty: Four Born Every Second

Updated Thursday, 6th September 2012

Use data to explore the factors affecting life expectancy and delve into the hidden stories behind the figures 

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Predicting a Child’s Life


What can statistics tell us about how a British child’s life will pan out compared to a child from Sierra Leone?  We’ll find out in this video.

We’re going to look at the stats from the UN Development Programme’s Explorer tool to test the claim that if you know the circumstances around a child’s birth you can predict how the life of that child will unfold.  We’ll do this by comparing the outcomes for two babies, one born in Sierra Leone, a country on the north west coast of Africa, the other child born in the UK, a West European country.  First of all let’s locate these two countries on the explorer tool map.  Sierra Leone is shown in yellow.  Looking at the key on the bottom left of the map for level of development what is the level of development in Sierra Leone?  The answer is that Sierra Leone is at a low level of development.

If we look at which other countries are also at a low level of development we can see that most of them are in Africa.  What this means in terms of the quality of life and opportunities Sierra Leoneans have can be suggested by looking at the bar chart of all countries in the world at the top of the page.  As you can see Sierra Leone is far to the left, which means it performs poorly when scores for income, education and health are blended together.  This is called the Human Development Index or HDI and Sierra Leone had an HDI of 0.336 in 2011.  I’ll explain the Human Development Index a little more to you shortly, but now let’s quickly review the position, level of development and HDI of the UK.

The UK is now shown in yellow.  Looking at the colour key for level of development on the bottom left of the map, what level of development is the UK act?  The UK is at a very high level of development.  Looking at the bar chart for HDI towards the top of the page the UK is far to the right, which means it performs very well when scores for health, education and living standards are blended together to produce the Human Development Index or HDI.  The UK had an HDI of 0.863 in 2011.

The Human Development Index (HDI) measures the average achievements of a country in three basic dimensions of human development: health, education and living standards.  Health is measured by life expectancy at birth.  Education is a little more complex as it has two components: one captures those who have finished education; the other those who are beginning their education.  The education dimension takes the average number of years of schooling for adults aged 25 years together with the expected years of schooling for children about to enter school.  Living standards are measured by the gross national income of the country divided by the population of the country, which gives a per capita or per head figure.  The data from the three dimensions, health, education and income, is merged to produce one value for each country.  The scores range from zero to one.  A country with a poor HDI will be nearer zero and a country with a good HDI will be nearer one.

Now let’s drill down and make some direct comparisons between the lives and opportunities of a child born in Sierra Leone and a child born in the UK.  We won’t be looking at conventional landmarks in these children’s lives, such as when they get married or how many children they have; instead we’ll select from the datasets available on the UN DP website and the values available in both countries.  So please take this into account when considering the data story we’ll tell.

Let’s first consider the chances of a child reaching their fifth birthday.  As you can see in 1970 as many as 372 children born alive out of every 1,000 would not survive until their fifth birthday in Sierra Leone.  That was down to 192 by 2009, but it still represents almost two children in every ten not seeing their fifth birthdays.  In the UK, 21 children out of 1,000 died before their fifth birthdays in 1970.  In 2009, this was down to six.  So a child’s chances of living to five years old are pretty poor in Sierra Leone.  There have been improvements in under-5 mortality over the last 40 years with a fall from 4 in 10 babies dying before age 5 to 2 in 10, but it is still a very high risk.  In contrast in the UK a baby’s chances of seeing their fifth birthday were always very good, but they have improved significantly over the last 40 years with the under-5 mortality rate in 2009 a third what it was in 1970.

So at 5 our babies are coming up to school age.  What lies ahead of them in terms of opportunities to learn?  What we see here is that both countries have seen the expected years of schooling increase over the past 30 years.  Sierra Leonean children expected to receive almost five years of education in 1980, and this rose to just over seven years in 2010.  This represents a significant improvement in terms of literacy, numeracy and skills development.  Similarly in the UK the expected years of education has also risen from just over 13 years in 1980 to 16 years in 2010.  This means a British child can expect to receive more than twice the number of years of schooling than a Sierra Leonean child.  The knock-on effects of this disparity in education are likely to be felt at every juncture of our children’s lives.  If we assume our babies are girls we can also compare how many of these girls will themselves become mothers at a young age between 15 and 19 years old.

This is important, because it gives some indications of the aspirations of girls and young women and more broadly it provides some insight into the position of women in society.  Becoming a young mother can be due to limited employment opportunities for women and a lack of power in relations with men.  In Sierra Leone in 2000 there were 151 babies born to every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19.  Ten years later in 2010 little had changed with 144 babies being born to young girls.  In the UK in 2000 there were 31 babies born to every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19.  Ten years later in 2010 there was also little change with 29 babies born to young girls.  What’s striking about these figures is that in both countries there was little change over the ten year period.  Early childbearing carries greater health risks for mothers and infants.  Adolescent mothers are often forced out of school and into low skilled jobs.  In both countries young girls are missing the opportunities to develop as individuals before having the responsibility of caring for a baby, but this is a more frequent occurrence in Sierra Leone than in the UK.

Now let us look at the earning potential of our two young people.  We do this by taking the national income of each country and dividing by its population.  This gives an average income for each citizen, but of course some citizens will earn very much more than the average and others very much less.  Strikingly the income for an individual in Sierra Leone has declined over the 31 year period, while in the UK it has almost doubled.  Just think about this for a moment.  It means the buying power of Sierra Leoneans is less today than it was 31 years ago, which is compounded by the fact that prices would not have fallen back or stood still in Sierra Leone.  This is because of the ubiquitous effects of globalisation.  This means that the standard of living for our Sierra Leonean adult has declined, while it has considerably improved for our British adult.

Finally we come to consider the end of our two adults’ lives.  At what age are they likely to die?  This gives us insights into a host of factors, such as nutrition, access to healthcare and how hazardous and hard their lives have been.  In 1970 a Sierra Leonean baby could expect to live to 35, while a British baby could expect to live to almost 72.  By 2011 a Sierra Leonean baby could expect to live to almost 48 and a British baby to 80 years.  So while the increase in life expectancy over the 41 years is less in Britain than in Sierra Leone the life expectancy in Sierra Leone is still only a little over half of what it is in the UK.  This means our Sierra Leonean will die young and our Briton will live a relatively long life.

What do you think about the insights revealed by these stats?  Visit the OpenLearn site to share your views and see credits and links for all sources used in this video.










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