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World Cup 2010: Closer to the finals, closer to world support for Africa

South Africa's hosting of the 2010 World Cup reminds the world that Africa is part of humanity. Let's build on this progress by setting a goal of liberation from crushing human poverty.

By Thad Williamson and Douglas A. Hicks / June 29, 2010

Richmond, Va.

As the planet’s premier sporting event, the World Cup is a remarkable celebration not just of soccer, but of humanity.

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The decision by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) to hold the World Cup on African soil for the first time was momentous. It is drawing worldwide attention, sympathy, and assistance to the continent’s problems.

Consider that though the 32 participating national teams abide by the same on-field rules, the countries range in terms of political freedoms and economic well-being. A person born today in Japan is expected to witness nine more World Cups in his or her lifetime than a person born in Nigeria. The Japanese child is expected to live nearly 83 years, compared with the approximately 48 years of a Nigerian child.

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All five nations in sub-Saharan Africa that participated in this year’s cup – Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, and host South Africa – have life expectancies of less than 57 years, according to the United Nations.

And for all of the peaceable political transformation in South Africa, a very real economic disparity within that country remains. Indeed, the first week of the competition was marked in some stadiums by a labor dispute over wages promised to stadium stewards. Nearly half of the people in sub-Saharan Africa live in absolute poverty. Some 1.4 billion people worldwide must try to survive in absolute poverty earning less than $1.25 per day. And the magnitude of South Africa’s domestic inequality is roughly the same as global inequality.

The depth of suffering and oppression still prevalent on that continent can be glimpsed by taking a statistical look at the 32 participating countries’ political institutions and economic status.

Of those World Cup countries, 25 are currently ranked by the nonprofit organization Freedom House as “free,” based on an assessment of the degree of political rights and civil liberties available in each nation. Four of the seven nations categorized as “partly free” or “not free” are in Africa: Algeria, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Cameroon.

Now consider data on human development published by the United Nations Development Program, available for all participating nations but North Korea. Fully one-half of the teams qualifying for the cup are considered “very high” human development nations based on the UNDP’s Human Development Index (combining gross domestic product per capita, educational attainment, and life expectancy into a single measure), compared with 21 percent of all nations. But the five countries in the tournament with the lowest development rankings are, again, the five from sub-Saharan Africa.