As the planet’s premier sporting event, the World Cup is a remarkable celebration not just of soccer, but of humanity.
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.
Readers weigh in: What does the World Cup mean to you?
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.
Like most developing countries, the sub-Saharan African nations are also societies with enormous gaps between the rich and poor, compared with richer countries with well-developed welfare states. In South Africa, expenditures of the richest 10 percent are 35 times greater than those of the poorest 10 percent. Comparable income ratios between the top and bottom are 4.5 to 1 in Japan, 7 to 1 in Germany, and 16 to 1 in the United States (the most unequal of the richer nations).
Inequality levels in the other sub-Saharan African nations are not quite as high, but this is more of a reflection of the sheer lack of wealth in these nations than the byproduct of successful policy.
These figures reflect many factors, including the legacy of colonialism and apartheid, as well as decades of instability punctuated by violence and periods of authoritarian rule in much of sub-Saharan Africa. They also reflect the devastation of diseases such as malaria and AIDS and the persistence of hunger-related deaths (estimated at 25,000 a day worldwide).
But this is what is remarkable about the World Cup: It allows teams representing nations that are unequal in economic terms to compete with one another on a level playing field, in a spirit of friendship. It represents the conviction, against so much contrary evidence, that poorer and richer nations are capable of cooperating with another toward a shared end. It represents hope.
What matters most is what happens when the soccer ends. Will, as some critics charge, South Africa’s World Cup be remembered simply for soccer heroics and for providing a good time to thousands of visiting fans? Or might it instead, as Nelson Mandela and other South Africans hope, represent a turning point in our global community, in which we pay more sustained attention to Africa and the pressing human needs of developing countries around the world, and move from sympathy to concerted action aimed at reducing human suffering as rapidly as possible?
The answer to that question depends not on any referee’s decision, but on how well civic and political leaders around the world seize the moment. Major progress in alleviating the most severe forms of human suffering can be achieved with a relatively modest commitment of resources from wealthier countries. For instance, United Against Malaria, endorsed by US star Landon Donovan and a number of other players, estimates that it costs just $10 to protect a mother and child from malaria for five years.
To be sure, enduring solutions to the problem of socioeconomic underdevelopment must go far beyond the efforts of football stars and other celebrities. Raising consciousness about the pressing needs of other countries – and the shared humanity of their citizens – is an indispensable step in the process of producing serious, sustained change.
Politicians, citizens, and yes, ordinary soccer fans, need to set the goal of ensuring that when the World Cup next returns to Africa in 16 or 20 years’ time, it will be celebrating liberation from crushing human poverty.
Other articles we think you'd enjoy: