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In Angola, corruption has deadly consequences for children

June 30, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
Angola is a country of extreme wealth, thanks to oil and diamonds. Yet, it has the highest child-mortality rate in the world. Rampant corruption accounts for a large part of this contradiction. Nicholas Kristof, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, joins Gwen Ifill to discuss the country’s disheartening situation.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The city of Luanda, the capital of Angola, was recently named the most expensive city in the world to live in for expatriates, beating out Tokyo, Hong Kong and Moscow.

But Angola also bears the distinction of being the country with the highest child mortality rate in the world.

The ties that bind the two? Corruption.

Gwen Ifill picks up the story from there.

GWEN IFILL: The West African nation of Angola is a land of contrasts, where the gap between the very rich and the desperately poor is so great, that its most vulnerable population, children, are dying every day.

Nicholas Kristof, the op-ed columnist for The New York Times, spent five years trying to get a visa into Angola to see for himself, and he recently returned with stunning video. He traveled there with video journalist Adam Ellick.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF, Columnist, The New York Times: This is the deadliest country in the world for kids, and yet the government has just cut the health budget by 30 percent.

At a sunset dance party in the capital, Luanda, you would never know there’s a health crisis here. That’s the crazy part. This country is actually filthy rich, flush with oil and diamonds. There’s so much money here that a one-bedroom apartment downtown can cost $12,000 a month.

The real problem is it’s just spectacularly corrupt. Officials here spend $50 million a year on luxury cars alone. Judges here get Jaguars to drive, as kids perish at the highest rate in the world.

President Jose dos Santos has ruled for 36 years through a brutal civil war that ended in 2002. He’s used the country’s oil wealth to enrich his cronies, as kids die. But I know the president cares about at least one child. After all, he turned his daughter, Isabel, into Africa’s youngest billionaire. Both of them ignored my interview requests.

But if you want the government’s perspective on how things are going here, look at this poster. It’s a warning about junk food on the walls of many public hospitals. And it’s hanging above kids dying of malnutrition.

Angola, rich oil country, diamonds. How can this be?

STEPHEN FOSTER, Missionary Surgeon: Because government won’t spend the money to make it change.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Stephen Foster is an American missionary surgeon who has worked for 37 years in Angola. He runs a hospital for the poor overlooking the city of Luongo in Southwest Angola.

STEPHEN FOSTER: No need to make any discoveries to prevent Typhoid fever. No need to make any discoveries to provide better nutrition to children.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: The reality is that these kids in the hospitals are the lucky ones. Fifty percent of Angolans don’t have access to health care at all.

So, what I have been seeing in the last few days, kids dying of malaria, of severe malnutrition, that’s the better half of Angolan health care?

STEPHEN FOSTER: You have seen the best. That’s what is happening as the best, yes, exactly.

GWEN IFILL: And Nicholas Kristof joins me now.

Those pictures are so tough to look at, and there’s so much more online.

Nick, of all the places you traveled, why Angola?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Well, I think it’s important to look at child mortality worldwide. There are six million kids a year who are dying unnecessarily before the age of 5, and Angola is a great place to look at that, because this is the highest child mortality rate in the world.

And it’s a reminder that what we need is not just new bed nets and not just more money, but frankly improving governance and preventing corruption in some of the countries that are already out there.

GWEN IFILL: What are these children dying of? And what are they suffering from?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: You know, it’s a whole range of things, Gwen.

You have… malaria is enormous. It’s diarrhea. It’s measles. It’s things as simple as worms. You can de-worm a child for about 5 cents a year. One pill of albendazole will do it. And yet we saw kids who were — had so many intestinal parasites, that they had blockages in their intestines and they were anemic as a result.

GWEN IFILL: So, these are preventable disease, everything you’re describing here, or at least curable diseases. Why is it that the government is not spending money on its health care?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Because they’re not a priority.

It’s — the president’s priority is his daughter, and so she does very well. It’s his cronies. And so they do very well. And to some degree, it’s the stability of the country. And so he pays people off to make sure that they work. And unfortunately for the rest of the world, including the U.S., and our priority is to keep oil flowing out of Angola — it’s our oil companies and making sure that they do well.

And nobody has really been concerned about the half of Angolans who don’t get any health care at all. And, in that context, they die at extraordinary rates. One in six Angolan children will die by the age of 5.

GWEN IFILL: So, Nick, is this about poverty or is this about corruption or a little bit of both?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: In essence, it’s really about corruption. Angola has the wealth as a country. It’s got oil. It’s got diamonds. And it deploys those natural resources to make sure that the president’s daughter can be a billionaire, to make sure that judges get their Jaguars.

What it doesn’t do is make sure that every child gets a bed net, that every child gets de-wormed. And so you have these children dying of completely preventable diseases. One woman in 35 will end up dying in childbirth, completely unnecessarily.

Kids are not going to school. And so, sure, poverty is a problem, but as a consequence of the pie being — going completely to the elite under President dos Santos, and the rest of the world, frankly, kind of accepting that situation, because we in the U.S., we are caring about our oil companies.

Europe is caring about its oil companies. Nobody is really caring about the disenfranchised people of Angola.

GWEN IFILL: So, does the U.S. have a formal bilateral relationship with Angola?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yes. We actually have a reasonably friendly relationship with Angola because we have substantial oil interests there.

And, also, in fairness, Angola has been reasonably helpful in trying to reach more of a peace in Congo. Secretary Kerry has visited Angola. Angolan leaders have come to the U.S. But nobody really talks about these basic issues of governance.

And, you know, I have often empathized that wealthy countries should be more generous in trying to alleviate poverty and donating to alleviate poverty around the world, but Angola is a reminder that it’s not just about wealthy countries writing checks. It’s also about them holding the feet to the fire of leaders in countries like Angola to make sure that money isn’t just stolen by the billions, but actually is deployed in ways that will save lives.

GWEN IFILL: How does Angola rank with other nations of its type which are rich in natural riches, but poor otherwise?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Angola is one of the least transparent countries in the world, one of the most corrupt countries in the world by various indexes, from Transparency International, these kinds of things.

And it also is, according to UNICEF, the single country with the very highest child mortality rate in the world. And the idea that Angola, you know, with all of its wealth, has a worse child mortality rate than Niger, that Burkina Faso, than Sierra Leone is kind of incomprehensible.

And that’s simply because the leadership doesn’t deploy its wealth to make a difference and, in fact, is this year cutting its health budget even further.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Nick Kristof of The New York Times, thank you for going where we always can’t and bringing us the story.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: My pleasure, Gwen.

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