MDGs: An as­sess­ment of Africa’s progress

Was de­vel­op­ment goals’ yard­stick un­fair to Africa?


In just two decades, pri­mary school en­rol­ment in two of the world’s poor­est coun­tries — Niger and Burk­ina Faso — in­creased from 20% to more than 60%. De­spite this en­cour­ag­ing trend, both coun­tries are rated as hav­ing failed to reach the Mil­len­nium De­vel­op­ment Goal ( MDG) of univer­sal pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion by 2015.

Over the years, the lack of an ap­pro­pri­ate yard­stick to mon­i­tor progress in poor coun­tries’ de­vel­op­ment pro­grammes has of­ten been crit­i­cised by ex­perts.

As the MDGs come to a close, some ex­perts be­lieve the global com­mu­nity needs to be aware that the as­sess­ment process was un­just to Africa and that progress made by coun­tries such as Burk­ina Faso and Niger ought to be rec­og­nized.

“It took the United States over a cen­tury to make the tran­si­tion from Burk­ina Faso’s cur­rent en­rol­ment rate to univer­sal pri­mary school­ing,” noted Michael Cle­mens and Todd Moss, se­nior re­search fel­lows at the Cen­tre for Global De­vel­op­ment, a US-based think tank, in their pa­per, What’s Wrong with the Mil­len­nium De­vel­op­ment Goals?

Long-time crit­ics of the MDGs, Mr. Cle­mens and Mr. Moss asked: “Would it not en­er­gize the de­vel­op­ment com­mu­nity more to cel­e­brate Burk­ina Faso’s per­for­mance than to con­demn it as dis­as­ter?”

A March 2015 pa­per by Laura Ro­driguez Takeuchi, Emma Sam­man and Lies­bet Steer of the Over­seas De­vel­op­ment In­sti­tute (ODI), a UK-based think tank, also faults the MDGs’ eval­u­a­tion sys­tem for fail­ing to ac­count for na­tional re­al­i­ties.

Coun­tries are clas­si­fied as ei­ther “on track” or “off track” in a non-lin­ear way with coun­tries at var­i­ous stages of de­vel­op­ment, notes the pa­per. The au­thors found that de­pend­ing on the indi­ca­tor, up to 46% of poor coun­tries for which suf­fi­cient data were avail­able “have reg­is­tered bet­ter-than-ex­pected progress on some MDG tar­gets, even though they are not ‘on track’ to meet them.”

“This coun­try-level ap­pli­ca­tion (of global tar­gets) has been prob­lem­atic in some cases and promotes a mis­per­cep­tion of real progress made,” the au­thors as­serted. “Ap­ply­ing the same tar­gets to all coun­tries sug­gests sim­i­lar ef­forts will re­sult in sim­i­lar ‘gains’ across dif­fer­ent coun­tries. But our anal­y­sis – along­side that of oth­ers – shows progress is rarely lin­ear: im­prove­ments in peo­ple’s lives across dif­fer­ent di­men­sions oc­cur at vary­ing rates across coun­tries. For some MDG tar­gets, progress has been faster for coun­tries fur­ther from a tar­get; for oth­ers it has been slower.

New York Univer­sity pro­fes­sor and econ­o­mist Wil­liam East­erly has ar­gued that making the first MDG about halv­ing poverty by 2015, com­pared to its level in 1990, “bi­ased the cam­paign against Africa in the sense that it was much more likely that Africa would ‘fail’ than other re­gions, for two rea­sons.”

First, in his in­flu­en­tial 2007 pa­per, How the Mil­len­nium De­vel­op­ment Goals Are Un­fair to Africa, Mr. East­erly is crit­i­cal of the choice of 1990 as the base­line year (the MDGs cam­paign started in 2000) when eco­nomic growth in Africa was par­tic­u­larly poor. “This means that coun­tries and re­gions are judged not only on their progress dur­ing the cam­paign, but also for progress made (or not made) be­fore the cam­paign started,” he said.

Sec­ond, Mr. East­erly ar­gues, the de­ci­sion to make re­duc­tion in poverty a goal places more weight on eco­nomic growth as a driver of poverty re­duc­tion (a trick­le­down ef­fect) than on ef­forts to im­prove the in­comes of those al­ready liv­ing be­low the poverty line. Mr. East­erly finds bias against Africa in set­ting the tar­get for each of the MDGs, such as claim­ing Africa has failed to re­duce ma­ter­nal mor­tal­ity by two-thirds, de­spite the lack of re­li­able data in­di­cat­ing this.

Many of th­ese cri­tiques are well­known and have been doc­u­mented by var­i­ous re­searchers over the years. The crit­i­cism has in­flu­enced the mon­i­tor­ing of the progress of the MDGs, lead­ing ob­servers away from sim­ply not­ing that “Africa is off track” to a more nu­anced ap­proach, one that con­sid­ers the level of progress of each coun­try in its own spe­cific con­text.

Ac­cord­ing to the MDG 2014 re­port, As­sess­ing Progress in Africa to­ward the

MDGs, African coun­tries have made some progress to­wards achiev­ing the MDGs de­spite dif­fi­cult ini­tial con­di­tions. Thir­ty­four out of the 48 coun­tries that are clas­si­fied as least de­vel­oped coun­tries are in the Africa re­gion.

“Pro­duc­ing coun­try case stud­ies to bet­ter understand both the level of progress achieved and the spe­cific fac­tors

that have driven it is cru­cial,” notes Susan Ni­co­lai, head of the De­vel­op­ment Progress project at the Over­seas De­vel­op­ment In­sti­tute. The in­sti­tute has pro­duced 49 case stud­ies ex­plor­ing the progress dif­fer­ent coun­tries have made over the past two decades and what lessons can be drawn for the global com­mu­nity.

The way for­ward

Fol­low­ing the adop­tion of the 2030 Agenda for Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment at the end of the MDGs process in Septem­ber, ODI’s Ms. Takeuchi noted that the process of de­vel­op­ing this new set of goals had “been much more in­clu­sive, both in terms of bring­ing the voices of dif­fer­ent coun­tries to the ta­ble but also of dif­fer­ent groups within coun­tries.” She cites as an ex­am­ple MyWorld2015, a global sur­vey con­ducted by the UN to gather the views of over 7 mil­lion peo­ple “from around the globe on what they think would make their lives bet­ter in the next 15 years.” The sur­vey re­sults were com­mu­ni­cated to the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals (SDGs) ne­go­tia­tors through civil so­ci­ety.

Dis­cus­sions on set­ting in­di­ca­tors to mea­sure progress on the 17 SDGs are still con­tin­u­ing, says Ms. Ni­co­lai. The need to use coun­try-spe­cific in­di­ca­tors to show progress is feed­ing into the dis­cus­sions. If a coun­try es­tab­lishes its own pa­ram­e­ters of de­vel­op­ment, it will re­quire strong in­cen­tives to push it­self to­wards ex­cel­lence.

Fi­nanc­ing sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment

Ms. Takeuchi reck­ons that sur­veys such as MyWorld2015 can be pow­er­ful tools in en­sur­ing na­tional tar­gets are in line with na­tional pri­or­i­ties. “Data is an­other great in­cen­tive. We now have much more data to track progress than we did in 1990 (al­though my col­leagues at ODI have shown that there are still huge gaps) and we can use it as an in­put to know what is re­al­is­tic for a coun­try to achieve.”

Money to fi­nance de­vel­op­ment is a ma­jor re­quire­ment as well. Aid played an im­por­tant part in the MDGs’ im­ple­men­ta­tion. How­ever, un­like the MDGs, the 2030 Agenda for Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment is univer­sal and is ex­pected to re­ceive global fi­nan­cial sup­port for im­ple­men­ta­tion as spelt out in the Ad­dis Ababa Ac­tion Agenda, which was adopted by world lead­ers at the Third In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence on Fi­nanc­ing for De­vel­op­ment held in Ethiopia in July 2015. The Ac­tion Agenda em­pha­sises the need to mo­bi­lize do­mes­tic re­sources, and lays the foun­da­tion for im­ple­ment­ing the SDGs. To broaden the rev­enue base to fi­nance the SDGs, mem­ber states agreed to im­prove their tax col­lec­tion sys­tems and to com­bat tax eva­sion and il­licit fi­nan­cial flows. They hope to en­cour­age more pri­vate in­vest­ment and aid for poor coun­tries.

There is no doubt that the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity expects the SDGs to ben­e­fit from the in­valu­able lessons learned from im­ple­ment­ing the MDGs.

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