The ambiguity of defining MDGs success: has Africa failed?

Opeyemi Akindele

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A huge difference exists between merely attaining the MDGs and actually fulfilling the imperatives of human development.

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One merit of the MDGs is that they set quantitative and time specific targets which can serve as incentives or motivations for governments and institutions to commit to ending extreme poverty while improving human development. In spite of these obvious merits, an important criticism of the MDGs is their use as measures of national or regional success or failure when they were set as global targets ab initio.

According to Vandemoortele, a past UN official who played a key role in formulating the MDGs, the intent of the goals was not to serve as a strict benchmark for every country to attain to by 2015, but rather as an impetus for “all countries to strive for accelerated human development”. But then, sadly and slowly, the MDGs and their targets became flawed indices for judging a country’s or region’s performances, and whether those performances are on track to attain the set goals. As a result, Africa is often portrayed as a failed region that is not on track to attain the MDGs.

The 2013 appraisal of Africa’s performance toward achieving the MDGs, published by the African Development Bank Group (AfDB), stated that only five countries –Benin, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Malawi and Rwanda- were making accelerated progress on a number of indicators such as primary school enrolment, boys-girl ratio in school, under-five and maternal mortalities and tuberculosis control. But even at that, they are not necessarily going to meet the targets by the end of 2015.

The question then is: how should we judge a country which though may not eventually attain the target, but have nonetheless come a long way in improving their health and developmental indices?

In Eritrea for example, by 2000, approximately 400 more lives were saved from maternal complications & death causing total MMR to drop below by over 30% relative to 1990 when 1293 women died per 100,000 live births. While Eritrea is yet to reduce its MMR by the set target of 75%, should we say the small African country has failed as a result (though it has come a long way)?

On the other hand, the United Kingdom has maintained a stagnant MMR of 8 since 1990 (two points down from 10 in 1980) rather than reducing it to about 2 in order to meet the 75% reduction target. So, if we use proportion (rather than absolute numbers), then Eritrea has performed better than the United Kingdom. Yet it would be preposterous to say that the United Kingdom has “failed” its mandate to meet the MDG on maternal mortality reduction.

And even if Eritrea were to achieve a three-quarters reduction (no small feat) of its 1990 MMR of 1293 as the MDG target specifies; that would still leave that tiny East African country with an MMR of 323 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. In that [hypothetical] case, Eritrea would have met the MGD5. Yet that leaves it with an MMR that is 46 times the maternal deaths in Canada, 27 times the United States’ and 32 times the average for Western Europe as at 1980!

It therefore follows that a huge difference exists between merely attaining the MDGs and actually fulfilling the imperatives of human development.

Defining success or failure using performance on MDG1 (poverty eradication) is even more complicated because while sub-Sahara Africa has reduced the proportion of extreme poverty by 10% over ten years (1999-2010), the actual number of extremely poor people has increased over the same period.

The target of MDG1 was to halve the proportion of the people of the world living on less than $1.25 per day between 1990 and 2015. On the whole, the world has met the target since 2010 (five years before the deadline), thanks to China and India’s accelerated progress. Increased export of Chinese products and outsourcing of manufacturing and projects to Chinese and Indian firms mean massive job opportunities for Chinese men and women skilled, semi-skilled and even unskilled. The commitment of the Chinese communist government to industrial expansion, capacity building and international trade expansion mean that even apart from the MDGs, China was poised to eradicate extreme poverty and improve the lives of more people like never before in the history of the world.

According to the AfDB 2013 report on the MDGs in Africa, North African countries of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt were the best performing African countries: they are reducing the proportion of extremely poor people at a faster rate. On the other hand, the larger sub-Saharan Africa region has consistently increased its number of extremely poor people (living below $1.25) from about 377 million in 1999 to 414 million in 2010, while the observed proportional reduction (from 58% in 1999 to 48.5% in 2010) has been occurring at a much slower annual rate of 1.29%.

The implication of this is that while sub-Sahara Africa is the fastest growing sub-region in the world, the poverty reduction among the region’s destitute lags far behind the much acclaimed growth.

Data on maternal mortality from:
Margaret C Hogan et al. (2010) ‘Maternal mortality for 181 countries, 1980–2008: a Systematic Analysis of Progress Towards Millennium Development Goal 5′ Lancet