The MDGs in the African Region: Efforts Need to Be Scaled Up to Accelerate Development

The midpoint to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) -- the time-bound and quantified targets, agreed by world leaders at the 2000 Millennium Summit, for improving the human condition and ensuring gender equality and environmental sustainability -- was reached in September 2007. Many publications in the run-up to that milestone, including the report of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), Assessing Progress in Africa towards the Millennium Development Goals, 2007, show that the continent is most unlikely to reach all the MDGs by the target date. This has generated considerable concern within Africa and among its development partners, and has set in motion a number of actions to accelerate the continent's growth and development to achieve these Goals.

Currently, the aggregate scorecard on Africa's progress towards the MDGs shows that less than 20 countries are on track to meeting a significant number of the Goals, with the strong performers concentrated in northern Africa. However, there have been positive developments in recent years. The ECA report indicates quite clearly that progress is being made across the continent in a number of areas. In most countries, there has been an improvement in hunger conditions; in all 46 countries for which data were available, there was a decrease in the proportion of people suffering from hunger. Indeed, some countries, such as Djibouti, Gabon and Ghana, have already achieved the target of halving this proportion, and many others were assessed as likely to meet that target before 2015.

Furthermore, The Millennium Development Goals Report 2007, launched by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in July 2007, shows that "the number of people living in extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa has levelled off and that poverty rate has declined by nearly six percentage points since 2000". There have also been significant improvements in net enrolment ratio in primary education, and in gender equality and women's empowerment. Indeed, sub-Saharan Africa recorded the largest share of women in parliament between 1990 and 2007.

But the data also give reasons for concern, as they indicate that a lot more needs to be done in the region to accelerate growth and development in order to achieve the MDGs. The goals on gender equality and maternal health are of special concern. While many countries have made some progress towards the official target of improving gender parity in education, the overall levels remain low, especially in higher education. Other dimensions of gender equality -- equitable access to health facilities and basic infrastructure, such as water, energy and roads, to reduce the burden of poverty, and political and economic participation of women and girls -- show even less progress. Such gender inequalities also slow progress towards the achievement of the MDGs. However, there is no reason to be despondent. The data also show that the challenge of meeting the MDGs on the continent is not insurmountable if both national and international policy measures are scaled up in a number of critical areas. This was the focus of the 2007 ECA Conference of Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, which came up with recommendations. The prerequisites for such scaling-up efforts exist.

First, there continues to be a strong, broad and sustained commitment to the MDG agenda, particularly at the highest decision-making level. In 2005, African Heads of State adopted the African Common Position on the MDGs, which was subsequently presented to the 2005 UN World Summit and the G8 Gleneagles Summit. The African Union reiterated this commitment at the 2006 Banjul Summit and underpinned it by adopting concrete measures to scale up efforts. At its 2007 Accra Summit, the African Union adopted a resolution urging member countries to intensify efforts to achieve the MDGs by the target date. Since 2005, Africa's ministers of finance, economic planning and development, as well as the key sector ministries, have consistently placed the MDGs at the centre of their conferences and meetings. A number of countries have set up MDG offices to track and monitor progress.

Second, there have been improvements in the political and economic environment -- a crucial precondition for achieving the MDGs. Participatory democracy has been taking hold on the continent; most African countries are accompanying their economic reforms with far-ranging political liberalization. Free association of people is now the rule, not the exception, in more than three quarters of African countries that are not in conflict. Concrete achievements have been made in containing the resurgence and spread of conflicts. There is no doubt that the number of countries experiencing active conflicts has reduced dramatically over the past decade.

Third, beyond nurturing the overall environment for making the desired progress towards the MDGs, the tangible achievements on the economic growth front since 2000 continue to be sustained. When placed in a longer-term context, Africa's recent growth performance, which improved significantly from below 3 per cent in 1999 to approximately 6 per cent in 2007, has been quite impressive. This strong performance cuts across all countries, both oil exporters and importers, and has translated into a favourable per capita annual income growth of 3 per cent on average. Achievements with respect to key macroeconomic indicators have also been strong. Average inflation levels have remained stable in single digits and budgetary deficits have largely been contained in most of the countries. In addition, account deficits have become more manageable, while debt sustainability has improved measurably, owing to an increasing number of countries benefiting from the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative.

Recognizing the need to intensify efforts to reach the MDGs, world leaders at the 2005 World Summit resolved to "adopt, by 2006, and implement comprehensive national development strategies to achieve the internationally agreed goals and objectives", including the MDGs. Two years on, some measurable progress has been made towards the formulation and implementation of MDG-based strategies. More than 35 African countries have embarked on the process of preparing and implementing MDG-based national strategies and action plans. The prospects and possibilities of quick impact initiatives, such as free malaria bed nets distribution and food subsidies for education, have been increasing, with countries registering advances in several MDGs.

It is clear that the region must overcome a set of wide-ranging and difficult challenges if it is to meet the MDGs by the target date. The first is facilitating and sustaining rapid growth. Raising agricultural productivity and transforming the rural sector have been and remain major challenges to most African countries since their independence. Low levels of agricultural development further exacerbate poverty, hunger and poor health status, which increase vulnerability to HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Overcoming these challenges will require a substantial scaling up of interventions in the input, output and export markets.

Climate change is another challenge. Currently, climate variability is adversely affecting growth, including in agriculture and manufacturing through its impact on hydro-electric dams and the supply of electricity, among others. Other concerns include managing climate change and the likely impact of failure on progress towards the achievement of the MDGs, employment creation and the associated issue of rising inequality, fast social transformation, especially the growing urbanization, and the persistent problem of gender inequality.
Another set of challenges relates to scaling up financing and public-sector investments to address critical growth bottlenecks. On mobilizing financing for public-sector investments and MDG-related expenditures, debt relief has provided additional resources for scaling up these expenditures, but still falls far short of the needs of the region. Foreign direct investment and official development assistance (ODA) are increasing, as is the efforts of African countries to increase domestic resource mobilization and assistance from other countries, such as China and India.

The poor state of infrastructure in Africa is a major impediment to domestic market and regional integration, as well as to equitable access to social services and therefore to growth. Related to this is the complementary and fundamental challenge of scaling up investments in human capacities and capital. Education, health, water, sanitation and social protection are critical for building up the stock of human capital and for achieving the MDGs. However, until recently, investments in these areas in many African countries have been falling.
A final cluster of challenges relates to policy environment planning, monitoring and tracking performance. Countries face the task of preparing and implementing a MDG-based planning framework consistent with the provision in the Outcome Document of the 2005 World Summit. Other challenges include better management of the emergent policy and fiscal space that countries have as a result of debt relief, increasing and/or stable commodity prices, a rise in ODA and intensified domestic resource mobilization efforts. Many countries also continue to have difficulties in providing improved data for monitoring and tracking of progress, as well as of MDG-relevant expenditures, and for decision-making. Finally, ensuring peace and security is crucial to effective harnessing of globalization and partnerships for growth and development.

To overcome these challenges, African countries have a lot to do. It is imperative to develop focused, MDG-consistent national development strategies. A key component of any strategy must be to diversify the economies and expand opportunities for all. Science, technology and knowledge must be incorporated into production, and infrastructural constraints must either be eliminated or at least considerably attenuated. Regional integration is also critical for progress, given the fact that many African economies are small and landlocked and need access to the sea. In addition, Africa's development partners need to fulfil the commitments they made in Monterrey in 2002 and at Gleneagles in 2005, and to keep their promises. Although the primary responsibility for mobilizing resources to enable the scaling-up of public-sector investments to reach the MDGs lies with African countries themselves, in the final analysis, success depends on a shared national and international commitment to improve the life-chances of the most vulnerable in society.

ECA will continue to accompany African countries in their journey to meet the MDGs. In 2006, the Commission was repositioned to enable it to better assist the region in confronting its development challenges. ECA is now focused on two interrelated pillars: regional integration in support of the African Union's vision and priorities; and meeting Africa's special needs and emerging global changes. ECA, through its innovative African Learning Group on Poverty Reduction Strategies and Millennium Development Goals, is promoting experience-sharing and peer-learning on the MDGs and poverty reduction strategies among Member States, thereby contributing to enhancing MDG-policymaking. ECA has also developed innovative tools, such as the MDG-mapper, to enable countries to track and monitor progress.

In conclusion, as Secretary-General Ban stated in his foreword to the MDG Report 2007, "the MDGs are still achievable if we act now. . The world wants no new promises".