Achieving the MDGs in Africa: should we accelerate?

By Charles Abugre Akelyira

After four years of intensive engagement on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) across Africa, one thing is clear to me: the African elite by and large support the MDGs and wish to see them achieved. This is in spite of the shift in the public discourse from poverty reduction to ‘structural transformation’ – a vision that emphasises investment in infrastructure, value addition in agriculture, and maximising the benefits of extractives and industrialisation.

The goal is to eradicate poverty and restore the dignity of the African. African policy makers therefore do not necessarily see a contradiction between achieving the MDGs and advancing structural transformation. They realise that, as a minimum, they need their populations to be literate, healthy, properly nourished, with the potentials of both men and women fulfilled. However they do not want their development ambitions locked into the MDGs, and they seek to achieve the MDGs on their own strengths and not on the back of aid-dependency.

But is acceleration the right focus in the remaining period – now less than 900 days to 31 December 2015? What are we to accelerate? When the United Nations (led by the United Nations Development Programme) rolled out the MDGs Acceleration Framework (MAF) after the 2010 High Level Summit on the MDGs, the idea was for countries to identify the MDGs that are most off-track, and lend focused and coordinated efforts to remove the bottlenecks impeding progress. As an interventions-driven approach, MAF sought to align national policy priorities, budget allocation and aid harmonisation.

The MDGs most lagging in African countries are: income poverty, hunger/malnutrition, maternal and child health, gender inequalities, inadequate access to anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) in HIV-ravaged areas, and the MDG 8 targets, in particular those addressing international trading and the financial systems that continue to be unfair and unstable.

As with optimal aid-delivery scenarios, interventions-driven approaches work best in simple, direct, output-oriented activities such as the supply and construction of required items – from mosquito nets to school buildings – where tangible results are visible in a short period of time. To achieve sustained benefits, healthy domestic resources must be accompanied by much bigger, less visible and longer-term changes in the economy and society. Interventions-based approaches are good for quick-fixes but less suitable for achieving those MDGs that can only result from structural and systemic changes.

Income poverty – in many ways a determinant of other MDGs – is illustrative. Countries registering the greatest progress (reducing relative poverty by at least 30% between 2000-2010 according to the World Bank) – Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Senegal, South Africa, Swaziland, Uganda – also realised sustained GDP per-capita growth, driven largely by performance in agriculture or sustained social protection. Apart from South Africa, the others also witnessed a reduction in income inequalities. Poverty did not reduce, or did so marginally, in countries including Angola, Ghana, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania, where both income per capita and inequalities (measured by the ratio of incomes of the top 10% and bottom 40%) grew in tandem.

Incomes emanate from productive, properly remunerated work and social transfers. Capable economies (which by definition are structurally balanced, fairly equitable and dominated by increasing returns and value-added economic activities) generate productive work – which cannot be realised through quick fixes.

Regarding maternal mortality (MMR), the countries registering appalling progress include the Central African Republic, Chad, Eritrea, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Malawi and Sierra Leone. Although Sierra Leone and Kenya have taken drastic measures to reduce MMR by declaring free maternal services, they have adopted a largely limited reproductive healthcare approach to the problem.

The globally preferred health-sector approach is narrow because the root causes of maternal mortality arguably lie in structural poverty (what ODI calls chronic poverty – an unfortunate choice of terminology given that, in my view, all poverty is curable) and the lack of effective freedoms for women. After all, it is largely poor and rural women who are worst affected. Health services help, but don’t cure. To ensure adequate reach and sustenance of health services (including reproductive healthcare) requires a capable economy, healthy revenues, good infrastructure and systems, and girls’ enhanced access to post-primary education etc.

It is not accidental that the countries exhibiting low maternal deaths have high Human Development Index indices: Cape Verde, the Comoros, Gabon, Mauritius, the North African countries, Seychelles, the North African countries, and South Africa. Many of them have also significantly narrowed gender inequalities. Try as we may, we cannot quick-fix maternal or child mortality or income poverty. They have to be addressed structurally. For children to survive and thrive they don’t only need mosquito nets, vaccination or medicines, they also need nutrition, education, and for their mothers to be healthy, educated and non-poor. We cannot side step under-development and structural inequalities.

I am saying that the right interventions make the most difference only when they can be broad-based and sustained, and in the African context this requires addressing structural inequalities and underdevelopment. My argument is that in the remaining time, we cannot make the desired difference through discreet interventions. Moreover, the fixation on accelerated interventions presents the risk of perpetuating wrong-headed status-quo policies, and the loss of valuable time to think and act differently, and prepare the ground for a bigger ambition: the eradication of poverty and moving out of under-development.

So what should we be concentrating on in the remaining time?

1. Supporting the steady implementation of existing national plans and actions whilst at the same time reviewing existing policies to ensure they align with the transformation agenda.

2. Engendering political consensus at the national and global levels to address systemic bottlenecks that impede development. These include economic inequalities, tax dodging, regulation of systemically important financial institutions to secure stability, reform of multilateral trading and investment rules that undermine industrialisation potentials, and global environmental governance, to mention a few.

3. Investing in the data systems necessary for accountability in the renewed/revamped agenda.

Africa cannot eradicate poverty without development. The current MDGs should not be misconstrued as Africa’s development agenda. Why lose valuable time on the status quo when we can use the time to transit into a more ambitious and appropriate development agenda?


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