Africa’s MDG Quagmire: Moving beyond the goals

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The Millennium Development Goals are likely to remain important for the long-term task of eradicating poverty beyond 2015. But development policy is being challenged by a host of issues brought into focus by the quadruple crises of the past three years: the food, climate, energy and financial crises. These crises and their aftermaths require us to “think out of the box.”

The MDGs have marked a step forward. They have received unprecedented political commitment and forged a strong consensus on fighting poverty. They have helped expand the international debate over sustainable pro-poor development and over how to mobilize donor support for domestic efforts, especially in health, education and other social services. They have helped some civil society groups to hold governments in developing countries accountable for their decisions.

On the other hand, as the MDGs garnered international acceptance, we got distracted from the key factor that perpetuates global poverty — the unequal distribution of power at national and global levels. The point of departure for the MDGs was the belief that unregulated global markets and human development go hand in hand. If countries are poor, went the argument, it is because they are not sufficiently globalized. It was a viewpoint that ignored inequality, power relations, poor governance, civil and political rights and other issues. Conquering poverty was presented as a technical challenge that could be accomplished with more development aid.

Yet the idea that aid can be the basis for development in poor countries is highly debatable. So is the notion that aid can bring any significant degree of global redistribution. Poverty is a result of international power structures, poor leadership, oppression and discrimination. It needs a political solution, not a technical one.

The global decline in poverty has been caused mostly by rapid economic growth in China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. The world is still off track for a number of targets. Most developing countries are projected not to meet the MDGs

The limits of growth

Unlike in the 1980s and 1990s, average incomes in sub-Saharan Africa have grown steadily since 2000, with growth rates averaging over 5 per cent a year. More than a third of Africans live in countries with economies that have grown by more than 4 per cent annually for 10 years, and 18 countries are classified by the World Bank as “diversified and sustained growers.”

However, this growth has been based on a boom in commodity prices and consumption that was financed by foreign transfers. Few jobs have been created. Growth has been uneven, averaging more in oil-exporting countries and less in others. Similar disparities are evident within almost all African countries, with data seeming to confirm that inequality increases with growth.

While robust growth helped speed income poverty reduction in many countries, recent high food and energy prices, climate-induced declines in productivity and the global financial crisis have significantly set back the fight against poverty. For the poor, the double shock of higher food and fuel prices threatens survival.

The slowdown in growth has reduced government tax revenues, which will likely bring lower spending on social services — in a region where few functioning social safety nets exist.

The current global economic crisis will substantially increase the costs of achieving the MDGs by 2015. Low-income sub-Saharan countries in particular will not be able to finance those costs without additional international aid and/or debt relief. But aid levels are unlikely to rise. Donor commitments were not being fully met even before the crisis.

The post-MDG agenda should focus on addressing the underlying structures of production, distribution and ownership — and of power — that perpetuate imbalances. The current crisis provides new openings for activism – opportunities to engage seriously in mass political mobilization to create genuinely redistributive structures and institutions at local, national and global levels.

This means that we need new politics that empower the poor, and values that advance common objectives and ethical principles. We need new institutions that really work on behalf of the marginalized segments of society. There also must be incentives to improve productivity growth, jobs and incomes, as well as resources for realizing human aspirations and human security and for enhancing the capacity and dignity of the individual.

Fantu Cheru is research director of the Nordic Africa Institute, an academic research, documentation and information centre based in Uppsala, Sweden.

Africa Renewal  Africa Renewal magazine, published by the United Nations, examines Africa's development, achievements and challenges. It provides expert analysis and on-the-spot reporting to show how policies affect Africa's people.
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