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The Millenium Development Goals in Africa: Promises and Progress

New York - June 2002

Report prepared by UNDP and UNICEF at the request of the G-8 Personal Representatives for Africa
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'We will assist Africans in their struggle for lasting peace, poverty eradication and sustainable development.'
United Nations Millennium Declaration, 2000

In 2001, Mr. Nelson Mandela asked, “Will the legacy of our generation be more than a series of broken promises?” This report attempts to answer that question by reviewing the progress made in Africa in achieving the set of development goals agreed at the United Nations Millennium Summit of September 2000. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) embody the aspiration for human betterment, expressed in a limited set of numerical and time-bound targets. They include halving income poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education and gender equality; reducing under-5 mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality by three-quarters; reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS; and halving the proportion of people without access to safe water. These targets are to be achieved by 2015, from their level in 1990.

Progress and Setbacks

It is often said that global targets are easily set but seldom met. In fact, the 1990s saw many success stories in Africa, even though efforts to ameliorate the continent’s socio-economic and political situation do not always get full coverage. A number of countries—Cape Verde, Mauritius, Mozambique and Uganda—have sustained growth rates close to 7 or 8 per cent per year. The peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa, as well as the lengthening list of countries where elections took place during the 1990s—Benin, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia—underscore Africa’s aspirations for democratic governance and the protection of human rights. Improvements in education in Guinea and Malawi, reductions in child mortality in the Gambia, as well as the containment of HIV/AIDS in Senegal and Uganda deserve to be highlighted as concrete achievements.

But for each success story, there have also been setbacks. The under-5 mortality rate increased in Kenya, Malawi and Zambia—an unprecedented trend after decades of steady decline. The primary school enrolment ratio dropped in Cameroon, Lesotho, Mozambique and Tanzania. The gender gap in primary education widened in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Namibia. Instead of decreasing, malnutrition increased in Burkina Faso. Most ominously, countless countries saw their HIV prevalence rate increase several times during the 1990s, severely undermining the feasibility of most MDGs, in health and beyond.

Progress in over 50 countries in the region is difficult to summarise. Regional information is not always reliable, comparable or up-to-date. Different sources often give different estimates, without necessarily being inconsistent. Regional trends, moreover, are only estimates; they are never precise or actual values. Hence, this review draws on the best data currently available. Indicators without trend data or with inconsistent data have been omitted.

Beyond Averages

Most importantly, averages—which are commonly used to measure MDG progress—do not tell the full story of how far countries have gone in fulfilling the development aspirations of their people. Groups for which social progress has been fastest seldom represent the disadvantaged people. Thus, while averages give a good sense of overall progress, they can be misleading.

Different groups in society usually have very different levels of social and economic well-being—based on characteristics such as gender, age, rural/urban location, region, ethnicity, religion, or wealth. Failure to disaggregate for gender may hide the fact that average household income is very much an abstraction for women who have little or no control over how it is spent. A child from a poor family is invariably more likely to die before age 5 than her counterpart from a rich family. Children from poor families are also less likely to complete primary education than children from rich families.

Disparities are also on the rise on the income front, both between and within countries. Income disparities are not only increasing between rich and poor, but among the poor as well—sometimes leading to an increase in the number of destitute people, even while the proportion of those living in poverty declines.

The poor, in short, are often by-passed by ‘average’ progress. As disparities are widening for a range of indicators, the informational value of national averages gradually decreases. A good assessment, therefore, must go beyond averages and aggregates to shed light on the situation of the most disadvantaged groups in a society.


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