• Target practice

    With the deadline for the UN’s Millennium Development Goals drawing ever-nearer, how far has Africa come in terms of meeting them?

    Target practice

    Setting goals seems like such a natural path to success that it’s hard to imagine it took until the 1960s for two psychologists to formulate it into a clearly defined theory.

    Locke and Latham, the two pioneers in this field, said setting specific, challenging goals with definite deadlines makes it more likely that you will succeed. By comparison, just telling someone to ‘do your best’ is a cuddly but ineffective motivator. But can the winning formula of goal setting work on a global scale?

    With mere months remaining before the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) reach their 31 December 2015 deadline, it is no longer a question of whether the world – and Africa in particular – will achieve the goals. (Spoiler alert: they won’t, not all of them.) Is this, however, the same thing as failure?

    The answer is a resounding ‘no’. While there has been much debate about whether the right targets were chosen and whether they were too narrowly defined, not to mention their implementation, there is no denying that the experiment has achieved astounding results.

    Bill Gates has called the MDGs ‘the best idea for focusing the world on fighting global poverty that I have ever seen’. Coming from a man who has had one or two good ideas, that means something.

    The idea came into being in 2000 with the Millennium Declaration. Signed by 189 world leaders, it was an agreement that the world needed to pull together to improve the lives of those living in extreme poverty. It took another year to define the eight key areas that would make up the goals and another year before they were officially launched.

    The MDGs meet most of Locke and Latham’s conditions. They are specific (‘reduce the child mortality rate by two-thirds from 1990 levels’, for example). They’re challenging, (‘halve the number of people living in extreme poverty’). They come with a strict deadline.

    Officially, no specific body is responsible for ensuring that the goals are met – it’s up to every government, civil society organisation and citizen to decide how they will rise to the challenge. But for practical reasons the UN has played a major role in co-ordinating efforts, measuring performance and keeping the goals on the agenda.

    With no penalty for governments that do not do their part, and little direct incentive for those that do, the progress that has been made is even more commendable.

    A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) evaluation of Africa’s performance as of 2013 puts the continent on track on four of the goals – promoting gender equality; achieving universal primary education; combating HIV/Aids, TB, malaria and other diseases; and creating a global partnership for development.

    Of grave concern, however, is Africa’s failure to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; and ensure environmental sustainability. On MDG1, for instance, sub-Saharan Africa’s rate of extreme poverty was 56.5% of the population in 1990 and 48.5% in 2010.

    However, the UNDP report does note that 15 of the top 20 countries that made the greatest progress towards the MDGs in 2012 were from Africa (Benin, Egypt, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Malawi and Rwanda were given special mention). Economist Jeffrey Sachs, who is also the director of the UN’s Millennium Project (established to determine the best MDG strategies), has argued that although Africa’s performance has been below what is needed to achieve the goals, African countries have made very real and laudable progress since 2000.

    ‘In 1960, more than one in four African children died before their fifth birthday. Today, that figure is less than one in 10,’ says Karen Allen, communications manager of Save the Children South Africa. ‘This is real, tangible progress – but it still isn’t enough. The world as a whole remains off-track towards meeting the fourth Millennium Development Goal of a two-thirds reduction in child mortality by 2015.

    ‘However, recent improvements in child health have been remarkable and the gains are unprecedented. In 1960, Africa’s child mortality rate was 27%, today it is less than 10%.

    ‘Moreover, this progress is accelerating. Sub-Saharan Africa has reduced child mortality since 2005 at five times the rate it achieved from 1990 to 1995. Even in countries that are lagging behind the MDG4 target, especially those in West and Central Africa, mortality rates have been reduced by 40% since 1990. For the first time in history, there is a realistic prospect of ending preventable child deaths within a generation.’

    MDG1 was achieved five years ahead of schedule. Extreme poverty dropped from 47% (in 1990) to 22% (in 2010)

    Even economist William Easterly, usually a fierce critic of both Sachs and the MDGs, has argued against too harsh an assessment of Africa’s performance. He says that the goals were never intended for a regional or country level, and that doing so sets Africa up for failure by creating unrealistic expectations, in turn diminishing the substantial achievements that have been made on the continent.

    The results of the goals can be misleading, sparking much debate. The main target of MDG1 of ‘halving the number of people [globally] living on less than US$1 a day’ (increased to US$1.25 a day in 2008), was achieved five years ahead of schedule – extreme poverty dropped from 47% (in 1990) to 22% (in 2010).

    Yet some observers point out that this was largely due to growth in China and India. China’s GDP per capita, for instance, grew from US$314 in 1990 to US$6 091 in 2013.

    With figures like these, it can be argued that the goals are unnecessary and that strong economic growth will in any case achieve what they set out to do – lift people out of poverty, make more money available for schooling, healthcare, etc.

    While the IMF has called for strong and sustainable growth to be at the centre of the strategy for achieving the MDGs post-2015, the UN’s 2010 report titled Keeping the Promise has stressed that growth alone is not enough. A case in point would be MDG7, ‘ensure environmental sustainability’, which more often than not has become a casualty of growth rather than a beneficiary.

    Although part of MDG7 has been met (since 1990, 2.1 billion more people now have sustainable access to safe drinking water), performance on halting biodiversity and the loss of environmental resources has been dismal, while global CO2 emissions have increased by 46% between 1990 and 2013.

    ‘The environment MDG seems like an afterthought,’ says Saliem Fakir, head of WWF’s Living Planet Unit in Cape Town. ‘People think of the environment as a non-developmental issue yet every day we use nature to meet our own needs.

    ‘The challenge is not just about recognising it as a factor in our society and economy but also putting the environment firmly in our economic equation.’

    With the goals about to expire, everyone’s focus is on what the new post-2015 goals will look like, and almost all parties agree that sustainable development will be at the centre of the agenda.

    ‘At the time MDGs were formulated, climate change was a spectre on the horizon and not an integral part of socio-economic challenges as it is today,’ says Fakir. ‘The future of MDG7 lies in interlacing environmental concerns to the economic transformation that is required to address existing developmental challenges in Africa and acknowledging the causal links between MDG7 and the other MDGs.

    ‘I do think that the post-2015 approach to MDGs will be better – there has been a lot of learning. You will see an enhanced approach to climate change issues within the new frame work. My hope is that there will be much focus on the relation between environment, economic development and redistribution.’

    One of the changes that Fakir and others would like to see is the environment being treated not purely as something that needs to be protected for the sake of the pandas and dolphins, but being treated as central to the economy; something that, if protected, can drive growth and poverty reduction.

    Before new goals are set, however, there needs to be a thorough analysis of the current MDGs to understand what worked and what did not. That process is currently under way with a number of high-level conferences already convened to discuss both the past, present and future of the goals.

    So how do the other MDGs measure up?

    In terms of MDG2 (‘universal primary school education’), the primary school enrolment rate in developing countries reached 90% in 2010. The problem, however, is keeping kids in school – one in four will drop out before reaching high school.

    MDG3 is gender-related (‘promote gender equality and empower women’). The gender gap in primary school education is closing fast, even in sub-Saharan Africa where on average 93 girls for every 100 boys are enrolled.

    Things are less rosy in secondary and tertiary education: in sub-Saharan Africa, the already low rate of 66 girls per 100 boys (in 2000) dropped even lower, to 61 girls per 100 boys. The biggest indicator of unequal access, however, is not tradition or religion but poverty.

    Scholarships for girls from poor families are hugely beneficial. For example, a small but effective project in Somalia, backed by UNICEF and the Accelerated Female Participation in Education fund, provides female students with financial assistance that covers a range of needs, from tuition fees and school uniforms to bus fare, stationery and even pocket money.

    MDG4 is ‘a two-thirds reduction in child mortality rates’. As of 2012, there had been a 47% drop from 1990 in the percentage of deaths of children under the age of five.

    That still amounts to 6.6 million deaths (81% of which occurred in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia) and many children are still dying from preventable conditions including pneumonia, malaria and diarrhoea.

    Ethiopia, Liberia, Tanzania and Malawi have already reached the two-thirds target and African countries are providing innovative solutions – a project in Rwanda increased the number of women giving birth in clinics by 23% by offering cash rewards as an incentive.

    ‘An enabling environment for change usually underpins evidence of progress towards MDG4,’ says Allen. ‘This includes high-level political champions taking action in response to public demand led by civil society organisations including professional associations, religious groups and NGOs. The experience of Sierra Leone, where a popular mobilisation helped secure a commitment to free healthcare for mothers and children in 2010, is a case in point.’

    Regarding MDG5 (‘reduce maternal mortality rates by three-quarters’), there has been a 47% reduction worldwide. The countries that have managed to achieve lower maternal mortality rates generally have high contraceptive usage and more births overseen by skilled attendants.

    As of 2012, there had been a 47% drop from 1990 in the percentage of deaths of children under the age of five

    A project that provides training to midwives in areas where women are unable or unlikely to give birth in a health facility is being piloted in Bangladesh and Yemen.

    Meanwhile in Rwanda, the innovative RapidSMS system helps community healthcare workers keep track of pregnancies, report on danger signs, and call for assistance in the event of complications.

    ‘Halt and reverse the percentage of HIV infections and instances of malaria, and ensure universal access to HIV treatment’ is MDG6.

    The spread of HIV infections has dropped by a third, although sub-Saharan Africa still accounts for just under 70% of the 2.3 million infections globally every year. SA has turned its HIV/Aids strategy around – the Department of Health estimates that 20 million South Africans have been tested for HIV, while the number of people on ARVs increased from 400 000 in 2004 to 2.4 million in 2014.

    According to WHO, stepped up efforts to combat malaria have saved around 3.3 million lives since 2000. In 2012, UNICEF and others launched a massively ambitious project to distribute long-lasting, insecticide-treated mosquito nets to 24.6 million people living in the DRC.

    The eighth and final MDG is ‘Develop an open, predictable, non-discriminatory trading and financial system’. As of 2012, developing countries had a greater share of the world’s trade, one of 44.4%.

    Official development assistance has been dropping for a number of years and in 2012 sat at US$126 billion, a not entirely unexpected consequence of the 2008 financial disaster and the European debt crisis.

    More people in developing countries now have access to mobile phone technology and the internet. In South Africa, mobile phone games designed to improve maths skills were rolled out to 25 000 school children.

    In Mali, school teachers in more remote areas have been able to access lesson plans via the internet.

    By Susan Comrie
    Image: Greatstock/Corbis