Design of millennium development goals faulted by experts

Queuing for relief food. Photo/FILE
Queuing for relief food. Photo/FILE 

Millennium development goals (MDGs) are giving policy makers sleepless nights, considering that the 2015 deadline is a around the corner.

Ten years since they were arrived at, the United Nations General Assembly is planning a progress review in two months.

Delegates at the meeting will, among other things, contend with the fact that some goals will not be achieved in entirety, according to data from UNDP released in 2009.

This is supported by the fact that 100 per cent achievement is the ideal, a challenging goal, taking into account factors that run against the grain.

However, new studies are casting doubt on the credibility of the goals.

The Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has consistently been rated as the laggard, whose progress is said to be “insufficient to reach the target if prevailing trends continue.”

Should the world be chasing the goals in the first place?

The questions emerging in the quest for a more developed world packaged as MDGs imply that the goals are a sideshow since each country has unique socio-economic and political settings.

Africa has been cited as the major loser in the drive, frequently painted as a failure in donor circles, including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the UN.

Though the MDGs are a product of wide consultations, including governments of third world countries, critics cite the futility of indiscriminate setting of arbitrary, blanket, and inflexible standards to be achieved by poor countries in specific time frames.

The eight goals include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, ensuring universal primary education, and reducing child mortality.

Critics single out reducing poverty by half by 2015.

Reduce poverty

Economics professor at New York University, William Easterly, says in a research paper that choices made in defining success or failure as achieving numerical targets for MDGs made their attainment “less likely in Africa than in other regions even when its progress was in line with or above historical or contemporary experience of other regions.”

Citing statements from the IMF, WB, and UN, Prof Easterly says the view that Africa will miss all the MDGs has the effect of making African successes look like failures.

“The paper does not argue that Africa’s performance is good in all areas, only that its relative performance looks worse because of the particular way in which the MDG targets are set. As a result, some African successes are portrayed as failures.”

The bid to reduce poverty by half is criticised, one, for ignoring the fact that Africa is coming from a relatively low economic base and, secondly, for turning a blind eye on economic growth indicators that fall below the $1.25 a day threshold.

For example, defining poverty by the phenomenon of people spending less than $1.25 in a day is an absolute position that does not capture positive or negative movements in daily spending under the cut off point.

Similarly, it does not capture positive or negative movements above the $1.25 a day mark, the paper says.

“There is much about the poverty goal that is arbitrary. First... a goal of reducing poverty rates places great value on growth that moves an individual from below to above the absolute poverty line, while it places zero value on growth that increases income of those who still remain below the poverty line. There is no rational basis in welfare economics for such extreme weighting,” Prof Easterly says.

For Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, with low per capita income and high initial poverty, achieving the poverty reduction targets means growing at a higher rate than other countries, a Herculean task.

Michael Clemens and Todd Moss of the Centre for Global Development estimate that for Africa to halve poverty by 2015, it will take an average seven per cent year-on-year annual growth.

“Only a handful of countries on earth (seven), in the best of circumstances, grew recently at the rate all of Sub-Saharan Africa would need to grow in order to halve poverty by 2015,” they recently wrote in a paper, What’s wrong with the MDGs?

Mr Alfredo Teixeira, the acting UNDP country director in Kenya, admitted that the goals, and poverty eradication in particular, are hard to achieve.

He, however, remained optimistic that with concerted effort in the remaining period, a lot of gains can be made.

“A country like Singapore was at the same economic level with Kenya a few decades ago but has managed some impressive growth rates,” he said at a recent press briefing.

Analysts say that the high growth rate targets could escalate demand for more aid to poor nations as a way of fast-tracking progress, with little success.

Earlier this year, Mr G. M. Mailu, the MDGs National Project Co-ordinator at the Ministry of Planning in Kenya, said developed countries have been slow in honouring their commitment to fund developing countries with at least 0.7 per cent of their GDP.

“Despite an increment in Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitments, Kenya has experienced a general decline in the disbursement rate, which has led to a decline in the share of development expenditures financed by development partners,” reads part of a report on MDG status for Kenya prepared by the Ministry of Planning.

According to Millennium Development Goals Report 2009, only Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden had reached or exceeded their targets in 2008.

Others argue the huge economic stimulus spending in rich countries could have gone hand in hand with more financial support to developing nations.

“I think the biggest lesson the developing world can learn from the recession is that there is money, but rich nations just won’t give it,” Mr Aeneas Chuma, humanitarian coordinator and representative of the UNDP in Kenya, said in an earlier interview.

Mr Chuma cited the example of Iceland, a country with a population of 300,000 that in late 2008 got an approval for funding of about Sh160 billion from the IMF to shore up its economy in the wake of the credit crunch.

In the same year, total IMF lending to Sub-Saharan Africa stood at about Sh57 billion.

The report adds that “if aid in 2010 is to reach the dollar value expected when the commitments were made (that is, before the economy contracted), donors would need to add at least $10 billion to $15 billion to their current spending plans.”

Analysts also question the lumping together of countries in a bid to measure progress in a specific region.

According to UNDP, Sub-Saharan Africa has low enrolment rates with regard to the goal of universal primary schooling.

The group score contrasts sharply with an average of nearly 100 per cent enrolment rate in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania whose governments have been funding free primary education.

Remarkable decline

While the goals are not likely to be achieved, a new study shows poverty in Africa has been dropping steadily.

Maxim Pinkovskiy and Xavier Sala-i-Martin, say that not only has poverty fallen in Africa as a whole, but the decline has been remarkable.

“In particular, poverty fell for both landlocked as well as coastal countries; for mineral rich as well as mineral poor countries; for countries with favourable or with unfavourable agriculture; for countries regardless of colonial origin; and for countries with below or above median slave exports per capita during the African slave trade.”

For instance, the percentage of Africans living on less than $1 a day dropped from 43 per cent in 1995 to about 32 per cent by end of 2006, the lowest poverty rate in over three decades.

The region’s GDP per capita shot from about $1,600 to $1,950 in a similar period.

This finding breaks ranks with the latest UN MDG review which says that poverty rate in Sub-Saharan Africa “stayed above 50 per cent, though there has been some progress since 1999.”