Setting up Africa for failure

The international community is always reminding Africa that it is far behind the rest of the world. Everyone knows that Africa is poor. And, yes, Africa faces the most daunting development challenges. But even as it makes impressive progress in many ways, the continent seems perpetually labelled a failure.

This is about to happen again, ironically, with the Millennium Development Goals — a set of eight goals unanimously approved in 2000 by President Thabo Mbeki, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and 145 other world leaders at the United Nations. They committed all countries to help reach targets in poverty reduction, education, health and other development indicators by the year 2015.

The UN and other international organisations have told us that Africa can reach the goals, if only we have the right combination of political will in African capitals and vast amounts of new aid from rich countries. But are these goals even remotely realistic? And — fast-forward 11 years — when Africa misses most of these targets, should we blame African leaders? Or should we point fingers at the donors for not coming up with enough cash? More importantly, will Africa really have done so badly?

The answer to all these questions is no.

Let’s look at the first goal: halving poverty by 2015. This will most likely be met globally, but only because of strong economic growth in India and China. Few African countries will halve their poverty rates in time. For Africa to meet the goal, the regional growth average will have to accelerate to at least 7% a year over the next 11 years. Of the continent’s 48 countries, only Equatorial Guinea has managed this over the past 11-year period. And it is hardly a model for the rest.

Better policies might help raise growth, but even the most active reformers are unable to generate such fast rates through policy alone. Similarly, donors’ aid can probably help accelerate growth under some circumstances, but not to the extent required for more than a decade.

Even if the poverty goal seems out of reach and beyond the control of either governments or donors, surely aid and policy changes can combine to meet the other goals, such as universal primary school completion?

Actually, probably not. Looking back, countries both rich and poor took generations to make the transition from low to high primary enrolment. The average country after 1960 needed more than 50 years to move from about 70% primary school enrolment (the current African average) to 95%. Most of today’s rich countries took much longer to accomplish the same feat in the 19th century.

The Millennium Development Goals are now asking African countries to make this transition by 2015, faster than any country has done sustainably. Money and policy can speed this transition somewhat, but nowhere near as fast as the goals demand.

Unfortunately, the same holds for many of the other goals, such as achieving gender parity or a two-thirds reduction in child mortality. Policy changes and additional resources have historically only had a small effect. Instead, these kinds of development indicators seem most affected over time by wider changes in the economy (such as rising incomes) and global changes (such as technology). Increasing the supply of aid has only a limited impact, probably in part because development has a demand side, too.

If this just sounds like more Afro-pessimism, there’s good news. Even if most African countries miss the targets, many are making up for lost time at a furious pace. Burkina Faso, for example, will surely miss the education goal and will probably not surpass 65% primary enrolment among children by 2015. But the country has been putting kids in school much faster than most other countries — and more than twice as fast as the European countries did in the 1800s.

The goals may have been useful in getting the international community to pay attention to Africa’s problems. They are also helping to hold African governments accountable for their performance and have probably contributed to the recent jump in aid from Europe and North America.

However, setting universal global goals for 2015 devoid of any context to either historical development trends or African circumstances has a downside. Come 2015 Africa will again be labelled a development failure for having missed these targets. But millions of Africans will be much better off. Aid and policy reform will certainly have been an important part of this story. But the fact that Africa progressed more quickly than should reasonably be expected will be lost.

So who will be to blame in 2015 when Africa misses the targets? African governments could have done more. Donors could have given more. But the real culprit will be the unrealistic goals themselves.

Michael Clemens and Todd Moss are research fellows at the independent Centre for Global Development in Washington. They are the authors, along with Charles Kenny of the World Bank, of The Trouble with the MDGs, available at

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