Are Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Unfair to Africa?

eckhard-kleinau.jpg“At the midway point between their adoption in 2000 and the 2015 target date for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, sub-Saharan Africa is not on track to achieve any of the Goals”.

Yes, according to William Easterly, author of “The White Man’s Burden”, at a February 6 event, Africa was set up to fail by the way MDG targets were set and indicators defined ( With wit and by taking occasional cheap shots at those who developed the MDG goals and targets, Easterly held the attention of a large audience. Using data and trends, he made a compelling case why MDGs did not give sub-Saharan Africa credit for its considerable progress, thus contributing to the stereotype of “Africa’s failure”. In his response, Danny Leipziger of the World Bank took issue with many of Easterly’s claims pointing out, for example, that Tanzania was treated no different from Nepal for most MDG goals. Here is the question: Do you believe that MDGs are fair or unfair to Africa?

MDGs have been embraced by many of us and have become an important instrument for advocacy and for focusing development aid. Presentations made by IH section members at annual APHA meetings often refer to MDGs as benchmarks. However, many feel that the targets are overly ambitious and unattainable for the least developed countries, especially in sub Saharan Africa. This argument is is rooted in our experience how fast progress can be made when starting from a low develoment baseline. Easterly’s analysis provides some hard evidence in support of this assertion.

Easterly points to five ways that bias MDG targets against Africa:

  1. Choosing 1990 as a benchmark year when Africa’s economies were in a slump instead of 2000, the year when MDGs were adopted.
  2. Applying linear relationships to time or per capita income when nonlinear relationships may be more appropriate.
  3. Opting for percent changes that hide considerable progress when measured in absolute numbers.
  4. Setting level targets like universal primary school enrollment that penalize Africa, because it starts from relatively low levels compared to other regions. Change targets can reduce this bias.
  5. Expressing water and sanitation coverage in negative terms, which increases the gap between Africa and other regions, rather than using a positive indicator that would show the gap narrowing.

Curiously, Easterly’s paper is mute about high population growth that makes progress much harder in Africa, at least in relative terms. He also pointed out that MDGs were designed as global targets. They should not be applied to regions or countries as the UN, The World Bank and others do routinely.

No doubt, where data exist, sub-Saharan Africa has made substantial progress with several MDG targets. However, it is still far behind other regions and not on track for reaching any of the targets. If you believe Easterly, then the MDGs and their targets are not fair benchmarks for Africa; they should be made more region and country specific. On the other hand, adjusting one’s targets because progress is slow may be setting the bar too low and give an excuse for not increasing the investment in people and economic growth. 

 So, are MDGs unfair to Africa or is this more about avoiding accountability? Share your thoughts!

Read Easterly’s complete paper at

8 thoughts on “Are Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Unfair to Africa?

  1. For their brevity and clarity, I believe they are helpful targets and if they encourage investment, so much the better. However, as you mention, population growth is not addressed. Although UNFPA points out here
    that the Maternal Health goal can be achieved in part by reducing unmet need for family planning, the connection between child spacing/small family size and sustainable development could have been stated more overtly. This omission impacts Africa more than most other regions.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Rose. Your reference to UNFPA is very helpful. I find the situation confusing. The reproductive health target under MDG5 – “Achieve, by 2015, universal access to reproductive health” – has been debated for over a year. Not surprisingly, there has been resistance to its inclusion in the MDGs. I cannot find any mention of it on any of the other ‘official’ MDG sites at the UN or the Millennium Project. UNFPA has it, but does it mean it’s ‘official’?

    Easterly’s exclusion of population growth as a factor to Africa’s disadvantage for reaching the MDGs seems to be rooted in his belief that it is not an issue. At least, that’s how I interpreted his reaction to my question. When I asked him in the plenary, I did not get a response from him or any of the other panelists. I was baffled and approached him afterwards.

    Easterly cited research that suggests that African women have the desired number of children and that the unmet need measure is unreliable. I beg to differ. While acknowledging that it is not a perfect measure, we have been measuring and using this and other reproductive health indicators for decades. There are no grounds for summarily dismissing this indicator.

    I, like so many of our colleagues, have lived and worked in Africa and have witnessed the impact of ever more people sharing resources that are in limited supply, fertile land, clean water, etc. While new technologies can mitigate some of the impact, livelihoods will only improve as families become smaller and healthier by providing access to essential services such as family planning.

    Take MDG 7, Target 10, for example, according to numbers reported by WHO, an additional 160 million people got access to clean water between 1990 and 2004, which is very commendable. However, the population grew by almost 220 million during the same period, which means that there were 60 million MORE people without access to clean water in 2004 than there were in 1990. So much for ‘population growth is not a relevant factor’; not to mention the benefits of child spacing that you alluded to.

  3. A UK Parimentary report called “Return of the Population Growth Factor” is very relevant to this discussion. It’s linked to here:

    I discussed it here:

    I completely agree that it’s way, way off base to suggest population isn’t a relevant factor. It’s unfortunately become a politically touchy factor, but it is nevertheless highly relevant.

  4. Uganda: Big Population in the Way of Development Goals

    “Much as the Ugandan economy continues to register impressive growth rates, it is quite obvious that the critical goals to development will not be easy to attain by 2015. The rapid population growth poses a unique challenge to the attainment of most MDGs within the next seven years.”

    Talk about a coincidence! This article was just published by The Monitor in Kampala and posted on allAfrica. Witness through Dennis Kawuma’s eyes what large families and crowding look like in his neighborhood. Moreover, he is worried about what will happen to the many young children when they grow up and face a bleak future as teenagers and young adults. Will they get an education and find work? What will poverty and despair breed?


    Thanks much, John for pointing out the report “Return of the Population Growth Factor”. Your blog about it is thought-provoking – as are many of the blogs on your site!
    Check out John’s weblog “Growth is Madness!”, fellow Section members and friends, the read is worth your time!

  5. The idea of millenium dev elopment goal is a welcome idea in africa but not fair. because pwer supply is not included which is also a backbone for economic development. How can our industries survive when we hardly have 5 hours supply of power without interruption. The issue should be tackled to fight pvoerty

  6. Population growth is without doubt a big issue, but Easterly’s argument “African women have the desired number of children” points to the fact that pg is an MDG-dependent variable, not something that can be slowed down by decree from Mr. Prime Minister. One factor that is not sufficiently debated is donors’ tendency to measure success as GDP growth.
    First, income and “true success” are only vaguely, and logarithmically, correlated, see .
    Second, while the great majority of MDG indicators improve only when poor people improve (grade 5, access to water and sanitation, …), this is not the case for income. One can imagine a situation where donor money doubles a country’s GDP, with the result that the imports of SUV’s and the latest hightech gadgets double but none of the money arrives outside the fenced fortresses of the upperclass. Changing the logic from “more income” to a comprehensive benchmarking system is perhaps the biggest achievement of the MDGs – and justifies supporting them despite of their weaknesses.

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