Can Africa fulfill the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015? That's a question that is often asked anytime there is a discussion about MDGs. It was on many lips during the celebration of the International Women's day last Saturday as people assess the gains and continuing challenges in ensuring gender equality around the world. Behind the question, of course, is a lot of cynicism by the questioner(s). There is doubt that the MDGs may not be met on schedule in a majority of African states. Official reports and anecdotal evidence suggest that at the current pace even by 2050 the goals may still remain unmet by these states.
The situation is not helped by the fact that most of the reports available are usually aggregated. Hence the negative conclusion is that Africa's progress is at best very slow and patchy. Like all generalizations and aggregated statistics, they hide the specific, more positive picture of steady progress on a number of the goals in quite a few countries across Africa. It also panders to the fashionable Afro pessimism that caricatures events in Africa promoting embedded attitudes of 'Hopeless Africa'. A 'helpless people and continent' that needs the help and handout of everybody else except its own peoples and leaders.
The truth is mostly to the contrary but 'good stories' are boring, they do not make headlines. Without bad stories from Africa, how can the hordes of humanitarian agencies and organizations, local and foreign, who operate as latter day missionaries or mercy mercenaries make their fund raising successful? How can the compassion industry survive without the backdrop of Kwashiokored children, diseased mothers and other suffering Africans?
It is rather late in the day to be asking if Africa can meet the MDGs or not. Still more pointless are the criticisms of the goals as being too minimal. All of them are more than 7 years out of date. We are halfway through and those questions are unhelpful especially among campaigners who are committed to holding their governments to account for these commitments. The problem with asking the wrong questions is that you get the wrong answers that may divert you from the tasks in hand. A more proactive way of looking at this is to ask what can be done to fill the obvious gaps that still exist that may prevent countries from meeting the goals. The desirability of the goals is no longer debatable. Meeting them will not hurt anyone. If you can half poverty nobody will stop you from eradicating it.
Answering the more proactive type of questions also requires one to look at the progress that has been achieved instead of just looking for the challenges. An appreciation of progress so far will then open one's eyes to the challenges of what remains to be done. Then we will ask what more needs to be done to make sure that there are no excuses for not meeting these goals and even surpassing them in many cases.
In almost all African countries, there has been remarkable progress in education in terms of enrolment in schools. There is universal access to education across many countries that have allowed millions of girls and boys who would not have seen the inside of classrooms to do so. Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and others are good examples of the rapid enrolment in schools. On child mortality, Malawi is only second to Costa Rica in the dramatic drop in child deaths (over 30%) in the past three years. The same Malawi that used to rank as the 'poorest country in the world', a country that was recipient of Food Aid a few years ago, has now become a food donor to some of its poorer neighbours including Zimbabwe. On controlling the spread of HIV/AIDS, Uganda used to be a lone star but a few other countries have become even more aggressive in fighting the disease.
Huge numbers of African children today have better chances of survival than 10 years ago. More and more are likely to live beyond their 5th birthdays and have hopes of going to primary school and even better chances of going on to higher education as countries upscale their investments in education and move beyond universal primary education to secondary education.
It is not all smooth sailing. There are issues around quality, retention in schools and drop out rates between boys and girls among others. However, quantitative changes are important steps as countries deal with the issues of quality. We cannot say that more children should not go to school until all schools are of the same quality. Both go hand in hand.
The external environment is also changing as international partners are held to more scrutiny and challenged to walk the walk as fast as they talk the talk. Debt relief has not been universal and a majority of African states have not become beneficiaries, but the minority (Uganda, Mozambique, Ghana, Rwanda, Malawi, Zambia, etc) that have got it are generally transforming the gains into meaningful dividends on a number of MDGs.
Those not qualified like Nigeria, but who have renegotiated discounts on their National Debt, have not only increased the country's financial credibility but also Nigeria now also has a virtual fund of more than 1 billion Dollars that is devoted to MDGs. In many countries the MDGs are being localized with targets that are more ambitious than those of the Millennium Declaration.
So the question is not whether we can meet the goals or not, but why country X is doing well on a number of goals and country Y is not performing. By concentrating on 'can't meet,' we are letting political leaders off the hook of accountability for commitments they made voluntarily to their own citizens. Seven years may not be long but it is certainly long enough for all the countries to change their policy direction and resource allocation that prioritize the needs of the poor and marginalized and accelerate the fulfillment of the MDGs.
African citizens have a duty to remind their leaders about these commitments and be vigilant in demanding that they are met and even go beyond them where possible. If the goals are not met it will not just be because of government insensitivity but also citizen complacency or indifference.
By Dr. Tajudeen Abdul
Deputy Director, Africa, for the UN Millennium Campaign based in Nairobi Kenya. He writes this weekly column in his personal capacity as a Pan Africanist and a Director of the London-Based Justice Africa
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