Skip to content

Was Africa set up to fail on the Millennium Development Goals?

“Africa far from reaching Millennium Development Goals”

News report on African Development Bank conference, May 28, 2010

“No country in sub-Saharan Africa is on course to achieve all the Goals by 2015.”

United Nations, Key Messages for September 2010 Summit

“It is easy to see that Sub-Saharan Africa lags on all the MDGs.”

World Bank and IMF, Global Monitoring Report 2010, full text download page here

Africa has had some successes and good news in the last decade, and has made much progress on some social indicators over a longer period. Why isn’t that reflected in this drumbeat of universal failure on the MDGs?  The answer is that Africa was set up (probably unintentionally) to fail on the MDGs.

This set-up to fail is not well known, probably because you have to go through some really boring details to document it. One problem with the MDGs is that success on a goal is very sensitive to how you define the goal. There are actually three different choices you have to make to define a goal in 2015 relative to the 1990 baseline. Let’s use primary enrollment as an example, and say that a random country went from 50 percent primary enrollment in 1990 to 90 percent enrollment in 2015.

(1) Do you define the goal in CHANGES or in LEVELS (e.g. the change in primary enrollment from 1990 to 2015, or the level of primary enrollment attained in 2015)?

If your answer to (1) is CHANGES, you still need to make two more decisions:

(2) Will it be PERCENT CHANGE or ABSOLUTE CHANGE (e.g. percentage change in primary enrollment (90-50)/50=80%, or the absolute change (40 percentage points)?

(3) Will you use the USUAL social indicator or its REVERSE (e.g. percent enrolled OR percent NOT enrolled)?

(1) defines two possible indicators of LEVELS vs. CHANGES, and the different combinations of (2) and (3) create 4 different ways to define CHANGES. The MDGs did not make consistent choices, but actually use 4 out of the 5 possible combinations for MDGs 1 through 7, as shown in the table (where the actual indicator used is highlighted in yellow).

These choices are not neutral. Initial conditions determine whether a given choice makes it easier or harder to meet the Goal. Most obviously, if you have a LEVEL goal (primary enrollment, gender equality), the further away you are at the beginning, the harder it is to meet the goal.  This was true for Africa for MDGs 2 and 3. (A plus sign shows whether each way of stating the goal would have INCREASED the probability of Africa making it, a MINUS sign indicates the choice of goal made it harder for Africa, relative to other countries with different initial conditions).

If you have a high initial level then a PERCENTAGE DECREASE is harder to achieve.  This was true for poverty (MDG 1)  and child mortality (MDG 4) in Africa. It was also true for MDG 7, because the REVERSE INDICATOR was used (percent WITHOUT clean water instead of the USUAL INDICATOR:  percent WITH clean water).

If you have a low initial level, on the other hand, a PERCENTAGE INCREASE would be easier to achieve. If the MDGs had been set in terms of PERCENT CHANGE in the USUAL INDICATOR (as it was for MDGs 1 and 4), then Africa would have easily met MDGs 2,3, and 7 on primary enrollment, gender equality in enrollment, and percent with clean water, and all of the above statements about universal African MDG failure would be nonsense.

Instead, each of the goal choices made for MDGs 1, 2, 3, 4, and 7 made it HARDER (if not impossible) for Africa to meet the goals, compared to alternative, equally plausible choices. ANY consistent choice of goal type except LEVELS would have made it easier for Africa to meet some of the goals.

The craziest statements implicitly made above are that Africa is failing on MDGs 5 and 6 (67% reduction in maternal mortality and reversing spread of AIDS), since there were NO data on these indicators for the benchmark year of 1990 (actually  hardly ANY reliable data for any year until very recently).

So this is SO boring, and who cares? Nobody, apparently, because the sweeping statements about Africa failing are made every year without anyone bothering to check the details. Because Africa ALWAYS fails, right?

I published an academic paper on all this here in 2009, with a working paper version available since 2007. Michael Clemens and Todd Moss and Clemens, Moss, and Charles Kenny had made related criticisms as early as 2004-2005. Michael Clemens in 2004 described how Africa’s progress in education was impressive by both historical and contemporary standards. The MDG crowd are aware of these papers. For example, the World Bank and IMF quote them in their recent Global Monitoring Report 2010 . This report acknowledges “what low-income countries {mainly African} achieved before the crisis {on the poverty and social indicators}  is indeed remarkable.” But this point was soft-pedaled and has had no effect on the endlessly reiterated “Africa fails on all MDGs” line.

I think the MDG design was unintentional after some conversation with the original creators of the goals, who did not intend the MDGs to be applied at the regional or country levels. What is less forgivable is the aquiescence in making Africa look like a failure after the bias was clear to anyone who would bother to check. Of course, there are areas and time periods where Africa has done badly, but is that any reason to take the successes and make them look like failures?

This entry was posted in Academic research, Grand plans and aid targets and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. geckonomist wrote:

    Professor Easterly, as you know, the salary of UN/world bank/IMF/diplomatic staff is strongly influenced by the level of “hardship” encountered in the country the staff are asked to work.
    These civil servants have all the incentive to keep the reports on Africa as horrible as possible, such that they can live in all comfort, while continuing to receive their maximum hardship bonus.

    That’s why you’ll read horror stories about certain countries, while facts pointing to excellent economic news are routinely omitted from all reports.

    Posted June 1, 2010 at 5:29 am | Permalink
  2. Sadder but Wiser wrote:

    I was involved in some of the target-setting of the MDGs, and can vouch for two of your main points: (1) They are a conceptual mess (which disfavors Africa) and (2) The mess was both unintentional yet highly predictable. It occurred because each indicator was largely left to special interest groups to define (ie the groups that work on specific diseases, conditions, etc.). Naturally, each of these groups tended to favor the goals it most cherished rather than those that were most realistic or sensible, let alone worry about using consistent technique across all MDGs. I managed to stop the worst mistake that one of the sub-MDGs was about to make (counting the absolute number of inputs produced and calling it progress), but soon realized that there was simply no adult supervision of the MDG process, so I gave up and went back to doing real work. The irony, of course, is that these things were invented in part to make the general public care more about development, yet today no serious development practitioner takes them seriously. They also spawned a lot of other silliness of the celebrity-development sort, the damage of which becomes clearer by the day.

    Posted June 1, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  3. Perhaps the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and bilateral aid agencies dealing with low-income countries in Africa need to change their programs if the Millennium Development Goals show that their existing programs are not working in Africa. They may have failed the exam that they helped to create. I know that most people and organizations never like to admit that they failed an exam (I was a college professor briefly).
    The excuses for poor performance from the international development community never seems to end. On the other hand, the international development community also likes to take credit for programs that they had little to do with. This would never be tolerated in private industry because the private industries would go broke if they have poor performance.

    Posted June 1, 2010 at 8:00 pm | Permalink
  4. Moussa P Blimpo wrote:

    This is very interesting!
    The important thing is that when progress happens, it does regardless of whether the WB, IMF, UN measures it or not or how they measure it.

    What is outrageous, just like Prof. Easterly puts it well, is this tendency to perpetual a negative image of Africa regardless of the progress. I know that it saves a lot of jobs and careers but it must stop at some point.

    What I would suggest regarding the MDG is that, instead of reporting a Yes or No for the MDG outcomes, why not just report the numbers as is?

    Posted June 1, 2010 at 9:00 pm | Permalink
  5. Jeff Barnes wrote:

    A telling comment from your reader involved in the MDG process. No special interest group has an interest in setting achievable goals. MDG’s and their like are used to support advocacy and fundraising efforts. Few with a single issue focus would ever want to admit that their issue has been taken care of. Better that you set goals against which you measure progress every five years and adjust the goalposts then.

    Posted June 1, 2010 at 10:19 pm | Permalink
  6. terence wrote:

    If anyone is interested David Hulme has an excellent series of papers on how the MDGs came into being. No conspiracy, just the usual machinations of global decision making in an imperfect world. This paper’s a good start:

    Also worth noting that, while Professor Easterly is completely correct with regards to the goals being unfair to Africa, as global goals they are remarkably unambitious and typically based merely on the extrapolation of previous trends into the future. (i.e. let’s design this goal so that if we do as well in the next 10 years as we did in the last we’ll meet it). Jan Vandermortelle covers this issue among others here: (gated though, I think).

    For what it’s worth, despite their faults, I’m still inclined to think that some global yardsticks are better than none and engagement (albeit engagement enlightened by the Goals’ shortcomings) is the best way forwards.

    Posted June 2, 2010 at 1:42 am | Permalink
  7. Robert Tulip wrote:

    MDGs are the lowest common denominator for development policy. They lack a critical path for their achievement, producing policy distortions. Due to the corrupted political process of establishing the MDGs the goals for economic infrastructure are limited to communications and do not include transport and energy, or economic growth. This absence reflects the socialist bias in the aid community against private sector development. Improved transport access to markets and services is essential for broad based economic growth. Energy is the foundation stone of productivity. Economic infrastructure is the basic precondition to reduce poverty and achieve all the other MDGs. Trying to reduce poverty without an infrastructure strategy puts the cart before the horse, and is a farcical recipe for unsustainable aid dependency. The emperor has no clothes.

    Posted June 2, 2010 at 3:14 am | Permalink
  8. terence wrote:

    Due to the corrupted political process of establishing the MDGs the goals for economic infrastructure are limited to communications and do not include transport and energy, or economic growth.

    MDG indicator 1.4: “Growth rate of GDP per person employed”

    Posted June 2, 2010 at 4:56 am | Permalink
  9. William Weiss wrote:

    Another option for measuring change: percent of gap achieved (i.e., performance index, PI).

    This helps take into account that it is easier to increase when starting at low levels. And difficult to achieve marginal increases when approaching 100% or maximum level.

    Example 1:
    Baseline = 40
    Goal = 80
    Final = 70
    PI = (70-40)/(80-40) = 30/40 = 75%

    Example 2:
    Baseline = 60
    Goal = 80
    Final = 75
    PI = (75-60)/(80-60) = 15/20 = 75%

    Posted June 2, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  10. Robert Tulip wrote:

    Indicator 1.4 on per capita growth reads as a grudging concession to reality, not a core goal, and is separated from the ICT infrastructure goals at 8F.

    The overall tone of the MDGs is about the primacy of the state over the market, reflecting the bureaucratic biases in the UN system.

    By focussing the attention of donors on the poorest quintile, MDG 1 presents an unrealistic vision of the relation between poverty and growth. If donors instead focussed more on the constraints facing the middle quintile of the population regarding private sector development, we could expect greater sustainable impact on poverty, with the free market providing jobs, customers, models, goods and services for the poor.

    As William Easterly said, quoted in Hulme’s MDG Short History that Terence linked above, ‘The setting of utopian goals means aid workers will focus efforts on infeasible tasks, instead of the feasible tasks that will do some good’.

    The absence of transport and energy infrastructure from the MDGs is a startling gap, demonstrating the failure to see that economic growth in free markets is the only feasible means to reduce poverty.

    Posted June 2, 2010 at 8:00 pm | Permalink
  11. terence wrote:

    As William Easterly said, quoted in Hulme’s MDG Short History that Terence linked above, ‘The setting of utopian goals means aid workers will focus efforts on infeasible tasks, instead of the feasible tasks that will do some good’.

    Utopian Goals that are based on continuations of pre-existing trends???

    If that’s utopian, I’d really hate to see what gritty realism looks like in your world.

    Posted June 3, 2010 at 6:03 am | Permalink
  12. Robert Tulip wrote:

    The MDG 2009 Progress Chart* indicates most are off track. In the absence of practical and sustainable paths to achieve them, Easterly was right to criticise the MDGs as utopian. The MDGs were always a triumph of spin over substance, hardly surprising given the leading role of the British Labour Party and the UN in defining them. The populist MDG strategy of using simplistic messages to get electorates in the rich world to care about poverty was a recipe for failure.


    ‘Gritty realism’ is about understanding what works to reduce poverty and doing it. You could start with a focus on improving the investment climate for private sector development, another ‘missing MDG’.

    Posted June 3, 2010 at 7:31 pm | Permalink
  13. 4 wrote:

    Has any civilization anywhere in human history been “managed” out of poverty/backwardness? Were there metrics and indices and checklists and decimal numbers and experts to make it all happen?

    Posted June 3, 2010 at 10:23 pm | Permalink
  14. terence wrote:

    The MDG 2009 Progress Chart* indicates most are off track.

    Utterly beside the point unless you’re trying to argue that ‘utopian’ means any vision which might possibly fail.

    Personally, I prefer to stick closer to the dictionary definition of the word utopia. And hence hold the belief that the Goals could only be described as utopian if there was never any chance the planet as a whole would meet them. As I said given, that many of the MDGs are based on continuations of existing trends it seems very hard, under this criterion, to describe them as such.

    Have a good weekend.

    Posted June 4, 2010 at 1:30 am | Permalink
  15. Robert Tulip wrote:

    Easterly’s ‘The Utopian Nightmare’ MDG paper (Foreign Policy September 2005)* defines utopianism as “promising more than you can deliver, seeing an easy and sudden answer to long-standing complex problems, trying to solve everything at once through an administrative apparatus headed by ‘world leaders’, placing too much faith in altruistic cooperation and under-estimating self-seeking behaviour and conflict, expecting great things from schemes designed at the top but doing nothing to solve the bigger problems at the bottom.”

    ‘Utopian’ policies include any plan that lacks a credible empirical theory of change. MDG projections may well continue existing trends, but they require that those trends continue in very challenging contexts, reaching remote rural communities in situations of conflict and collapse, and in political environments that defy rational economics. MDGs such as universal primary education require policy change that many development workers oppose, notably support for urbanisation and private schooling. China has achieved such big poverty reduction through its willingness to embrace social change and the free market. While aid focuses on charity rather than policy reform the MDGs will remain a utopian dream.

    As Easterly said* at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town in 2006, the MDGs are a “utopian, feel-good scheme” and “the worst designed incentive scheme for public policy seen in my lifetime”.

    Posted June 7, 2010 at 12:32 am | Permalink
  16. For all their shortcomings, the MDGs have built a momentum which will be hard to stop and have done a lot of good: they have achieved much, notably in health and education in Africa; they provide a strong moral foundation for consensus around poverty reduction; and efforts to direct aid to where it is most needed have increased.

    Posted June 9, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink

One Trackback

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Joel Selanikio, Robert Went. Robert Went said: "Was Africa set up to fail on the Millennium Development Goals?" – Bill Easterly on Aid Watch – […]

  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

    "Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking." - H.L. Mencken

  • Archives