Ranking: How close your country is to achieving the MDGs - and why this doesn't mean much

Glaring inaccuracies and an inability to quantify data make us question the results

In September 2001, based upon the Millennium Declaration, the United Nations (UN) presented the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a list of common goals for the world community to achieve by 2015. They formed a blueprint agreed to by all the world’s countries and all the world’s leading development institutions with the ultimate ambition of meeting the needs of the world’s poorest.

The goals are as follows:

Goal 1: To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

Goal 2: To achieve universal primary education

Goal 3: To promote gender equality and empower women

Goal 4: To reduce child mortality

Goal 5: To improve maternal health

Goal 6: To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases

Goal 7: To ensure environmental sustainability

Goal 8: To develop a global partnership for development

Using the latest figures provided by the World Bank MDGs database, these infographs provide an insight into Africa’s progress towards achieving the goals as measured through 21 targets and 60 official indicators:

Clearly Northern Africa is the region performing the best and as expected the island nations of Seychelles and Mauritius, with their stable political environment, high human development indicators and strong economies also made an appearance. The big surprise in the top 10 would have to be Madagascar - this is one of the poorest countries in the world and has  only recently emerged from political turmoil that has plagued the nation, however, the country’s gains in child mortality and gender equality have gained it a place in the MDG top 10. 

Bringing it in at the bottom of the Africa MDG progress table were some usual suspects; Somalia, Niger and the Central Africa Republic - all typically seen at the bottom of UN tables because of their fragile political environment, high incidences of conflict and poverty levels. In this case however, an inability to meet nearly all of the MDG targets compounded by lack of data secured them a low ranking. 

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and one of it’s most powerful economies, also featured in the bottom 10. The country is off track in meeting all MDG goals except for goal 6, to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases, and goal 8 - to develop a global partnership for development. 

The problem is all of this information may not mean very much because of glaring inaccuracies and an inability to quantify data. To understand this better, take a look at the Africa progress ratings for each of the MDG goals:

Africa is most on track to achieve two of the most ambiguous goals in the MDG list; goal 6  - to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases and goal 8 - to develop global partnerships for development. 

Firstly, goal 8 has the ‘least explicit targets’ of the goals, lacking ‘quantitative’ and ‘time bound’ benchmarks which means that it’s near impossible to accurately measure progress for 2015.  For goal 6 even though Southern Africa and Central Africa, the two regions with the highest incidence of HIV, saw sharp declines of 48% and 54%, sub-Saharan Africa was the region where 70% —1.6m cases— of the estimated number of new infections in 2012 occurred. Also, when dealing with the other health indicators there can be great distortions of statistics because of unreliable data provided by the country. 

Data is a considerable problem when it comes to tracking the progress of these goals. The 2014 MDG report even acknowledged that “despite considerable advancements in recent years, reliable statistics for monitoring development remain inadequate in many countries. Data gaps, data quality, compliance with methodological standards and non-availability of disaggregated data are among the major challenges to MDG monitoring.” This is particularly relevant when it comes to data on health-related baselines in the 90s which are often based on unreliable household surveys with no birth and death registries, health records or health statistics.  Today, even the most basic life indicators, such as births and deaths, are not directly registered in the poorest countries. Within this decade, only one African country (Mauritius) registers such events according to UN standards. 

Goal 6 may therefore be doing well in Africa because of these inaccuracies in data and also because of the way it is measured – without integrating healthcare providers and health systems into the picture.

A lack of healthcare infrastructure could in fact be the reason why Africa is faring so badly in goals 4 and 5 – child mortality and maternal mortality. These indicators showed appalling results in the table, with only seven African countries on track to meeting the child mortality goal - in 2012 one child in ten in sub-Saharan Africa did not live until their fifth birthday - and only three African countries on track to meeting the maternal mortality goal. With the knowledge that preventable diseases are the main causes of under-five deaths and that maternal death is mostly preventable - it is clear that, even though Africa did so well in goal 6, there is a need for improved measures in healthcare systems to protect women and children. 

Another indicator in which Africa was showing great progress is goal 2 - to achieve universal primary education. Often touted as one of Africa’s great areas of progress, what the indicator however fails to measure are issues of quality -  such as availability of teachers, school infrastructure as well as completion rates - because enrolment data are usually collected at the beginning of the academic year, ignoring attendance and drop outs. Indicators which target a high pupil–teacher ratio, which currently sits at 43:1 in sub-Saharan Africa, could have been more useful.  

When looking at the first goal - to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger - according to World Bank projections, sub-Saharan Africa will be unlikely to meet the target by 2015.  Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo fare badly in their progress towards achieving this goal but it must be considered that the goal translates into two quantitative, time-bound targets - to halve the proportion of people with an income of less than $1 a day and to halve the numbers of people who suffer from hunger by 2015. To accurately measure this quality household surveys to capture details on income and consumption will need to be done - a gargantuan task for these two nations due to population or physical size. Household surveys are a crude tool where “even with a simple question, such as about a child’s birth weight, people’s answers only roughly approximate the truth, as would be measured by weighing on a scale”. 

A last point to make is that the MDGs continue to paint a bleaker picture of Africa than the reality of the ground. Targets and indicators are ‘unfair to poor countries’, and in particular for Africa because of the way they are constructed. MDGs are more difficult to reach for the worst-off countries and are, therefore, drawing a darker picture of the progress made in those regions. 

The MDGs have certainly achieved one objective in that they provide a focal point for development advocates to make the case for increased foreign aid. However, there appears to be a great need to amend the goals, targets, or indicators in a way that would make the picture they paint more accurate and what they intend to achieve more attainable. 


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