A critical review

Development Policy04 Nov 2013Bartholomew Armah

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have certainly facilitated progress in Africa’s development, particularly in the social sector. However, sustaining this progress also requires action at national, regional  and global level to foster inclusive growth, without harming the environment or undermining the development needs of future generations.

The MDG experience has refocused attention on inequality and the quality of service delivery. It has taught us that it is not sufficient to enroll more children in schools, or build new health centers. Ensuring access to textbooks and qualified teachers is vital to improve literacy rates, reduce dropout rates and enhance the productive capacities of the labor force. Similarly, health centers must be manned by qualified personnel and equipped with affordable drugs to reduce the high incidence of maternal mortality (429 deaths per 100,000 births in Africa), in order to make a real difference in the lives of the people they serve.

The MDGs have taught us that we cannot separate development outcomes from the development context. In other words: development enablers like peace, security, the rule of law and institutional capacity to implement policy are as important as their outcomes. Focusing global attention on key development enablers is critical in accelerating progress on Internationally Agreed Development Goals (IADGs). But unfortunately, achieving global consensus for action on critical development enablers remains a challenge.

The 15-year timeframe adopted by the MDGs has worked well and should definitely guide the post-2015 development agenda. Building on this approach, the agenda should introduce five-year milestones that review progress based on a credible accountability framework. Such reviews will not only provide a platform for political and technical level dialogue on challenges and opportunities for achieving the agenda, but also serve as a reality check for improved policymaking and implementation.

The post-2015 development agenda provides an opportunity for society to build on the MDGs and galvanize global action to tackle emerging challenges, like climate change. The old format of using goals, indicators and targets to measure progress has been effective and should be retained. However, the new agenda should take into account indicators that span the three dimensions of sustainability (economic, social and environmental). For example, how a society achieves a desired goal determines the sustainability of that outcome. Poverty reduction achieved exclusively through hand-outs is not fiscally sustainable. Similarly, a jobless growth trajectory is unlikely to be socially sustainable, especially if it exacerbates inequality, exhausts natural capital and exacts monumental environmental costs to society.

The overall vision that should drive the agenda should be empowerment with sustainability at the core; that is the only way poverty can be sustainably eradicated. Political, economic and social empowerment underpins effective participation and engagement in the development process as well as the buy-in of the people in that process. Economic empowerment minimizes dependency and facilitates inclusive growth by generating livelihoods for broad segments of society. Political empowerment complements economic empowerment by providing voice and opportunities for citizens’ engagement and participation. Social empowerment promotes social cohesion without undermining cultural identity and differences. Indeed, the Arab Spring has laid bare the dangers of focusing on one dimension at the expense of the other.

Framed by the vision of ending poverty, building prosperity and protecting the environment, and anchored by five transformational shifts (leave no one behind, transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth, put sustainable development at the core, build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all and forge global partnerships to end poverty), the High-level Panel (HLP) report includes lessons from the MDGs. It draws attention to issues of inequality, climate change, data deficits and development enablers like peace, infrastructure and governance.

The report advocates a new framework for measuring progress that considers targets achieved only if they are met for all relevant income and social groups. It also attempts to tackle the difficult question of country specificities and initial conditions by proposing that countries achieve the goals at their own pace. This is to be achieved through a mix of global and country specific targets. While this is commendable, it could also result in some countries setting unambitious targets. That creates a problem of how to determine whether national targets are sufficiently ambitious.

A common but differentiated approach to achieving climate change-related objectives, such as phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix and improving energy efficiency in buildings, will require different targets for developing countries. However, the HLP report is unclear about how targets and indicators should be derived for countries’ different levels of development.

The report also highlights some key priority issues absent in the MDGs, specifically social protection, resilience to natural disasters, infrastructure, curbing illicit financial flows and access to technology. However, the issues of value addition and industrialization, which emerged as priorities for the African region, are addressed in an ambiguous manner. The wording of the indicator for Goal 8 – “increase startups by x and value added from new products…” – places undue emphasis on new products, and thereby de-emphasizes both the importance of adding value to existing commodities that are produced by developing countries, and the role of such interventions in generating employment.

The report proposes an accountability mechanism based on monitoring and informed by a data revolution. However, the notion of accountability is meaningless without a mechanism of enforcement. Sadly, moral persuasion has proven to be an inadequate enforcement tool, as evidenced by the collective failure of development partners to fulfill their ODA commitments.

[1] The comments expressed reflect the personal views of the author and not the views of the Economic Commission for Africa.