When I started looking at the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)  over a year ago, one puzzle befuddled me greatly: Why has the overall progress toward the MDGs been so mixed when the common observation is that the economic performance of developing countries has been markedly better for over a dozen years since the mid-1990s?
Until the recent economic crisis, the external environment has been favorable—trade was expanding, export prices were buoyant, and foreign aid and debt relief were being scaled up. And economic growth for a very broad range of developing countries was accelerating because of better policies and institutions. This was true not only for large middle-income countries like China and India but also for poor countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Furthermore, because of improved policies and institutions, the recent crisis was different for low-income countries, which did relatively well. There was no widespread failure in domestic policy. Growth remained positive. And the poor were protected by increased spending on social safety nets.
So the question that begs answers is—where did all the economic progress go, and what did it buy for the MDGs?
The answers lie underneath the global numbers. To solve this puzzle and to examine the gaps and challenges in the few years remaining until 2015, this year’s Global Monitoring Report 2011: Improving the Odds of Achieving the MDGs  delves into country performance and reveals a diverse, and often hopeful, picture.
Here are the four key messages to take away:
• There is great diversity in the country performance underneath the global numbers, with many countries actually close to becoming on track. And many lagging countries can still reach several of the MDGs by 2015—or soon after—if their policies improve and their growth accelerates.
• Countries with slower growth and poorer institutions are farthest behind and will need special attention. Even middle-income countries on track to achieve the MDGs are home to indigenous and socially excluded groups that are still trailing.
• Impact evaluations often show that the quantity of services has increased, but not the quality. That may explain why the MDGs that are measured in outcomes, like the health MDGs, are difficult to attain. Apart from resources, improving the incentives for better service delivery is thus critical.
• Without a stable expansion of the global economy, without continuing access to advanced and developing-country markets, and without adequate assistance from donors, progress could still break down.
In my next blog, I will discuss more on the diversity of progress, and what the analysis and impact evaluations are revealing about policies needed to help countries achieve the MDGs.
You can read the full report, a joint effort by the World Bank and the IMF, here: www.worldbank.org/gmr2011 .