Published on Let's Talk Development

Performance anxiety about the MDGs – are all poor countries lagging?

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An old man, in Livingston, Zambia, stooped to scoop muddy water from a puddle into his pail. “What I want most is clean water,” he said, to me. I was conducting a World Bank field survey back in 2000 in Livingston. Even as the man expressed his desire for such a basic need, I could hear the roar of the mighty Victoria Falls just a few kilometers away. That was the sound of billions of gallons of fresh water, but not immediately drinkable. I never forgot the sound of it.

The extent to which people across the world have access to clean water, education, food, healthcare and other basic needs is measured by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of internationally agreed targets adopted in 2000. Last week, world leaders and the developmental community gathered in New York for the MDG summit to urge the international community to speed up progress toward the MDGs.

At first glance, the global numbers tell a very dismal story about development performance as measured by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  And it is easy to single out low-income countries, particularly fragile states and those in sub-Saharan Africa, as bad performers lagging on all the MDGs or not likely to reach any single target by 2015. 

Fragile states and low-income countries made the least progress towards the MDGsImage

That gloomy conclusion is misleading, however. There is quite a bit of positive news. First, recent achievements are obscured by poor performance in the past and by disproportionate challenge posed by the MDGs in many African and poor countries. The greater the distance to the 2015 targets, the steeper the path to achieve the targets. In Africa, poverty was stable during the 1990s, but fell steeply since 2000.

Second, data gaps may fail to convey the further progress already made. For example, the global and regional indicators of poverty do not go beyond 2005 level because it takes time to complete household surveys of incomes and expenditures in large countries. In the meantime, recent information of small countries may indicate further progress. The higher weights of large countries in global aggregates will also understate the great diversity of performance across countries.

If one goes beyond the aggregates, a pervasive heterogeneity indeed characterizes MDG performance. A dive below the global statistics shows that it is not just the middle-income countries that are doing well, but many low-income countries (LICs), too. A recent paper by Leo and Barmeier (2010) at the Center for Global Development also concluded that progress in individual African and poor countries was surprisingly strong.

We should take heart and celebrate the remarkable achievements that are already being made by several low-income countries, many in Sub-Saharan Africa (see table).

Selected MDGS LICs that have achieved goals LICs that are on-track
Poverty Kenya, Mauritania, and Senegal Central African Republic, Ethiopia, and Ghana
Universal Primary Educations Myanmar, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam  
Gender Parity in Primary Education Bangladesh, The Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Kyrgyz Republic, Malawi, Mauritania, Myanmar, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Zambia, Zimbabwe Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Comoros, Ethiopia, Guinea, Madagascar, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Togo
Gender Parity in Secondary Education Bangladesh, Kyrgyz Republic, Myanmar, Uzbekistan Cambodia, The Gambia, Ghana, Malawi, Mauritania, Nepal, Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe
Under 5 Mortality Rate Vietnam Bangladesh, Eritrea, Lao PDR, Malawi, Nepal
Improved Water Source Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Comoros, The Gambia, Ghana, Dem. Rep, of Korea, Kyrgyz Republic, Malawi, Nepal, and Vietnam Benin, Cambodia, Guinea, and Uganda
Improved Sanitation Facilities Myanmar, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam Rwanda

In a related stock - taking, the UN singled out the progress of 8 least-developed countries through the MDG Awards on Sept 19, 2010 – namely, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Liberia, Malawi, Nepal, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania. The work is far from done, however. There are many more countries that are still off-track despite significant gains. They will need a favorable global economic environment and strong multilateral institutional and donor support to continue their policy reforms and progress. There is still much to do. 


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