Citizens Must Take Initiative on MDGs

politics Hunger MDGs United Nations Millennium Campaign
Wednesday, 22 September, 2010 - 09:56

African countries should not rely on international aid to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. Citizens should hold their governments accountable and pressurise them to prioritise the MDGs. Market oriented ideologies and economies that allow imported products to suffocate local products should be blamed for the continent’s lack of progress in realising the MDGs. Privatising certain government services to politicians-owned private companies is hindering progress on the MDGs. Countries’ ability to trade among themselves could go a long way in enabling the continent to make progress on the MDGs.

Most countries in Africa are not on course to meet most of the targets set out in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but on the level of policy, the goals have forced African governments to more seriously address their roles in alleviating poverty on the continent compared to past.

Since the inception of the MDGs in 2005, progress has been made in some African countries in relation to their specific realities, but much more needs to be done.

The MDGs have undoubtedly influenced government budget plans in several countries such as Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Malawi. The goals have also impacted on increased allocation of resources to such sectors as water and health care in most East African countries.

So if one is to assess the impact of the MDGs in broader terms, it would be safe to say that they have contributed to the movement towards eradicating poverty, but at a slow rate.

Two Crucial MDGs for Africa

The two most crucial goals for Africa in my view are Goals 1 (ending poverty and hunger) and 2 (universal education). But one cannot speak of Goal 2 leaving out Goal 3 (gender equality).

Goal 1 enables people to make an income so that they can feed themselves and care for themselves. So if progress is made on enabling people to feed themselves and earn a decent income, this will lead to higher government revenues which can then be invested in achieving other goals.

Progress also has to be made on agriculture and agricultural productivity. An active agricultural community can have direct access to food and increase their incomes. Given that a majority of Africans are still working the land, this will reduce income poverty directly.

Failure to have active economies for poor people means that the only way to achieve the MDGs is to rely on international aid.

International aid is useful if well used and if it comes with less damaging strings attached, but is often very unreliable, especially in Africa.

It is sometimes good and most of the times bad. So Africans need to achieve Goal 1 so that they can stop relying on other people for sustenance.

Goals 2 and 3 are important because one cannot transform a population on the back of illiteracy and repressive gender relations.

All the goals are linked and one cannot address one goal without taking into consideration the other goals. The strength of the MDGs lies in their attempt to create a comprehensive approach to poverty eradication.

Citizens must take initiative

To ensure that progressive steps towards poverty eradication are taken, citizens need to be aware that governments made a commitment to their people to achieve the MDGs.

If the people do not put pressure on the governments to act, then the government officials can easily relax and not prioritise the MDGs.

Holding governments accountable and putting pressure on them is the most important thing that citizens should do in order to ensure that their needs are met.

African citizens should also try and work with their local governments as they are closer to the grassroots level problems than national governments.

But even if the citizens themselves become active in trying to push for their needs to be heard, there are major hindrances that lie in their way.

One such obstacle is the legacy of twenty years of liberalisation ideology. African countries adopted structural adjustment programmes which are now affecting them drastically. These programmes encouraged governments to privatise everything and to free capital and markets from regulation.

Governments were discouraged from supporting their farmers and their small and medium-sized industries indirectly. Alongside this, there were encouraged to throw open their markets to imports in the belief that import competition will lead to efficiency. A belief which has no historical precedence and yet the African policy elite bought wholly into it.

These market-oriented ideologies are the ones that are making African states fail to protect their people economically. Most states have very liberal markets that allow imported products to suffocate the local products. So this liberalisation ideology then acts as a hindrance to self sustainability.

The other big obstacle is the existence of corruption within our African states. The government officials who used to be so disciplined in the days of the nationalist leaders of Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda are now thinking it is okay to privatise parts of government to their own private companies, thus making the people who run the government key stakeholders in the private sector too.

Corruption will always affect the distribution of funds and resources to achieve poverty alleviation and that is why it is necessary to ensure effective public oversight over government expenditures.

Nevertheless, public investment is crucial to making progress in poverty eradication as this is necessary to provide infrastructure, train the work force for health education etc, invest in value-added production and provide direct employment.

China is a good example of poverty eradication through the use of government-centred investments.

UNMC role in progress

The United Nations Millennium Campaign (UNMC) is trying to do three things over the next 3 years to try and accelerate the progress on MDGs in Africa.

First is the mobilisation of people, including through youth movements and gender equality movements and civil societies so as to put pressure on the governments to keep their promises.

Second is monitoring, UNMC is trying to find ways in which they can work with citizen groups to monitor that resources that are meant to be spent in order to achieve the MDGs.

Thirdly, the UNMC is focusing on policy. The UNMC wants to start discussions on the issues of Africa¹s ability to transform their economies, create decent jobs and put incomes in the hands of the poor. Most governments in Africa believe that they can grow through aid and natural resource extraction, but this does not do anything for job creation and sustainable income generation.

Despite the slow progress on the MDGs in Africa, some countries such as Ghana, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ethiopia and many more have made good progress in the education and health sectors. A few, such as Malawi, Ethiopia and to some extent Kenya (before the election-related violence), have also made significant progress in the area of agriculture and food production.

Increased intra-Africa trade (especially in East Africa) has contributed greatly to the management of hunger and food shortages.

If more countries can start to engage in intra-Africa trade they would be helping themselves because this will create larger markets to support the expansion of local production, not only in food and agriculture but also in low-technology manufacturing and value-added services.

African countries should start opening up doors to each other so that they can share and trade effectively among each other. This way acceleration on achieving the MDGs can be realised. But this will require rolling back on the extreme import liberalisation regimes, reinstating industrial policy to promote value-added production and innovation and increased public investment to address the problem of skills and infrastructure.

Above all, it will require a rethinking of the role of state in the economy and society generally, what others call a developmental state - one dedicated to intervening in society minimise rent-seeking and encourage value addition, to redirect rents including natural resource rents to benefit the poor and the productive sectors and a system of taxation that is effective and equitable, among others.

- Charles Abugre is Deputy Director for Africa of the United Nations Millennium Campaign. This article was first published by Inter Press Service (IPS) Africa and is republished with its permission. (

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