Addressing a flawed approach to Africa

The Millennium Development Goals may ironically mark the beginning of extreme poverty. Look at the numbers.

Darren Bernard

The United Nation’s 2005 Human Development Report could be the gloomiest document written in decades:

“The overall report card on progress makes for depressing reading,” the paper says with remarkable curtness.

“Four years on, nothing of substance (on trade policies) has been achieved.”

“There are ominous signs for the decade ahead.”

“There is real danger that the next ten years, like the last fifteen, will deliver far less for human development than has been promised.”

“The promise to the world’s poor,” the report says of previous goals set by developed nations, “is being broken.”

And that puts us on page 3 of nearly 400, where the really appalling stuff starts. “Today, someone living in Zambia has less chance of reaching age 30 than someone born in England in 1840 – and the gap is widening.”

Ironically, the bleak report comes almost exactly five years after 147 leaders from every corner of the globe agreed to end Third World poverty by signing onto the Millennium Development Goals. Then as now, these eight time-bound and quantified measures of basic well-being were hailed as the first real step toward the abatement of extreme poverty.

The primary force behind the goals was the desire of developing nations to put the flighty rhetoric of the industrialized West into hard numbers. This was supposed to force our hand to help once the numbers turned sour.

And turned sour the numbers did. Five years in, nearly all the goals are off target for their 2015 maturity. At today’s rates, a ghastly 837 million people will be living on less than $1 a day, 47 million children will not be enrolled in school, and more than half a billion people will still be without clean water in 2015. In the meantime, some 1,200 children will die every hour – that’s one every three seconds – from malnutrition and disease, which, when you do the math, adds up to a Rwandan genocide every 28 days.

Along with a handful of other nations, China looks to meet its development goals, but only because of surging investment and almost nonexistent population growth. But in stark contrast, gross domestic product gains over the past decade in most of sub-Saharan Africa have been offset by new bodies. The United Nations soberly reports that in 2003 some 18 countries comprising nearly half a billion people ranked lower on the human development index than they did in 1990 – “an unprecedented reversal,” it says.

With such dismal figures floating around the U.N., Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been urging developed nations to increase aid and reform their trade policies. A medley of third-world leaders at the on-going U.N. summit say the Millennium Development Goals will come to nothing without more foreign aid and fewer subsidies in the West.

But here – precisely where the lecturing stops – is precisely where the discussion should begin. This debate should not be merely about a shortage of money or trade policy or incompetent administration. The unfortunate fact is our current approach to Africa is bound to fail. For two reasons, the Millennium Development Goals were fundamentally flawed from the outset.

First and most notably, even if we were able to reach certain Millenium Development Goals, we may never know it. There have been a series of articles in forums like The Economist and the New York Times recently that basically say the United Nations can’t measure progress being made on some of the MDGs. The 2005 Human Development Report itself admits that scores of countries have unreliable or missing data.

Take the scourge of malaria. When the United Nations and its member states were formulating numerical goals for reducing malaria infection rates in 2000, the world organization’s own scientists warned, “it will not, in general, be possible to measure the overall incidence rate of malaria.” What’s worse is that when concerned scientists wanted to discuss the flawed measurement techniques at the global summit last September, the U.N. leadership suppressed the matter.

The second problem is corruption. Even if the West did everything Africa activists say we should (a near impossibility), poverty in many countries could potentially remain as bad or even get worse than it is today. To be sure, responsible governments could use the money and coordination to make a lot of improvements. Quite responsibly, the U.N. has made it clear that only countries with relatively uncorrupted leaders will get funds and debt relief from the industrialized West.

But in the hopelessly debauched third-world, this still leaves hundreds of millions without the infrastructure and political change requisite for real development. Non-governmental organizations can only do so much. At some point, corruption, which U2 frontman and Africa activist Bono calls the single biggest problem in combating poverty, needs to be squashed.

To be sure, this is no reason to scrap the MDGs and regress to utter indifference towards extreme poverty. Quite the contrary, in fact. The United Nations needs to stop treating MDG measurement like a bagatelle, and the West needs to get serious about Third World corruption.

Otherwise, the United Nation’s 2005 Human Development Report could end up marking the beginning of another long, dire struggle by the African peoples.

Darren Bernard welcomes comments at [email protected]