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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 September 2007, 07:33 GMT 08:33 UK
Why can't Africa tackle poverty?
By Steve Schifferes
Economics reporter, BBC News

A child plays with sand in Daruga, on the outskirts of Abuja, Nigeria
The Millennium Development Goals were meant to end extreme poverty

As the United Nations (UN) General Assembly begins meeting in New York, little is being heard about the Millennium Development Goals.

The eight internationally-declared goals, on reducing poverty and improving life chances in developing countries, were set in 2000 for achievement by 2015.

But the UN says that halfway to the deadline, sub-Saharan Africa is unlikely to meet any of the poverty-busting goals - nor the benchmarks on education, health, and women's empowerment.

This failure was declared a "development emergency" by UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the UN in July. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called an emergency meeting to discuss the issue next year.

But why is Africa falling so far behind in the fight against poverty? And is there the will in the West to help?

Promises, promises

One reason is that the promises by Western countries to double foreign aid to Africa over the next decade - made at the "Make Poverty History" G8 summit at Gleneagles in 2005 - are not being met.

1 Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2 Achieve universal primary education
3 Promote gender equality and empower women
4 Reduce child mortality
5 Improve maternal health
6 Combat HIV/Aids, malaria, and other diseases
7 Ensure environmental sustainability
8 Develop a global partnership for development

Aid budgets actually fell by 5% last year, according to Hetty Kovach, Oxfam's policy advisor on aid.

She says the situation is "very worrying" with budget difficulties and the economic slowdown likely to increase pressures on aid budgets in France, Germany, and Japan.

Ms Kovach argues that there have also been problems with the quality of aid that has been delivered, with too little directed at improving basic health and education, and in particular paying the salaries of badly needed nurses and teachers.

And she warns that it will be "too little, too late" if countries wait until just before the development goals fall due before putting more money into the pot.

False hopes

Some argue that the Millennium Development Goals may have been unrealistic targets for Africa.

Simon Maxwell, director at the independent think-tank Overseas Development Institute, says that the goals were always meant to be more of a tool of political mobilisation than an exact guide to planning an aid strategy.

But he says they have proved very effective, particularly when used by the UK government, in mobilising world opinion on the issue.

And he argues that, although there have been some signs of progress in Africa, particularly on education and on the spread of democratic institutions, there are more deep-seated problems that aid alone cannot deal with.

These include wars and conflicts, geography (especially landlocked states), over-dependence on the export of natural resources, and poor governance.

The developmental state

In a new report, the UN organisation Unctad suggests that in the future, Africa will have to do more to help itself.

The private sector cannot be expected to play the lead role

It suggests that Africa should follow the model of the successful East Asian economies like Korea and Taiwan, which have grown rapidly in the past 20 years without foreign aid by mobilising their domestic resources.

It argues that, like in East Asia, the state will have to take a mobilising role in spurring economic growth, because the private sector is too weak, with the barriers to its expansion, such as poor infrastructure and lack of a developed financial system, too great.

"The widespread market failures, along with the huge financial resources involved in implementing the earlier stages of development, imply that the private sector cannot be expected to play the lead role," it says.

But for African governments to be effective in such a role, they have to develop more legitimacy and more competence.

And Africa must save and invest more of its own resources, including making better use of the profits from high commodity prices, and of the remittances from its workers who have moved abroad.

Challenging the 'Washington consensus'

Their argument throws down the gauntlet to the institutions that have traditionally led the world's effort to tackle poverty in Africa, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which will be meeting in Washington next month.

Their model of development, involving increasing liberalisation of Africa's financial and goods markets, along with cutting back the role of the state and limiting budget deficits, has been called the "Washington consensus".

John Lipsky, the deputy managing director of the IMF, told an Oxfam conference this week that "the economic prospects of poor countries depend on their linkage to the global economy" and argues that "new and significant progress to establishing the goals of an effective open economy" are increasingly attainable in Africa.

But both Unctad, and development non-governmental organisation like Oxfam, argue that the IMF model does not produce enough benefits for the poor.

Oxfam argues that, before giving advice, the World Bank and the IMF should have the responsibility to analyse how their policy recommendations will impact on the poor.

But the controversy over the effectiveness of aid is also one factor that is making most Western politicians - and Western people - increasingly reluctant to fund an increase in aid budgets, either for the World Bank (which is seeking another tranche of money) or for meeting the commitments they made at Gleneagles.

So, in the next decade, any progress in reaching the Millennium Development Goals may well depend on Africa itself, and the degree it can mobilise its own economic and political resources.

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