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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Three years before the deadline for realising the MDGs: What needs to be done to powerfully complet

Presentation to SIDA Annual Conference, Stockholm, 23 August 2013

By Irũngũ Houghton[i]


As the cocoon regularly whispers to the caterpillar, it’s time for us to choose.[ii]

As the world and within it Africa, prepares to meet the deadline of 2015 set for the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals, reviews are conducted and new structures are announced, it is worth asserting that ultimately before us, is a set of choices we can make. The real choices live free of any circumstance or any sense of how well we have done or not. The first choice is whether we are willing to go beyond mediocrity, our own self-imposed limits and as Jay Naidoo has challenged us, “to have the courage to confront the realities of poverty and inequality with a different paradigm of thinking”.[iii] If we are to choose our future, let us make the choices boldly and responsibly.

Reflections on the “big shoes” of the Millennium Development Goals

Three years before the deadline for realising the MDGs, for those of us working in and on Africa, there are at least three considerations for designing the next set of global development goals. Firstly, the absence of clear propositions and active participation by African people and their Governments in designing the next round will perpetuate the disconnect that has hampered the content and delivery of the MDGs. The negotiations that led to the various agreements beyond the Millennium Declaration and the MDGs were largely top-down and floated from multilateral and diplomatic corridors of New York and other capitals in Europe and North America.[iv] The recent demand by the G77 in Rio for a state led process is partially fuelled by this historical appreciation. Women, youth and working people and their allies can avoid the weaknesses of the MDGs’s by demanding clear targets for gender justice, jobs and labour rights. Goals may be change-triggers, but real power lies in Africa having its own champions and popular mobilisation.

Secondly, while implementing the MDGs over the last twelve years, African Governments have also articulated a wider and deeper range of progressive human rights instruments and policy standards at the level of the African Union. Fourteen of them have been prioritised by several Governments and civil society organisations as offering an ambitious policy compact for addressing prosperity, democratic governance, environmental sustainability and social justice (see appendix 1). Combined, they ambitiously direct states to disclose information, facilitate public participation, manage public monies responsibly and set budgetary targets for agriculture (10%), health (15%) and education (5%). They enable citizens to speak freely, be heard, associate, influence policy and live lives free of discrimination on the basis of youth, gender, ethnicity or creed. The development of many of these treaties and standards have been funded and/or technically supported by bi-lateral assistance agencies or UN agencies. To date, most African Governments have made very little progress against ratification, domestication and implementation[v]. Very few citizens are aware or can connect these standards to the reality of their lives. Very few funding agencies are providing targeting financing for the implementation of these standards. How these standards will be incorporated in a post 2015 framework is unclear.

Thirdly, the success of the MDGs to date has been fuelled by steady economic growth and development stimulated in part by a mixture of high global commodity prices for Africa goods, increased domestic and foreign agricultural and social investment, active citizenship and better governance. Globally, the 2012 UNDP MDGs report points to three goals (income poverty, gender parity in primary education and water) having been attained. A further three (primary school completion, nutrition and child mortality) may be within reach. Maternal mortality lags behind. [vi] However, these aggregate numbers mask huge spatial, class, generational and gender inequalities and new challenges to democratic development.

While the continent enjoys on average 5% growth per annum and 7/10 fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa, 360 million people live in poverty and only 36 million earn more than US$10 a day. 20% of Africa’s population enjoy 6% or less of their nation’s income. 24 countries have a gini index of 40 and above.[vii] Nearly a decade after majority rule Government, black South Africa incomes are 13% of white incomes,[viii] 56% of Nairobi’s five million residents live on 1.62% of Nairobi[ix] and so on.[x] Jobless growth is a feature of most countries leaving a large number of young men and women without secure incomes. Gross inequity is a major factor in the persistence of poverty in Africa.

Growing inequality is fuelling state confrontation by social movements. Less noticed, but as important as the dramatic uprisings in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, were student, labour and urban uprisings in 23 countries across sub-saharan Africa over 2011 and 2012. According to Freedom House and CIVICUS among others, this public frustration is linked less to the closing civic space (which is shrinking) and the quality of democracy to local realities of poverty, inequality, insecurity, and violence.[xi]

In addition, there are new drivers of poverty, marginalisation and injustice in Africa. Key among these is increased water and land competition and conflict leading to resource vulnerability. Increased foreign investment and land leasing of large tracts of rural land for food exports or bio-fuel production has raised fears of dispossession and marginalisation of rural producers. Analysts have pointed to the possible loss of US$10 billion dollars in land transactions of 39.7 million ha, more than the cultivated areas of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined. Nine of the twenty countries at risk from droughts, floods, heat-waves, rising seas and other forms of extreme weather are African. As worrying, climate change seems set to threaten agricultural productivity by 10-20% for many countries with devastating effects on food insecurity and rural livelihoods. [xii]

Africa is very changed therefore since 2000. What global context and partnerships would deliver equitable growth, build capacities for resilience and support an active citizenry and effective states?

Re-inventing development finance leading upto and post 2015

Overseas development assistance has seen a number of important changes over the last twelve years. The most notable features of this period include an absolute increase in aid flows, debt reduction and new globally agreed Paris Declaration on aid effectiveness that emphasises country ownership.

More recently, the financial crisis is impacting on levels of ODA by European Governments. In 2011, 11 European Governments cut their assistance packages with just under half of them cutting back by over 10%.[xiii] This contrasts sharply with the recent China-Africa Summit announcement to increase by two fold Chinese loans for infrastructure and public works in Africa. Over 2012-2015, China will avail US$20 billion. Coupled with US$166 billion worth of trade, China is a major trading and financing partner.[xiv] Also, present in ways that were not there in 2000, philanthropic foundations such as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have the capacity to invest upwards of US$2 billion per annum. [xv]

Domestically also, African Governments are reforming their domestic revenue and taxation systems to seal off illicit capital flight, curb corruption and expand the domestic resources available for public services. The recently established Thabo Mbeki led AU High Level Panel on illicit capital flight has noted that if Governments were able to stem the financial outflows from Africa they would have access to funding two times as much as ODA [xvi]

Another key difference from the 2000 period is the importance of regional integration initiatives. Both African multi-lateral institutions such as the African Union and regional economic communities and pan African and regional CSO coalitions are now active agents working at the global, continental and across several countries on common themes.[xvii] In 2012, aid agencies are supporting these institutions to coordinate regional and continental policy-formulation, peace-keeping and early political action as well as programmes that integrate communications, infrastructure and markets. These funding windows remain distinct and sometimes disconnected from the country missions.

This disconnect allows for country programming to continue without recognition of important continental policy decisions and commitments being made by African Governments. It also facilitates continental programming to not target the implementation of these decisions at national level. A new approach to linking these two windows could consider ringfencing a percentage of funding in both the global and country funds for continental policy implementation at national levels, matching funding and joint assessments of funding portfolios among other options.

As Swedish Development Assistance and other aid agencies reinvent themselves for 2015, they have to consider that the next round of development goals will be less about bi-lateral resource transfers from high income to low income countries therefore. There are implications for SIDA in at least three areas namely, how this will impact on “new value for money” approaches, increased funding for business led development and challenge of integrating democracy, human rights and rapid economic growth.[xviii]

The introduction of results based funding and the growing trend to measure success by tracking a narrow set of indicators set in domestic capitals and designed to inform tax-payers at home runs contrary to the important principles being championed by SIDA and other Governments in the Aid Effectiveness debates.[xix] There is the real danger that recipient perspectives and ownership for programmes will be drowned out leading to unsustainable and poorly owned programmes. Secondly, the approach risks oversimplification of complex realities that have as much to do with power relationships and the lack of an empowering relationship between citizens and their states as to the physical absence of quality services, functional markets and accountable political institutions.

It is unclear whether the imperative to narrow down also arises from the disproportionate cutting back of agency staff. What is clearer perhaps is that this might leave SIDA vulnerable to the consultancy industry, pressure to hide staff costs and loss of in-country institutional collaboration and learning.[xx]

Allowing for some complexity, longer programme cycles and making in-country consultative processes compulsory will do much to safeguard Swedish investment than “silver bullets” perfected far from the people who have most to gain. A back to the “project-parachutes” approach could take SIDA years back and overlook the many gains of budget support to Governments committed to fighting poverty and stimulating growth.

The expanding focus of SIDA on private-public partnerships and six fold increase in finance for business led development holds promise for introducing rights based approaches for private companies, technology transfer, jobs stimulation and improving the market chain opportunities for poor people. It is critical for development policy coherence that these initiatives do not adversely impact on labour, social and environmental standards or distort local markets. The recent audits and reviews of companies funded by Swedfund in Tanzania and Sierra Leone suggest that tougher poverty impact criteria is necessary to ensure that Swedish tax payers monies is not used in business ventures that leave communities food insecure, landless without acceptable compensation or Governments denied legitimate taxation that could be used for development.[xxi]

Lastly, the growth versus democracy debate requires balanced reflection. There are a number of voices in both Africa and Europe that are implicitly or explicitly promoting autocratic development as a means to generate the economic growth that Africa needs.[xxii] These voices ignore a few important facts. Firstly, the type of growth Africa is experiencing for many countries is starting from a very low base. So while rapid, the benefits of this growth are not being felt in large parts of the economy and society. This largely explained why countries like Tunisia (2011) or Kenya (2008) could have experienced such high levels of violence and the targeting of the symbols of this growth by ordinary people. Secondly, while proponents of this “seek ye the growth first, and democracy shall follow” selectively point to the Asian tigers experiences, it is worth noting that even when the economic conditions for human development exist they can be sabotaged by harmful cultural practises. The example of child infanticide in China is a case in point.

From a slightly different angle, would we propose that the 20% of European youth now unemployed should be denied a vote, a public voice and the right to association and participation in public affairs until the Governments of Europe find them jobs? Would we consider suspending political and civil liberties if more and more Europeans and North Americans fell into deeper levels of unemployment and poverty.

The SIDA Policy for Democratic Development and Human Rights (2010-2014) offers not just Swedish aid, but the global community, an integrated model that enshrines development, non-discrimination, participation, openness and transparency and accountability. It is worth SIDA ensuring that in the debates leading upto the post 2015 development goals, the nexus between development, democracy and human rights are clearly reflected.

Re-inventing civil society organising leading upto and post 2015

The collapse of the development state in Africa under the weight of “Washington consensus” policy conditionality opened the space to NGOs and CSOs to run huge service-delivery programmes in the 1990s. With a renewed focus on providing education, health and agriculture extension services as public goods, a large number of states have taken back their constitutional and legal obligations.

In this context, the reduced role for service-delivery has to shift to a growing responsibility to organise citizens to monitor and demand effective, quality social services, administrative justice and redistributive budgets that address the poor, marginalised and excluded. New digital technology in the form of the internet and telephony provides huge opportunities for crowd-sourcing public feedback and dialogue. Whether it is the anti-globalisation movements that accompanied the birth of the MDGs, their more contemporary occupy movements or even local communities and interest groups, there will be a need for intermediary organisations to act as a bridge or support dialogue with policy-makers.

New forms of organisation are needed with less emphasis on aid bureaucracies and northern celebrities and more on building supporters in Africa and self-representation by rights-holders and action in the public interest. If we can go beyond calendars and bureaucracy to champions and public mobilisation, we can bring new energies to old challenges.[xxiii]

As urban poverty, environmental sustainability, inequality and redistributive programming become more urgent to address, both civil society organisations, southern Governments and funding agencies will have to strengthen their own technical capacities to be able to remain relevant.

Appendix 1: Key African Human Rights Treaties, Instruments and Policy Standards

Human Rights Treaties and Instruments

  1. African Youth Charter

  2. African Charter on Human and People’s Rights in Africa

  3. African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance

  4. African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child

  5. African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

  6. African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption

  7. Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa

  8. Revised African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

  9. Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community

  10. Protocol to the Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community relating to the Pan- African Parliament

Policy standards

  1. The African Health Strategy 2007-2015

  2. NEPAD Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Plan (CAADP)

  3. Abuja Call for Accelerated Action towards Universal Access to HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Services by 2010

  4. Maputo Plan of Action for the Operationalisation of the Continental Policy Framework for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights 2007-2010

For more information on AU Treaties

Appendix 2: CSO Case-studies

 Case-study 1: FEMNET – Caravan on Maternal Health (Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda)

 Key Objectives

  1. Raise the level of public awareness on maternal health issues to a point where individuals, communities and organizations can fully assume responsibility in safeguarding the rights of women and children

  2. Increase regional momentum with policy makers on the need to prioritize sexual and reproductive health and act to reduce maternal mortality as part of the development and human rights agenda

Key Results to date

  1. The Caravan was able to inform an estimated forty-five (45) million citizens during the Caravan journey through television, radio, newspapers, the Caravan blog, Facebook, and websites about Maternal and Sexual and Reproductive Health from a rights-based perspective

  2. More than 50,000 policy makers, health care workers, community leaders, women, men, boys and girls received information on maternal and SRH and/or attending the public forums

  3. Over 20,000 women were given blood boosters, and over 20,000 children received de-wormers as an immediate intervention to decrease chances of maternal and child deaths

  4. Approximately 50,000 men and women, health workers, policy makers, administrators, religious leaders and other stakeholders appended their signatures on the petitions urging Heads of State at the AU Summit to “ACT Now: No woman should die while giving life”.

  5. Voices of East African citizens were successfully amplified at the regional and national level, evidenced by integration of CSO recommendations taken up in the decision from AU Heads of State in Kampala July 2010, and integration of Caravan outputs into Government processes such as the launch of the CARMMA campaign and parliamentary debate in Kenya.

  6. Significant media coverage of the Caravan enhanced well informed media coverage of maternal and reproductive health issues throughout the AU pre-Summit and Summit in Kampala..

  7. In Uganda, the maternal health issue was successfully brought into the mainstream political debate and set the stage for accountability when the new Government entered office.

  8. Maternal health was positioned as an important development agenda in the electoral process in Uganda, resulting in an ongoing dialogue on this issue for the next political term, between Government, civil society, media and citizens.

  9. Tanzanian MPs also took the unprecedented step of forming a sub-committee on maternal and child health, showing a high level of commitment and providing a platform for support and advocacy by civil society organisations.

 Case-study 2: State of the Union coalition – Play for the Union campaign (Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Egypt, South Africa and Senegal) Co-funded by SIDA and DFID

 Key Objectives

The State of the Union coalition seeks to catalyze active citizenship, effective national governance and the realization of the fundamental freedoms and human rights contained in various key AU policy standards and legal instruments and effective national governance. The coalition engages Citizens to track and hold Governments and the African Union on their performance against key democratic governance, economic, social rights, civil and political rights policy standards and instruments. The coalition will do this by;

  1. Informing and empowering Citizens to act to claim key rights and freedoms

  2. Influencing the African Union and African States to ratify, popularise and implement key standards

  3. Building inclusive continental and national platforms

 Key Results

Over the past two years, the programme has achieved the following;

  1. Nine national compliance reports completed for Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa.

  2. Two months research, validation workshops, public handover to Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Addis based Ambassadors to the African Union. Reports generally welcomed, commitments to review status of outstanding ratifications, propositions accepted and invitations to work in new countries

  3. Influential publication State of the African Union 2010 Continental report leading to unsolicited high-level policy briefings to Executive Council, Pan African Parliament and Permanent Representatives

  4. Attributable policy impact on July 2010 Executive Council decision calling for “civil society to assist with the advocacy and sensitization of members states” and recognition that implementation critical to “upholding the integrity of Summit decisions” in January 2011 Assembly debate on shared values.

  5. Involvement of 22 young men and women in “Play for the Union”, a campaign to raise public awareness about AU standards using football.

  6. In July, the campaign secured 7,000 signatories for a petition to Heads of States in one single day during a grand unity football match in Blantyre, Malawi.

  7. The bi-lingual face-book page has 24,000 friends


[i] Irũngũ Houghton is Oxfam’s Pan Africa Director based in Nairobi, Kenya. He can be reached by email: and followed on twitter: @irunguhoughton I acknowledge the analysis and perspectives of several people both in Europe and Africa in the development of this paper which can be found

[iii] Jay Naidoo – Redefining Development: A new Role for foundations

[iv] For an excellent overview of this period see Claire Melamed – After 2015: Contexts, politics and processes for a post 2015 global agreement on development, January 2012

[vii] Africa Progress Report 2012 – Jobs, Justice and Equity: Seizing opportunities in times of global change

[viii] Claire Melamed – After 2015: Contexts, politics and processes for a post 2015 global agreement on development, January 2012

[ix] Akiba Mashinani – Mukuru kwa Njenga: The Impending Evictions, August 2012

[xi] CIVICUS Civil Society Index

[xiv] For further elaboration of the growing aid-trade-investment relationship with China, India and other emerging economies see Tom dietz etal African Engagements: Africa negotiating an emerging multi-polar world, 2011 and Li Anshan etal “FOCAC Twelve years later” Nordic Africa Institute, 2012.

[xvii] See appendix 2 for some examples.

[xviii] Key features of Swedish aid in 2011 include the following; OD stands at 1.02% of GNI up from 2010, humanitarian assistance is rapidly increasing and currently stands at 9%, key priorities include human rights, results/value for money, financing for business set to increase from E5.5 billion to E38 billion, transparency and public disclosure through the Open Aid initiative. See Aidwatch 2012 Report

[xix] It should be noted that this is not an anti-results argument. The clarification and refinement of aims and outcomes against development strategies is as old as development itself. The question is, who participates, who decides, is empowered by this process and held responsible?

[xx] This needs to be looked again while not ignoring the largesse made famous by Graham Hancock’s 1989 Lords of Poverty.

[xxi] Over the last three years, Swedish companies have found themselves embroiled in controversy as land-leasing for ethanol production has left communities landless in Sierra Leone and capital worth $65 million invested in tax havens and denying the Tanzanian Government of taxes that could have kept 175,000 children in school. See for further information

[xxii] The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi saidthere is no direct relationship between economic growth and democracy, historically or theoretically…..I don’t believe in bedtime stories, contrived arguments linking economic growth with democracy” See also David Booth of the Overseas Deveopment Institute

[xxiii] See Appendix 2 for examples of new forms of in-country organising by CSO consortia around Government obligations


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