Millennium Development Goals: The ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ progress of African nations

10th January 2011 By: Creamer Media Reporter

Ten years after the Millennium Declaration took effect, the international community reviewed its progress, setbacks and lessons learned. The deadline for the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was set for 2015 and represents the fundamental rights and basic needs that every person must have access to by then.(2) These rights and needs are translated into the following goals: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger (MDG 1); Achieve universal primary education (MDG 2); Promote gender equality and empower women (MDG 3); Reduce child mortality (MDG 4); Improve maternal health (MDG 5); Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases (MDG 6); Ensure environmental sustainability (MDG 7); Develop a global partnership for development (MDG 8).(3)


The MDGs are certainly ambitious in nature. On 22 September 2010, the Overseas Development Institution (ODI) released its report on aggregate progress on the first seven MDGs, using a given number of MDG indicators selected according to availability of data, representativeness of the goals assessed and targets measured.(4) Even though remarkable progress has been made, assessments like the ODI’s often result in negative evaluations of countries, especially African countries.(5) To get a more complete picture of progress, the ODI describes and assesses progress in ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ terms.(6) This CAI paper discusses Africa’s progress toward the MDGs in terms of ‘relative’ and absolute’ progress and argues that Africa is indeed making great strides toward the improvement of citizens’ lives.


Africa’s progress towards the MDG’s


According to the ODI:


• Absolute progress measures which countries have reduced the largest share of the population living in extreme poverty, for instance, or increased primary school enrolment rates by the largest number of percentage points.

• Relative progress measures progress against the MDG target – for example, which countries have come closest to halving child mortality, or to closing the gap in achieving universal primary education.(7)


The importance of the distinction between ‘relative’ and ‘absolute’ progress is clear in an example used by the ODI. Consider MDG 3 (the overall reduction of under-five mortality rates): globally, Thailand is considered a top performer on ‘relative’ progress, reducing its under-five mortality rates from 31 to seven per 1000 live births (1990 – 2007), representing a 77% reduction in child mortality rates. During this same period Niger reduced its under-five child mortality rates from 304 to 176 per 1000 live births, a mere 42% reduction. In terms of ’relative’ progress, Thailand’s performance is superior, but Niger’s reduction of the child mortality rate is five times more than Thailand’s and therefore represents a greater ‘absolute’ progress.(8) ‘Relative’ progress has been made by Benin, Malawi and Gambia. They are on track to attain the MDGs by 2015.(9) ‘Absolute’ progress has been made by Mali, Ethiopia, Uganda, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Rwanda and Togo. Benin has made incredible progress with maternal health issues and gender equality and has increased educational enrolment rates from 43% to 83%. Mali improved its poverty and hunger ratios significantly and increased gender equality as well as access to clean and safe drinking water.(10)


Eradicating hunger and reducing poverty by 2015


According to the ODI, the number of Africans living in poverty has decreased from 52% in 1990 to 40% in 2008.(11) Many African nations have halved their poverty rates and the average proportion of people living on less than US$ 1.25 a day decreased to 40% in 2008 (from 53% in 1990).(12) Central Africa (in ‘absolute’ terms) and northern Africa (in ‘relative’ terms) have made particularly strong progress.(13) The countries with the highest relative progress towards reducing poverty are Tunisia, Mauritania, Cameroon, Senegal, Namibia, Egypt, Botswana, Swaziland, Ethiopia and Angola.(14) With regard to reducing hunger, fewer children below five are undernourished, with reductions from 33% in 1990 to 26% in 2006.(15) Ghana has outperformed all African nations by reducing hunger by nearly three quarters. Other African nations that achieved great absolute progress are Djibouti, Mozambique, Chad and Angola.(16)


Achieving universal education, promoting gender equality and empowering women


The African continent has made exceptional progress with increasing education enrolment rates, even though these enrolment rates fluctuate between the nations (from 43% in Djibouti to 99% on Madagascar).(17) According to the ODI, nine out of the top ten ‘absolute’ performers are indeed African, and average enrolment rates have increased from 52% to 74% between 1991 and 2007.(18) Tanzania, Guinea, Benin, Mauritania, Malawi, Mozambique, Madagascar, Mali and Morocco have made good ‘absolute’ progress. Morocco has done a remarkable job by increasing its enrolment rates from 57% to 89%, and Ethiopia made stunning progress by increasing enrolment rates from 22% to 72%.(19) With regard to ensuring that both boys and girls can complete a full primary education, most African nations perform well.(20)


Most African nations started out with low levels of gender equality, but according to the ODI Africa ranks almost exclusively in the list of the top ten gender equality performers.(21) The elimination of gender disparity in primary and secondary education is a priority for many of the top performers in ‘absolute’ progress in sub-Saharan Africa. With eight nations ranking from the third place and lower (Benin, Senegal, Gambia, Chad, Lesotho, Ethiopia, Morocco and Mali), this is a remarkable achievement indeed.(22) Chad deserves special mention here: the country progressed from a state of severe disparity and managed to increase the gender equality ratio from 0.45 to 0.70 (0= disparity 1= parity).(23)


Reducing child and maternal mortality


Reducing the under-five-years-old mortality rate is tough, especially because the average child mortality rate in Africa is double that of any other continent.(24) Yet, sub-Saharan Africa made strong ‘absolute’ progress by reducing its rate to 1.94 per 1000 live births.(25) During this same time Western and Eastern Africa reached a reduction of 2.64 and 2.16 per 1000 live births respectively.(26) Although the ‘relative’ progress is considered minimal (20%), northern Africa managed a reduction of 57% in ‘absolute’ terms (27) and takes the global lead in this regard.(28) Top ‘absolute’ performers include Burundi, Angola, South Africa, Cape Verde and Algeria. The top ‘relative’ performers are Mauritius, DRC and Morocco.(29) Thirteen out of 14 countries have 90% antenatal-care coverage.(30) Progress on availability and access in ‘absolute’ terms have been made by Eritrea, Morocco, Burundi, DRC, Sierra Leone, and Guinea- Bissau, whilst ‘relative’ progress has only been achieved by Burundi and Gambia.(31)


HIV & AIDS, infectious diseases and environmental sustainability


Of the developing world, Africa has the highest HIV infection rates, and the worst affected twenty countries are all African.(32) The highest infection rates are found in southern Africa.(33) Of the 27 countries that made progress, the ODI reports that 21 are in sub-Saharan Africa and half of these countries show a decrease in their infection rates (generally by 0.1%).(34) The greatest reductions have been achieved by Eastern Africa.(35) Zimbabwe has achieved exceptional results by reducing its prevalence rates by 11% within seven years.(36)


Globally, access to HIV & AIDS treatment has increased by 6.1%, which means that the MDG will not be reached by 2015 but by 2020, if this growth is sustained.(37) An ‘absolute’ top performer is Zambia with a 20% increase, flanked by Rwanda’s 19% and Namibia’s 20%.(38) African nations that started with access percentages of 10% or lower have shown dramatic progress.(39) Central African Republic started out with a mere 6%, but increased this figure to 21% by 2007.(40) Mauritania went from 8% to 23% in the same period.(41) Ironically, Mozambique’s infection rates have increased from 10% to 12%, yet access to treatment has doubled in this country (from 12% to 24%).(42) Africa also shows an increase in tuberculosis detection and treatment of 1.1% – far higher than the global average of 0.69%.(43) African nations with the highest absolute progress of TB detection and treatment are Uganda, Ghana, Tonga, DRC and Senegal.(44)


Access to safe and clean drinking water is a significant problem in Africa. Average access is about 60% or lower throughout Africa.(45) Nonetheless, progress is being made. Nine African countries have already reached the MDG target and a further 39 out of 44 countries are making remarkable progress.(46) Malawi increased its access to water from 51% to 80%, Burkina Faso from 49% to 76% and Namibia from 73% to 92%. The highest levels of drinking water accessibility are found in southern Africa, with levels higher than 85% (except Lesotho).(47)


Concluding remarks


The ODI report shows that even though relative progress towards many of the MDGs varies across the African nations, and is not without obstacles, from an ‘absolute’ viewpoint many of the African nations are making exceptional progress.(48) Progress, however small or large, is not only improving the quality of life of many Africans, it is also without precedent in the history of many of these countries. The MDGs provide an important motivational force and offer constructive goals at which to aim. Both ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ progress has been made towards the reduction of poverty and gender disparity. And remarkable increases in school enrolment of African children and access to health services and clean and safe drinking water have also been achieved.(49) Taking all this into consideration, there is indeed a cause for optimism about the development of many African nations.




(1) Contact Susanne Bakelaar through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Eyes on Africa Unit (
(2) ‘The path to achieving the Millennium Development Goals: A synthesis of evidence from around the world’, United Nations Development Programme, 12 July 2010,
(3) MDG Monitor,
(4) Overseas Development Institute, ‘Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Report Card: Measuring progress across countries’, September 2010,
(5) Ibid.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Ibid.
(8) Ibid.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Ibid.
(11) Ibid.
(12) Ibid.
(13) Ibid.
(14) Ibid.
(15) MDG Monitor,
(16) Overseas Development Institute, ‘Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Report Card: Measuring progress across countries’, September 2010,
(17) Ibid.
(18) Ibid.
(19) Ibid.
(20) Ibid
(21) Overseas Development Institute, ‘Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Report Card: Measuring progress across countries’, September 2010,
(22) Ibid.
(23) Ibid.
(24) Ibid.
(25) Ibid.
(26) Ibid.
(27) Ibid.
(28) Ibid.
(29) Ibid.
(30) Ibid.
(31) Ibid.
(32) Ibid.
(33) Ibid.
(34) Ibid.
(35) Ibid.
(36) Ibid.
(37) Ibid.
(38) Ibid.
(39) Ibid.
(40) Ibid.
(41) Ibid.
(42) Ibid.
(43) Ibid.
(44) Ibid.
(45) Ibid.
(46) Ibid.
(47) Ibid.
(48) Ibid.
(49) Ibid.

Written by Susanne Bakelaar (1)