August 6th, 2013

MDGs and the Accelerated Decline of Poverty and Disease in Sub-Saharan Africa

Sustainable Development

In a recent paper, Howard Friedman (2013) asks whether the Millennium Development Goals accelerated progress in the reduction of poverty. [1]  With respect to Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), the world’s poorest region, the answer is certainly yes.  It is perhaps less true in some other regions where progress was already rapid before 2000.  Each region should be studied in detail, and across each major sector (e.g. health, education, and basic infrastructure).  The experiences will vary by country, region, and sector.

In the case of Sub-Saharan Africa, economic development was basically stalled before the year 2000.  Economic growth was low; the poverty rate was high and not falling; and disease burdens were enormous and increasing in the case of malaria and HIV/AIDS.  The MDGs played an important role, of course together with other factors, in helping to reverse these adverse trends. The accelerated improvement in poverty reduction in Sub-Saharan Africa after 2000 may be seen in Table 1 for several key MDG indicators, as well as for the overall growth of GDP.

Friedman reports a number of indicators for which development progress after 2000 is apparently no faster than before the year 2000, but his findings might be misleading for two reasons.  First, he aggregates across regions, so his results are hard to interpret. Perhaps some middle-income regions had already experienced their rapid progress before the MDGs.  Second, he reports on a subset of indicators, and misses some of the most important income and health indicators. For example, he does not examine the reduction of the $1.25-per-day poverty rate itself.  He fails to note the accelerated GDP growth of developing countries after 2000.  He does not report on progress in controlling malaria, a great MDG-related success.  He does not report on the progress of expanded access to anti-retroviral medicines, another great MDG-related success.  He notes, correctly, that the MDGs had no effect on CO2 emissions, but this is hardly a surprise as climate-change mitigation policy has been handled completely independently of the MDG process.

For the developing countries as a whole, economic growth was significantly faster after 2000, poverty reduction was faster, and improvements in key health indicators (under-5 mortality rates and maternal mortality rates) were also faster.  In further analysis it will be important to look across sectors, countries, and regions, with greater disaggregation.  In Sub-Saharan Africa, the MDGs certainly played an important role in improved progress after the year 2000.  This is likely the case in other regions as well.

Table 1. Accelerated Poverty Reduction in Sub-Saharan Africa: key indicators*:

  1990 2000 2010 % Annual Rate of Improvement


% Annual Rate of Improvement


Poverty Rate (Proportion of population living on less than $1.25 a day ) 56.5 58.0


48.4 -0.3 1.6

Mortality Rate

178 154 109


1.4 3.1
Malaria Deaths, total (000s) 832 1,401 1,134 -5.3 2.1



850 740 500 1.4 3.8
Real GDP (1990=100) 100 126 219 2.3 5.7

*Note: the first four indicators are official MDG indicators, while Real GDP growth is not an MDG indicator but is an important contributor to poverty reduction and other goals.

Poverty.  During the period 1990-1999, the proportion of the population living on less than 1.25 dollars a day was rising in Africa.  It fell at a rate of 1.6 percent per annum during 1999-2010.

Under-5 Mortality Rate.  The rate of decline more than doubled (from 1.4 percent per annum during 1990-2000 to 3.1 percent per annum during 2000-2010).

Malaria Deaths.  Malaria was rising dramatically during 1990-2000, as a result of declining efficacy of the first and second-line medicines.  Malaria deaths declined at an estimated rate of 2.1 percent per annum during 2010.

Maternal Mortality.  The rate of decline more than doubled (from 1.4 percent per annum to 3.8 percent per annum after 2000).

Real GDP.  The economic growth rate per annum more than doubled (from 2.3 percent per annum to 5.7 percent per annum).


Sources of Data

In all cases, the data refer to the Sub-Saharan Africa region.  The data are for the years 1990, 2000, and 2010 except in the case of poverty, where the World Bank reports for the year 1999 rather than 2000, and for U5MR for the year 2011 rather than 2010.  Annual growth rates are calculated for 10-year intervals as 100*[(Xt+1/Xt)(1/10) – 1], except in the case of poverty, where the intervals are for 9 and 11 years respectively, and for U5MR, where there second interval is for 11 years.

Poverty.  The headcount poverty rate is from the World Bank, 2005 PPP at the $1.25-per- day poverty line.

Under-5 Mortality.  The under-five mortality rate is taken from UNICEF et al., “Levels and Trends in Child Mortality Report 2012,” Table 1.

Malaria Deaths.  Malaria deaths for all of Sub-Saharan Africa are found by summing over all age groups and all countries in the Sub-Saharan Africa region.

Maternal Mortality.  Maternal mortality rate is from Appendix 6 of WHO, “Trends in Maternal Mortality: 1990-2010.”

Real GDP.  Growth of real GDP for Sub-Saharan Africa is from the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database.  Annual rates of change are used to calculate an index of real GDP with 1990=100, and then 10-year average annual growth rates are calculated.

[1] Friedman, Howard Steven, “Causal Inference and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): Assessing Whether There Was An Acceleration in MDG Development Indicators Following the MDG Declaration,” Munich Personal RePEc Archive, 1 August 2013



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