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There's Progress Afoot in Africa -- Focusing on the Millennium Development Goals Trailblazers

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This week, world leaders are assembling in New York to review progress toward the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). If past gatherings are any indication, we can expect to hear countless speeches and media stories about how Sub-Saharan Africa remains woefully off-track and that billions of dollars in new aid packages are required. These types of blanket statements perpetuate the misguided myth that Africa is a monolithic land of depravity and development disappointment. One cannot deny that such localized places exist -- such as Somalia or Zimbabwe. However, these hot spots increasingly have become isolated islands of instability on an otherwise surging continent. Let us put aside the African cliché and instead focus our lens on the stars -- the MDG Trailblazers.

In a new paper, I examine just how individual countries are faring toward achieving the highly ambitious MDG targets. Essentially, my approach utilizes available data to compare individual countries' progress against rates of improvement required to achieve the MDG targets.

In contrast to much of the reporting to date, there is evidence of dramatic achievements by many poor countries. Moreover, many of the MDG Trailblazers reside in Sub-Saharan Africa. Countries like Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, and Uganda. And the sheer magnitude of their achievements is shocking.

Take a few examples. Ghana has reduced the proportion of under-nourished people by over 75 percent since 1992. Currently, only 8 percent of its population remains under-nourished - roughly on par with many industrialized countries. In Ethiopia, primary education completion rates have increased by nearly 300 percent -- meaning that millions of kids are now finishing at least eight years of schooling. Beyond that, Ethiopia is aggressively expanding access to secondary and tertiary education as well. In Burkina Faso, access to safe drinking water has increased by nearly 60 percent. Uganda has reduced its HIV/AIDS prevalence rate by over 60 percent.

These are historic achievements -- ones that merit international recognition and praise. In fact, the global technocrats should be boarding airplanes regularly for places like Ouagadougou, Addis Ababa, Accra, Lilongwe, and Kampala to figure out how in the world they did it. Instead of being overlooked or homogenized with their lagging neighbors, these countries could become case studies for how to deliver development results.

Even beyond these MDG Trailblazers, compelling progress is afoot across nearly every corner of the continent. Foreign direct investment has increased four-fold since 2000. Between 2007 and 2009, African stock exchanges raised $10 billion through some 170 initial public offerings. Mobile telephone and internet subscriptions have exploded - expanding twenty- and fourteen-fold, respectively. Until the global crisis, economic growth averaged nearly 6 percent over the previous decade.

There is no doubt that a good news story is under way in many African countries. However, I am not donning rose-tinted glasses. Many challenges remain. Due to the global economic crisis, fewer people are now establishing or growing businesses, investing in their future, and clawing their way out of poverty. The true test is how quickly African economies will bounce back -- how resilient they will be.

Infrastructure deficiencies and unreliable electric power also remain huge bottlenecks in every single country. In addition, the resurgence of vulture funds threaten to undercut economic progress and debt relief benefits in a number of countries, such as the Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. Moreover, some trailblazing countries must grapple with how to handle future windfalls. For example, Ghana and Uganda expect to reap billions of dollars from recently discovered oil over the coming years. This money could be a source of good or a curse on both houses. Only time will tell.

While many challenges remain, it's time that the general public -- especially the American audience -- wake up to the good news story underway. There's progress afoot in Africa.