Although several of the world's regions have made significant progress in achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), sub-Saharan Africa remains the exception, appearing to move backward rather than forward.
World leaders gather this week in New York to review progress on tackling world poverty and meeting the MDGs, but evidence of continuing food insecurity, deepening poverty, disturbingly high child and maternal mortality, and growing numbers of people living in slums across the continent suggest that Africa - without immediate significant international support - is unlikely to meet most of the targets by 2015.
The MDGs include a 50 percent reduction in poverty and hunger, universal primary education, reducing child mortality by two-thirds, cutting back maternal mortality by three-quarters, the promotion of gender equality, and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
A UN progress report made earlier this year showed that although the proportion of extremely poor people fell to 21 percent in the developing world, in sub-Saharan Africa, which already had the highest poverty rates in the world, millions more fell deeper into poverty.
Declining agricultural productivity was seen as the main reason for food shortages in many countries in the continent, where the number of malnourished children has actually increased. The report highlighted that while developing regions have made progress towards achieving universal primary education, some 115 million children were still out of school, more than half of them were girls, and a disproportionate number were in Africa.
Of particular concern was the slow progress in halting the death of children under five; of the 300,000 children who died of preventable diseases each day, most were in Africa.
The report warned that if current trends continued, the reduction in under-five mortality worldwide from 1990 to 2015 would be just 15 percent - well short of the target of two-thirds lower pledged by world leaders in 2000.
The UN's '2005 Human Development Report', released on 7 September, noted that 12 of the 18 countries that suffered development reversals between 1990 and 2003 were in sub-Saharan Africa, with Southern Africa "hit hardest". South Africa plunged 35 places to 120 on the global Human Development Index (HDI), Zimbabwe slid by 23 and Botswana fell 21 places. Reversals were also noted for Lesotho, Swaziland and Zambia.
Professor Francis Nwonwu, chief research specialist at the Pretoria-based Africa Institute, has argued that Africa's poor performance thus far could be largely attributed to a critical shortage of financial resources.
"If one considers the combinations of internal and external factors at play, it does not come as a surprise that Africa lags behind the rest of the developing world in making progress towards the MDG targets. However, all other matters aside, the major obstacle is the lack of funds. African governments, in general, simply do not have the necessary funds to embark on projects to improve the lives of their citizens within the given timeframe," Nwonwu told IRIN.
Although advances made in establishing political stability in recent years was commendable, African leaders could do more to attract foreign investment, he added.
"Without a serious commitment to achieving political stability, it is unlikely that rich nations and the international private sector will be willing to invest their time and money in improving the lives of Africans," Nwonwu pointed out.
Alfred Chanda, head of Transparency International in Zambia, agreed, adding that it was "crucial" that African governments take concrete steps to implement measures to improve political and economic transparency.
"Western donors have, over the past 10 years, become increasingly weary of African leaders who request assistance but are unwilling to improve governance. They have insisted, and will continue to insist, that there are measures in place to ensure that their money is well-spent. If one looks at Zambia, for example, millions of dollars have been pumped into the country over the past 15 years, and yet, today there are very few signs of sustainable development," Chanda told IRIN.
Zambian-based economist Jack Jones Zulu said Africa's current dilemma could easily be solved if international trade rules were made fairer.
"It goes without saying that more needs to be done about corruption on the continent," Jones Zulu remarked. "But if more money is needed, then Africa must be able to trade fairly with the developed countries. Right now, Africa's industries have collapsed, primarily due to a rigged system of trade rules, which sees Western countries effectively dumping excess produce at dirt-cheap prices onto African markets at the expense of local producers. Yes, more quality aid is necessary, but equal trade is vital for Africa's future development."
In its 400-page report released in March this year the UK-sponsored Commission for Africa called for increased aid, debt elimination, lifting of trade barriers, and stamping out corruption. Its emphasis on shared responsibility between African leaders and their western counterparts was said to represent a new approach to development on the continent.
THE WAY FORWARD
A package of cost-effective measures for combating global poverty, which could cut extreme poverty in half and radically improve the lives of at least one billion people in poor developing countries by 2015, was put forward in January by 265 of the world's leading development experts, in what was billed as the most comprehensive strategy ever proposed.
In 'Investing in Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals', Prof Jeffrey Sachs, head of the UN anti-poverty effort, called for massively increased aid to poor countries - from US $20 billion a year at present to at least $135 billion a year.
Sachs has been adamant that it would be counterproductive to make poor people suffer because they have bad governments. He suggested that rich and poor countries alike participate in "quick win" projects, such as mosquito nets or providing antiretroviral drugs to three million people living with HIV/AIDS by 2005, giving farmers fertiliser, eliminating school fees and uniforms, and providing free school lunches, among other measures.
Only Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have allocated more than the long-established world target of 0.7 percent of their gross national product to development aid; Britain, Belgium, France, Finland and Ireland have promised to reach the target before 2015.
The United States, with a $12 trillion economy, has contributed around 0.15 percent, the lowest of 22 industrialised nations, followed by Italy at 0.17 percent, and Japan at 0.20 percent. The report said high-income nations would have to increase development aid from 0.25 percent of their GNP in 2003 to 0.44 percent in 2006 and reach 0.7 percent by 2015.
To illustrate just how effective quality aid can be, and the benefit of involving local communities in their own development, Sachs has initiated the "Millennium Villages" project. The aim is to promote human and food security by empowering African villages to implement integrated rural development strategies.
Two villages - one in Kenya, the other in Ethiopia - have already begun their activities, supported by the Earth Institute at Columbia University.
A significant aspect of the project is its focus on the need for an African Green Revolution that initially leads to increasing food yields to enable rural communities to achieve food security, followed by diversification into commercial agriculture and non-agricultural sectors.
Developmental experts linked to the project have pointed out that positive results could be obtained from relatively modest investments - it is estimated that each villager would need US $110 annually to break out of the poverty cycle.
Observers have generally welcomed this new MDG project, but there has also been scepticism about how much of it will be actualised.
"There is no doubt that the motivation behind the MDGs is well-intentioned, but a lot depends on the political will of the developed world to make these ideas a reality," said Prince Mashele, a senior researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies.
"Instead, I think it would be wiser if developing countries fostered greater cooperation amongst themselves, as this would do away with the risk of depending on the West," he commented. "African governments should stop hoping for sufficient benevolence of donor countries to escape the development quagmire we find ourselves in."