Africa: Post-MDGs - It's Time to Listen to the People

7 March 2013

For development to be real and sustainable it needs to be based on indigenous knowledge and solutions, not donor-led philanthropy.

As the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) approaches, with many of the targets set to remain unreached, global policy makers are searching for post-2015 replacements.

But while some progress has been made around the MDGs, if Africa is to see real and sustainable development, it is crucial that the post-2015 goals privilege indigenous voices and ways of promoting home-grown solutions to local problems.

The philanthropic goals

Largely defined by developed countries in 2000, the MDGs were collectively promoted as a solution to the development quagmire afflicting many of the world's nations.

With most African countries at the bottom of development rankings, the region's leaders were all too eager to endorse the MDGs, and government representatives were quick to bandy around the new acronym, especially for the benefit of donors' ears. After all, it was donors that set the MDGs, wanted to spend their money to accomplish the targets, and sent their monitoring and implementation teams to Africa.

Progress in a number of areas has undeniably been made, but the MDGs have come under a lot of criticism, the most salient and fundamental being this donor-led mindset; although the MDGs are noble goals to strive towards, this manner of achieving them would inevitably dehumanise its recipients, robbing them of autonomy and agency, and be unsustainable.

The MDGs did not set out to empower citizens to take on the positive challenge of strengthening their own communities in the targeted areas. The burden lay with wealthy nations - it was a plan drafted upon the benevolence of the rich towards the poor, making MDGs more philanthropic goals than indicators of genuine human development.

Essentially, the MDGs were established on the presumption of developed countries' expertise in the intimate complexities of developing countries; a "we-know-what-you-need-and-how-you-need-it-fixed" paradigm. They were founded on an implicit superiority complex that held citizens of developing countries to be unable to understand the intricacies of their own predicaments, and therefore incapable of formulating workable, home-grown solutions.

Indigenous goals

Not surprisingly and despite its good intentions, the MDGs are today associated with underperformance. The reality is that no matter how well-meaning or how infused with "expert" knowledge they are, development strategies which do not focus on empowering citizens to utilise innovative and indigenous approaches to solve their particular problems, will be peripheral at best.

As 2015 approaches then, there is an urgent need for a radically different mindset to understanding and tackling regional challenges. At a meeting organised by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to discuss the post-2015 development agenda for Africa, Aliounne Sall of the African Future Institute rightly highlighted the need for a paradigm shift. He called on Africans to "think differently, to talk differently and to act differently".

Africa's greatest challenge is developing based on indigenous knowledge and indigenous resources. The urgent need is for African-led creative solutions and breakthroughs in governance, science and technology, economic policies, health, and many other areas, covered or not by the MDGs.

Over the past 50 years since most African countries gained independence, the majority of the continent's inhabitants have retained the notion that they are fundamentally lacking in the ability to generate their own ideas and implement them for African development.

But Africa's knowledge systems and ideas are the most valid, inexpensive, and easily accessible resources that could be used for its advancement. The "cut and paste" approach of borrowing other continents' models of governance, economic strategy, science and technology, and other spheres has failed to set Africa on the path to advancement.

Unlocking the latent creative potential of Africans is heavily dependent on the types of education available to them. The foundations of much of Africa's modern formal education were built by missionaries and colonial masters searching for interpreters, translators, clerks, messengers, typists, secretaries and other auxiliary staff. It was and - unbelievably, 50 years later - remains the sort of education that almost fully discourages creativity and innovation.

Africa's future then lies in the hands of authentic African thoughts, processes, and actions. The question of a 2015 agenda for Africa should focus on how and not what.

The MDGs tried to define the question of what to address, including hunger, poverty, poor education, gender inequality, poor health and environmental degradation. A post-MDGs agenda should focus on how to build Africans up in order for them to understand their unique challenges and address them.

The current effort by the UN to generate grassroots ideas for the post-2015 agenda is highly commendable, if the suggestions made by Africans will be listened to. Any form of external support for the continent must be centred on encouraging Africans themselves to explore home-grown strategies for advancement in all sectors of human development.

Chika Ezeanya is a researcher, teacher and writer. She holds a PhD in African Development and Policy Studies from Howard University in Washington DC. She blogs at and her book Before We Set Sail was shortlisted for the Penguin Publishers Award for African Writing.

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