Expanded social protection programmes and other innovative policies have helped to spur Africa's progress in achieving the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), according to a new United Nations-backed report.

The continent has made tremendous strides in several areas, including achieving universal education, with 76 per cent net enrolment in primary education in 2008, up from 58 per cent in 1999, says Assessing Progress in Africa Toward the Millennium Development Goals.

The joint publication by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the African Union Commission, and the African Development Bank also points out that there are more than 90 girls per 100 boys in schools, while the mortality rates for children under the age of five have fallen from 184 per 1,000 in 1990 to 144 per 1,000 in 2008.

Africa is also on track to meeting the Goal of halving the proportion of people lacking access to clean water.

The creation and expansion of social protection schemes, enhanced policy coordination, and the incorporation of the MDGs into national development plans have underpinned these successes, the study says.

For example, Burkina Faso launched a programme to promote girls' education and to provide daily meals for all children and take-home rations for girls to reduce the amount of time they spend on household chores. The country has seen the number of children enrolled in primary schools double.

“The evidence is there,” said UNDP Administrator Helen Clark. “When the right policies are in place, scores can be lifted out of poverty rapidly, which means quite simply better lives for millions of African.”

But the report underlines that several challenges to realizing the MDGs, especially in improving maternal health and access to improved sanitation facilities, persist.

It also notes that prior to the onset of the triple crises of food, fuel and finance, African countries were making steady progress towards attaining the Goals. Information on how these crises impacted the continent's development is not yet available, but the study says that many nations were sharply affected by the shocks.

“There are strong indications that the MDGs are achievable, provided African countries and their development partners can redouble their efforts to achieve the Goals,” said Abdoulie Janneh, ECA Executive Secretary.

The new publication points out that while official development assistance (ODA) to Africa has been on the rise in recent years, it will fall short of the commitments made.

The release of the study comes as more than 100 world leaders are in New York for a three-day General Assembly gathering to assess progress made so far in realizing the MDGs.

At the event's start yesterday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on wealthy countries not to pull back from their previous commitments on ODA to poorer nations, which he described as “a lifeline of billions, for billions.”