The recent United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 marked the beginning of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) era. As part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, 17 goals have been released; they replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Agenda that has come to an end after 15 years. Where the focus of the MDGs was on eradicating poverty, the SDGs shed light on the need for an inclusive, long-term, and sustainable development process. This results in a stronger focus on environment – poorly emphasized within the MDGs – and a prevalence of words such as “inclusive”, “equitable”, and “resilient”.
Sustainability seems to be a crucial issue for a continent – the youngest one - whose population is expected to reach 2.393 billion in 2050 at an annual population growth rate of 2.07%. Urbanization is proceeding fast too, as the share of urban population is projected to grow from 36% in 2010 to 50% by 2030. Despite Africa overall registered positive rates of economic growth over the past fifteen years or so, poverty remains widespread and unemployment is reaching alarming levels. Making the development process sustainable thus represents a key challenge for the future of the continent, thereby calling for urgent and country-specific actions.
A baseline to understand how Africa can implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to look at the continent’s performance in terms of the targets posed by the MDGs and their completion rate. The report Assessing Progress in Africa towards the Millennium Development Goals published by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the African Union, the African Development Bank Group, and UNDP, presents the results and the lessons learnt for and from Africa. When engaging in this assessment, it is necessary to remember that, given the heterogeneity of the continent, performances at country level vary significantly. The focus of MDGs was on poverty eradication and Africa reduced its poverty level from 56.5% in 1990 to 48.4% in 2010, a reduction well below the target of 28.25% (i.e. half the 1990 level). The Gambia shows the greatest decline (32%), followed by Burkina Faso, Niger, Swaziland, Ethiopia, Uganda and Malawi; conversely, Mauritania, Nigeria, Zambia, Central African Republic, and notably Kenya (28.4%) showed increases in poverty. These data become even more significant when combined with those on economic growth. Africa’s GDP growth has remained positive and overall relatively strong since 2001, and it is projected to return close to the impressive levels seen before the 2008 financial crisis. However, the Report points, “this has not been sufficient or transformational enough to effectively respond to challenges posed by shocks (commodity prices, climate change, Ebola, etc.), widespread poverty, rising inequalities, unemployment, the youth bulge, unplanned urbanization and many others”. Growth appears to be an insufficient instrument for poverty reduction, and this must be carefully considered as a lesson learnt from the MDGs. Another indicator of the failure of relying solely on economic growth for poverty reduction are Africa’s rising unemployment rates, especially among youth and women. African economic growth has been driven mainly by oil producers – such as Nigeria – but the petroleum sector has a notably low employment intensity. In 2013, the highest unemployment rates were found in Southern Africa (21.6%), followed by North Africa (13.2%), Central Africa (8.5%) and East Africa (7.9%), while West Africa has the lowest level of unemployment in the continent (6%). Data on unemployment in Africa are often neither easy to collect nor to interpret; in fact, they often mask high levels of informality which can translate into vulnerable jobs.
The goal of “zero hunger” proved difficult to reach, with disasters and persistent conflicts as a further impediment to food security. Africa has reduced the proportion of the population below the minimum level of dietary energy consumption from 33% (1990-1992) to 25% (2011-2013), but this is still higher that levels in other developing regions. The main obstacles behind reaching stronger results are represented by persistent conflicts in Central Africa, unfavorable weather conditions such as droughts and flooding in the Sahel, in the Horn of Africa, and in Southern Africa, and the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Gender equality has been another field where Africa has lagged behind other regions. The share of girls in education – especially at primary levels – has increased, but barriers persist in the transition to secondary levels of schooling. The access to the labor market is still problematic for women that tend to be employed in the most vulnerable sectors such as agriculture and the informal economy. Africa has hugely increased the women’s representation in national parliaments, with Rwanda registering 63.8% of women in its national parliament followed by South Africa (45%), Seychelles (44%), and Senegal (43%). Despite these data show some commitment towards reducing the gender gap, it is worth stressing that the most impellent challenge is to reach the girls and the women from the most vulnerable areas and to empower them to be active agents of their countries’ development processes. A wider women representation in the parliament needs to be translated into an interest in shaping policies aimed at women inclusion in other fields too; especially in the sectors, such as services or agriculture, where women play a crucial role but are often poorly empowered.
With poverty reduction, gender equality, no hunger, health and education still present in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, there are also some new entries among the SDGs that sound particularly interesting for Africa. Goal 9 states “build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation”. In this sense, it will be interesting to see what routes to industrialization African countries will pursue. Regional trade has significant potential, it could strengthen Africans’ voice in the global market and help build a more sustainable way of industrialization due to the lower vulnerability to external shocks. In addition, the current African youth generation is the most educated so far and the most exposed to technology. If these resources are well channeled, they can bring a huge contribute to the promotion of an “inclusive and sustainable industrialization”.
“Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” is the subject of Goal 11. Urbanization represents a challenge for African development not only because the rate is growing fast, but also because it is occurring without industrialization. This means that a huge number of people has moved from rural areas to urban areas, where finding jobs is becoming more and more difficult, the informal economy is spreading, and urban development strategies are still lacking.
SDGs dedicate substantial attention to the environment, climate change, sustainable use of oceans, seas, marine resources, and terrestrial ecosystems, sustainable energy, and clean water. This represents an interesting shift from MDGs and it highlights a relatively new trend in development. Environment-related aims, despite their absolute necessity for developing countries, are an obvious concern in advanced countries as well.
Lastly, SDG 16 – “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” – introduces the issues of peace and institutions. Conflicts represent an obstacle to development and they are incompatible with the definition of sustainability itself. South Sudan, Central African Republic, Somalia, northern Nigeria, Burkina Faso – among others – are countries characterized by political instability, ongoing conflicts, and the poor development of institutions for accountability. Instability has a negative impact on education, industrialization, economic growth and health systems. Including this goal in the debate on sustainable development brings a further contribution to the discourse on development, institutions, and political stability, in trying to understand what it supposed to come first in terms of policy approaches. In fact, every progresses that Africa has achieved and it is projected to achieve will be too fragile – hence, not sustainable – unless it is framed into peaceful and inclusive societies and is supported by effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions. Notwithstanding the importance of mentioning peace and institutions in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the issue will arise of how to measure the progress individual countries make in this respect. More than other goals, SDG 16 brings with it a number of challenges that will have to be addressed by the ongoing discussion on sustainability.
The SDGs are a work in progress and how to measure them is a question that is still to be fully solved. Yet the new goals do seem to address some of the challenges that Africa today faces – a rapidly expanding population, fast urbanization, political instability, environment issues, industrialization, and lack of inclusive economic growth. The SDGs draw a helpful path for donors, governments, civil society, and private sector. Now that the goals have been set, the key question is what inclusive and sustainable strategies will be designed and implemented. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, stated that “when we stand together there is no limit to what we can achieve”. Will African countries stand together in their efforts to achieve the new SDGs? And will the rest of the world stand by them?