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Sustainable Development in Africa

Sustainable development, as defined by the Brundtland Commission, is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio, sustainable development has remained elusive in many African countries; especially as challenges such as poverty, desertification, deforestation and climate change are taking a toll on the continent.

As development of any kind means an increase in the demand for resources, it seems fair to assume that rapid development will put a huge strain on existing resources. Even if countries grow by only a few percentages a year, evidence suggests that there Africa has no infrastructure in existence which allows for the quick access of resources to support this growth. Given the current food and water shortages in Africa, especially in the east, it does not seem possible that a decade of rapid economic growth can be supported without severely compromising the needs of future generations.

The issues

Africa lacks investments in basic infrastructure. According to the United Nations, only 15% of sub-Saharan African countries’ rural population has access to electricity. The lack of access to energy-efficient resources and modern technology has posed as a hindrance in economic and sustainable development. Currently, the agricultural industry employs over 60% of the Africa’s labour force, as stated by UN statistics.

African nations have continuously tried to maximise their agricultural cultivation, but it fails to address the issue of food security. The continent still relies heavily on rain-fed agriculture, making it vulnerable to the harsh weather conditions it faces all year along.

Larger nations such as China, the United Kingdom and Brazil continue to pose a threat in exploiting the uses of biofuels and through the subsidies that rich countries offer to their farmers. African leaders have urged developed countries to increase its commitments into assisting agricultural productivity and food security in its continent to confront the UN’s Millennial Goals in eradicating a core problem: poverty.

Apart from suffering from a lack of development in the agricultural industry, 340 million Africans have no access to safe drinking water. This was particularly evident during my visit to a rural Maasai village in Olasiti in Nairobi, Kenya, where no one was seen consuming water for purposes other than farming or cleaning. This delves from uneven water distribution - central Africa accounts for 48 per cent of Africa’s internal water supply. The infrastructure capacity to provide safe water is also unequal, as 90% of people in North Africa have access to safe drinking water, compared to only 61% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa.

What's being done

Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (Source: UN)

So, what has been done so far to address this austere issue? In July 2003, Africa committed itself to allocate at least 10% of national budgets to agriculture, through the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). Progress has been made, as proven by Sierra Leone’s investment in increasing budgetary allocation, which has resulted in improvements in productivity.

Several countries across the world and within African nations have reached out to international organisations for support. For example, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Food Bank have extended their help in implementing programmes and granting loans. The IMF claims that their loans are “tailored closely to member country needs, so that we can disburse low-cost funds quickly when a country has temporary, urgent needs, or we can set up arrangements for disbursement over several years when this is appropriate.” Their approach has said to have provided flexibility in countries with strong macroeconomic and public debt performance.

Lost of sovereignty?

However, in recent years, there has been much criticism and concerns surrounding the approaches the IMF adopted in formulating their policies, and the way that they have been implemented. Some are also concerned about the social and economic impact these policies have on the population of countries who employ financial assistance from these two institutions, and the lack of accountability for such impacts.

Many people claim that these conditions are often designed to compromise not only the economic sovereignty of the receiving countries, but also their political structure. The fact that the conditions are too intrusive has generated a lot of backlash from other countries, and so did the so-called 'structural adjustments' that the receiving countries had to meet to be eligible for the loan.

These loan conditionalities are attached based on what is termed the ‘Washington Consensus’, focusing on the liberalisation of trade, investment and the financial sector — deregulation and privatisation of nationalised industries. Often, these conditionalities are attached without regard for the borrower countries’ individual circumstances and the prescriptive recommendations by the IMF fail to resolve the economic problems faced by these countries.

IMF conditionalities may additionally result in the loss of a state’s authority to govern its own economy, as national economic policies are predetermined under IMF packages. Issues of representation are raised because of the shift in the regulation of national economies from state governments to a Washington-based financial institution in which most developing countries hold little voting power. IMF packages have also been associated with negative social outcomes such as reduced investment in public health and education.

It is important to note that Africa’s success lies in its stability and sound policies put in place. The policies that are required lie on improving investment. This sheds light on reducing a number of indirect costs accumulated by thriving firms. This will reduce and mitigate risks that are associated with the security of property, political instability and macroeconomic instability.

The second one being infrastructure, whose target is on transaction costs in the production of goods and services. The focus therefore would be on ways of reducing the high costs that are usually associated with the remoteness of the landlocked countries, to facilitate trade with neighbours as well as the rest of the world. This calls for the need to look beyond the individual country's borders and adopt a more encompassing regional approach to coordinate cross-border infrastructure investment, maintenance and power pooling to reduce costs.

Africa as a continent is well-equipped with natural resources. In fact, compared to other continents it is considered the richest in this sense. To achieve long term development and poverty alleviation, this requires a sustainable and optimal management of natural resources in a manner that the current exploitation of such resources should also be cognizant of the needs of future generations.

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