Africa and Agenda 2030: The Challenge of Creating Growth and Opportunities during a Period of Rapid Change and Urban Transformation

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by Rolf Wichmann, CSU Guest Contributor  

This article is an extract of the full report entitled   

“THE QUEST FOR SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: Agenda 2030, The New Urban Agenda and their Applicability and Relevance In the World’s Poorest Regions” available here

Of all the emerging regions, Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, is the region that has the longest path to go to develop, where  doing so sustainably, with an eye towards Agenda 2030, as well as the New Urban Agenda, will be the greatest challenge. 

But that it does so is in the interest of the entire global economy, and that it does so in a sustainable manner.  There is huge room on the continent for potential market expansion, for growth in consumption.  At the same time, given that the level of development is still low, it provides an opportunity to grow the economies and develop societies in line with the sustainability principles of the SDGs and the NUA, especially when it comes to the latest sustainable technologies. It provides an opportunity to skip historical stages of technology applications.  The whole continent, in effect has the potential to be a laboratory for innovation, with those innovations then distributed globally.

But it also presents the greatest challenges when it comes to the expansion of economic opportunities and new forms of employment, especially for the youth, of both genders.  It is the continent where the issue of youth employment may be the most challenging,  the potential for the negative impact of climate change on future economic growth most severe and where the private sector may face the most daunting tasks, even if the interest to invest and grow Africa is there.

Africa Rising:  The Point of Departure

At the present time, Africa, is the poorest continent, with  about 43 percent of the population living in extreme poverty and the continent contributes only about 4 per cent to global GDP.  Sixty per cent of the population is engaged in agriculture, mostly subsistence and smallholder, with agriculture contributing about 12.5 percent to GDP. Outside of South Africa, manufacturing is not a significant contributor to the economy with perhaps the exception of Kenya.  But it is also the among the world’s fastest growing regions, growing between 4 to 5 per cent annually in the ten years prior to 2014, with many countries clocking growth rates of between 5 and 6 per percent, with Ethiopia lately growing at rates of above 10 per cent. Those average rates slowed by about 1 per cent in 2015, however, due in most parts to a decline in commodity prices, including oil. If these growth rates continue, especially if there is a commodity price rebound and the Covid pandemic is addressed successfully, over the course of this decade, most of the African countries will attain “middle-income developing economy “ status, the same as most countries in Latin America at the present time.  No wonder there is much talk in the press, in the media, in business circles today about “Africa Rising.” 

In light of all the aforesaid, the question may be asked as to what extent Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals and their various targets are the right sustainable development recipe for Africa.  At the same time success for Agenda 2030 in Africa will be critical for the successful implementation of the Agenda world-wide.  When the Agenda 2030 blueprint  is overlain over the development trends and challenges of Africa it is clear that there is a less than a perfect fit given the priorities of Governments on the continent and the immediate challenges that they face.  The SDGs appear to more focus on social and environmental issues than on core economic ones, more focused on preservation  than on providing guidance for the speedy transformation that Africa is undergoing, focused as it is on rapid  wealth and income creation and on maximal natural resource exploitation given continuing rapid population growth and persistent high levels of poverty.

 Seen from this perspective, the SDGs seem more suitable for developed and more mature developing economies than to those which are just at the threshold stage and experiencing the first symptoms of  “economic take-off” and  are in transit from a subsistence rural economy  to one that is modern and urban-based.  Such scrambles  to economic development are by their very nature not conducive to the deliberate strategic approach which implementation of Agenda 2030 (or for that matter the New Urban Agenda) requires, accompanied by a strict regulatory framework that is consistently enforced.  In fact they may very well erode the environmental and sustainability  tenets that underpin Agenda 2030 and exacerbate climate change, something to which Africa in particular is most vulnerable to.

It also still needs to be seen whether the private sector operating in Africa, whether foreign or domestic, is the kind of prime partner for the implementation of Agenda 2030 and the New Urban Agenda as envisioned by its drafters: progressive and environmentally and socially responsible.  It may exist here and there in embryo, but it is far from certain that it will emerge as hegemonic so as to lead the economic growth of Africa along a sustainable path consistent with the SDGs and sustainable urbanization.  The same may be said of the continent’s Governments.

Civil society organizations and other relevant stakeholders may be able to step into the breach here, but given their relative weakness in most of Africa, this requires a forceful effort to strengthen them, something which is not contemplated in Agenda 2030, although the role of other stakeholders is acknowledged.  There may have been political reasons for this:  Democracy is not fully consolidated in Africa, far from it in fact in many countries. Promotion of civil society and other non-governmental organizations, such as those focusing on youth and women, operating independently outside of state control may be seen as potential challengers of the political status quo in many places.  On the other hand such kind of activism may be exactly what will be required to make an African path to sustainable development succeed  and to help address the specific sustainable development challenges, including those not adequately addressed in Agenda 2030, a gap which the NUA attempts to fill.

Challenges to the Future Sustainable Economic Growth and Development of Africa

Given the already perceivable slowdown in the commodities super-cycle, which may be temporary or it may be not, given all the global economic uncertainties at the moment caused by the COVID pandemic, which also is demonstrating Africa’s vulnerability to external shock, there is a need to build resilience in these economies in order to maintain progress and achieve the structural transformation and modernization towards mature, diversified middle-income economies across the continent so as best exploit growth opportunities and ensure their sustainability.  In 2015, continent wide economic growth clocked in at 3.2 per cent according to the World Bank in its economic update on May 2016. By 2020 those growth rates had either stagnated or grown negative, with a few exceptions due to the economic impact globally of the pandemic.  But the future prospects nevertheless remain positive.  But to take full advantage of them requires that African states and policy makers manage a number of challenges in a successful manner.  Among these challenges are:

  1. Managing Urbanization
  2. Continuity in Growth of Investment in Infrastructure
  3. Addressing the Youth Bulge
  4. Modernizing Agriculture
  5. Expanding Manufacturing
  6. Skills Development and Capacity-Building
  7. Effective Governance and Corruption

These challenges are developed in the full report available here [insert hyperlink to pdf].

Final Observation

What this review of the state of sustainable development in Africa shows is that only when global plans of action are overlain over the actual situation and local priorities in different regions and countries of the world and  the directions they are taking in economic growth and societal change, the transformation that is already under way,  and their impact, environmental or otherwise, can the actual fit and match of global plans of actions such as Agenda 2030 and its SDGs and the New Urban Agenda be assessed and adjusted accordingly.  For as shown with this example from Africa, it may reveal gaps and omissions in those plans and actions, goals or targets which need to be more emphasized, sometimes at the expense of others.  What it reveals is that Agenda 2030 and the New Urban Agenda are good foundation documents which must be built upon through a continuous review exercise which should be a core part of their implementation so as to adjust theory to practice, to balance the ideal and practical, this may be the only way to make these Agendas relevant and, ultimately successful.

It may very well be then, that as a prerequisite for their successful implementation the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda will have to be translated into region-specific plans of action to give them greater relevance with each region assigning their own priorities as derived from both Agendas  as well as others that may have been omitted. Individual countries may also want to follow suit. This may undermine the impact as envisioned by the drafters of these two documents and lead to uneven application, but then perfection is not necessarily the definition of success. Implementation is, and that implementation will have a greater degree of success if it is in self-interest of regions and countries to do so, another argument for region and country-specific plans.  Implementation of Global Plans of Action, as in politics, is the art of possible.   A similar approach was already used to reach the Paris Accords on Climate Change.  When the choice is between pragmatism and failure, pragmatism always wins the day.

About the Author: Rolf Wichmann is an independent development consultant and Director of Ashbury Advisory Services based in Nairobi Kenya. He formerly held senior positions at  UN Habitat in management and policy analysis and development and  contributed to the preparations of both Habitat II and Habitat III.