Reflections on Africa’s SDG story

February 26, 2020

Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development 2020

Monday 24th February 2020 sees the start of the sixth session of the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development (ARFSD).

The four-day forum, hosted in Zimbabwe, will bring together governments, the private sector, the UN, and other major groups such as civil society organisations, international and local NGOs to review current progress on two global initiatives – the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (the SDGs, of which there are 17) and Agenda 2063 (a framework developed within the continent that aims to deliver goals for inclusive and sustainable development).

The theme for the ARFSD 2020 is ‘2020-2030: A decade to deliver a transformed and prosperous Africa through the 2030 Agenda and Agenda 2063’.

This ambitious theme is joined by equally lofty objectives which see the forum “intended to be an action-oriented Forum for stakeholders to explore, gain insight into, share and agree on sets of concrete and workable actions that will enable the African countries to achieve set targets within the set time”.


How is Africa performing in achieving the SDGs?

“The looming challenges in Africa are wide and deep and will require innovative responses that are embedded in partnerships and rooted in our shared values of justice, fairness, equity and solidarity.

The time is now to ensure that Africa is not left behind in achieving the SDGs and the beneficiaries of this will be Africans and the people of the world at large.” (Jaiyesimi, 2016)

Progress within the continent in achieving the 17 SDGs is a story of two sides.

There are milestones achieved towards some SDGs, but even these milestones are countered by set-backs and challenges which prevent celebration.

Instead, reading about sustainable development in Africa means being consistently confronted by a familiar theme – there is some progress, but progress is slow and there are barriers preventing achievement of the SDGs.

Here are some examples.

Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Citizens in Africa have been provided with more effective and secure justice systems and frameworks over the last few years as a result of work towards SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and  Strong Institutions.

However, the framework that underpins justice in many countries, the constitution, is under threat, and there is a lack of clarity of “established and accepted constitutional mechanisms for the transfer of power”. 

This is worrying, considering the fact that it is widely acknowledged that a key element to the success of the SDGs is good governance and the frameworks that ensure active government and multi-stakeholder engagement.

In addition, election processes have become more free, fair and impartial across much of Africa since 2008, however, “the capacity of election monitoring agencies has worsened and the space for political participation and opposition parties has shrunk since 2014”.

Clean Water and Sanitation

SDG 6 promotes the need for Clean Water and Sanitation, which is essential in a world where water scarcity is becoming more urgent.

The UN noted in 2012 that “more than 300 of the 800 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live in a water-scare environment”, and “115 people in Africa die every hour from diseases linked to poor sanitation, poor hygiene and contaminated water”.

Reflection on Africa’s achievement of SDG 6 show some promising trends, with access to safe drinking water and better sanitation improving.

However, these figures are still glaringly low compared to global averages, and the trends hide more nuanced problems such as the fact that while 17 countries have improved their scores, 16 have declined, and 20 countries lack data for measuring this indicator, which skews the overall figures.

While African countries have been working towards improving biodiversity for terrestrial, freshwater and mountain environments, many of which have been brought within the domain of protected areas.

However, “the region experienced the fastest deforestation during the 1990-2015 period”, which is a worrying trend.

Can the African tale take a different turn?

Progress within Africa towards the SDGs and Agenda 2063 is a roller-coaster of highs and lows, with some indicators vastly improved, while at the same time falling significantly short.

For example, the 2018 African Sustainable Development Report notes “(e)fficiency in energy use is improving but reliance on biomass poses a challenge to progress”.

What does need to be done going forward is a renewed commitment to a multi-pronged approach across the continent and innovation in the face of significant challenges.

Some of these challenges include a lack of funding towards ‘softer’ SDGs as a result of the prioritisation of more pressing issues (such as health, poverty, education and hunger).

This can often mean that issues to do with the environment, gender equity and sustainability are neglected when it comes to funding priorities.

However, the growth of local innovation in addressing sustainable development is showing promise.

Urbanisation – challenge and opportunity

Urbanisation is another significant challenge, with sub-Saharan Africa considered the world’s fastest urbanising region, and the global share of African urban residents projected to grow from 11.3% in 2010 to 20.2% in 2050.

The mass movement of people into densely populated areas has significant impacts on ensuring cities are sustainable, healthcare needs are met and education provision is adequate.

The fact is that “Africa’s pace of urbanization far outstrips the growth of physical infrastructure and social amenities, posing adverse consequences for living conditions”.

However, urbanisation is also an opportunity for Africa to become global leaders in planning and sustainable living and an opportunity for economic development.

A cohesive, planned approach

Also key to achievement of the Agendas is the acknowledgement that they need to both be addressed in order to be achievable.

In May 2016 at the second session of the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development, it was noted that “both Agenda 2063 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are broad and comprehensive.

Together they are expected to address a range of political, economic, social and environmental challenges facing Africa … the success of both agendas depends on their incorporation at the national level and on coherence in planning and reporting mechanisms, supported by robust statistics.”

What is required in the face of unprecedented urbanisation, a climate crisis that is disproportionately affecting the continent and a growing population is innovative thinking, and a cohesive, planned approach towards achieving the SDGs and Agenda 2063. Key to progress towards these goals are structures that promote good governance, a political and social environment that facilitates multi-stakeholder engagement and collaboration, innovative financing, knowledge sharing and south-south collaboration which draws on the strengths of local knowledge and expertise.

Written by Dr. Vanessa Malila

Research & Development Officer