Rethinking Africa’s sustainable development pathways

Buba river

Sustainable development (SD), brought into the spotlight with this week’s UN summit, remains a landmark policy and global development agenda since the 1992 Convention on Environment and Development. Anchored on the Brutland Commission report ‘Our Common Future’, sustainable development articulates the urge to harmonise the temporal and spatial redistribution of development with a natural resource base – in the words of Bruntland, ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

This self-justifying definition has been enthusiastically accepted by many across the globe – providing a platform for North-South political and socioeconomic bargaining, a strong operating ground for international development agencies, and – most importantly – a novel space for setting international research and development agendas.

This may explain why SD forms the central mission, goals or agenda for every emerging global regime, whether on environment, climate change, biodiversity or even trade. For instance Article 3.4 of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (pdf) declares that climate change policies should aim to achieve sustainable development outcomes. Similarly, the Convention on Biological Diversity emphasizes sustainable development, as do other international trade treaties and Millennium Ecosystem Assessments.

Why is sustainable development critical for Africa?

For Africa, the sustainable development agenda came at an opportune time: perhaps not so much because it cares for the future, but more likely because it provokes pathways to addressing inequity in development and its associated consequences for Africa (and other developing countries).


Sustainable development seeks to address major imbalances in resource use. While industrialised nations host only 20% of the world’s population, they produce 57% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product and are responsible for more than their fair share of global pollution and resource degradation. Back in 2008, a UNDP human development report showed that Africa contributed less than 3% of the global carbon footprint – yet suffered the most impacts of unsustainable development such as climate change, diseases and floods, compared to other regions of the world.

In the efforts to achieve sustainable development, substantial bilateral and multilateral development support has been directed to Africa. This year’s Millennium Development Goals Report reveals that most of the world’s Official Development Aid (ODA), debt relief grants and humanitarian aid has, over the last three decades, been directed to sub-Saharan Africa, where the majority of least developed countries are. Similarly, research support – whether for new agricultural technologies, energy or for structural support – has proliferated as development agencies channel funds towards international, regional, national or even local research centres.

Why the low returns on sustainable development investments in Africa?

Despite the novelty of sustainable development for Africa and the associated investment made in the continent, 15 years later Sub-Saharan Africa still lags behind in progressing in sustainability. The 2015 MDGs report puts Sub-Saharan Africa at the bottom of regional rankings on MDGs. Africa only managed to reduce poverty by 28% between 1990 and 2015 – way below other developing regions such as Asia and Latin America, which have registered more than a 60% reduction in poverty.

The considerable investments in agricultural research in Africa over the last five decades has not yielded clear impacts, as more than 200 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa still suffer from hunger. This contrasts with the situation in East and South Asia where such investments have yielded massive poverty reductions.

A similar trend is witnessed in other MDGs such as gender, mortality rates, and environmental management. In all of these goals, Sub-Saharan Africa has achieved approximately half of what other developing regions have in the same period. Ironically, this relatively low performance on MDGs has happened in the midst of a phase of great natural resource endowment and discoveries in this region: oil, gas, minerals, water bodies, and vast areas of agricultural land just to mention a few. Sadly, the outcomes of the African Regional Consultative Meeting on the Sustainable Development Goals express the concern that investments in these resources have not yielded meaningful returns for improved wellbeing of the continent and its people.

Should we rethink Africa’s sustainable development pathways?

The above highlights are not meant to create a ‘crisis framing’ or cast doubt on the Africa’s sustainability prospects. Rather, I want to provoke various actors, policy makers and researchers alike to begin rethinking pathways to transforming Africa’s sustainable development agenda.

There is no doubt that behind the pragmatic framing and self-justifying nature of SD, there lie some complex issues that need to be unlocked as the continent ponders its place in the post-2015 SDGs. Already, the report on sustainable development in Africa and the outcomes of the Africa Regional Consultative Meeting on the Sustainable Development Goals have set the scene. They stress that Africa faces multiple political, institutional, socio-cultural and resource complexities that impede meaningful returns on sustainability investments. Unpacking these complex challenges would mean rethinking business, and setting transformative rather than confirmative research and development platforms and agendas.

Such platforms must go beyond simply being part of the global forum. They must not simply continue to be a place for proposals or research projects that are decoupled from ‘inclusive thinking’ and policy decisions. Instead, such platforms should embrace research, partnership and development pathways that confront the complex institutions, politics of resource access and utilization, equity and evidence to present more feasible, inclusive and adaptive development solutions.

The Africa Sustainability Hub

In the context of rethinking Africa’s SD pathways and confronting the associated complexities, the Africa Sustainability Hub was launched on 10 June 2015 by the Kenyan minister for Finance during a Low Carbon Development Conference held in Nairobi, Kenya.

The hub brings together leading research and policy think tanks on sustainability in Africa, including the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS), the STEPS Centre at the University of Sussex, the Africa Centre of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), and the African Technology Policy Studies Network (ATPS). This partnership aims to harness research and policy on the kinds of sustainable technologies and innovation which could inform Africa’s actions in the post-2015 SDGs.

The novelty of this hub is not because it focuses on sustainable development, but because it targets to adopt a transformative research agenda. It aims to use the institutional strengths of its partners as a lever to develop research and policy programmes that confront complex sustainability challenges. The Africa Hub will present, in a participatory manner, socially inclusive evidence on various sustainability pathways, something new and unique from the way much SD research and policy/practice has been pursued.

We recognize that lack of proper consideration of various pathways has resulted in unilaterally packaged research and policy solutions that poorly resonate with the interests, contexts and capacities of diverse actors. The pathways approach to unlocking SD complexities has been piloted in various African contexts, and has proved to be critical in unveiling some underlying, historical, sometimes silent but important issues that are often overlooked in SD research, policy and practice.

Specifically, the hub will seek to generate evidence and inform SD policies/practice in various African contexts, guided by key questions:

(1) How do different people including local communities, farmers, policy makers, extension officers, and research and development agencies frame and justify SD and are their synergies between various understandings? Does the global SD narrative resonate with the narratives at national and local African contexts?

(2) What SD technologies have worked effectively in various contexts, how and for whom? How can successful lessons be assimilated into policies and other contexts?

(3) What are the actor networks in Africa’s SD research and practice? Are there dominant networks whose views dominate policy decisions? And what is the implications of this for a more equitable and inclusive SD for Africa? What are the appropriate reorganizations required to improve Africa’s performance in the post-2015 SD goals?

Addressing these questions will certainly contribute to not only unlocking Africa’s SD challenges but also provoking transformative thinking in Africa’s SD business. This is the passion of the Africa Sustainability Hub!

This article is part of a series on the Sustainable Development Goals.

Joanes Atela is a Senior Research Fellow at the African Centre for Technology Studies, one of the hosts of the STEPS Africa Sustainability Hub.

Image: Child studying – Zambia by Patrick Bentley


  1. Would be interesting if some preliminary findings and points of discussion could be brought to the international conference on Research in Development (RiD 2016) planned for 2-4 March 2016. More details below:

    Theme: Innovation and Sustainable Development – Exploring Contextual Issues in Developing Countries

    Conveners: Dr Alice P S Shemi (Zambia) and Prof Francis Wambalaba (Kenya)
    Dates: 2nd to 4th March, 2016

    Facebook link:
    Or contact

  2. Hi

    Thanks for your article. this is brilliant. My question is what efforts can we contribute to improve energy issues in Africa? The energy issue in Africa is incomparable to other continents. Why is it so? How do you think these issues could be solved?

    Thank you.

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