Regional Perspectives on Challenges and Opportunities for Africa

In much of international development literature, Africa’s sub-Saharan region represents a prolonged development crisis.

Despite the recent remarkable development gains by some sub-Saharan African countries — driven by a combination of factors like increasing democratisation and transparency, strengthening and reform of governance institutions, surge in commodity prices, and the adoption and implementation of more effective macro-economic policies, the region still faces daunting sustainable development challenges.

With forty-eight countries, a population of over 700 million, and an average per capita income of roughly US$1 a day, sub-Saharan Africa remains, in economic terms, the poorest region in the world.

With forty-eight countries, a population of over 700 million, and an average per capita income of roughly US$1 a day, sub-Saharan Africa remains, in economic terms, the poorest region in the world.

Put in the context of global development trends, Africa’s development hardships are characterised by a stark paradox; whereas extreme poverty levels have declined globally in various regions of the world since 1980, the proportion of people living in abject poverty in Africa has increased. According to economist Dambisa Moyo, in her seminal book Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, the number of Africans living in abject poverty nearly doubled in two decades (1991-2002).

Notwithstanding Africa’s development crisis, the continent is endowed with abundant renewable and non-renewable natural resources. In the context of sustainability, especially the often complex links between environment and development, how best could Africa’s natural resources be harnessed to advance sustainable development of the continent? How can Africa’s governance and institutional frameworks and policies be strengthened to respond to the emerging and re-emerging sustainability challenges facing the continent and its people?

Ongoing challenges

While the twenty-first century has witnessed sustained demand for Africa’s natural resources — oil, minerals, and other raw materials — the continent continues to lack effective institutional capacity to manage these resources sustainably. Added to the continent’s vulnerabilities to climate change, Africa’s ongoing sustainable development efforts must, as out of necessity, link the environment (nature), economic growth (wealth) and governance (power) as the essential elements in poverty reduction strategies.

Although the linkages between Africa’s socio-economic development and the continent’s natural, ecological, and climatic factors have been examined in relevant development literature, this discourse has also identified the need for the continent to develop effective, accountable and transparent governance institutions to manage these complex development-environment-climate linkages.

Economic and investment policies in Africa that recognize and integrate development-environment-climate approaches will likely yield positive development outcomes towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

Sustainability science for africa

Sustainability science is a new academic discipline that “probes interactions between global, social and human systems, the complex mechanisms that lead to degradation of these systems, and concomitant risks to human well-being”.

Inter-disciplinary and multi-institutional academic research under the umbrella of sustainability science can be useful for addressing diverse and concurrent research priorities in the African context, including vulnerability in farm incomes, forestry management for climate change, and water supply governance. These priorities have been identified by a University of Nairobi team in the Strategy for Global Environmental Change Research in Africa: Science Plan and Implementation Strategy.

It is hoped that these studies and others, although limited in scope, offer a microcosm of the larger sustainability challenges facing African societies, and address some of the gaps in sustainable development literature in Africa.

As one example of sub-Saharan Africa’s unique geographical, ethnic, historical, and political features, Mozambique is a coastal country with a large drainage basin from which to produce hydropower, and a wealth of natural resources. In comparison to Ghana, a top cocoa and gold exporter with similar geographic features, Mozambique has not taken advantage of its resources to develop more sustainably. Researchers Aurélio Bucane and Peter Mulder have found that Mozambique, at the low end of Transparency International’s Corruption Index, has a weak institutional infrastructure to the extent that the country’s natural resource wealth may, in fact, have a negative impact on the economy.

Sustainability science journal

While some interesting research has been conducted on sustainability challenges in Africa, the Journal of Sustainability Science has dedicated a special issue — including a message from Wangari Mathaai — that gathers more leading-edge inter-disciplinary research on African regional perspectives.

The first article in this special issue examines climate change impacts and adaptation options in Mozambique using modeling approaches. The UN University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) applied economist James Thurlow and co-authors present a modeling framework that investigates the range of impacts on Mozambique’s environment and economy by using the wettest and driest climate scenarios, at global and local levels. The first striking result is the contrasting impact depending on whether the extreme scenarios were local or global. The authors predict that the frequency of most severe floods will double or quadruple under the global extreme scenarios, but will remain about the same in the local wet/dry scenarios. Crop yields show both negative and positive impacts under most conditions, but the authors found that hydropower generation and road networks will suffer negative long term impacts from just about all climate change scenarios. The study concludes with transport, agriculture and education adaptation strategies.

This and other articles in this issue, as an overlapping theme, confirm that environmental sustainability must be combined with poverty alleviation for a functioning ecosystem to produce resources and services as a basis for development that improves individual well-being and community resilience. These articles, focusing on selected African regional studies, highlight some of the policy challenges and opportunities for communities — from the local to the national levels — to tackle these interrelated problems sustainably.

It is hoped that these studies and others, although limited in scope, offer a microcosm of the larger sustainability challenges facing African societies, and address some of the gaps in sustainable development literature in Africa.

As the African Development Bank observed in its 2007 African Development Report, sound environmental management and effective governance are indispensable policy frameworks to ensure that Africa’s natural resource wealth generates rapid development and poverty reduction. In order to be successful, these frameworks must be transparent, accountable, representative, and take into account public participation.

This article is based on an editorial for the current special issue of the Sustainability Science peer-reviewed journal that focuses on African Regional Perspectives.

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Regional Perspectives on Challenges and Opportunities for Africa by Obijiofor Aginam is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Dr Obijiofor Aginam is Obi Aginam is a principal visiting fellow at the United Nations University International Institute for Global Health in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and adjunct research professor of law and legal studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

Professor Kazuhiko Takeuchi assumed the post of Vice-Rector of the United Nations University on July 1, 2008 and was promoted to Senior Vice-Rector in 2013. His academic career spans 30 years at the Tokyo Metropolitan University (1977 – 1985) and the University of Tokyo (1985 – current). He has served as professor at the Laboratory of Landscape, Ecology and Planning at the Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Tokyo since 1997. Since 2005, he also served as the Director of the Division for International Relations, Deputy Executive Director of the Integrated Research System for Sustainability Science, and Advisor to the President. In 2007 he was appointed Vice President for International Relations.