Sustainable Development Goals: Global or not?

Africa's development goals seem to have two competing roadmaps.


The implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals has been celebrated as marking out a roadmap for global prosperity to be achieved by the year 2030. While certainly a feat in aspirational international policy, the goals represent vastly different regional challenges, and potential benefits.

With some of the world’s highest population growth rates, highest unemployment rates, and lowest gross domestic product (GDP) figures, sub-Saharan Africa has a mammoth task ahead to achieve the SDGs by 2030, much more so than many other regions. It also stands to gain much – arguably the most – from the transformational plans. If the SDGs are met within the time frame, sub-Saharan Africa, with its vast territory and resources – in particular its human resources – could be transformed into a global powerhouse.

The SDGs were adopted by governments, heads of state and representatives meeting at the United Nations this September, setting out a transformational vision for the world, pledging “no one will be left behind”, pinned on 17 specific SDGs and 169 targets to be achieved over the next 15 years to 2030.

While citing poverty as the single biggest challenge to be overcome by the global community, the SDGs seek to achieve sustainable development across the economic, social and environmental arenas. Although many interlink and have interdisciplinary scope, certain goals are steadfastly aimed at boosting economies and, among these, some of the goals hold much potential for Africa’s economies if met.

Goal number eight speaks directly to economies, and sets out ambitious economic targets. It seeks sustained per capita economic growth, and at least 7% gross domestic product (GDP) growth per annum in the least developed countries – many of which are found on the African continent.

Perhaps most audaciously, the goals aim to achieve full and productive employment for all women and men, including all young people, persons with disabilities, as well as equal pay for work of equal value. With approximately 95% unemployment in Zimbabwe, as compared to the US’s 6.2% – according to the CIA World Factbook – the magnitude of Zimbabwe’s task is not only colossal, but representative of the discord in the challenges facing various regions.

To achieve this, the SDGs advocate for development-oriented policies supporting productive activities, job creation and entrepreneurship, and the specific support of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs).

A number of specific actionable sectors have also been identified. With 65% of Africa’s labour force employed by, and 32% of its GDP contributed by, the agricultural sector, SDG number two is a sector-specific goal with particular African relevance. It sets out to double agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers by 2030, through initiatives focusing on equal access to land and other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets and opportunities for value addition and non-farm employment.

The SDGs also hope to promote sustainable tourism – which in turn will create jobs and promote local culture and products – with Africa hosting a number of tourism hot spots; to enhance scientific research – a growing sector in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly since the grant of the international SKA telescope project to South Africa; and to raise industry’s share of employment and GDP – ambitions already floated.

The financial sector also receives substantial attention, in that domestic financial institutions will be encouraged to improve access to banking, insurance and financial services for all, and especially for entrepreneurs and MSMEs – again, an area in which Africa’s entrepreneurs and small business owners are grossly underserved by financial institutions.

Overall, the SDGs set out a promising road for African development: the continent is set to benefit from the increased focus on agriculture; a revived tourism sector; and its innovative entrepreneurs and MSMEs are finally receiving heightened attention. However, a dichotomy has emerged, in that Africa already had a developmental roadmap – the African Union’s Agenda 2063, adopted in August last year. Africa’s developmental goals are now governed by two separate roadmaps.

In its Agenda 2063, the AU laid down seven aspirations to be achieved continent-wide over the next 50 years. The AU agenda speaks of achieving African prosperity through sustainable, people-led development, and, based on structural transformation of economies, heightened support for agriculture, and leveraging technology and innovation. The 20-page treatise also “call[s] upon the international community to respect Africa’s vision and aspirations for herself and to align their partnerships appropriately”.

According to Kassim Khamis, political analyst of the Agenda 2063 technical team at the African Union Commission, Africa has its own developmental vision, embodied in the Agenda 2063, and the SDGs are only important in so far as they contribute to the achievement of the AU agenda.

Khamis says the SDGs are not ultimately aimed at building what he terms a “united world”, which is why the region-specific agenda is critical.

“Africa has its own vision of ‘building an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven and managed by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena’ on which Agenda 2063 is based. The SDGs are not geared towards building a united world, but have been accepted by African countries to contribute to the acceleration of the attainment of the AU’s objectives,” Khamis explains.

As per its very title, this vision is predicated on 50 – not 15 – years of hard work in transforming the continent. Furthermore, Khamis says the AU agenda sets out far broader objectives than the SDGs touch upon. As such, there are some crucial discrepancies between the African Union and United Nations, and their respective developmental visions.

“Agenda 2063 is more comprehensive and therefore has more goals than those in the SDGs. For example, it is putting in place an African peace and security architecture, which is not in the SDGs,” Khamis says.

A critical characteristic of the AU plans is the fact that they envisage developmental activity across the breadth of African societies, not just at the policy level, Khamis explains. This is an element not specifically encapsulated in the SDGs, he says, and stresses that this depth of responsibility spanning all levels of society should be heeded by the UN too.

“Agenda 2063 is a people-oriented initiative, whose implementation is to be undertaken at three levels, namely, at national, regional and continental level. Therefore, it involves every African on the continent and in the diaspora – from individuals, the private sector and civil society to national institutions, regional economic communities and the African Union,” he says. “In order to realise the SDGs, the UN has been contemplating vehicles at the regional level to move forward the implementation of the SDGs. Agenda 2063 has set an example for this and countries of other world regions are advised to follow the example of Africa.”

While the SDGs pledge to leave no one behind, the African Union in its own – arguably more realistic – vision, believes there is substantially more work to be done on the African continent than the UN gives scope and time for. This begs the question: will the global community succeed in accelerating Africa’s sustainable development through the global SDGs? Or do the SDGs represent an international initiative which fails to take into account the amount of work to be done to achieve economic equality across Africa, and wrongly limit the scope of the continent’s developmental agenda?

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