The Challenge of Environmentally Sustainable Development in Africa

“Eco-friendly” strategies are becoming a top priority around the globe — International Development is no exception to the rule.  Africare President Julius E. Coles spoke at Princeton University April 11 on the new solutions demanded of some of Africa’s most challenging questions in development.

Princeton Colloquium on Public and International Affairs
“The Grand Challenges: Energy, Development, Global Health”

I would like to thank Dean Nolan McCarty of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Daniel Rubenstein, Professor and Chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, for giving me the opportunity to speak at this important conference. I was a little hesitant in the beginning, for the subject of this session, “Eco-Friendly Development,” is not one to which I have given a great deal of emphasis in the past, but it is one that I feel is very important. I will focus my remarks on the continent of Africa, where I have spent some 47 years of my life working on development problems.

Brief Overview of Africa’s Economic Situation

According to the 2007 African Economic Outlook (AEO), a publication of the African Development Bank (AfDB), African countries have been able to sustain an average GDP growth rate of 5.4 percent over the past five years. This growth has been largely driven by a surge in prices extractive resources, especially aluminum, copper, gold and crude oil. However, political stability, good economic management policies and an improved institutional environment, have catalyzed the growth process in some countries.

In spite of all these economic growth trends, the scourge of poverty is still having a major impact on the African continent. The prospects of achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in Sub-Saharan Africa by the target year 2015 remain bleak. Africa is by far the poorest region of the world.  There are some 400 million people who live on less than $2 a day, and this figure is expected to rise to some 600 million by 2015.  Approximately 210 million people live on less than $1 a day.

Africa’s desire to achieve its development objectives through heavy reliance on natural resources and the implications this might have on the environment could potentially leave adverse footprints for future generations. The need to prevent this situation is more critical than ever. That is why the time is ripe to renew the call for development that is both sustainable and ecologically friendly for the African continent as a whole in order to reverse some of the negative environmental and social trends that I will discuss in this presentation.

What Are Some of the Challenges to Sustainable Development?

According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, indicators of overall sustainability—encompassing economic, environ-mental and institutional dimensions—show that African economies are less sustainable today than they were 25 years ago. At the end of 2000 more than half the population of the 38 countries assessed lived in economies with low overall sustainability. Some of the reasons for this low level of sustainability for Africa are as follows:

  • Extreme poverty   As I stated earlier, poverty remains the foremost development challenge confronting Africa. Poverty in Africa is linked to the environment in complex ways, particularly in natural resource-based African economies. About two-thirds of the populations in African countries live in rural areas, deriving their main income from agriculture.

From the arid zones of the northern fringes of West Africa to the thick forest of the Congo Basin up to the highlands of East Africa, my private voluntary organization (PVO), Africare, has seen how the poor strive to pursue livelihoods with few options outside what the natural resources available can offer. Trees are cut for fuel wood, land-degrading farming systems have been adopted, wildlife are being hunted to extinction, all in an effort to  satisfy today’s  pressing livelihood needs. Unfortunately, these activities have not only worsened the situation of the poor living in Africa today, but they will also have implications for future generations to come.

  • Environmental impact of extractive industries  For a continent that is dependent on its natural resources to achieve growth, the challenge of ecologically-friendly sustainable development is daunting. Current patterns of extraction of non-renewable resources such as gold, diamonds and crude oil have had an untold impact on the environment. In Nigeria, oil spills and gas flares have polluted the environment significantly for more than 50 years. The 2008 target set forth to eliminate gas flaring increasingly appears to be impossible to achieve. In Southern Africa, abandoned mine sites have constituted an environmental menace. The loss of productive land, surface and groundwater pollution, and soil contamination are part of the legacies of oil and mineral exploration. Africa cannot afford the current approach to resource extraction. If the trend of unsustainable oil and mineral extraction is allowed to continue, environmentally sustainable development in Africa will continue to be a great challenge.
  • Rapid population growth According to the World Bank, the sub-Saharan population is growing at the rate of 2.5 percent per year as compared to 1.2 percent in Latin America and Asia. At that rate, Africa’s population will double in 30 years. Rapid population growth has put a lot of stress on Africa’s ecosystems. Problems such as food security, land tenure, environ-mental degradation and the lack of water supply are often related to high rates of population growth.
  • Rapid urbanization  The majority of Africa’s population growth is expected to take place in urban areas, largely due to rural-urban migration. Rapid urbanization in Africa has been accompanied by new and challenging environmental problems. A sizeable proportion of urban dwellers in sub-Saharan Africa live in slum conditions, without durable housing or legal rights to their land. At least one-quarter of African city dwellers do not have access to electricity. A 2000 World Health Organization report estimated that only 43 percent of urban dwellers had access to piped water. Nearly a decade later, not much has changed. Waste disposal presents a tremendous health hazard in many urban areas: in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, plastic bags are used as “flying toilets.” Clearly, current patterns of urbanization are not consistent with the desire to have ecologically friendly sustainable development in Africa.
  • Deforestation  Now let us turn and look at the problem of Deforestation in Africa.  According to the African Forest Forum (AFF), Africa has about 650 million hectares of forests and woodlands, covering 28 percent of its total land area (FAO 2001). The Congo Basin, which covers 45 percent of Central Africa, is the world’s largest area of contiguous forest.

Sadly, the legacy of vast forest resources that could have been passed to future generations is being rapidly lost through deforestation and degradation. Between 1990 and 2000 Africa lost about 53 million hectares of its forests, which is about 56 percent of the global forest loss in that period. This is translated to a 0.8 percent annual loss of forest cover —the highest in the world!

As the forest disappears, so too its contribution to the protection of soils, recycling of nutrients and the regulation of the quality and flow of water. A recent Africare study in Tanzania confirms that water catchment functions of the Kilimanjaro Mountains are being threatened by severe deforestation and land clearing for economic purposes to support the growing population on the Kilimanjaro Highlands.

  • Climatic variability and natural environmental hazards The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) studies suggest Africa will suffer greater effects of climate change than any other region of the world.  Projections include the decrease in rainfall in the already arid areas of Eastern and Southern Africa, and increasing drought and desertification in the north of Central Africa. In West Africa, the countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria all face water scarcity by 2025.  Africa needs to step up its anti-climate change actions, as a legacy to future generations. However, not many African countries have this as a top priority in view of the pressing development challenges being confronted by the African continent such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and low agricultural production.

Imperative for Action at All Levels — Some Recommendations

From these remarks, it appears obvious that the issue of environmentally friendly sustainable development cannot be overlooked if the African continent is to meet its development challenges. The linkages are obvious and strong.  If the current generation of Africans finds it difficult to grapple with development challenges in spite of current levels of natural resource endowments, will future generations find it even more difficult to survive and thrive on the continent in later years? At that time, the continent will have depleted most of its resources and will be hindered from performing its life-sustaining functions. This message must resonate more powerfully with policy makers, community groups and development partners and every African alive today!

I believe that if Africa is to meet these environmental challenges, it must take action at all levels. It has to incorporate global, national and community actions. It must also involve civil society, public agencies and the private sector in development programs to help mitigate the problems.  Some of the actions that might be taken are as follows:

Global-level action

  • Strengthen Africa’s capacity to implement multilateral environmental agreements.

African countries are signatories to most multilateral environmental agreements that showcase global consensus on the causes and effects of environmental challenges. Examples include the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Montreal Protocols, the Convention to Combat Desertification and many others. However, often times African governments lack the capacity to implement these agreements or honor the commitments therein. That is why multilateral initiatives such as the Global Environmental Fund (GEF) should be given more funding in order to help Africa meet these objectives.

  • Seek assistance to improve effectiveness of institutions, policies and regulatory capacity 

African countries need to demonstrate their capacity to be able to tackle these challenges. Most countries in Africa have established environmental institutions and, along with them, the legislative basis and administrative procedures for environmental management. However, progress is limited by lack of adequate human, technical and financial resources, and ineffective institutional arrangements.  In addition, the quest for foreign direct investment (FDI) often leads to compromises in the strict enforcement of environmental laws, which tends to perpetuate unsustainable resource use patterns. There are still projects being undertaken without adequate environmental assess-ment, and/or the adequate mitigation and follow-up processes are compromised.

National-level action

  • Develop capacity to carry out strategic environmental assessments of current policies and programs

Although progress in project level environmental impact assessment capacity is noticeable, there is a bigger need to equally develop capacity in strategic environmental assessment (SEA). SEA is a pro-active measure that aims to integrate environmental considerations into proposed laws, policies, plans and programs.

Strategic environmental assessments would enable these more impor-tant, higher order or strategic decisions to be subjected to environmental and social scrutiny.

  • Promote environmental management

There is also a need for national governments to engage the private sector effectively to provide business solutions to environmental challenges. Governments should also reward innovation that enables the achievement of national environmental priorities.

Community-level action

  • Through increased awareness, attitude re-orientation and the provision of alternatives, individual and communal action could be a vital force in the long run in achieving ecologically friendly sustainable development. At the community level, the message of environmental management ought to be re-packaged to reflect African values. The recognition of the need not to starve coming generations of resources needed for their future development should be an incentive for present Africans to use resources in a more sustainable way, given the importance that Africans place on inheritance.


In conclusion, I believe that ecologically friendly sustainable development in Africa is about decision making, trade-offs and the delicate balance of priorities. Like any change process, it requires participation and commitment from top to bottom – from government policies to individual behaviors. In addition, I believe that new technological and social innovations will be required to provide alternatives to help all Africans maintain their livelihoods without depleting the scarce natural resources available to the African continent.

Thank you again for the opportunity to address this important subject.  African Economic Outlook 2007. Published by African Development Bank , Tunisia –

Millenium  Development Goals Report 2007– United Nations Development Program-

Harnessing Technologies  for Sustainable Development–  United Nations Economic Commission for Africa

World Development Indicators (2006) World Bank Group.

Special Report on The Regional Impacts of Climate ChangeAn Assessment of Vulnerability Intergovernmental Governmental Panel on Climate Change ( IPCC):

Global Environmental Fund

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