Although it is unclear exactly how and when these issues will be tackled, what is apparent is the extreme importance of good governance to promote sustainable development, as all of these challenges either directly or indirectly correspond to a lack of self reliance and solidity in Africa. Sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” according to Kingsley Amoako in his book, Transforming Africa: an Agenda for Action. “It is a pattern of development that ensures a steady enhancement of well-being over time. It requires structural changes that lead to enduring widespread improvements in the quality of life in a society…[and] requires a systematic, carefully coordinated, interconnected series of policies and strategies that will improve people’s lives,” (49). Scholars argue sustainable development is multifaceted and includes, but is not limited to, economic, environmental, and institutional sustainability. The concept of sustainability is gaining more attention in both industrialized and developing countries. However, it is clear it has theoretical weaknesses. This paper, therefore, will look into sustainability’s obstacles, specifically in relation to Africa and the main factors contributing to its practical inadequacies on the continent. For starters, one area of ignorance is approaching sustainable development using Western style solutions and problem-solving methods as opposed to using more local, grassroots approaches utilizing Africa’s unique cultures, languages and ideas. This challenge and others (bureaucratic corruption, lack of democracy, international pressures, poor urban planning, agricultural inadequacies, and HIV/AIDS prevalence) is highlighted in a series of essays compiled in Sustainable Development in Africa: a Multifaceted Challenge, edited by Okecukwu Ukaga and Osita Afoaku.
Africa has experienced a long history of bureaucratic and political corruption that has significantly impeded opportunities for sustainable development. Regardless of European colonizers’ claims of efforts to civilize the continent, it is clear their plan did not consist of promoting developmental progress. In fact, according to Afoaku in his essay, “Linking Democracy and Sustainable Development in Africa,” colonizers worked to handicap Africa’s economic future: “In an effort to advance their colonial agenda, colonial rulers discredited Africa’s indigenous state institutions and, in their stead, imposed a crude version of the European state model,” (27). This included enforcing policies aimed at separating cohesive social groups, dividing logical and well-established trading areas, creating geographical units that were landlocked or contained limited or no resources, and strictly controlling allocation of various resources (including land). Additionally, colonial rulers made an effort to stop independent entrepreneurship by enforcing mostly inefficient policies establishing who had to produce what and how. And unfortunately, colonizers’ unfair policies left a permanent mark, continuing beyond independence.
At the end of colonization, most “new” leadership on the continent consisted of African elites who still had (and continue to have) ties to Africa’s former rulers. According to Kwesi Kwaa Prah in his essay, “Catch as Catch Can: Obstacles to Sustainable Development in Africa,” these elites have significantly failed at providing effective leadership: “A great deal of blame for Africa’s dire economic straits can be put to the graft, corruption and mismanagement of local economies by unscrupulous elites…[resulting in] much of foreign borrowing being squandered,” (14). This has led to a cycle of little to virtually no investment in Africa by the majority of its citizens. As a result of this corruption, most African people have suffered and, because of their poverty, have been unable to invest indigenous capital. Therefore, investment in Africa is limited to African elites, whose money primarily comes from ill-gotten or looted wealth in foreign banks. Instead of supporting domestic economies with their capital, these elites use it in developed market economics. Of course, this imposes major costs on the development of African people, leading to an inequitable distribution of income, inhibiting indigenous entrepreneurship and wealth creation, and impoverishing the majority of the population. These same African rulers only construct generic development programs developed in the West with the help of people who have no genuine interest in poverty alleviation (19).
One main example of money squandering by these unscrupulous elites pertains to regional security issues. Oftentimes, security revolves solely around protecting the ruling class from external aggression or domestic revolts. According to George Klay Kieh, Jr. in his essay, “Regional Security and Sustainable Development in Africa,” African political leaders attempt to preserve their regimes or the rule of their political party by wasteful spending for unnecessary weapons as opposed to other heavily needed economic resources for sustainable development – basic human needs such as education, health, food and transportation (170). This has led to a militarized nature in national politics and a reliance of force used to intimidate those who oppose the ruling party into submission. In the worst case, this culture of violence becomes a breeding ground for civil wars involving the state. These authoritarian regimes still exist in many countries and continually work to terminate efforts of democratization (177). “While the traditional military-security issues are certainly an important consideration, they are not sufficient to promote stability in the continent,” writes Kieh. “Instead, there is a need for a new security approach that has sustainable development as its foundation,” (188).
Lack of Democracy
The inept and corrupt leadership in Africa correlates to failing governmental systems postponing sustainable development. Although many African countries began their independence as “democratic,” post-colonial elites quickly shifted to dictatorships instead. According to Afoaku, the over-centralized state in post-colonial Africa dismantled institutional checks and balances, created personal rule networks and silenced civil society. Many African governments contained a one or no party system and gave no role or power to local government. Additionally, these dictatorships abused basic human rights, started civil wars, contributed to a massive mismanagement of waste by developing “outrageously ill-conceived” projects, and discriminated against peasant farmers and ethnic minorities (30). The 1994 Rwandan genocide is just one example of a state sponsored program defended by the fact that victims were supposedly from the wrong ethnic groups, regions or religions. “The credibility of the African state plummeted dramatically in the course of the post-independence period,” Afoaku writes. “Without doubt, the primary source of this crisis of legitimacy is the failure of the post-colonial state to promote sustainable development,” (33). Unfortunately, the most recent transition to electoral democracy has not improved Africa’s state much.
Afoaku, in fact, claims too much emphasis is placed on electoral democracy as opposed to what should be the main goal of improving Africa’s political state – neutralizing the political legacies of colonials: “The persistence of the colonial state in various forms has hampered the development of the local institutions necessary to meet the goals of sustainable development,” (50). Evidenced by the mass of electoral fraud still existent in Africa, the purpose of winning elections “democratically” oftentimes still remains the same – to amass wealth through the abuse of public office, as opposed to improving citizen’s lives through promoting fair public policy and sustainable development. As Afoaku writes, “Quite often, the short-term goal of holding elections to enable the countries to qualify as budding democracies have run counter to the long-term issues of representation and justice that are fundamental to reconstituting genuine democratic political order,” (41). As a result, only “semi-democracies” have emerged in Africa since the 1990s. These semi-democracies are exemplified by political leaders’ unwillingness to be transparent and held accountable for promoting an environment favorable to sustainable development. In Zimbabwe, for example, the Indigenous Business Development Center and black entrepreneurs have experienced hostility from the government because they are viewed as a danger to its state.
Clearly, the politics of democratic transition in Africa has not centered on reaching the countries’ developmental potential. Afoaku writes, “It is imperative that these countries create a normative environment rooted in the values of democracy and equity in order to bridge the staggering gap between Africa’s immense developmental potential and the dismal social and economic conditions on the continent,” (24). To do this, he advocates citizen participation and decentralization. Long range domestic programs of civic education addressing both partisan politics and public policy are crucial to helping Africa’s citizens understand and actually know what they need, which includes constitutional rights and the ability to seek remedy on any violations against them. Re-institutionalizing indigenous norms regarding the importance of placing community values before individual wants is also vital (52). In addition to the internal threat of poorly performing democracies to sustainability in Africa, external factors are also major problems.
International Indebtedness and Economic Pressures
Much of Africa’s income and export earnings are dedicated to international debt servicing, limiting the resources available for sustainable development. “Africa’s debt is so large in comparison to the continent’s income that it cannot be repaid,” writes Prah. “For as long as Western creditors refuse to cancel the debt, the latter constitutes a veritable albatross around Africa’s neck, and inhibits the scope of development…Expenditure for health, education and social welfare are reduced to zero,” (16). This becomes a cyclical problem, as development budgets are at least 90 percent reliant on external donor funding (24). African countries face a significant number of “conditionalities” and debt pressures, often referred to as a new form of colonialism, by being forced to abide by policies established by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They are unable to make their own domestic policies, instead abiding to global industrial leaders. Although the World Bank has established an initiative to alleviate some debt through its Heavily-Indebted Poor Countries program, the money saved through reduced debt does not have to be spent on sustainable development projects therefore subjecting more wasteful spending by unscrupulous leaders who should use the debt relief for other purposes (11).
International pressures become an even greater problem because African countries are still marginalized in the overall world of global division labor. According to Kieh, African workers are continually exploited by being paid “starvation wages” (179). The global system of economic relations of production, distribution and exchange is clearly inequitable. Industrialized countries are placing increasing tariff and non-tariff barriers (duties, quotas, subsidies, complicated regulations, etc.) on goods in an effort to protect themselves from Africa’s competitive prices on commodity products. Additionally, since colonization, the international demands for Africa’s natural resources have placed enormous pressure on the continent to comply with cash crop production and oil exploration, which result in ecological disasters and virtually no economic advantage to its citizens. African governments also lessen the chances for sustainable development in the arena of environmental protection. Toxic waste, including raw sewage, incinerated ashes, radioactive waste, contaminated oils, pesticides, and poisonous solvents, are only a few of the hazardous materials African governments are pressured to accept when shipped from developed countries due to their lack of foreign trade and hard currency (39).
Poor Urban Planning
There are several problems related to the growing influx of citizens to urban areas in Africa. Cities are lacking greater control over their citizens, especially because their economic bases are not strong enough to support such a heavily growing population. In his essay, “Planning Sustainable Cities in Africa,” Geoffrey I. Nwaka writes that this is detrimental to Africa’s sustainable health. Although cities should be a main focus in alleviating poverty and promoting development, “the rapid pace of urbanization and the enormous scale of unmet needs are taking a heavy toll on the continent’s cities and urban populations, especially the urban poor who live and work in appalling conditions that threaten their health and undermine their productivity,” (119).
Infrastructure and service deficiencies are evident in the environmental problems cities face. Many residents live in “squalid” conditions that are, in some cases, more threatening to their health than those in rural areas. In regard to housing problems, over half of urban dwellings are crowded, structurally defective, and located on undesirable sites that do not provide adequate defense against diseases because they are built without any professional advice (123). Water and improper sanitation are other major challenges. The lack of safe water for personal and domestic hygiene as well as the absence of proper sanitation facilities (particularly in peri-urban areas) commonly lead to water-borne and filth-related diseases, attributing to cholera and other deadly outbreaks. Additionally, solid waste management and draining form a serious health risk. As much as half of city garbage stays in open dumpsites, making it easy for disease carrying insects and rodents to flourish. Food related health problems among the urban poor oftentimes lead to premature death. The widespread street foods industry, food poisoning in market places, lack of storage and refrigeration facilities to prevent spoilage and contamination are all contributing factors (124).
For sustainable development to prosper in Africa, it is essential its cities become better managed. As Nwaka writes, “The poor state of the urban environment reflects both the ineffectiveness of past approaches to urban management, and the enormous scale of urban problems in relation to the declining resources available to deal with them,” (126). He recommends the government should focus more on enabling others to be productive by decentralizing functions from large cities to smaller ones as well as from central to local authorities. This type of grassroots participation would facilitate a larger role for both the formal and informal private sector (130).
Problems such as soil erosion, landslides, mudslides and other impediments to environmental sustainability are the result of poor agricultural practices, which started in the colonial period. As Ukaga explains in his essay, “Overcoming Challenges to Sustainable Agricultural Development in Africa”:
Agriculture began to get progressively out of balance with people’s needs, the local environment, and resources available for…production. This lack of balance was largely due to colonial policies designed to benefit Europe at the expense of Africa. Farmers were pushed to produce crops that Europeans wanted instead of those Africans depended on. A significant amount of quality land was devoted to cash crop to meet external colonial desires, instead of using it to produce food for the local population (192).
Additionally, European farmers were granted the best land after it was confiscated from its African owners. Unfortunately, since independence, indigenous leaders have been ineffective at changing the poor agricultural conditions in Africa. In many cases, they have actually worsened. Lack of engagement in agriculture has led to deterioration in food supply for the population. This can be attributed to one of three factors hurting agricultural sustainable development: natural, structural, and human/socio-political.
Natural factors are mainly related to scanty and unpredictable rain, which drives agriculture in Africa and leaves most of the population extremely vulnerable to drought. Zambia, for example, suffered a severe drought in the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in famine and hunger-induced riots. Decades later, the country is still attempting to recover. In 1984, Ethiopia also suffered a severe drought, ultimately leading to the death of over a million people (194). In addition to having too little rain, parts of Africa are also susceptible to having too much. Rainfall can become so intense that it deteriorates the soil structure, destroys crops, and kills livestock. Floods also obviously make the agricultural problem worse by displacing a tremendous number of people, further misbalancing food supply and distribution.
In addition to natural factors, issues such as inadequate infrastructure for production, storage, processing, marketing and distribution pose a problem to agricultural sustainable development. Due to extremely poor transportation systems and roads, “up to 40 percent of farm produce in Africa is wasted, while people go hungry only a few hundred miles from where surplus crop may be rotting,” writes Ukaga. “Further, farm incomes tend to be relatively low in areas with poor access roads and transport systems. This not only serves as a disincentive for people in such areas to farm, but also limits the ability of those who do farm from generating enough income that can be re-invested in agriculture,” (196). Additionally, farmers have extremely limited access to relevant farming information and find it difficult to obtain the necessary credit to invest in proper tools. This means they oftentimes have to resort to basic equipment that results in lower productivity and decreased profits. And, as stated earlier, the inequitable rules of international trade are hurting many African farmers and communities, as poor policies and unfair structures force them to produce specific crops through corrupt and inefficient agents or marketing boards that minimally pay them. These structural agricultural factors ultimately leave Africa dependent on foreign aid and imported food despite the continent’s vast resources.
Human and socio-political factors, such as poverty, corruption, inter-ethnic conflicts, and civil wars also negatively impact agricultural sustainability. Instead of leaving room for investment in agriculture, these issues take the forefront and waste valuable resources as well as discourage entrepreneurship. Conflicts disrupt normal activities, turn farmlands in battlefields leaving them useless, condemn farmlands via land mines, and place burdens on countries that receive a flood of refugees who have been displaced. These agricultural disruptions have occurred numerous times in Somalia, the Sudan, Rwanda, Mozambique, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Zimbabwe. Finally, other human factors include the prevalence of debilitating diseases (malaria, bilharzias, guinea worm, intestinal parasites, HIV/AIDS) that reduce agricultural productiveness and reduce the level of funds available for development (205).
Solving these challenges of agricultural development in Africa requires a change in incentives to improve the productive capacity of farmers. According to Ukaga, a significant percentage of resources must be dedicated to establishing and maintaining infrastructures. This would increase farmers’ profit margins, as they would be able to make purchase of inputs and selling of outputs significantly easier and more efficient. Additionally, better access to credit would encourage farmers to invest in improved agricultural tools that yield greater profits.
Finally, African governments must, on the global scale, be adamant and negotiate persistently about reform to allow farmers to participate more advantageously in international trade (208).
The challenges HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)/AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) bring to Africa impact virtually every problem associated with sustainable development on the continent. Once infected with AIDS, individuals become more susceptible to opportunistic diseases such as recurrent pneumonia, pulmonary tuberculosis, invasive cervical cancer, malaria, and tuberculosis, which all create a greater threat to individuals whose immune systems are not working properly. According to William Ebomoyi and Afoaku in their essay, “The African HIV/AIDS Crisis and Challenges to Sustainable Development,” Africa has a disproportionate number of the world’s AIDS victims, yet is far behind on achieving the necessary resources to fight the problem. The majority of health care facilities, for example, are deficient in diagnostic tools to test for infection. Another problem is that even when facilities do have the tools, many Africans are reluctant to get tested and seek care because of the social stigma connected to the disease (223).
The impact of AIDS and its related opportunistic diseases is far reaching. According to estimates, it has left approximately 12 million children orphaned in Africa, as the continent houses 80 percent of worldwide children who have lost their parents to AIDS (The Problems Faced by AIDS Orphans). This leaves them unable to learn basic agricultural skills, production techniques, nutrition and health knowledge, as well as about their culture and customs. According to Ebomoyi and Afoaku, AIDS has significantly reduced the productive capacity of Africa and its prospects for economic growth and development, as it significantly reduces the labor force: “AIDS mostly devastates the productive age group of 15 through 50 years. It is expected that up to 25 percent of the agricultural labor force could be lost in countries of sub-Saharan Africa by 2020 unless the present trend in AIDS prevalence is reversed,” (230). Unfortunately, the reversal of this trend looks grim, as a variety of factors contribute to the prevalence of the deadly disease in Africa:
-Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs): especially common among the growing population of female sex workers, poor sanitary conditions and lack of medical care.
-Multiple concurrent sexual partners: polygamy remains a common social practice among many societies. Additionally, men do not face serious social sanctions for infidelity.
-Commercial sex workers: especially susceptible to AIDS and infecting others due to geographic mobility and the migration of young female prostitutes to urban communities.
-Low condom use: still signifies a cultural resistance for safe sex practices.
-Circumcision, scarification and similar cultural practices: female circumcision is still common among some societies and involves heavy bleeding; local healers use surgical tools that are not sterilized to perform the act.
-Rapid growth of urbanization: cities are attracting young job seeks who are poor, illiterate, and less likely to be concerned with long-term implications of AIDS while fighting for daily survival.
-High fertility rates: limit available resources to fight epidemic. Additionally, having a youthful population increases concentration of sexually active individuals who pose high risk of infection.
-Ecology: sub-Saharan Africa’s tropical and ecological conditions are favorable for spread of many parasitic and viral diseases associated with HIV-related opportunistic infections (225-228).
-Cultural barriers/lack of education: limit public discussion about STDs and spread of HIV/AIDS, denying young people the chance to learn about the benefits of monogamy, sexual abstinence, condoms and other precautions. Additionally, African schools oftentimes lack instructional materials and textbooks and have poorly trained and unqualified teachers (222, 229-231).
Ebomoyi and Afoaku urge African governments to declare wars on prostitution, polygamy, child marriage, female illiteracy and other cultural practices that mitigate the burden of AIDS in Africa. Without increased resources effectively addressing the problem, Africa’s chances of sustainable development are severely limited.
The need for sustainable development practices in Africa is tremendous. If its countries do not begin becoming more self-reliant and meeting the needs of their people without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, it will continue on a downward path. However, as discussed, establishing effective sustainable development practices in Africa is not easy, as sustainable development has a number of theoretical weaknesses and practical inadequacies due to significant problems such as bureaucratic corruption, lack of democracy, great international and economic pressures, poor urban planning, agricultural inadequacies, and HIV/AIDS prevalence.
However, there is hope for sustainable development in Africa if its leaders begin to recognize the need for good domestic governance and promote grassroots efforts for change. Ukaga lists several ways this can happen. Among others, these include:
-Reconstructing the neocolonial state in order to revise its approach to dealing with political, economic, social and environmental issues
-Reflecting indigenous values, cultures and objective conditions in state policies and programs instead of the indiscriminate adoption and cheap mimicry of Western practices and paradigms that have little or no relevance to the African socio-cultural conditions and necessities
-Minimizing opportunism, rent-seeking and bad governance by establishing constitutionally limited governments and economic systems through well-structured democratic sets of rules that reflect and protect the interests of all stakeholders
-Paying more attention to the human dimensions and issues associated with immediate needs of survival and development in African cities and communities
-Developing new values and attitudes about nationalism, patriotism, ethnic and religious pluralism, political tolerance, gender equity…effective leadership, accountability, and so on, and transferring these values through a socialization process that involves all major societal institutions (238).
Therefore, sustainable development’s obstacles should not be viewed in isolation. Instead, leaders should underline the importance of entire systems that stress education and human capital formation through participatory and people-driven solutions. If this happens, Africa will become far closer to achieving at least a nearer sustainable development ideal.
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