The UN is hindering – not helping – development in Africa

Zineb Riboua

February 11, 2020

In 2015, African UN member states adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These countries signed up to a total of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) that aimed to combine ecological protections and socio-economic development.

Given the immense challenges low and middle-income African countries are facing, the restrictive and backwards-looking methods of tackling poverty and inequalities outlined in the SDGs often do more harm than good.

Africa is not in the same state as it was in the 1990s or even the early 2000s. Over the past decade, the poorest African countries have begun to flourish, thanks to huge numbers of local entrepreneurs, combined with foreign investment, especially from China, in small industries and niche markets.

Nonetheless, according to the African Development Bank Group, growth is not fast enough to address persistent fiscal and current account deficits and unsustainable debt.

Crises are still frequent and serious. Zimbabwe’s food insecurity recently resulted in a period of mass starvation. Namibia’s latest election season was engulfed by a corruption scandal and South Africa continues to struggle immensely in its fight against terrorism.

According to data from the Sustainable Development Goals Center for Africa, all African regions except North Africa are unlikely to meet the targets laid out in the SDGs by the 2030 deadline.

The SDGs approach the complex and multi-faceted issues faced by African nations in entirely the wrong way. They require governments to draft a detailed, tailored policy implementation strategy in order to meet each of the goals laid out.

In the cases of at least a dozen African countries, the state facilities to implement policy proposals to the level that the SDGs require are simply not there, making reaching the targets they lay out nigh-on impossible.

To complicate matters even further, the SDGs’ indicators are often very poorly defined. A widespread insufficiency of statistical capacity and lack of funding make it extremely difficult for these governments to put together a pragmatic policy strategy that is both effective and inclusive, let alone for such strategies to remain in place and at maximum efficiency for several years so that the SDG targets can be reached.

According to this year’s Africa SDG Index and Dashboards Report, the challenges faced by African governments in implementing SDGs are practically insurmountable. The analysis shows that there is a stark lack of policy coherence and co-ordination across levels of government, as well as a lack of effective linkages between policy planning and budgeting at the central or federal level of government.

Several governments also suffer from a lack of public budgeting execution mechanisms, with many riddled with corruption. Since these problems are far from new, it is unclear why the SDGs, as put forward by the UN, fail to take account of them almost entirely.

Essentially, states are unable to progress past the planning stage. Even if they were in a position to practically implement the UN’s recommendations, in many cases they would be unable to do so because of the immense costs attached to them.

Kenya, for instance, acquired around $10bn of debt between 2006 and 2017 in its dealings with China, making it one of the largest African recipients of Chinese loans. It may achieve the SDG relating to growth and employment, but at what cost?

Ironically, the UN’s sustainable development scheme is pressuring governments into making wildly unsustainable investments by taking out immense loans which they have no real prospect of paying back in the foreseeable future. Simply put, African countries are being drawn into a vicious debt cycle.

The UN’s 2030 SDG agenda is supposed to foster international cooperation and gently integrate countries which are seen to be falling behind in scientific and technological development. But when it comes into contact with reality, this agenda seems more like a utopian project than a real development plan.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said, a goal without a plan is just a wish. This is true of the SDGs. The UN has failed to take into consideration the various geopolitical specificities rooted in the economies of low and middle-income African countries.

The SDGs should have been written in a tailored manner that took account of the unique circumstances each country is facing. Instead, by 2030, they will have contributed to an increase in the gap between highly developed countries and emergent, developing ones.


Written by Zineb Riboua

Zineb Riboua is a research intern at the Atlantic Council. She is the founder of the China in MENA Project.


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