Countries in sub-Saharan Africa are among the poorest in the world. They're also lagging behind on gender equality, inclusive economic growth, access to quality education, and universal health care.
The Sustainable Development Report 2020, a global report showing how countries are progressing towards achieving the UN's 17 Global Goals, has cast light on what the world still needs to focus on to get on track to end extreme poverty by 2030.
The report, which was produced by experts who work at the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and their partners, measures how far along different countries are in achieving the Global Goals.
It found that while countries in sub-Saharan Africa are leading in taking climate action, they still perform poorly when it comes to achieving other of the goals — such as those focusing on education access, gender equality, and ending hunger and malnutrition.
The report ranked 166 countries out of the 193 United Nations member states, which includes all 54 African countries.
Professor Carlos Lopes of the Mandela School of Public Governance at the University of Cape Town spoke with Global Citizen about the report and its implications for African countries.
Lopes was the policy director at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) when the Global Goals were taking shape. He was also the executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa between 2012 and 2016.
What are the trends in key challenges in achieving the Global Goals for countries in Africa?
We don't want to transfer a long list of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with the approach of wanting to do everything, because countries with the largest number of challenges will be the weakest ones when it comes to implementation.
For instance, the [Global Goals] can be implemented in Norway, but they're extremely difficult to implement in Niger.
[This] is a philosophical issue that influences the way we perceive performance. We think good performance is to tick all the 167 [targets that have been set as part of the Global Goals], but this is not the case.
Performance should be measured by how much progress a country has made in relation to where it was when it started making progress. [Otherwise,] only the rich countries will meet the criteria.
We have to consider that the number one objective of the SDGs agenda is to mix the three dimensions of sustainable development, which are economic and social development, as well as the environment.
It's important for African countries to pick and choose from the list [of Global Goals] ones that makes the most difference in people's lives. That in itself is a challenge that needs leadership, civil society, and a strong commitment to implementation.
With this in mind, what then should countries in Africa be prioritising as they pick and choose what to implement?
The key priorities should be human development, which is about expanding opportunities by making sure that people have the possibility of living longer lives.
It means governments have to invest in health and in what allows people to live longer, which also means expanding on opportunities and expanding on choices that people have.
This is done by making sure that people have education so they have the opportunity to participate in choices in a meaningful manner.
Governments must also provide opportunities that improve on the quality of life; that's where the economy comes in. People need access to better food, transport, and jobs.
Governments also have to make sure that people live in a clean environment, which means investing in environment-related policies.
How can governments start implementing action that promotes human development?
There needs to be [increased investment] in education and health, then structural transformation of the economy because they [countries in Africa] have been lagging behind world trends.
They have not experienced the same level of structural transformation. The number one ingredient is industrialisation. However, we need to invest in doing it differently from before.
Countries and people are much more aware of the damage we can cause to the environment and contribute to climate change. [Industrialisation should have] a very low carbon footprint.
How do we do that?
There are lots of people on the continent without access to electricity, for instance. Let's make sure that we use renewable energy instead of committing the same mistake of using fossil fuels.
Infrastructure has to be built using sustainable materials that are respectful to lower carbon footprints. The industrialisation should be green, and choose value chains that are going to reduce the travelling of commodities, and contribute to the environment.
What role does corruption and political instability play in stopping African countries from achieving the Global Goals?
Corruption is partly a result of systemic problems, and partly a result of weakness of administration and institutions.
[There are also] external and internal factors like illicit financial flows, the ways the financial markets operate, and attractiveness to put money into safe havens that are illicit.
Internal factors include the corruption of politicians and using public resources [to uphold] weak and corrupt governance.
Most of the people [in Africa] work in the informal economy. That's an invitation for corruption [unless] economic activities are formalised as much as possible.
Depending on how big the proportion of the economy is, the more likely you are to have corrupt practises because institutions are weak. There should be more transparency, paying of taxes, etc.
Could you please tell us more about the long-term impact of COVID-19 on the continent?
We won't be going back to the normal that we had before COVID-19, partly because we know better and realise that health is a precondition for economic activity. COVID-19 has demonstrated that vividly.
The economy can stop because of a health issue and lack of preparedness. This is also a lesson for the continent's partners to take cognisance of risk perception that is not associated with health.
The moment there is trouble, countries become protective and withdraw from liberal trade. It has created innovative and new initiatives like joint procurement [of resources to fight COVID-19] that is beyond COVID-19. It's a lesson that will be translated into politics across different sectors.
It seems a significant number of countries in Africa are much closer to achieving climate-based Global Goals than many other countries globally. What are they doing right that the rest of the world can learn from?
The environmental dimension [of the Global Goals] translated to the Paris Agreement, which is based on volunteerism. African countries are among the countries with the most ambitious national commitment to [climate action], and that's good as Africa suffers the most from climate change, while we emit the least [carbon].
If there was climate justice, countries that are the biggest polluters should have much stronger national commitment [to climate action]. Africans countries are committing to do more. Ethiopia, Morocco, Rwanda, Egypt, and Gabon, for example, made significant investments in the environment.
Are there any African countries that stand out in how they are working towards achieving the Global Goals?
There are lots of countries that are doing well; for example, Mauritius, Seychelles, and Cape Verde. Morocco, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Botswana, Namibia, and Togo are also doing well.
There has also been significant progress in Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Kenya. The common denominator is that they have all embarked on the structural transformation of their economies.
Why are global partnerships important in helping Africa achieve the Global Goals?
They're very important because Africa lags behind in all the indicators compared to other regions [globally], partnerships are extremely critical.
This year marks 10 years to go until the 2030 target to end extreme poverty and achieve the targets set out under the Global Goals. With the release of the Sustainable Development Report 2020, we're taking a deep dive into the successes we've already made and barriers that still exist when it comes to achieving the SDGs and ending extreme poverty by 2030. You can find our Sustainable Development Report 2020 content series here.