What Africa’s leaders are ignoring

Home » News » What Africa’s leaders are ignoring

Like the rest of the world, Africa is facing the combined challenge of a global economic crisis exacerbated by the multiple impacts of a global ecological crisis. However, unlike all the other continents, Africa is confronting these challenges without the benefit of an adequately developed knowledge infrastructure to drive the kinds of innovations that are required to both withstand the global ecological-economic crisis and take advantage of the crisis to position itself more advantageously within the global economy. More seriously, compared to other leading governments on all the other continents (China, India, Germany, USA, Brazil, Japan and Australia to cite some examples), African Governments have totally ignored the ecological dimensions of the global crisis. This will have devastating effects for future generations and prevent Africa from effectively exploiting the crisis to its own advantage.


Africa and the global community face a ‘polycrisis’ that consists of a multiple set of nested crises that tend to reinforce one another. The key dimensions of this ‘polycrisis’ are being recognised as global discussion of a “Green New Deal” gathers momentum, with Barack Obama leading the way. Attention is increasingly on the intersections between global warming, eco-system breakdown, resource depletion, the global economic crisis, poverty and urbanisation. Global warming by a minimum of 2 degrees, exacerbated by the 70% increase in GHG emissions between 1970 and 2004, is both an outcome of an unsustainable economy and the most significant catalyst for change. As the Stern Report made clear, poorer countries (especially in Africa) will suffer “first and most” from the consequences of global warming even though they have “contributed least” to global warming. The global economic crisis will exacerbate this suffering as the global economy shrinks and up to 90% of the value of listed companies is lost over the 24 month period starting in October 2008. According to the ILO, the number of unemployed in developing countries could rise by end of 2009 by between 18 and 51 million people over 2007 levels. When food prices rose by almost 60% during the first half of 2008, the number of people living in poverty increased by between 130 and 155 million. The International Energy Association predicts that global demand for oil will increase by 45% by 2030 without any evidence that it will be possible to find this amount of oil as peak oil sets in across the world’s oil fields, thus further undermining traditional drivers of economic recovery. This may be good news for Africa’s oil producers, but the bonanza will not last longer than a decade. The United Nations Millenium Ecosystem Assessment that reported in 2005 found that 15 out of the 24 key eco-system services that we humans depend on are degraded or used unsustainably, often with negative consequences for the poor – 1.3 billion people live in ecologically fragile environments located mainly in developing countries, half of whom are the rural poor and a large bulk live in Africa. At the same time, as the world’s population grows from the current 6 billion to 8 billion by 2030, a massive urbanisation wave is underway that has already pushed the world population across the 50% urbanised mark in 2007. The inevitable result is the unprecedented expansion and creation of new cities across the developing world. African and Asian cities will absorb the additional two billion people expected on the planet even though they are the least equipped to handle this challenge.

It has been estimated that the combined value of the fiscal stimulus packages assembled by the G20 is US$2 trillion, or 3% of global GDP. If these stimulus packages focus exclusively on economic recovery and ignore global warming, eco-system breakdown, oil peak and global poverty, the outcomes will contradict the original recovery intentions. The big hitters in the G20 may win, but the losers will bring us all down. But there are signs of hope. Of the US$827 billion to be spent by the US Government, US$100 billion has been allocated to investments aimed at dealing with the consequences of the ecological crisis – reducing oil consumption and CO2 emissions, waste recycling and making more efficient use of resources (in particular in the way buildings and cities are designed). South Korea, building on four decades of successful reforestation that has rebuilt its capacity to grow food, has the most ambitious developing country Green New Deal investment package worth US$56 billion. These are examples of responses that seem to recognize that the causes of the current crisis are far more complex than merely short-term economic factors. These investments will also drive unprecedented rates of innovation as governments and private sector players strive to convert these investments into competitive advantages within the global economy. Is Africa positioning itself in this new technological drive to build a more sustainable global civilization?

The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) received the Nobel Prize for its 2006 report on Climate Change. What most African Governments have failed to recognise is that this report makes it very clear that Africa is most likely going to feel the greatest impacts of global warming even though it has contributed least to the problem. The daily lives of millions of Africans will be affected. By as early as 2020 (and the IPCC estimates are all regarded as highly conservative), between 75 and 250 million people are projected to be exposed to increased water stress; in some countries yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50% thus severely compromising what is already a food insecure continent; towards the end of the c.21st projected sea level rise will affect low-lying coastal areas many of which are the locations of large and growing cities – just adapting to these changes is projected to cost between 5-10% of GDP; and by 2080 the amount of arid and semi-arid land is project to increase by 5-8%.

It is widely recognised that the growth rates of key agro-food products are either declining or negative in Africa. A largely unrecognised underlying driver is the fact that this is caused by rapidly deteriorating soils. The Washington-Based International Food Policy Research Institute  estimates that 65% of all agricultural land in Africa is degraded. This means that it is producing less and less food as the effects of nutrient mining take their toll. This explains why millions of hectares of land in Africa is being abandoned and why millions get pushed into Africa’s cities that depend on charcoal for energy that further exacerbates soil degradation as the trees disappear. But the world’s biggest foundations (Rockerfeller and Gates) allied with the biggest agricultural institutions think the problem is inadequate fertilizer and poor seeds (which Africans must now buy form Western multinationals). The United Nations Environment Programme disagrees, advocating modern organic farming methods that focus on the rebuilding of soils and not expensive technical solutions.

As a result Africa’s cities are growing fast – 27 of the 100 fastest growing cities in the world are in Africa. And yet no African Government has an urban development strategy – not even South Africa. The potential of Africa’s cities as innovation-driven growth centres are being squandered.

In 2001 Time magazine ran an article entitled Looting Africa. This signalled a realisation that Africa’s economic fortunes were once again changing. Growth rates in the 1980s averaged below 2%, but by the end of the 1990s were getting close to 3%. By 2005, growth rates were reaching 5% as the prices for primary resources rose as global growth drove up demand. Africa had become strategically important again to the world, especially China. However, the resource curse has not gone away. In 2000, the export of primary natural resources accounted for nearly 80% of all exports from Africa. This is much higher than the rest of the world – the export of primary natural resources accounted for only 31% of all exports from all developing countries in 2000 and 16% of the exports from advanced industrial countries in the same year. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, in 2003 many African countries were dependent on the export of a single resource – for example, crude oil (Angola, Congo, Gabon, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea), copper (Zambia), coffee (Burundi, Ethiopia, Uganda), tobacco (Malawi) and uranium (Niger).  Many more were dependent on the export of just two or three primary products.

In a remarkable 2005 report entitled Where is the Wealth of Nations?, the World Bank estimated the “real wealth” of African countries by adjusting the national income and savings accounts by deducting both real economic and environmental costs. Because most African countries are exporters of primary resources, the result of this study was that most African countries had a net negative rate of national savings to Gross National Income. The countries with the highest resource dependence and lowest capital accumulation included some of the largest resource exporters, namely Nigeria, Zambia, Mauritania, Gabon, Congo and South Africa. Below is the Table from the report that lists all the countries that were studied. The results are clear: resource extraction and export at prevailing global prices (which are effectively ‘fixed’ by the major importers) is a bad business deal for African economies and undermines development.

The above cited World Bank report comes after more than 20 years of trade liberalisation. Contrary to the development strategies pursued by the successful Asian tigers over the same period, African Governments indiscriminately lifted protective tariffs thus killing off local industries that were unable to compete with prices of imported goods. In the name of increasing trade, the opposite was achieved. According to Christain Aid, “[t]rade liberalization has cost sub-Saharan Africa $272 billion over the past 20 years. Overall, local producers are selling less than they were before trade was liberalized.”

If Africa continues to get poorer as it increases exports of primary resources at discounted prices, it will never build up the financial resources required to invest in the kind of human capital and physical infrastructures that are required for poverty-eradicating development strategies funded from the proceeds of endogenous growth engines that are less dependent on resource exports. An obvious question is what African Governments can do to ensure better prices for their exported materials. In response to global recessionary conditions the European Union has concluded that “[d]espite recent price falls, raw material prices are still very high from a historical perspective”. In late 2008 it urged its members to use international fora to prevent Africans from increasing the prices of primary resources. No noticeable response from African Governments to this threat is evident.

If Africa wants to become part of the sustainability revolution underway in the rest of the world, and if African Governments want to create post-commodity dependent economies, then a major new focus is required on human capital development via investments in the rapidly expanding transdisciplinary field now called ‘sustainability science’. If economists, urban planners, engineers, agriculturalists, industrialists, development workers, political leaders and development agencies find ways to factor into their knowledge sets and world views an understanding of the intimate connections between economic development and natural resources, then Africa may have a chance of correctly interpreting the problems it faces and responding accordingly. If this does not happen, then global warming, oil peak, resource depletion, soil degradation, water scarcities and food shortages will obliterate the grandest visions of economic modernization. Africa has advantages for leap-frogging into a more sustainable world that no-one else has: large primary resources, relatively small populations, extensive available land, extra-ordinary human capacity for survival and cooperation, and the absence of the kinds of massive urban infrastructures that other countries have invested in for more than a century that will now have to be dismantled to prepare for a new low carbon non-oil dependent more equitable world. Instead of copying outdated modernist techno-infrastructures developed elsewhere for an unsustainable era, Africa could lead by exploiting the current global ecological-economic crisis to put in place a new way that builds on Africa’s innate capacity to innovate under the most trying circumstances.