Africa’s Mixed Record on Keeping Up With UN Goals

The UN has called for a “decade of action” to push countries toward meeting the sustainable development goals by 2030. How do African nations fare?
SDGs, sustainable development goals, UN Sustainable development goals, UN news, United Nations news, Bertelsmann, Africa, African news, news on Africa, Sylvia Croese

Torit, South Sudan on 2/20/2013. © John Wollwerth / Shutterstock

March 10, 2020 14:44 EDT

Almost five years ago, all member states of the United Nations signed the 2030 Agenda on sustainable development. This agenda includes 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) on global challenges such as poverty, urbanization and climate action, all featuring targets and indicators to measure progress.

The SDGs were brought in to replace the millennium development goals (MDGs) and, unlike their predecessors, they apply to all countries in the world, developing and developed alike. Compared with the MDGs, the SDGs also represent a more holistic view on development, incorporating its social, economic and environmental dimensions, as well as the importance of equality, justice and partnerships.

It’s Time for a New Global Movement


African states have been active supporters of the SDGs and have established high-level institutions and development policies aimed at supporting their implementation. However, almost five years since the adoption of the SDGs, progress on implementation remains mixed. North Africa represents the best-performing region on the continent, while Central Africa is the worst-performing. In West Africa and East Africa, there is stagnation in progress toward most of the goals, while southern Africa, as a region, is not on track to meet any of the SDGs.

With only 10 years to go until 2030, we now enter what the UN has called the “decade of action.” This means it is now time to speed up bids to meet the pledges on SDGs. Based on current trends, what are the prospects of this happening in Africa?

Halfway Toward the Goals

According to the latest Africa SDG Index produced by the SDG Center for Africa and the UN-affiliated Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), the continent as a whole is barely halfway to achieving the SDGs. Global performance on the SDGs is also falling short, with only Nordic countries, such as Denmark, Sweden and Finland, on track to meeting most goals by 2030. However, for most residents of these countries, meeting the goals will not make much of a difference to their already high standards of living, while progress on the goals in African countries will significantly change people’s lives.   

Current progress, or the lack thereof, can be explained by a range of factors. This includes the lack of policy coherence and coordination across different levels of government, as well as lack of adequate financial resources, capacity, political will or limitations in terms of the data required to monitor the achievement of the SDGs. Moreover, there is also a relationship between levels of progress on SDG implementation and levels of political, economic and governance transformation. This becomes clear when comparing the findings of the Africa SDG Index and the soon-to-be-released Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) analysis of political, economic and governance trajectories in the region.

The outcomes largely align when it comes to the best-performing countries and also the worst performing countries — most of them in Central and some in East Africa. However, there are some interesting findings when it comes to those in the middle.

Best and Worst

Overall, the front-runners in the SDG Index are those that BTI considers to be performing best in terms of political and economic transformation, as well as governance performance. This is the case of Mauritius, which is the highest-scoring country in the Africa SDG Index and which BTI considered to be a consolidated democracy, advanced in terms of economic transformation and good in terms of governance. Countries such as Tunisia, Botswana and Ghana represent similar characteristics and similarly stand among the top 10 of best-ranking countries on the SDG Index.

On the other end of the spectrum are countries such as Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan. These countries are at the bottom of the SDG Africa ranking and are also among the nations that BTI scores most poorly in its soon-to-be-published 2020 report on the region, due to ongoing civil conflict (Somalia, South Sudan), a lack of multi-party elections (Eritrea) and, in all cases, rudimentary levels of economic transformation.

This makes any kind of coherent development planning and implementation nearly impossible. “Eastern Africa features several countries with some of the lowest levels of human development in the world, including Burundi, Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan,” the report explains.

Contrasts are represented by countries such as Rwanda, which performs well on the Africa SDG Index — coming 12th out of 52 countries — but which BTI politically considers to be a hard-line autocracy. On the other hand, Madagascar performs very poorly on the Africa SDG Index, (position 44 out of 52 countries), but scores relatively well in terms of political and governance performance, according to BTI, although it is making limited progress on its economic transformation.

The example of Rwanda shows the difference that high-level political leadership and commitment to SDG implementation can make, even in the absence of effective democracy, supported by rising levels of economic growth. Madagascar, on the other hand, has experienced some political instability over the past years as well as stagnating economic growth rates, which has hampered progress toward the global goals.

Looking Ahead to 2030

Although the best governance scores are found exclusively among democracies, overall it seems that a combination of good governance and economic transformation, rather than good governance and high levels of political transformation, contribute to higher levels of progress toward the SDGs. This is not only illustrated by the case in Rwanda but also in Djibouti, where hard-line authoritarian regimes have recorded some impressive development achievements, including high economic growth.

Yet while economic growth is important to generate the resources to fund better services, infrastructure and employment opportunities, this needs to be combined with long-term planning and action for SDG implementation. For such action to be integrated, inclusive and sustained, this requires the participation of all sectors, levels and actors of society, including civil society, universities and the private sector. This necessitates political systems that are open, transparent and accountable. If Africa is in it for sustainable development in the long haul, the time for political transformation is now.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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