A new vision for African agency in sustainable development

Change is necessary not only in global economic structures and attitudes – but in African governance too.

Expert comment Published 19 October 2022 Updated 20 October 2022 3 minute READ

The conventional notion that Africa is mostly a consumer of norms and practices designed by the Global North has been repeatedly challenged and is increasingly being debunked. Increased African agency in international affairs is today a well-established and documented reality. But Africa’s influence still does not match the scale of the challenges that it faces on its pathway to sustainable development. 

Pushing for African agency in sustainable development also warrants a critical assessment of how ‘sustainable development’ should be defined, and how it can be achieved in terms of actual poverty reduction and real improvement in the lives of local poor Africans. Sustainable development has been a political catchphrase for over 30 years – but a genuine transition towards sustainability has yet to begin.

African agency today

Historically, there have been structural limitations on the agency of African stakeholders to shape development pathways. Chief among them, donor-recipient power dynamics have persistently promoted dependency and sustained institutional corruption. Many African countries are also challenged by economic incentives and infrastructure that have favoured the market demands and supply chains of former colonial powers, which largely remain reliant on natural resource extraction, and are marked by limited investment in value-addition activities and technology development.

Donor-recipient power dynamics have persistently promoted dependency and sustained institutional corruption.

Today, however, African agency is being exerted in a more assertive fashion. The African Union (AU), individual African states, civil society, the private sector and eminent and ordinary persons are all displaying Africa’s agency in steering global sustainable development priorities, namely by proposing their own development agenda, The African Union Agenda 2063, adopted in 2013. This was followed by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (Agenda 2030), which in many ways mirror Agenda 2063 – a clear demonstration of the influence of Africa in the global arena. 

Agenda 2063 is a strategic roadmap for Africa ‘to build an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven and managed by its own citizens and development goals representing a dynamic force in the international arena’. Prepared following a broad-based participatory consultation, it advocates for inclusion and empowerment and provides an excellent vision for African countries and African people. The SDGs address several of the key shortcomings of their predecessor – the MDGs – and incorporate a broader and more transformative agenda that more adequately reflects the complex challenges of the 21st century and the need for structural reforms in the global economy and governance norms.

In international forums on sustainable development, African countries are increasingly using their collective voice to change the discourse on how development can and should be done. For instance, by championing innovative solutions for carbon markets, African policy leaders are enabling access to climate finance for development while preserving Africa’s natural wealth.

In the post-COVID era, championing investments in and leadership of Africa’s global health architecture demonstrates a desire that in the next pandemic, Africa CDC, AMA and continental manufacturers will play leading roles in determining Africa’s public health strategy and implementation.

In trade, building on the groundwork led by the regional economic commissions, the AfCFTA will catalyse and scale regional integration, trade and cooperation, leading to promising new modes of supply chain and self-sufficiency.

Encouraging signs, but persistent shortcomings

Encouraging signs that African agency is gaining momentum cannot disguise the fact that Africa has yet to move from rhetoric to implementation in the realm of sustainable development. Continental visions often fail to go beyond declarations of intent, and have only limited influence on governance systems or national structural transformation, and African states remain vulnerable to economic shocks emanating from the global system.

African agency should not be only seen as emanating from government, but also as being exerted by independent civil society organizations and committed ordinary individuals.

Change will require governance systems that are coordinated, transparent, efficient, and inclusive, as well as tools, processes, and means (material, technical, and human) for successful implementation. There is an urgent need for a new governance paradigm in Africa and internationally, dealing with long-term social change.

Notably, African agency should not be only seen as emanating from government, but also as being exerted by independent civil society organizations and committed ordinary individuals. Effective agency needs to be multi-faceted and multi-actor, and depends on the inclusiveness of African governments and their willingness to work with civil society in their strategic engagements with external partners.

Both Agenda 2063 and the SDGs hold the potential for transformation, but implementation will depend on continued advocacy to hold authorities to account and change the dominant discourse, logic and rules of engagement at global, regional, national, and local levels. There is a need for a dynamic new model of African ‘development’.

Time for a new vision

Africa’s economic landscape is changing rapidly, with new regional and local value chains, and integrated regional economic corridors to link countries, minimize the burden of high-cost production and logistics, and boost real incomes and international competitiveness. But Africa continues to face structural challenges, including the need for large investment projects – at a time when Africa remains a net exporter of capital.

Donors and development partners must reflect upon their prior modes of engagement and commit to genuine and equitable relationships with African states. Such partnerships must reflect mutual respect of ideas and accountability, and commit to making space in international forums and multi-lateral arrangements for African people and countries to realize their own visions for progress.

More resources should be channelled to actors engaging closest to communities and people, who can better understand and communicate local needs.

But African leaders and actors must also recognize that with the advent of resources and agency comes responsibility for results and outcomes, notably the need to improve governance. Gaps in accountability, widespread corruption, and lack of successful implementation and sustainability of projects must be addressed.

Space for civil society cont.

Space for civil society and democratic participation in the development process must not be curtailed. A dynamic civil society, operating at all levels, needs to be encouraged, starting with funding opportunities. More resources should be channelled to actors engaging closest to communities and people, who can better understand and communicate local needs.

Risk and opportunity

These transformations are urgent. At present, the world faces multi-systemic shocks and risks – in the form of global pandemics, climate change, economic downturn, high inflation, and food insecurity. African countries and people are on the frontlines and face great risk to livelihoods and the progress in development that has been made thus far.

However, with a multitude of challenges come significant opportunities. As the world is reimagined and settles into a ‘new normal’, African countries and actors should grab the opportunity to redefine their role and models of engagement to embark on the next step of African agency in development. Such a redefinition will give hope to the multitudes currently suffering as a result of the economic and social failures of previous eras.

This article is part of a series on African agency in international affairs.