In September 2015, world leaders at a United Nations special summit in New York adopted an audacious universal plan to set the world on an inclusive and sustainable growth path within 15 years. At the UN summit, countries around the world agreed to work towards common goals of No Poverty; Zero Hunger; Good Health and Well-being; Quality Education; Gender Equality; Clean Water and Sanitation; Affordable and Clean Energy; Decent Work and Economic Growth; Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure; Reduced Inequalities; Sustainable Cities and Communities; Responsible Consumption and Production; Climate Action; Life Below Water; Life on Land; Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, and Partnerships for the Goals.
These aspirations were collectively known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — the replacement for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — and the SDGs outlined 17 goals and 169 targets that should be achieved by 2030.
Today, we are roughly seven (7) years before the 2030 mark. The stakes have never been higher for the world, reeling from the Coronavirus pandemic, rising inflation, geopolitical tensions, and worsening climate conditions. These crises which have been exacerbated in the last two (2) years have affected developmental progress across many dimensions. Up to 676 million people globally were estimated by the United Nations to be living in extreme poverty levels as of 2022, compared to 581 million pre-pandemic. At the same time, estimates show 1 in 10 people suffer from hunger, 24 million pre-university learners are at risk of never returning to school, and women accounted for a higher proportion of the 2020 employment loss (45%) than their share of the global workforce (39%). Across the board, many gains have fizzled away.
Africa has been particularly vulnerable. The pre-pandemic SDG progress was less than desirable, and now more than 460 million people are in deep poverty.
The implication is that the next seven (7) years are essential for Africa to reverse ugly trends, make meaningful progress, and consolidate on gains that have been achieved so far. The new year 2023 — the second leg of our Journey to 2030— is vital for the evaluation of the current progress status and re-assessment of strategies to guarantee victory.
Relying on the available barometer from the Sustainability Development report (formerly the SDG Index & Dashboards), sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries ranked among the laggards in terms of SDGs performance in 2021. With an SDGs index score of 53.5 points, SSA outperformed only Oceania (51.8) while regions like Eastern Europe and Central Asia (71.1), Latin America and the Caribbean (69.5), Middle East and North Africa (66.5), and East and South Asia (65.8) fared better. As a result, SSA performance was below the global average of 66.0 points.
Across specific goals, SSA scored the least on the goals of No Poverty (24.2), Good Health and Well-being (40.5), Quality Education (42.4), Decent Work and Economic Growth (58.6), Sustainable Cities and Communities (46.7), and Justice and Strong Institutions (49.6). On the positive side, SSA led on Responsible Consumption and Production (95.9), Climate Action (67.7), and Life Below Water (66.2), while the SSA scores across the other goals were mostly low relative to other regions.
Furthermore, SDGs progress in SSA has been slow-paced, considering that the overall SDGs index score for the region was 51.6 in 2015, while the Global score was 63.8. This means over the six (6) years to 2021, SSA moved up by only 1.9 points whereas the world advanced by 2.2 points.
Unsurprisingly, SSA countries like South Africa (108), Kenya (118), and Nigeria (139) are all among the bottom 40% ranking of 163 countries assessed on SDGs performance.
These data align with the bitter realities across the region where less than a third of the urban population has access to public transportation, debt to gross national income rose to 43.7% in 2020 from as low as 23.4% in 2011, and 37.9% of workers lived on less than $1.9 a day between 2019 and 2021 – the highest poverty rate across regions. Based on UN reports, SSA also accounts for the highest under-5 mortality rate in the world at 74 deaths per 1,000 live births as of 2020, while the Brookings Institute highlights that 75% of the world’s population without access to electricity live in the region.
The current state of SDGs in Africa, especially SSA is alarming and should raise concern from policymakers, the private sector, and private individuals. To move the needle concerning the sustainable agenda, we must first identify the reasons behind the underperformance of SSA and work diligently to correct them.
According to experts, a major problem in the region is the weak capacity of governments and their agencies to monitor and measure the SDGs’ progress on the national and sub-national levels. The absence of quality evaluation tools, adequate training, and robust data makes it difficult for countries to understand the gaps they face and proffer workable solutions. A way around this would be an extensive collaboration with international partners, other countries, and the private sector to share knowledge and resources (capital and human) that will help gauge progress and formulate data-driven strategies.
In addition, SDGs for Africa (SSA especially) might remain an unattainable goal if the trend of weak capital mobilization into the continent persists. Without adequate infrastructure, human capital potential cannot be unlocked and the quality of life deteriorates. Yet, the African Development Bank (AfDB) estimates that the infrastructure deficit in Africa is around $107.5 billion a year. This chasm must be bridged through Public-Private sector initiatives that will provide essential amenities such as good roads, affordable internet, hospitals, and potable water for the population.
Another area of weakness plaguing the continent and region is the lack of strong institutions and public accountability. The absence of independent institutions and transparency in government removes the critical element of trust necessary to secure the collaboration of individuals and corporations in advancing the SDGs. In the same vein, the diversion of public funds from capital investments to lining the pockets of the corrupt political class is a huge disservice to the progress of society. Therefore, the government must commit itself to accountability and openness to encourage the buy-ins of public and private stakeholders.
Lastly, the role of public education and awareness cannot be overemphasized. To achieve the SDGs, there must be a sense of responsibility and a common purpose that is shared among all. The importance of education is that it helps the public understand what SDGs are about, why they are important, and the role everyone plays in achieving the goals. More so, achieving equality and fighting all forms of discrimination requires unrooting misguided beliefs through education. Schools across all levels alongside cultural and religious institutions must be encouraged to incorporate and amplify messages of equality and the broader SDGs agenda.
It is important to recognize that turning the tide on its head will be no easy feat for SSA, but achieving the SDGs should be the top priority because the future of millions of people — women and children especially — depends on the actions we take today.
Across many metrics, millions on the continent need our society to advance economically, socially, and environmentally fairly and sustainably which will improve their lot and give them a better future. The next seven (7) years might be tough, but they can be the springboard that lifts Africa to greater heights. On the other hand, doing nothing and resigning to despair will not only worsen outcomes for vulnerable populations but it would deny us a better future that we all deserve.