Past, present and future perspectives




Compared to 30 years ago, African countries are increasingly democratizing, are devolving power from the centre to lower levels, and are empowering communities and civil society organizations to participate meaningfully and effectively in decision making.

This chapter provides a synthesis of the issues covered in the previous chapters of AEO, followed by an analysis of policy responses for the implementation of a sustainable environment and development agenda for Africa. The chapter closes with a key output of the AEO process: 31 recommendations for specific actions by policy makers.


The wealth of a nation is measured by its total national capital, that is to say, the sum of its human-made capital, natural capital, human skills capital and social capital (Serageldin 1994). This is illustrated in easily memorizable form in Box 5.1. For development to be sustainable, the stock of national capital at any given time in the future must be greater than the current amount.

Africa has increased its total capital over the past 30 years. In spite of the challenges the region has faced from colonial times to the present, its overall stock of total capital—both absolute and per capita—has increased when measured in terms of GDP (UNDP 2000). Table 5.1 shows this trend for selected African countries, for 1975, 1985 and 1998. The individual components of total capital are considered in a little more detail, below:


However, this apparently positive picture is somewhat deceptive. Four reasons for this are outlined below:

Table 5.1 Trends in per capita GDP in selected African countries (in US$)
  1975 1985 1998
Seychelles 3 600 4 957 7 192
Mauritius 1 531 2 151 4 034
Tunisia 1 373 1 771 2 283
South Africa 4 574 4 229 3 918
Gabon 6 480 4 941 4 630
Ghana 411 328 399
Kenya 301 320 334
Sierra Leone 316 279 150
Sub-Saharan Africa 780 1 170 1 520
All developing countries 720 1 520 3 260
Source: UNDP (2000)

The link between environment and development is particularly strong in Africa because national economies are dependent on agriculture and natural resources at the primary production and processing stages.

Overall, while some African countries, such as Seychelles and Mauritius, have significantly improved the quality of life of their people, the majority of African countries are in the low human development index (HDI) category (UNDP 2000). As of the year 2000, Cape Verde Islands, Ghana and Kenya were the only three countries in the western and eastern African subregions to have medium HDIs; the rest of the countries were in the low HDI group (UNDP 2000).

The link between environment and development is particularly strong in Africa because national economies are dependent on agriculture and natural resources at the primary production and processing stages. The combined contribution of agriculture and industry (largely natural-resource based) to GDP is significant, especially in those countries with lower HDIs. For example, in Sierra Leone—the country with the lowest HDI in the world—agriculture and industry represent 68 per cent of GDP (UNDP 2000). Yet many African countries, especially those in the eastern and western sub-regions, belong to this category. Sound management of the environment, therefore, has important implications for rural livelihoods, overall economic growth and better quality of life.

Although African countries have made some improvements in environmental management, many challenges still remain and should be addressed. For example, the current levels of land degradation; deforestation; loss of biodiversity; overharvesting of natural resources; atmospheric pollution; lack of access to clean and safe water and sanitation services; and poor urban conditions are manifestations of remaining unfavourable conditions. If nothing is done, these factors will combine to undermine Africa’s prospects for sustainable development.

Furthermore, the inadequacy of economic opportunities in Africa, the existence of trade barriers and farming subsidies in the developed countries, and the declining state of the region's environment mean that its people are becoming increasingly vulnerable to adverse changes in the environment. Many African countries are not adequately equipped to deal with natural disasters, such as floods, droughts and earthquakes, and emerging health problems such as the HIV/AIDS pandemic (discussed in Chapter 3).

Africa's challenge is captured in a statement attributed to H.E. President Olusegun Obasanjo, of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and reproduced in Box 5.2. In the face of such a challenge, defining paths to sustainable development is a necessity if Africans— especially those in the eastern and western subregions where HDIs are low—are to achieve the better quality of life they deserve and are to be able to improve their environment.

Box 5.2 The African challenge

‘We are all aware of the problems and challenges facing our continent today. Almost 15 years after the establishment of AMCEN and, indeed, eight years after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, our region is still bedevilled by many problems.We are still contending with land degradation and natural, as well as man-made, disasters.Our forests and forest resources are being indiscriminately exploited and depleted, our coastal and marine resources are being degraded, and we still have enormous problems with water supply and availability, quantitatively and qualitatively.Many of those problems result from the unplanned and unsustainable manner in which the region's natural resources, including its diverse ecosystems, are being exploited.

‘These difficulties are further aggravated by broader environmental problems of planet Earth, such as ozone layer depletion and climate change, which continue to threaten the survival of mankind. In addition. Africa has unfortunately been an easy dumping ground for toxic and hazardous wastes and obsolete chemicals and technologies. Add to these the intractable difficulties of crippling debt burden, a population growth rate that is spiraling out of control, pervasive and frequent violent conflicts on the continent ... and one gets a picture of an Africa that awesomely challenges each and every one of us to find immediate solutions.’

H.E. Olusegun Obasanjo, President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria

UNEP (2000)


Click to enlarge

Sound environmental management has important implications for rural quality of life and livelihood.

Mark Edwards / Still Pictures

African states have put in place a number of policy responses to address environmental issues. Many new national environmental policies, laws and regulations have been introduced and African countries are parties to a number of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). The catalogue of documents relating to environmental management clearly shows that—on paper at least— problems have been addressed extensively (NEMA 2001). However, these remain mere intentions unless implemented. Moreover, even after implementation, there is a need to verify that effects on the environment are positive and adequate (NEMA 2001).

Quantitative assessment of the success or failure of policy initiatives and developments is not an easy task. African states face the same problems as the rest of the global community where analysis of policy responses is concerned. Global experience indicates that assessment of the effects of implementation and of efficiency is made particularly difficult by uneven monitoring, poor and missing data, a lack of indicators and continuous reporting, and paucity of data on the environmental situation before and after implementation (UNEP 1999). Furthermore, there are no suitable mechanisms, methodologies or criteria to determine which policy contributes to which change in the state of environment. Such problems often prevent valid comparisons between the current situation and what would have happened if no policy action had been taken. A more complete and precise analysis will require the development of better mechanisms to monitor and assess the effects of environmental policies on the quality of the environment (UNEP 1999).

It is clear from this overview that there is a need to review and recommend achievable actions at national, sub-regional and regional levels, and to consider their implications for implementation at these levels and for the global environmental agenda. The difficulties outlined above notwithstanding, the remaining sections of this chapter identify appropriate policy responses, analyse their implications and provide recommendations for action.