Improved human well-being is a crucial objective of sustainable development and is closely linked to environment goods-and-services.

Human well-being is multidimensional and requires access to resources to live a good life in good health, such as income, food, clean water and energy; personal security through the absence of conflict, the ability to mitigate environmental disasters and good governance; good social relations which include all people and promote fairness and equity; and the opportunity to make choices (MA 2005a). This implies a condition in which people are not just physically well, but have choices and live in dignity. The extent of well-being, as reflected in income, health, education and inequity, is an indication of how successful or unsuccessful development policies have been. In turn, the well-being of people affects their ability to effectively and sustainably manage resources. How these social factors impact on the environment is a product of a complex cultural milieu.

The Human Development Index (HDI) measures the state of human development at the global, regional and national levels and offers an opportunity to make comparisons over time. It looks specifically at the state of development in terms of the goal of increasing people’s choices and their ability to live a long and healthy life, to acquire knowledge and to have access to resources needed for a decent standard of living (UNDP 2005). Other human development indicators look at the extent of inequality between rich and poor as well as between men and women; the consumption of environmental resources such as energy; the level of personal security through measures related to refugees, armaments, violence and crime; and the existence of good social relations through the enjoyment of human and labour rights. Between 1990 and 2003, globally, 18 countries, 12 of which are in Africa, experienced reversals in human development, affecting some 240 million people (UNDP 2005). There has also been an increase in the number of African countries identified as having low human development, from 17 countries in 1990 to 30 countries in 2005 (UNDP 2005). Extending human development achievements requires not only reducing income poverty but also making improvements across a broad range of areas. Progress towards achieving the MDGs is presented in Annex 1, Table 2: Progress to meeting the MDGs.

Gender and divisions of labour

Gender relations and the divisions of labour are important factors in the economic development, human well-being and environmental stewardship in Africa and therefore need to be part of an integrated environmental management approach.

Gender inequity, and its impact on resource management, is shaped by many factors including unequal access to basic facilities, such as education and health care, differences in income, the extent of social and political inclusion, as well as social and cultural factors. All these impact upon the choices and opportunities women have, and ultimately on how they use and manage natural resources. African countries generally rank very low on the Gender-related Development Index (GDI): they constitute 35 out of the 40 countries with the lowest GDI ranking (UNDP 2005). However, African countries perform much better in the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) with, for example, several African countries having higher rates than the global average for participation of women in parliament (UNDP 2005).

The differential access and control of natural resources by men and women determine how much influence they have on environmental management. In many African societies, productive and parenting roles are clearly divided along gender lines. Gender roles, however, are complex and shaped by other factors, such as age and position in the family. For example, rural women in many parts of Africa are responsible for child rearing, the nutritional and health needs of the family, food production and weeding of crops, while men open up the land. In many places, women are the primary custodians of environmental resources by virtue of their position in the household, giving them responsibility for managing energy, water and farming among other things. They are often the repositories of indigenous knowledge and the promoters of biodiversity conservation and environmentally-friendly management (UNEP 2005).

Labour divisions may also be gendered. In rural Africa, for example, women and girls are almost always the exclusive suppliers of water for household use (Dankelman 2004). They play a lead role in the provision of water for animals, crop growing, and food processing. It is often women who decide where to collect water, how to draw, transport and store it, what water sources should be used for which purposes, and how to purify drinking water. Women make a disproportionately high contribution to the provision of water for family consumption in comparison to men. In many countries, women and children spend much time on water collection, effectively reducing the time for other valued activities (Gordon and others 2004). Gathering non-timber forest products (NTFPs), such as edible foods, is predominantly children and women’s responsibility. For example, in the mountain areas of east Africa, women expend close to a third of their daily calories in collecting and supplying water to their homes and communities (UNEP 2005). Degradation, deforestation or the extension of prohibitions on resource extraction may further penalize women in rural areas who already have to travel long distances to collect water or fuelwood. Collection activities compete for time spent in food preparation, child care and providing for the household’s nutrition (Picard 1996) and reduce free time and thus limit the opportunity for women to pursue other interests. Technological developments are changing the gender landscape of labour. Where water collection involves long distances, men may now use bicycles or carts for water transportation, freeing women from this task.

In some instances, however, the division of labour and respective roles give men the opportunity to be custodians of some environmental knowledge. Among nomadic pastoralists, it is the men who take the cattle out on two-day watering regimes and to far-off grazing lands, and deal with predators and raiding.

In urban areas, many women are involved in urban agriculture to supplement household food security and income. Many also participate in markets, selling produce and other wares derived from natural resources.

Given the multiple ways environmental management is gendered, policies and technologies must be gender sensitive. Women need to be empowered to be able to participate more effectively in policy processes and environmental decision making.