Sustainable economic growth is essential for improving human well-being. However, the tendency to push production and consumption beyond the Earth’s ability to support them makes such an achievement impossible and, if this trend is not stopped, it could herald a disastrous tomorrow for Africa. Sustainable development is only possible where economic growth, social justice and equity, and environmental integrity are achieved.

These three pillars of sustainable development need to be addressed in an integrated manner in order to achieve the desired outcome. Peace and stability are necessary for development, and the environment can create important opportunities for collaboration. An equitable society in which people are empowered to participate effectively in policy making and decisions that affect their well-being is essential. Fairness and equitable distribution of natural resources, as well as other local, national, regional and global wealth and benefits, the rule of law, and respect and tolerance of differences in culture, religious beliefs and traditions are essential for harmonious and sustainable development.

Most economic activities in Africa are based on the natural resource endowment; the depletion of natural resources beyond their regeneration rate, their pollution and reduction of their waste assimilation capacity will impede growth. The social and cultural aspects of use need to be considered as well, and in particular the issue of equity needs to be more effectively addressed. Africa can create new opportunities for growth and well-being through the effective implementation of policies by developing appropriate strategies, project planning and sustainable practices. Incorporation and operationalization of sustainable development principles, including intergenerational and intra- generational equity, the polluter pays principle, the precautionary approach, community participation and the mainstreaming of environment and gender into development planning and decision making will go a long way to achieve sustainable development.

Growth in Africa in the 1990s became associated with income inequality and this trend has continued since then. It is now widely accepted that inequality in access to assets, and especially productive assets, such as land, are critical factors driving inequitable growth and poverty (World Bank 2005b). The Gini index measures the extent to which the distribution of income (or consumption) among individuals or households within a country deviates from a perfectly equal distribution: a value of 0 represents perfect equality, a value of 100 perfect inequality. Many countries in Southern Africa have high values due to the unequal land and natural resource distribution that forms the basis of their economies. Zimbabwe, for example has a value of 56.8 (UNDP 2005). A similarly pattern is evident in Nigeria, with a value of 50.6 as a result of an economy based largely on mineral and oil exports and poor local benefit distribution. A reduction in inequality can add a “redistribution component” to growth, leading to faster overall poverty reduction (World Bank 2005b).

The World Development Report 2003 points out that, with the global economy growing at a projected rate of 3 per cent per year over the next 50 years, there will be a fourfold increase in world gross domestic product (GDP) (World Bank 2002). This growth will require major investments in new human-made capital to expand capacity and to replace existing capacity as it ages. It is projected to generate more environmental and social stress. Increased income can facilitate better social and environmental outcomes if countries adopt more equitable and pro-poor strategies (WRI and others 2005). Countries should take pre-emptive action to deal with impending social, economic and environmental catastrophes, such as energy and water crises among others. Adopting an approach to investment and development that incorporates sustainability criteria is critical in avoiding adverse impacts (World Bank 2002). Development paths in Africa can be shifted, provided institutions for implementing the constructive policies are developed.

In order to achieve sustainable development in Africa, financial and other resources, both local and global, have to be mobilized as pledged in many world fora including UNCED in 1992. Investment strategies need to focus more directly on creating opportunities for growth that favours poor people. The downward trend in FDI and development aid needs to be reversed. Technology is potentially an important tool for achieving sustainable development, therefore its transfer and accessibility should be improved. Technologies may be useful in promoting more efficient utilization of resources as well as cleaner production and consumption. The developed world, through the WTO, needs to facilitate the achievement of fairer international trade. This will give developing countries better access to international markets and thus boost their production and economic growth. Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) can also provide an opportunity to tackle poverty through improved health and education, and also through mainstreaming the natural environment into everyday decision-making processes for management and utilization of environmental resources. The potential value of PRS is discussed in Chapter 8: Interlinkages: The Environment and Policy Web.