Africa is both rich in human and natural resources, yet the poorest region the world, often depending on food aid and imports to supplement the needs of its food insecure population. There are many factors which influence underdevelopment in the region, many external but many others which are internal, including war.

A crisis of governance – weak political processes and institutions, weak legal systems, poor economic performance and debt, and underdevelopment and poverty – contributes to undermining the well-intentioned institutions and measures that have been established to promote and strengthen regional cooperation in Africa.

Regional cooperation has many dividends for the region, fostering investor confidence and encouraging investment in science and technology, and many other opportunities for sustainable development. Environment is a major factor in promoting such cooperation, building upon established frameworks such as MEAs, river basin commissions and transboundary national parks. Conflict and war, however, show the immense cost to both human and natural resources when cooperation breaks down. Many millions of people who should otherwise be contributing to national and regional development are often denied this opportunity through displacement and forced migration. Millions of others die prematurely, having made limited contribution to society and Africa’s development. In such a situation, efforts aimed at attaining the MDG targets are bound to fail.

Conflict has affected some of the poorest countries in the region, and has made them even poorer. This can sometimes result in a vicious cycle – therefore, the need for adequate, sustained, well-coordinated post-conflict rehabilitation strategies. Essential aspects of this include providing training and supporting demobilization programmes of former combatants, to enable them to achieve a sustainable lifestyle. Access to land and natural resources is an important part of this in Africa, especially in densely populated areas, as is innovative utilization of natural resources including expansion into new regional and global markets.

The NEPAD African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) may provide leaders in Africa with an opportunity to make regional cooperation in environmental management a key component of the criteria for peer assessment. Existing mechanisms for conflict resolution and peace-keeping, such as those of the AU and sub-regional organizations, should be strengthened through consensus building. However, there is a need to avoid competition and duplication between different institutions.

Developed countries, for their part, need to support African efforts by fulfilling financial pledges and privileging humanitarian ideals above geo-strategic interests. Such support would be in the spirit of MDG 8. Aid and trade agreements should take greater account of the actual and potential conflictual aspects of natural resource extraction, processing, and sale. For example, aid packages to countries where natural resource extraction is problematic could be conditional on improved accountability of related financial transactions, and/or effective environmental and social impact assessments. This will require a shift away from the current security focus (international terrorism) by most major donor agencies (Le Billon 2003). However, external regulation is affected by various technical and political constraints, and hence good domestic governance is a more effective means of limiting the capacities of actors to use natural resources to finance conflict (Le Billon 2003).

In order to prevent conflict, the root causes of conflict should be addressed, and sustainable and equitable development must take place. Such development would go beyond macro-economic expansion, and would be pro-poor in nature, geographically balanced within each particular country, and would involve the enhancement of the skills-base in each country. Equity needs to be a key feature of national and sub-regional economic development. This kind of thinking is reflected in the various founding documents of the AU, SADC, NEPAD and other African institutions. There is a large degree of convergence on issues of security: most see development, freedom and peace-building as essential parts of a multidimensional approach to addressing Africa’s problems (Ginwala 2003). The importance of a comprehensive, structural approach has also been described in the Carnegie Commission’s report on Preventing Deadly Conflict (Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict 1997).

Africa’s governments need to remember:

“There can be no peace without equitable development, and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space.”