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How Sustainable is Sustainable Development in Africa?


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The concept of sustainable development is intuitively noble. Is it above reproach? Where the rubber hits the road, and hunger, poverty, or underdevelopment compete for the humanitarian limelight, is sustainable development what the world actually needs? More specifically, is sustainable development, in its current form, delivering what is needed to Africa?
Historically, policy makers have sought to maximise development. Giving development free reign is the fastest way of growing an economy. That is how most, if not all, of today's developed countries did it, and thus it would seem the logical strategy for developing countries to pursue. However, as modern science reveals the tightening screw on what was once thought to be earth's infinite bounty of resources, it is clear that prior models of development are unsustainable: the world today needs sustainable development.
Economic and social indicators show that most African countries have a great deal of development yet ahead of them. Africa reportedly holds one third of earth's natural resources. How Africa's developmental path unfolds is thus an important issue for both Africa and the rest of the world.
The 1987 Brundtland Report defines sustainable development as: ‘Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'. This is undoubtedly the kind of development that we all need, but how is it accomplished? It takes developmental sacrifices in the short-run for the sake of long-run sustainability. The perplexing question that follows is: how should African countries balance the pressing needs of the present against the considerable, but distant, needs of the future?
The Economist recently conducted an online debate on the sustainability of sustainable development (, accessed: 24 July 2009). One argument in the debate had a noteworthy point; it queried the logical compatibility between development (change) and sustainability (stability). This raises the question: can we have both? If not, must we choose between the two? Fortunately not. However, we do have to realise that there is a trade off between the two. At our present level of technology, promoting sustainability means, to a certain degree, restraining development.
In the developed world, where the needs of the present have for the most part already been met, the focus of sustainable development is largely on environmental sustainability. This focus does not sit well in many African countries where other humanitarian issues are more present and pressing than tomorrow's environmental worries.
Poverty alleviation is the corner stone of government policy in most African countries, and rightly so. Any move to restrain development is therefore avoided. Sustainable development does indeed aim to alleviate poverty in the long-run; however it sometimes directly opposes poverty alleviation in the short-run, making it politically unpopular. Sustainable development increases the cost of doing business, which is unwelcome in a region where businesses are least able to shoulder the burden. For example, the mining codes in South Africa have recently attempted to align the standards in their mines towards those of the developed world. The new standards are worthy of pursuing and would promote sustainable development in the long-run; however they were opposed by the newer companies who most complied with Black Economic Empowerment regulations. These spearheads of South African development simply said that they could not stay in business with such extra costs. This is a difficult problem, although not an insoluble one.

More years need to be added to the equation. The 1st world needs to keep in mind their own developmental history when laying down demands to the developing world. Timing means a great deal. Reform will need to be gradual and not overpowering if sustainable development is to take root effectively in developing countries, and if poverty and human suffering are to be dealt with along side. And so, with the long-term in mind, development needs to be wise but not unnecessarily restrained in the short-run in Africa. The ability to meet the needs of the present should be maintained within the concept of sustainable development. It is right for natural resources in African countries to be used to develop their economies and alleviate poverty. Indeed, development should remain as sustainable as technology allows, but not to the extent that it causes people to go hungry or bind them to poverty. This may serve as impetus for greater aid and investment from developed countries into the economies of the developing world, since sustainable development is an expensive commodity that many developing countries cannot afford, although its value extends across country borders, and into all of our futures.


Written by: Grant Bridgman, Intern in the GARP Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs




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