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Achieving Effective National Environmental Governance in Africa


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The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been the forerunner in involving governments in developing and implementing Environmental Law. However, since its establishment in 1972, the number of Governmental institutions and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO's) dealing with environmental matters and related issues in the African continent have increased. In 2000 for example, statistics show that there were respectively 49 and 59 NGOs per million people in East and North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. The role of Environmental NGOs' include but are not limited to promoting activities such as environmental education and advocacy, participation in environmental policy-making and implementation, and business-NGO partnerships. It is unfortunate that with all NGO-government efforts, the economic significance derived from environmental governance is yet to be fully understood and acted upon hence the myriad of environmental challenges currently presented to the African continent.

Burgeoning challenges in Africa are linked to environmental insecurity and the development catastrophe, and include poverty, water scarcity, degradation and inequitable distribution of natural resources, loss of arable land, food insecurity, coastal degradation and wetlands intrusion. These have posed (and continues to pose) great institutional challenges in Africa. These problems are intricately intertwined and compounded with population growth and migration which has led to unanticipated pressure on the resource base. Many African countries are severely strained by these problems and as a result hard hit by immense demands from the international community, yet they lack the capacity to cope with these changes and where they do, it is negligable.


Many environmental institutions in Africa therefore require an overhaul in its guiding principles, policies and laws and for effective environmental governance in Africa; national governments require a lot of assistance if at all they are to contribute to sustainable development. However, it is unfortunate to observe that more often than not, the role of national governments in international forums has received less attention and action than it deserves. Contributions to global environmental governance structures have been observed to come from the industrialized nations and as Joy Havarien and Duncan Brack from the Royal Institute for International Affairs, Energy and Environment Programme put it, discussions will continue only if the views of the developing countries are sort from initial stages.

National implementation of the Agenda 21 and Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) in Africa has progressed at a snail's pace and results are yet to be seen. This is owed to diverse institutional and policy challenges most common being ineffective governance structures, lack of adequate expertise, inadequate finances, lack of tools and equipment to implement and enforce current laws and international conventions, conflicting sectoral strategies towards human and natural development, unsustainable trade policies and corporate unaccountability. To address these challenges it is important to effectively address the synergies created between different MEAs. Institutional synergies also work in reaping benefits from MEAs and other stipulations. Governments should prioritize on expanded capacity-building programmes and build on stronger commitment and discipline.


Environmental protection and sustainable development therefore cannot be achieved without three key elements; wider public participation coupled with information flow, transparency and accountability. This calls for rationalization of the environmental system so as to ensure responsibility of all institutions and officials in Africa. Institutions should be provided with adequate power and resources to attain the demands and goals of the international community.

Communication is a tool that has been overlooked but it is an integral part in environmental governance. According to the UN Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements effective environmental governance can only be achieved through national level coordination. It further notes that the only entities that can give consistent guidance to environmental specialized agencies allocated with sectoral missions to respond to specific elements within national governments are the national governments. These can only be done through effective communication strategies. Full Implementation of the Agenda 21 and MEAs can be achieved through advanced communication by MEA secretariats - a role played by the UNEP. However, communication is faced with challenges that include false reporting and it's important to have shared environmental databases among institutions. Rwanda for example is working toward enhancing the Rwanda Information Technology Authority (RITA) which consolidates and coordinates the State's information technology resources. This is great initiative for other African countries to borrow from since it ensures information flow among national sectors.

Regulatory approaches in environmental management and protection should be implemented concurrently with a wide range of economic instruments and legal incentives with total engagement of all stakeholders. This should address the never-ending debate on development versus human welfare for both development and ecological sustainability. It is worth emphasizing that the World Trade Organization (WTO) should ensure that trade policies promote ecological sustainability. On the other hand, the national governments should show their commitment through effective coordination and action in the environmental arena. This will enable them to fully participate and push on crucial matters in international forums. Coordination must be extended to all sectors that have an impact on the environment with clearly laid down coordination agreements that must be strictly adhered to in order to achieve development goals through the sectors and maintain sustainable development efforts.

Environmental policies and mechanisms should have stricter accountability measures for corporations for all the environmental negative impacts caused by their activities. Greater finance structures for enhanced environmental governance in Africa cannot be overstated. This can be achieved through borrowing from the World Bank and reforms of trade and market policies so as to boost participation of developing countries in international affairs.

In a nutshell, African countries will achieve effective environmental governance, if all countries demonstrate their capacity to tackle environmental challenges at hand. It is true that Africa's environmental institutions have fundamental weaknesses, but it equally has opportunities and potential with sound legislation and administrative procedures for environmental management and protection. The compromise placed on enforcement of environmental laws and policies can change if participation and commitment from top to bottom (from laws to individual actions) becomes a daily routine. It is also imperative that literature and any other media of public information positively explain the role of environmental institutions and its contributions to the economy rather than focus on empirical findings.

By: Beatrice Chemutai, Intern, Environmental Security Programme (ESP)



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