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Sustainable Development Goals: New targets hold promise for Africa

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Sustainable Development Goals: New targets hold promise for Africa

MDGs come to an end in 2015 as the new goals come into effect
From Africa Renewal: 
Young female student in Monrovia, Liberia.  Photo: UNMIL/Christopher Herwig
Photo: UNMIL/Christopher Herwig
Young female student in Monrovia, Liberia.  Photo: UNMIL/Christopher Herwig

The first draft of the world’s new development agenda – the Sustainable Development Goals – takes into account Africa’s interests, but not in the same way as the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) once did. 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are expected to shape the global agenda on economic, social and environmental development for the next 15 years. They are to replace the MDGs, which reach their deadline in 2015. Based on comparison with a key African Union position paper, Africa is getting what it asked for from the UN General Assembly document that proposes the new set of global goals.

Africa’s ‘special needs’ were addressed in the year 2000 Millennium Declaration, from which the MDGs were drawn. Even though the eight MDGs do not mention Africa, their emphasis on eliminating extreme poverty rates, reducing child mortality, promoting gender equality, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, and providing universal primary education by 2015 means that they target the world’s poorest – many of whom are in Africa.

In their current form, the SDGs are more focused on building productive capacity and give more weight to economic and environmental factors, which are also key features of the ‘Common African Position (CAP) on the post-2015 development agenda’. The CAP was the consensus of African leaders, civil society and the private sector. 

The congruence between African recommendations for the post-MDGs era and the framework accepted by the UN General Assembly as the basis for 2015 negotiations on the final shape of the SDGs may be an indication that the rest of the world, especially other developing countries, shares the same concerns as Africa. 

It may also mean influence. With a population of more than a billion and a new venue as a sought-after investment destination with economic growth rates rivaling those of any other continent, Africa may be moving from a familiar position of receiving advice to one of dispensing it.

Speaking in New York in October, the head of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), Ibrahim Mayaki, checked off some of the features of the CAP that also appear in the draft SDGs and on which Africa will need to rely: capacity development enhanced; gender issues tackled, including empowering the small-scale farmers who are women to ensure food security; jobs and a sense of social ownership found for youth; greater investment in research and technology.

“We should think about the private sector, including small and medium-size firms, where innovation is taking place,” Dr. Mayaki said.

Africa’s common position

In early 2014, around the time the CAP was drawn up, a working group of the UN General Assembly was starting on a draft to fulfill objectives set at the 2012 Rio+20 summit on sustainable development. 

The Rio text advocated for a continuation of the MDGs, to sustain progress on living standards and to catch up where achievements had fallen short.  But given the ‘sustainable development’  mantra of the goals and deep concern about eco-systems and climate change, it was certain that environment would figure more prominently in the SDGs. Concerns over climate, drought and land use feature prominently in Africa’s position paper as well. What stands out in both the African position and the General Assembly working group is the emphasis on the economy and empowerment.

“The CAP provides important input for the next stage of the intergovernmental process,” as the UN seeks to finalize the SDGs by September 2015, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Wu Hongbo said in an interview with Africa Renewal.

Both the SDGs and MDGs place poverty eradication at the top of the agenda. This was considered by Africa and the developing world in general to be a bedrock requirement, at least in part to ensure that the strengthening of environmental considerations does not signal a retreat from poverty eradication. 

In fact, Mr. Wu says, the balanced SDG package is effective in that it addresses poverty in terms of vulnerability of the poor to environmental degradation and through inclusiveness and social justice, as well as through economic advance. “I would say the African countries especially will benefit,” he added. 

Peace, security and governance

Another feature of the plan for the SDGs as distinct from the MDGs is the grouping of peace and security issues under the development banner. The reasoning is that conflict impacts whether countries advance in their development or not.  For Africa, putting peace and security into the SDGs directs attention to conflict-preventing factors such as equity, inclusiveness and rule of law. 

Finance matters

As opposed to the North-to-South direction of the global partnership laid out in the MDGs, the SDGs will apply equally to all countries. One question is whether Africa, which has long been an area of concentration for official development assistance (ODA), will see less incoming aid.

But Africa’s position as privileged beneficiary of aid may already be slipping. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), official bilateral aid to Africa fell by 10 % in real terms in 2012, and by about 5% in 2013, despite an increase in ODA to all developing countries for an all-time-high in the latter year. In Africa, incoming foreign direct investment now surpasses ODA. 

A simple substitution of private resources for public funds may not be the best way to characterize African options. The Common African Position takes into account a blend of finance sources. These include improving traditionally low domestic tax collection rates, staunching the flow of illicit flight capital and recovering stolen assets, tapping global financial markets, stepping up intra-African trade, South-South cooperation and public-private partnerships.

As the debate over the post-2015 development agenda continues, further preparatory work on implementing the SDGs will be held in July 2015 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at the third international conference on financing for development.  


  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Develop a global partnership for development

Common African Position pillars:

  1. Structural economic transformation and inclusive growth
  2. Science, technology and innovation
  3. People-centred development
  4. Environmental sustainability, natural resources management and disaster risk management
  5. Peace and security
  6. Finance and partnerships

Proposed SDGs:

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  13. Take urgent action to  address climate change and its impacts
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development
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