Africa faces a hard choice on the SDGs under COVID-19

A boy looks out of a bus window as teachers prepare to board government chartered buses to go back to schools of countryside towns, scheduled to reopen next week, amid travel bans between regions due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Dakar, Senegal May 27, 2020. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Editor's note:

Below is a Viewpoint from Chapter 3 of the Foresight Africa 2021 report, which explores top priorities for the region in the coming year. This year’s issue focuses on strategies for Africa to confront the twin health and economic crises created by the COVID-19 pandemic and emerge stronger than ever. Here is one half of the debate on strategies for maintaining momentum toward improved human development outcomes and the role of the Sustainable Development Goals in this new world. See an alternate view.

Foresight Africa 2021COVID-19 has made it extremely difficult to mobilize the resources needed for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the time left to their target date of 2030. Indeed, as the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) reported in July 2020, the current rate of progress on the SDGs in Africa is insufficient to meet the targets. Several other recent reports echo UNECA’s view.

Given these difficulties and the new challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, African countries should consider reducing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) from the current set of 17 to a smaller much more manageable set that fully recognizes this new world, and redirect many of those efforts to fighting the crisis at hand. To be clear, African countries should not abandon the SDGs altogether. However, given the significant overlap between the SDGs and the African Union’s Agenda 2063, “The Africa We Want,” I argue that efforts should be more focused on achieving Agenda 2063, which has a longer time horizon than the SDGs, which end in nine years.

Meeting the targets of the SDGs was a great challenge for African countries right from their adoption in 2015. Since March of 2020, the implementation challenge has been made even more difficult by the pandemic, given COVID-related lockdowns resulting in slowed economic growth—including an estimated 3 percent contraction of sub-Saharan Africa’s economy in 2020. Already, major economies such as Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt are either in recession or experiencing very slow growth. Continued poor export performance limits the possibilities of growth, although the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) could provide new growth impetus. Assistance promised by the G-20 and multilateral and regional financial institutions has not materialized to the extent hoped for.

Thankfully, many COVID-19 vaccines have been approved. Some have even been designed with a lower price point in mind to encourage their accessibility in the developing world. As vaccine administration has commenced in a number of countries, the world may be on the cusp of emerging from the pandemic. Africa’s priority now must be to inoculate all her citizens and “build back better.” Building back better demands pragmatism and realism. Realism requires a careful review of all commitments, separating “desireds” from “achievables.” Pragmatism requires a rethink of the SDGs to reduce them from the current 17 goals with 169 targets to a much more achievable set.

A smaller set of achievable goals will enable policymakers in Africa and elsewhere to protect, to the greatest extent possible, the successes of the recent past in health, education, food security, and poverty. Leaders should then redirect these efforts and consider different priorities to ensure better livelihoods in the long run to fighting the immediate crisis.

Thus, African policymakers should limit borrowing, expand fiscal space through enhanced domestic resource mobilization (including aggressive blocking of leakages),and redirect a reasonable share of available own resources to COVID-19 and managing out its economic impacts. While helpful, aid will not be enough to fill investment gaps in health, education, and poverty reduction. Fortunately, African countries have a roadmap for strengthening their health sector in the 2001 Abuja Declaration wherein they committed to allocate no less than 15 percent of their annual budget to the health sector, and progress is ongoing.

Importantly, COVID-19 revealed as never before the grave consequences of Africa’s scientific and technological dependence, although the technological gap has been long-known. Building back better will require African countries to increase domestic spending on science, technology, and innovation (STI) and aggressively expand STI partnerships. Success in this area will place African countries in a good position to successfully confront the next pandemic.

Finally, African countries must, as a matter of urgency, develop their own pharmaceutical manufacturing sector before the next pandemic arrives. The African Union’s Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Plan for Africa provides a good framework to achieve this goal if it can be operationalized.

Thus, while progress towards the SDGs has been laudable, African governments and their peoples might be better served with a reconsideration of the SDGs under COVID-19. Indeed, focusing on the issues noted above will continue momentum towards them in the long term, creating jobs, improving health outcomes, reducing poverty, and, ultimately, placing Africa on a footing from which it can achieve the Aspirations of the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

Education losses in sub-Saharan Africa since the onset of the pandemic