An African take on the Sustainable Development Goals

A decisive triptych: FFD3 / Post-2015 / COP21

2015 is an unprecedented year for global decisionmaking. It is the culmination of three years of intergovernmental negotiations and the signing of three important agreements. First, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, adopted at July’s Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FFD3), determined the magnitude for the realization of an ambitious Post-2015 Development Agenda. Then, on August 2, member states reached a historic agreement by which they committed to the modalities for Transforming our World over the next 15 years in areas of critical importance for humanity and nature. The resulting 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes the 17 integrated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 associated targets to take over the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), was formally adopted by heads of state and government on September 25 at the United Nations. This landmark event sends a strong signal of determination ahead of the December Paris U.N. Convention on Climate Change (COP21) where the international community aspires to set a universal climate binding agreement to keep global warming below 2°C.

The Ethiopian momentum

The FFD3 process that was concluded in Addis Ababa is a great success for Africa. Its negotiators mentioned in the outcome document instruments owned and led by Africa: African Union’s Agenda 2063 (the 50-year continental transformation blueprint), the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP), and the Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA), to name a few.[1] These African-led programs all advocate an “integrated, people-centered, and prosperous Africa, at peace with itself,” to quote the AU vision.

During the conference, the international community also decided to establish a Technology Facilitation Mechanism. It was launched in September at the United Nations in order to promote science, technology, and innovation in support of the SDGs. Other flagship measures include the creation of a Global Infrastructure Forum, the provision of a “social compact,” and the goal for official development assistance (ODA) to reach 0.2 percent of GNI to least developed countries (LDCs) by 2030.

However, FFD3 also brought some disappointments. For example, the common but differentiated responsibilities idea—a principle of international law establishing the responsibility for a state to address global environmental harmful effect according to its contribution to the problem—did not end up in the final text. But for the developing world, the biggest deception certainly came from the refusal to “democratize”[2] the global economic governance of international tax cooperation today overseen by the OECD. Officially, the European Union and the United States rejected the proposed new global tax body to oppose the formation of an umpteenth U.N. body. However, some assumed that it was an attempt to safeguard multinational companies vested interests. From an African perspective, this request would have helped spur domestic resource mobilization and combat illicit financial flows.

A strengthened African voice in the concert of nations

After a series of participatory regional consultations starting in 2011, the continent benefited from the thorough buy-in of its leadership at a very early stage. In May 2013, a high-level committee of heads of state and government produced the Common African Position (CAP) on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The CAP was subsequently adopted by the countries of the African Union at the January 2014 Addis AU Summit. Then, in January 2015, an African group of negotiators was set up to stand on the frontline of the last stage of the intergovernmental negotiations on the agenda conducted in New York.

Indeed, Africa had a bigger voice than usual in the negotiations, with continental nationals holding key positions in the process: The U.N. president of the General Assembly (PGA), the co-facilitator of the intergovernmental negotiations, the chair of the G77+China (a like-minded coalition of 134 developing nations negotiating together), and the special advisor of the U.N. secretary-general for post-2015 development planning were all Africans.

By being proactive since the beginning of the Post-2015 agenda and FFD3 processes, and by leveraging all available opportunities, Africans have considerably strengthened their voice and provided quality input, thereby overcoming their main disadvantage—lack of capacity—for the time of the negotiations.

An emancipated post-2015 African perspective

Thus, African countries, speaking with one voice, managed to incorporate their vision and programs into the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda. The U.N. Agenda now reflects the sub-regional dimension and regional economic integration, in line with Africa’s strategic thrusts that aim at making the eight Regional Economic Communities the building blocks of the continent. Africans also championed the mention of the inextricable correlation that exists between peace and security on the one hand, and development on the other. This nexus is particularly relevant in an African context, where both prevention and post-conflict approaches often have to be considered in sustainable development action.

The Common African Position has reaffirmed poverty eradication as an overarching goal for the continent and has strongly emphasized the need for a structural transformation of Africa that is people-centered. As a result, Africa’s No. 1 priority figures prominently in the new agenda under the commitment to eradicate poverty by 2030. The African call for productive capacities development was heard too: Indeed, economic growth, jobs, energy, industrialization, and innovation, among others, were introduced to the SDG package as a complement to human development and environmental protection.

To a lesser extent, the SDGs also reflect extra elements of importance for Africa, like the agri-business dimension, the relevance of trans-boundary water management, and the value addition potential of fisheries. However, other SDGs do not approach solutions from the African perspective: The agriculture sector is still mostly treated through the lens of hunger and malnutrition, rather than through agri-business and job opportunities for the youth.

New multilateral dynamics and business as unusual

Post-2015 and FFD3 negotiations confirmed the emergence of a strong and articulated African voice building on previous climate talks and the aid effectiveness experience. In fact, the European Center for Development Policy Management stated, “Africa is making significant strides on formulating a united front in its engagement with international partners over issues that are important not only to the continent of Africa, but the global system too. Increasingly, international actors and processes are coming to the realization that African countries are beginning to work together to create unique perspectives and positions that should be valued.”[3]

Besides the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social, environmental), the novelty of the new agenda is surely its universality. However, there is still a widespread feeling that the SDGs are not applicable to all but rather refer solely to developing countries in general and African countries in particular. It will be interesting to see how developed countries will tackle the implementation phase, especially with regard to the inequality, climate change, or sustainable consumption- and production-related goals.

Another success found within the SDG process was the inclusive process throughout, ensuring the participation of a diverse range of actors. Civil society systematically provided input during monthly interactive dialogues with major groups and other stakeholders. The U.N. held joint sessions with international financial institutions. Observers, regional organizations, academia, philanthropy, and the private sector were regularly involved, particularly in the High-Level Thematic Debates of the U.N. President of the General Assembly.

The time for action

A solid multilateral and multi-stakeholder consensus was reached, which is a good omen for the local domestication of the global and aspirational SDGs and targets. Correlated with the coming indicator framework and the expected data revolution, it will be the basis for implementation, follow-up, and review of the new agenda. There is no doubt that the SDGs can be an excellent foundation for long-term sustainable solutions, should the continent maintain the coherence and alignment of the U.N. 2030 Agenda with the vision outlined in the AU Agenda 2063.


This blog reflects the views of the authors only and does not reflect the views of the Africa Growth Initiative.

[1] Other notable Africa-led initiatives include the Africa50 Infrastructure Fund, Africa Power Vision, Sustainable Energy for All regional hub and Action Agenda and Investment Prospectus, Great Green Wall, regional integration, pastoralism, among others.

[2] To borrow the expression used by Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International Executive Director, in HuffPost article “Addis Financing for Development Conference Failed in Many Ways, But the Fight for Tax Justice Continues,” dated July 2015.

[3] ECDPM Briefing Note N°74 “How Does Africa Speak with One Voice?” by Ramsamy, Knoll, Knaepen, and van Wyk, dated November 2014