Picture: Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) – Achieving Zero Hunger is a crucial component of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Tackling inequality in Africa is urgent, as it is structurally linked to countries’ struggles to tackle poverty. The most direct way other regions level inequalities is through direct redistribution of wealth and income through progressive taxation to public social protection spend on cash transfers and benefits, the writer says.
In September 2015 world leaders gathered at the UN General Assembly in New York to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development built on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Agenda 2030 was designed to augment the successes of the Millennium Development Goals agenda and supplement its weaknesses.
The critical difference with the SDGs was the twinning for the first time of the promotion of prosperity with a conscious commitment to advance the well-being of the planet.
With just under seven years to go to 2030, what sense do these goals give us about progress, particularly in Africa?
The highly coloured mandala of the SDGs is instantly recognisable in most corners of the globe. Each goal has subordinate targets that countries are expected to domesticate with their own national targets and data collection for monitoring.
The Kigali- based Sustainable Development Goals Centre for Africa was established in 2016 by Africa for Africa to own and advance the 2030 Agenda. Their 2021 report, Africa 2030: SDGs Within Social Boundaries Leave No One Behind Outlook makes for sobering reading.
According to the report, 83 percent of the world’s poor live in Africa, and Africa has the slowest pace of poverty reduction amongst all global regions. The report is clear that the long term effects of the global Covid-19 pandemic will have a profound effect on future progress.
The five main reasons put forward by the authors for these dire conditions are:
1) Multi-dimensional poverty remains concentrated in Africa; (2) Demographic transition matters for poverty reduction and 50 percent of Africa’s poor are below 15 years of age; (3) One in three employed are working poor; (4) Human development inequalities are indeed wide and vast; and (5) Social protection in Africa is limited.
To address these causes, the authors offer three pathways forward. Firstly, governments must concentrate resources on healthcare, secondly countries must concentrate on improving human capital development, and thirdly the authors advise caution in state spending through fiscal prudence, (which might dampen the ability of states to meet the first two recommendations).
But it does seem that the five causes offered by the authors are really characteristics caused by the developmental deficit, rather than causes of the deficit itself. The causes of poverty that lie in underdevelopment, inequality and lack of national support systems designed to meet people’s needs receive scant attention and instead focus is captured by the look and feel of poverty.
This lies at the heart of the global narrative of Africa being a hopeless basket case. Consider by contrast, the counter-narrative offered by the ‘Africa Rising’ messaging after 2000.
The positive thrust of that messaging was that effectively with the spread of mobile communication and a youth demographic dividend, Africa was inescapably destined to dominate global development, with the inevitable building of a strong middle class on the back of vibrant entrepreneurship. Indeed, growth of the African economy between 2005 and 2015 was 50 percent, compared to a global average of 23 percent.
But what we have seen is that the aspirations of both the Africa Rising anthem and the SDG development mandala were profoundly derailed by the effect of Covid, the second order effect of the Ukraine war and the ongoing destruction of climate change. And what we are learning is that isolated and discrete relief responses to events is not only inadequate for the Continent, but short-term actions can be wholly destructive, as seen when food relief drops destroy vulnerable local food value production and distribution value chains.
Africa has had a bifurcated developmental gaze with the almost simultaneous adoption in 2015 of the African Union Agenda 2063 and its 20 goals alongside the UN SDG Agenda 2030.
According to the AU, the 17 SDGs are incorporated in the Agenda 2063 20 goals, while the Agenda 2063 goals include some broader political and cultural and African-specific priorities. The position of the AU is that by focussing on Agenda 2063, all other developmental agendas will be covered.
Returning to the causal offerings of the 2021 Sustainable Development Goals Centre for Africa report, two possible ways forward do stand out that can be tackled and as faces of the same coin. These are progressive fiscal policy to tackle inequality and provide the wherewithal for social protection provisioning.
Tackling inequality is an urgent need, as it is structurally linked to countries’ struggles to tackle poverty. According to the Report, sub-Saharan Africa has had the highest loss in human development due to inequality.
This is a self-perpetuating dynamic too. Seven of the ten most unequal countries are found in Africa, and according to the report’s projections, the top 10 percent of income will still account for more than half of the share of total national income in 2030.
Goal Ten of the SDGs is very simply, “Reduced Inequalities”. One of the targets of Goal Ten is to “Adopt policies, especially fiscal, wage and social protection policies, and progressively achieve greater equality”.
The most direct way that other regions level inequalities is through direct redistribution of wealth and income through progressive taxation to public social protection spend on cash transfers and benefits. The report compares an 18 percent coverage rate of at least one cash transfer in Africa with 84 percent in Europe and Central Asia, 68 percent in the Americas (68 percent) and 37 percent in the Asia pacific region.
Many countries claim that they do not have the capacity to roll out universal cash transfer programmes. SGD Goal 17 specifically addresses this, identifying both the imperative to strengthen domestic financing through fair taxation of wealth and income, and using international financing through Overseas Development Aid (ODA).
The developed world continues to demure and default on the delivery of the overseas development aid (ODA) targets of 0.7 percent of ODA/GNI to developing countries and 0.15 to 0.20 percent of ODA/GNI to least developed countries contained in the last SDG, goal 17.
The lofty principles of development agenda translate into very little when countries cannot feed their people. There are multiple and mutually reinforcing causes of the high levels of hunger on the African Continent. The broad principles of development and governance contained in Agenda 2063 of the African Union offer ways to realign the greater political forces of change.
In the interim, however, the pursuit of tax justice of profits leaving the Continent and the just and effective use of progressive fiscal policy to tax and to spend on universal cash benefits will put food on people’s tables, and the wherewithal for them to determine their own lives and aspirations.
Let Africa Rise.
Isobel Frye is Executive Director of the Social Policy Initiative (SPI)