Today, the term sustainable development remains obscure, to say the least, and rather vague, often reduced to environmental protection or to issues that play out at high levels between states and international organizations. The purpose of this article is to dispel some misconceptions about this issue and to identify key issues across Africa. It is also about showing that sustainable development is an opportunity for Africa by contributing to economic growth and poverty reduction in African countries.
To give some history, the concept of sustainable development was formalized in the Brundtland report in 1987 at the 1st Earth Summit with the following definition:
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
This definition is in fact the formalization of currents of thought and awareness that existed already for centuries that the resources at our disposal are not unlimited. There is even an African proverb quoted in 1939 by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in “Terre des Hommes” which says that “We do not inherit the land of our ancestors, we borrow it from our children”. The history of sustainable development is also a chain of tragic events, international conferences and decisions on a global scale that have culminated in the discussions on climate change (Kyoto, Rio, etc.) and the COP21 that will be held in Paris in a few weeks.
The most accessible definition of sustainable development through its 3 pillars: economic, societal, environmental. There is no denying that sustainable development reconciles these three perspectives; in fact, they are interdependent and inseparable.
The economic pillar implies the creation of material value, profits and attacks the still too common perception that sustainable development is akin to a charity or a group of voluntary activities that cannot exist without donations, subsidies, aids, and therefore only in the associative world or in the public sphere. So no, sustainable development is about finding sustainable and sustainable economic models.
The societal pillar is everything that touches man, society. This pillar includes stakeholder involvement and human rights issues.
The environmental pillar is the preservation of the environment, but also better management of natural resources, both in economic activities and in everyday life.
Sustainable development is often seen as purely idealistic. Of course it is a little bit because without ideals no goal to achieve and we only have to settle for what we have today without thinking about tomorrow. It is not feasible for others because the terms ‘development’ and ‘sustainability’ are contradictory, often associated with the notion of decay. It is annoying and even frightening for others because it is often associated with change (from attitudes and habits to more sober behavior, to taking responsibility, to more transparency). Some even find it tedious, owing to the moralistic rhetoric of its most ardent supporters. Now let’s put it in the African context: sustainable development speaks little to Africans. It is too far removed from our African realities because “poverty” would prevent us from focusing on anything other than our most basic needs, which is to find something to eat every day. Moreover, it would be a pure invention of the northern countries to prevent the southern countries from falling into poverty.
In short, many clichés and above all a vision of sustainable development as a constraint. Yet sustainable development offers the opportunity for all to seize it.
For my part, I have found that there are a great many initiatives and efforts towards sustainable development in African countries. These are not only carried by the traditional actors – the public authorities and the associative world – but also by private sector actors, by ordinary individuals who have just woken up one morning with the desire to change things for their family or their community: from small project promoters to larger companies and SMEs. These actors see sustainable development as an opportunity to find solutions to concrete problems on the ground that improve living conditions for all, including low-income populations. They innovate to find sustainable solutions in strategic sectors such as energy, water, waste, agriculture, but also health and education; they create virtuous mechanisms and models for growth to benefit all. The purpose of this blog is to make you discover them.