Pathways to sustainable development – can Africa take a lead?

According to Ugandan President Museveni , “Climate change is a new form of aggression against Africa and humanity in general” at the UN climate Summit in September 2014. He stressed that while Uganda and other African nations, were suffering the most from climatic disruptions, they were not the ones to blame.

There is no doubt that many African countries will be amongst the most hardest hit by the effects of climate change. Testimonies by a number of African leaders at the September 2014 UN summit illustrated this point. Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou talked about how a main water source in his country Lake Chad, is literally drying up; ‘The Sahel region is showing impacts of climate change. We have seen a decrease in rainfall and waterflows, increase in desertification and temperatures – Lake Chad has lost 90% of its surface area in 20 years’.

The President of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz pointed out that ‘ 36 African countries are among 50 countries most impacted by climate change. Most of our citizens live off agriculture and animal husbandry and climate change has limited our ability to grow economically while harming the living conditions of our population.’ Museveni pointed out that ‘ this is not the fault of Africa. This is the fault of North America, Europe, and some parts of Asia.” This is backed up by recent research by ODI which reports that,’ government and household budgets in the poorest countries have been left to foot the bill for a threat that originates principally in richer countries’.

The Green Climate Fund does offer possible ways forward but so far many nations (including the UK) have failed to pledge any substantial amounts.


World leaders are strong on words but it is actions which count now and time is fast running out to stem the worst effects of our changed climate. The threats to global food security, economic prosperity and social stability are increasing all the time and it is the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable who are paying the price. Unlimited growth and consumption is not an option within the planet’s ecological carrying capacity as we need 1.5 earths to meet the demands we currently make on nature.

Nonetheless, the huge challenges for Africa present an opportunity for leaders like Museveni to chart a new path of sustainable development. In a forthcoming lecture for the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), Dr Fatima Denton, a lead author of the IPCC report and coordinator of the Africa Climate Policy Centre, is expected to call upon African countries to start using climate-change mitigation as a pathway for development. This would help African countries achieve energy security, stimulate industrial potential and transform its fragile and underperforming agricultural sector. Her presentation is likely to highlight the wide range of adaption initiatives that are already demonstrating technological innovation and strengthening Africa’s capacity to turn its climate challenges into development opportunities. According to the IPCC 2014 report, most African national governments are starting to plan for adaptation, disaster risk management and diversification of livelihoods though these efforts are not yet co-ordinated.

President Museveni recently highlighted the potential of the purchasing power of the African middle class to drive change. ‘The middle class in Africa is now of the magnitude of 313 million people which has boosted the purchasing power of Africa to US$ 2.5 trillion. This purchasing power is growing at the rate of 3.2% per annum. This growth and expansion of African GDP and purchasing power is in spite of inadequate roads, inadequate railways, inadequate electricity, etc’ (Museveni UN Climate summit 2014). If focused on sustainability, this purchasing power has the potential to unlock the creativity and enterprise of the region, however, it needs to be part of an alternative pathway to sustainable development which focuses on social and ecological justice.

But to what extent is this the case? The recent discovery of oil in Uganda has presented a mixed picture. Research by masters students at London South Bank University studied the effects of oil production in the Albertine region of Uganda and indicated that in fact many subsistence farmers and fisherfolk are actually being forced from their lands by expropriation by powerful interests. Poor literacy and educational levels mean that alternative jobs in the oil industry are not available for local people and the fragile local ecology of a vulnerable region is under threat from oil spills and flares. Community leaders fear social instability and rising conflicts of interest may further destabilise the area.

Yet this needs to be set against some very positive initiatives which are being led at the global level by organisations such UNEP and UNESCO and at the grassroots level by teachers’ organisations, universities, the National Environment Management Agency and local NGOs such as TreeTalk, African Rural Development Initiative and Kulika Education Trust.

African leaders like Museveni have a once in a lifetime opportunity to set a course to sustainability for the rest of the world to follow. In his UN speech Museveni proposed a fund to reclaim the forests and wetlands where they have been encroached on and also to reward those who are still protecting them. This needs the support of all world leaders – or humankind risks destroying our future life support system on this planet. Climate change may then indeed prove to be ‘not just a form of aggression against Africa but against all humanity’.

For a place at the annual Barbara Ward IIED lecture on November 20th featuring Dr Fatima Denton , please click here.


Ros Wade, London South Bank University,

wader [at], @roswade1
*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not designed to reflect the position of the PSA Specialist Group on Environmental Politics.  The Group encourages thoughtful and respectful reflection on the content in the comments section of the post.*