Africa can make poverty history; the tough job is figuring out how

The continent must finance its own growth, by investing in infrastructure, improving productivity and stopping illicit financial flows

(CAPE TOWN) AFRICA has a once-in-a-generation chance to end poverty as a new post-Millennium Development Doals (MDG) order takes shape, but financing the plan to be presented before heads of state in September remains a major challenge, the World Economic Forum on Africa heard Thursday.

The United Nations is currently developing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will guide international development over the next 15 years, succeeding the MDGs that run out this year.

The MDGs were criticised by some as having been imposed on Africa when they were negotiated in 2000.

But key African voices are optimistic the obstacles that accompanied those goals can this time round be anticipated, leading to a document focused on the much-elusive “inclusive growth”.

Poor man’s goals

While the MDGs, in theory, applied to all countries, in reality, they were considered targets for poor countries to achieve, with finance from wealthy states. But this time, every country will be expected to work towards achieving the SDGs.

“The SDGs reinforce, buttress and give attention to Africa, making [their] ownership even more important,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, renowned Nigerian economist, said in Cape Town. Placing human rights issues at their centre would further improve the chances that the new goals deliver their promise to a region where brisk growth has been criticised for leaving millions of Africans behind.

“We are the first generation to make it feasibly possible to end poverty, and to also entrench the issue of gender equality in development,” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN under-secretary said at the interactive forum.

Women are highlighted as being central to Africa’s growth, but have been systematically marginalised on many issues, the panel said. “In many parts of the world to be a woman is more dangerous than being a soldier because they are often collateral damage,” Mlambo-Ngcuka, who is also executive director of UN Women said.

Retaining the urgent concerns of the region’s youth in the SDG process would further enhance their buy-in from a broad section of society, she said. “In Africa we have to emphasise how we will support young people.”

The new SDG goals will double in number to 17, raising concern that they would not be easy to communicate or act on for governments.

But those concerns could be mitigated by remaining focused on the sustainable creation of equal opportunities, Paul Polman, the chief executive of multinational consumer goods giant Unilever, said.

$90 trillion

“The key now is how to measure the goals and who to hold accountable globally in order to achieve the goal of eradicating poverty sustainably,” he said, noting that $90 trillion would be needed for infrastructure that would develop the global economy without harming the environment.

But the SDGs need clarity on how they would be financed to avoid the funding issue that plagued the MDGs.

The Africa-focused development community will next month in Addis Ababa meet for a key summit to chart out how to finance the continent’s development, with donors talking of a shift from “billions” to “trillions” worth of investment in infrastructure.

That meeting should explore ways of building Africa’s increased ability to finance its own growth, Okonjo-Iweala said, with pledged international assistance being channeled towards areas that help increase tax revenue, such as tax reforms.

“We should double international assistance targeted towards building our own capacity,” Okonjo-Iweala, who is also Nigeria’s outgoing finance minister said. This would also help keep scarce resources in the continent, with at least $50 billion lost in illicit cash from the continent, according to a recent research by a UN-mandated study group.

Bringing Africa’s private players into the SDGs, including by reducing risk for such players was also crucial, as they had the needed liquidity in a world where the financing architecture has greatly changed in recent years, the panel said.


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