The UN SDGs chartSince their inception in 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been a topic of debate and analysis, and for good reason. We have realised our errors when it comes to our planet and we now realise that if we do not act, we are headed for disaster. But did this call come a bit late? Can we even achieve these goals? Are they realistic?

Over the years, several countries have been leading in the implementation of SDGs but one thing has become clearer with each passing year. While European countries continue to dominate the top spots with exceptional environmental, social, and economic governance policies, the least sustainable nations and the worst performers when it comes to achieving the goals are all in Africa and Asia.

Not only that, but the bottom five countries are all in Africa – there are even fears that there could be some regression when it comes to achieving some of the SDGs in both Africa and Asia.

More work needs to go into sustainable development in both regions. But before we look at what needs to be done, it’s important to first identify what’s fueling the inability to achieve the goals.  

The challenges to sustainable development in Africa

According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), overall sustainability indicators show that most African economies are less sustainable now than they were about 25 years ago. Some of the common causes of this regression include

1. Poverty

While it is arguably the richest continent in the world in terms of natural resources, Africa has remained the poorest continent with extreme levels of poverty.

Over 25% of the world’s hungry live on the African continent and over 30% of African children suffering from growth disorders due to chronic malnutrition. Close to 60 million children in sub-Saharan Africa aged between 5 and 17 do not go to school; they have to work to support their families. Worse still, one in every five children is forced into child labour.

Close to two-thirds of the continent’s population lives in rural areas, deriving their main income from agriculture. With little to no options outside of what natural resources can offer, many farmers have resorted to unsustainable activities (e.g. excessive cutting of wood for fuel and hunting wildlife) to accommodate their pressing livelihood needs.

However, despite undertaking these activities, most of the farmers suffer from hunger and most are unable to afford a decent living. The activities have only served to exacerbate the poverty in the continent (e.g. through land degradation and wildlife extinction) and they will undoubtedly have unfavourable implications for future generations.

With the current population suffering from poverty and the future generations at risk of suffering the same fate, achieving the SDGs is highly unlikely.

2. Disease

In addition to extreme poverty, most of Africa is riddled with disease. For example:

  • The death rate from diarrhoeal diseases among children is highest in the world’s poorest countries (a significant number of the poorest countries are in Africa); it stands at over 100 annual deaths per 100,000 children. In some such as Chad, Central Africa, and Madagascar, the rate is over 300 deaths per 100,000 children.   
  • Over 69% of the people who live with HIV worldwide live in sub-Saharan Africa and 91% of the world’s HIV-positive children live in Africa. Many of these children have lost one or both parents and they live in extreme poverty without access to education, proper medication, or decent living conditions.
  • Africa is the continent most affected by malaria and close to 90% of all malaria deaths occur there. At least a million lives in sub-Saharan Africa are lost to the disease annually. 

To a large extent, poverty plays a direct role in the prevalence of disease on the continent. For instance:

  • Many Africans with low-income levels suffer from diarrhoeal disease because they are more susceptible to risk factors such as malnutrition and lack of access to clean water and vaccinations.
  • A big reason for the high HIV transmission rates is the lack of education among the youth. The lack of education has strong links to poverty.
  • Malaria is preventable with the right interventions such as indoor residual spray, insecticide-treated nets, and information campaigns. But for the poor in Africa, all these are mostly unavailable.

From all this, it’s evident that without addressing and curbing poverty, and in turn, disease, it will be difficult to achieve the SDGs.

3. The population growth and urbanization

Bird's eye of an extremely crowded cityAfrica has one of the fastest-growing populations in the world and its current population of approximately 1.34 billion is expected to increase by around 34% by 2035. It’s also expected that by 2050, 25% of the population will be from sub-Saharan Africa alone.

The rapid population growth is putting further strain on the already-stressed ecosystems. As things stand, there are many issues with aspects such as food security, environmental degradation, and lack of robust water supplies. Any increase in the number of people relying on the existing ecosystem is not great news.

To further worsen the rapid population growth issue is the rapid urbanization taking place in Africa. Many people are moving from rural to urban areas in search of perceived better opportunities, but this migration is coming with new problems.

The reality is that the grass is, in most cases, not greener on the other side. A significant number of urban dwellers live in slums, usually without rights to any land and without access to piped water, reliable power supply, or waste disposal facilities.

This current reality is a far cry from the sustainable cities and communities that the SDGs are aiming to build.

4. High food waste

Except for North Africa, the rest of Africa wastes around 30% of its food largely due to post-harvest losses – many people lack the means to store their food properly after harvest. In fact, these losses are estimated to be worth around $4 billion annually in Sub-Saharan Africa alone – enough to feed at least 48 million hungry people.

This means that even though farmers are growing what is probably enough food for everyone, many people are still hungry.

There goes SDG 2!

To top it all, the rapid population growth is not doing the situation any favour; more people = higher food demand and consumption.

In addition to increasing awareness of the impact of food waste, one of the biggest solutions lies in harnessing technological improvements to reduce resource-intensive food production and waste that occurs throughout the food’s lifecycle. 

5. The unsustainable extraction of resources

Africa is highly dependent on its natural resources and so extractive industries are widespread. Unfortunately, the current extraction patterns of many non-renewable resources such as crude oil and minerals are unsustainable, with a severe negative impact on the environment. Groundwater is being polluted, soil contaminated, and a lot of productive land is being lost to unsustainable extraction processes.

Furthermore, since many African households still largely rely on firewood as their main fuel source, deforestation is a big issue. For example, close to 90% of West Africa’s rainforest has been destroyed to date due to human activity such as subsistence agriculture and firewood collection.

Overall, at 0.8%, Africa has one of the highest annual deforestation rates in the world.  Although many initiatives are now being undertaken to educate people on the importance of taking care of forests, there’s still more work to be done and 2030 may be too soon to achieve sustainability.

6. Climate change

Climate change is affecting the entire world and Africa is not exempt. However, some studies suggest that Africa will suffer greater effects of climate change than other continents and this will have a big impact on the region, which relies on agriculture.

Nonetheless, combating climate change is not a top priority for many African nations that are battling with more immediate concerns such as disease and hunger. As such, the implementation of the SDGs, and in this case SDG 13: Climate Action, is not progressing very well.

Maps of Africa and Asia

The challenges to sustainable development in Asia

Like Africa, Asia is also behind when it comes to achieving the SDGs. Although most Asian countries have taken significant steps to create frameworks for the implementation of the goals, there are several challenges in the way. The following are some of the main ones:  

1. Poverty and inequality

First, even with ongoing efforts to reduce the number of people in abject poverty and some successes that have seen dramatic poverty reduction, Asia remains home to over 50% of the word’s extremely poor population.

Regardless of being at the forefront of technological advancement and fast-growing economies, there are still worrying gender and economic disparities that are undermining social cohesion and potential economic gains that can help curb poverty.

Just like in Africa, this poverty overlaps with several other elements (e.g. sanitation, health, and education) that make it difficult to achieve the SGDs.

Second, in addition to the people’s poverty, governments are also struggling to mobilise the funds necessary to implement the SDGs. This is particularly more evident in South Asia, a relatively lower-income region. Without proper funding, it’s virtually impossible to achieve any macro-economic reforms and in turn, many, if not all the SDGs.

2. Disaster risk and climate change

There are concerns when it comes to the risk of disaster that most Asians face in their daily life. 

The concerns are warranted.

For example, people who live in the Asia Pacific region are five times more likely to be affected by natural disasters compared to people in other parts of the world. This risk lowers the ability of many communities to achieve the SDGs.

Furthermore, climate change is compounding the natural disasters and the threat they pose to achieving the SDGs. At present, Asia Pacific is responsible for over 50% of all global emissions and any increases in emissions spell disaster for the climate.

Imagine what this means for the livelihoods of vulnerable people who are already living in poverty and at high risk of natural disasters.

The outlook is not so great.

3. Population growth and natural resources

Asia is home to 60% of the world’s population and counting. There is increased pressure on natural resources and this pressure is likely to increase as the population grows. Combined with poverty, the unsustainable use of resources is outpacing efforts to build resilience in Asia and achieve the SDGs.

Then there’s that universal challenge…

In both Asia and Africa, there’s the issue of data analysis gaps. Both continents are trailing behind when it comes to measuring SDGs data.

Data availability is also highly uneven. There is a significant lack of quality data for setting targets and measuring progress. As such, it’s hard to keep up with what’s been achieved and it’s equally difficult to pinpoint the areas that require attention. 

It’s simple, you can’t determine how well you are doing if you can’t measure what’s going on.

How Africa and Asia can chart a new path

People of four different ethnicities holding hands together

Both Africa and Asia need to be more involved in sustainable development and sound policies are required to change the narrative.

Some areas to explore include increasing awareness within communities, localising the implementation of the SDGs, and promoting and managing sustainability policies and programs.

Furthermore, the nations that are struggling to achieve the goals can work on improving the effectiveness of their national sustainability policies. For this, nations that are already doing well can help with strengthening the capacity to implement sustainability agreements.   

No one person has the solutions. Our ability to achieve the SDGs comes down to how much we come together to make it happen. Going forward, we need to adopt a socially inclusive “whole society” approach.

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.

Hellen Keller

What ways do you think will help us achieve the SDGs? How do you think Africa and Asia should go about sustainable development? Join the conversation and share your thoughts and opinions.

And if you want to learn more about living sustainably, be sure to check out Fettle Hub’s ultimate guide to sustainable living.

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