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close this bookSustaining the Future: Economic, Social, and Environmental Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNU, 1996, 365 pages)
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View the documentEconomy and society: Development issues
View the documentEnvironmental issues and futures
View the documentEnvironment and resource management
View the documentInstitutional issues
View the documentEnvironment and development in Ghana
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(introductory text...)

Economy and society: Development issues
Environmental issues and futures
Environment and resource management
Institutional issues
Environment and development in Ghana


William B. Morgan

The 1980s and early 1990s witnessed serious economic decline or stagnation in most of Sub-Saharan Africa. The productivity of agriculture, Sub-Saharan Africa's most important industry, has failed to keep pace with the growth of population and has suffered particularly from falling productivity in the export sector and from declining markets and prices. Food imports are still essential in most SubSaharan countries to maintain an adequate total food supply and in certain cases to keep down food costs. Debt has mounted and pressures on resource use have increased, accompanied by evidence of environmental deterioration, so that attempts to arrest economic decline are now being questioned with regard to the immediate or potential environmental damage implied and the consequent inability to sustain either the economy or the resource base on which it depends. This double jeopardy has been compounded during the period by severe environmental difficulties relating to climatic change and associated in certain cases with drought and starvation, a deteriorating world market and world financial system, pressures on international loan capital from non-African sources such as the former USSR and the countries of Eastern Europe, declining international investment interest, changes in African societies and political relationships, and a number of civil wars, which have imposed great hardship on millions of people, besides the toll of death and injury.

Apart from South Africa, there have been very few signs of industrial progress, and the import-substitution policies dominant in most of Sub-Saharan Africa's industrial economies have mostly failed to generate growth. The current economic difficulties have been described as largely due to the agricultural crisis (see, for example, Pearce, Barbier, and Markandya 1988, abstract 1 and 2), but Sub-Saharan Africa's industrial failure has been more severe and the apparent importance of agriculture in the African economies is largely the result of the poor performance of industry. The depth of the economic recession in Sub-Saharan Africa has led some governments and local authorities to encourage the development of national and local self-sufficiency to compensate for the loss of overseas earnings, while social services have been reduced, civil service labour forces have been cut, and some state-controlled industries and parastatal organizations have been privatized in order in certain cases to reduce state budget costs.

In the past two decades in Sub-Saharan Africa much attention has been focused on economic reform and the introduction of structural adjustment and stabilization policies supported by advice and loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Growing awareness of the importance of environmental relationships for effective economic management and the successful operation of economic reform, mainly since 1983, has led to increased World Bank concern with the role of environment in long-term development and has encouraged the growth of new studies of environmental economics and environmental accounting (Pearce, Barbier, and Markandya 1988; Ahmad, Serafy, and Lutz 1989). One may also cite the inclusion of "environmental indicators" in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and World Bank publication African Development Indicators (1992), and the inclusion of data for "forests, protected areas and water" in the World Bank's World Development Report since 1991. However, it may be said that a great deal of the more traditional economic analysis, which ignores the environmental implications of economic policies, still persists (see, for example, Chhibber and Fischer 1991).

There is also a heightened awareness of the problems of world poverty and of Sub-Saharan Africa as one of the world's poorest major regions, together with a growing concern that such poverty is frequently accompanied by evidence of environmental degradation and of inefficient use of natural resources. These problems can have a "most immediate impact on rural poverty" amongst people whose survival is at stake as they are "forced to farm increasingly marginal soils, to reduce fallow periods which would permit the soil to renew its fertility, to cut vital forests in their search for arable land or fuel, to overstock fragile rangelands and to overfish rivers, lakes and coastal waters. These are the same people who have traditionally protected their resources by striking a balance between value extraction, resource conservation and regeneration" (Jazairy, Alamgir, and Panuccio 1992: 305). However, it is important not to exaggerate the role of poverty and of economic crisis in environmental and resource degradation. Wealthy communities can do as much, and more, damage in their pursuit of greater wealth, even though their wealth can provide a greater power to protect the environment, achieve more efficient resource use, or at least reduce loss and the damage rate. Much of the criticism of the environmental policies of third world countries comes from communities in wealthier industrial countries whose own environmental records are abysmal.