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close this bookSustaining the Future. Economic, Social, and Environmental Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNU, 1996, 365 p.)
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View the documentEconomy and society: Development issues
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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.

Economy and society: Development issues

According to World Bank estimates (World Bank 1990: 29 and 139), Sub-Saharan Africa has the second highest proportion of poor people of major world regions and is forecast to become proportionately the world's worst case by the year 2000, although its total of poor people will still be less than that of South Asia. The poor not only have problems in acquiring basic resources, but also have limited entitlements because of their status and low life expectancy owing to their vulnerability to disaster, exploitation, and social demands. In the Sub-Saharan countries for which data are available, rural poverty correlates most strongly with low levels of per capita energy consumption, of international trade, of imported food, and of valueadded in agriculture, i.e. commercial agriculture, but has only a low positive correlation with the percentage of the labour force in agriculture, suggesting that many rural poor people are unemployed, underemployed, or employed in non-agricultural occupations. Large numbers of peasant farmers depend mainly on subsistence and are little affected by the market reforms and freeing of prices advocated by the World Bank, while many of the rural poor depend on the market to supply basic needs. Rural poverty is generally higher in countries with poor economic development indicators and financial problems and there is evidence that it has been made worse in several countries, at least in the short term, by the financial policies and employment cuts associated with economic reform, following mounting international debt plus repeated drought and crop failure.

Marked economic and social inequity is evident in Sub-Saharan Africa, in some cases similar to the more extreme Latin American examples. Many resource use and environmental management problems are derived from inequitable management practices, which often claim superior scientific and technical knowledge, associated with alien systems of production and ideologies, and often support certain dominant economic, social, and bureaucratic vested interests. Formal orthodox environmental management offers technical efficiency, but is structured in a way that makes it the prerogative of a privileged group or class of nations or persons. It lacks the regard for social equity often built into indigenous popular environmental management. The answers to environmental questions and questions of sustainability are not necessarily scientifically determined, but may depend rather on the values, political positions, and vested interests of those called upon to provide them. The environmental end-users are the African people and it is with them that environmental management policy should begin, preferably in a much more participatory form than hitherto.

There is in Sub-Saharan Africa a vicious circle of population problems, producing mounting resource pressures and complicated by considerable migration, including strong rural-urban flows, urbanrural movement, migrant farmers and labourers, agricultural resettlement, pastoral nomads, and refugees from famine, warfare, and persecution. Despite high infant mortality rates, annual population growth rates of 3 per cent or more in most Sub-Saharan countries pose one of the greatest challenges to economic development and resource management, although the human resources are capable of improvement through better education and health facilities. Unfortunately these will become ever more difficult to provide with rapid population growth and the increasing social and economic liabilities of an urbanization that has failed to trigger industrialization or to produce higher levels of economic development. The future looks bleak for Sub-Saharan Africa because many countries have failed to improve standards of living or to provide for basic needs. The future demographic scenario both threatens natural resources and limits the effective development of human resources. The 1992 United Nations

Conference on Environment and Development at Rio de Janeiro indicated that the Sub-Saharan countries may have to shoulder a larger share of the burden of environmental problems than earlier envisaged, and in future will probably have to depend more on selfreliance and on their own funding for the required systematic multidisciplinary policy research.

Africa has a long history of urbanization and, apart from East Asia and the Pacific, has currently the fastest rate of urban growth of the major global regions. However, it still has the lowest proportion of urban population and its urbanization has become increasingly a spatial concentration of poor people, who in many cases are forced to put today's needs ahead of tomorrow's environment. In large part the associated urban problems are the result of a failure to raise income levels by increasing industrial productivity.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the least industrialized major region of the globe, yet industrialization is unlikely to expand and diversify significantly in the near future with poor prospects for foreign direct investment, which is mostly attracted elsewhere. Recession and state sector cutbacks under structural adjustment, whose severity was predicated partly on the assumption that foreign investment flows would increase, are exacerbating both unemployment and industrial pressures on the environment. Many people have been forced into dependence on informal economic activity, and the enforcement of conservation or pollution abatement legislation has become more and more difficult. The building material industry in particular is a prime case for improvement, while the informal and wider small business sectors need to play a more important role within integrated strategies.

Poor management practice, particularly in urban development, has tended to encourage the exploitation of both people and environment and in consequence to create unstable situations. Extremely rapid urban growth accompanied by huge migratory inflows, pressure on peripheral land resources, poor or inadequate systems of supply, insecurity, and low-quality services are all factors encouraging social and political instability. They have resulted in a legacy of poor housing, depletion of vegetation for fuel, polluted drinking water, poor sanitation, and uncollected waste. Most municipalities lack sufficient resources to cope with their worsening social and environmental problems as the areas under squatter settlements and legalized areas of self-help housing expand. At root the basic problem is poverty, so it can be argued that employment and income-generating strategies should be given priority in urban planning.

Environmental issues and futures

If sustainable development or improvement in the quality of human life, whilst living within the capacity of supporting ecosystems, is to be effective in Sub-Saharan Africa it will require a more efficient economic performance capable of generating surpluses above the satisfaction of basic demands. It will also demand social systems able to resolve development tensions and create harmony between the production economy and the ecological basis for development, together with an evolved technology able to look for new solutions, sustainable international finance and trade, flexible administrative systems, and effective citizen participation in decision-making. Despite apparently low population densities in many regions of SubSaharan Africa, there are resource pressures owing to the increased scarcity of national capital and the decreased availability in most countries of international finance capital, which are worsened by the fact that economic indicators in many cases are giving the wrong signals about the sustainability of development in relation to environmental destruction, so that a new basis for the economy is required, informed by "environmental economics." In at least the short term, rather than attempt to raise the level of gross national product, it might be better to concentrate on environmental improvement, combined with income redistribution in order to minimize the poverty of the poorest. Modernization involves both losses and gains. Although it has brought education, science, technology, better health and sanitation, improved communication, water supply, and nutrition, and higher real incomes for many, it has also increased dependence on the West, introduced inappropriate technologies, weakened traditions, and created unsustainable lifestyles together with acculturation stress.

These problems are only part of a much larger set, including less abundant rains and recurrent droughts, especially in the semi-arid Sub-Saharan lands such as the Sahel region, where rainfall in the early 1970s was 15-35 per cent below normal. "Wet" or "dry" years seem to cluster in the Sahel, although not in southern Africa, so that Sahelian planning should focus on the driest years, not on the averages over given periods. Variations in time in the Sahel seem matched by variations in space, so that nearby villages can experience different rainfall regimes even when experiencing comparable rainfall totals. Desertification threatens the semi-arid lands as farming is taken beyond the limits of sustainable rain-fed agriculture and as strategies to combat it have met with only limited success, involving an apparent conflict of interest between foresters, farmers, and herders. Agro-forestry and small-scale "water-harvesting" techniques have the best potential to combat desertification and promote sustainable agricultural and fuelwood production.

Taking Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, the chief source of environmental degradation considered in its entirety (including plant cover and species loss, destruction of fauna, climatic change, changes in water table levels and stream flow, and soil erosion) is deforestation, especially if followed by overcultivation and overgrazing. Although rates of deforestation seem to be highest in uplands and in dry deciduous forest, tropical rain forests provide particularly sensitive environments with generally highly weathered soils that are low in plant-available nutrient reserves and easily degraded by intensive land use. Yet more intensive use of existing land and the restoration of degraded lands are important strategies to reduce the need for additional deforestation as demand for food, industrial, and export crops increases with continued high rates of population growth and concentration, despite the generally low overall population densities by world standards. Science-based "best management practices" are available, but need to be fine-tuned to local conditions and adopted mainly on input-responsive prime agricultural land. It is estimated that over half the area of African climax tropical rain forest has been converted to other land uses (Richards 1990), but estimates are highly variable and erratic, and accurate inventories of land and its capability are needed for the rational utilization of forest resources.

The coastal zone and surrounding oceans of Sub-Saharan Africa have abundant resources of food, energy, and minerals, but consist of fragile ecosystems, subject to a variety of often conflicting uses, so that their potential for economic prosperity is threatened with environmental damage and resource loss. Most of the larger African cities are coastal, as are some of the larger population concentrations and much of the commercial and industrial development, together with a large part of the growing tourist industry. The considerable fish resources are threatened by the operations of large foreign fleets, while destructive fishing methods in the coastal zone include dynamite blasting and spear fishing on coral reefs and the unregulated use of unsuitable nets. Other damaging effects result from clearing mangroves, mining beach sand and gravel, metal pollution from coastal mining, constructing ports and harbours, disposing of urban sewage and wastes, pollution from the oil and gas industry, and some subsidence of sedimentary basins in the Niger delta from oil extraction. Oceans have no physical boundaries corresponding with national jurisdiction, so that remedies for current problems can be sought only within the framework of international agreements. However, on the whole the oceanic problems of the Sub-Saharan countries are less immediately damaging than those of the coastal zone, where adequate management requires legal controls.

Environment and resource management

The major issue in resource management is agriculture, which is still the leading productive sector by value and employment in most SubSaharan countries. It is also a source of concern, given the high rates of population increase and the evidence of widespread and recurring hunger, accompanied in several countries by dependence on food imports. Agricultural exports are also needed to repay debt, to pay debt service charges and import costs, and to pay in part the costs of investment. In the past two decades, increases in crop production and yields have been small, and modern intensive agricultural technologies have not been easily adopted by Africa's resource-poor farmers, many of whom are women, barely able to cope with highly variable rainfall, poor soils, and the damage inflicted by pests and diseases. Most success in developing sustainable agricultural production systems has been derived from the application of traditional methods that mimic natural ecosystems but that, for major yield increases, may need the support of biotechnology and investment in gene-related research.

The livestock industry has a smaller output volume and value than crop production, in part owing to the poverty of most African consumers, although, before the recession of the past decade and the financial restrictions of some economic reform programmes, demand had been rising in some areas faster than the increases in output. Increased production of meat and livestock products to satisfy future higher demand levels will require a more sedentary livestock-raising system and changes in land ownership, accompanied by lower stocking densities on open range land in order to create a more sustainable use of environment. There are, however, problems of social and cultural change in order that livestock owners can introduce the pasture plants developed by scientists and that are adapted to the agroecological zones of Sub-Saharan Africa. Other important changes required for sustainable, more sedentary systems include land tenure, infrastructures, and credit facilities. Genetic considerations are also just as important as the feed resource base. Whereas the objective of many governments is the sedentarization of herd owners in order to utilize the available technologies for increased intensity of production, the herd owners may have the different objective of developing their herds as capital and maximizing the numbers of their stock.

The rural population has to depend mainly on local resources, and the urban population, although consuming a high proportion of imported food, yet tends to depend on local wood fuels for its chief source of energy. The increasing demand for fuelwood is putting pressure on the producing rural areas and on the sustainability of farmed and forested environments. Policies aiming to reduce food imports and achieve food self-sufficiency, combined with policies to expand agricultural exports, are being achieved mainly at the expense of forest and woodland, producing fuelwood as a by-product, rather than by increased production intensity and higher yields. Rising urban fuelwood demand and rising prices have encouraged localized forest or woodland degradation. In the near future, with the poor prognosis for industrial expansion and the environmental pressures associated in many African countries with recession, greater demands on rural resources are likely, including increased dependence on agriculture to maintain employment, provide food and fuel, and achieve some economic growth.

One resource-based alternative to agriculture, pastoralism, and fuelwood production in order to provide an engine for development and economic growth is mining. In many Sub-Saharan countries, mining provides a vital export industry, although the hope of developing downstream industries for import substitution has failed in most cases. Environmental damage from mining activities has become an increasing problem, adding to operational costs at a time of competitive difficulty. Africa is endowed with enormous mineral potential, but in the past two decades has mostly missed the investment boom of international finance in mineral exploitation and development, apart from oil, and needs to attract the large mining companies back, encouraged by a more receptive attitude amongst African governments. However, the Republic of South Africa, with the most successful development of mining in Sub-Saharan Africa and a minerals industry sector that is the backbone of the rest of the economy, has a mining industry fully integrated into the domestic economy and largely without "enclave" or "offshore" transnational enterprises.

Institutional issues

International environmental institutions and organizations for international regional cooperation are at last facing up to threats to global environments and the need to share and exchange scientific data and knowledge concerning environmental issues. Particularly important are the "global change" programmes and the role of certain United Nations agencies, such as the UN Environment Programme and the Man and the Biosphere Programme of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in addition to such nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as the International Council of Scientific Unions with its International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and the World Conservation Union (formerly known as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources). An important joint initiative of the United Nations University (UNU), the International Social Science Council, the International Federation of Institutes for Advanced Studies, and UNESCO has been the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change Programme (HDP), set up to foster a global network of scientists, select core projects such as global risk assessment, critical regions, and potential sealevel rise, and develop appropriate information systems and methodologies. The programme on Critical Zones in Global Environmental Change and an initiative on famine vulnerability are carried out in collaboration with the International Geographical Union. UNU's environmental research programmes, other than those related to HDP, emphasize regional and local sustainability through appropriate environmental and resource management. Major initiatives include the long-term project on Population, Land Management, and Environmental Change (PLEC) and the development of an Institute for Natural Resources in Africa (UNU/INRA).

A very large number of non-governmental organizations is engaged in problems of natural resource use and environmental management in Sub-Saharan Africa. They are extremely diverse in scope, interest, and size. Many, of particular importance for future environmental democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa, are local or regional and operate through communities or social groups at the "grass-roots" level. Some of these are welfare oriented, while others are research based. Generally they are driven by their feelings of unease about the economic order, the state of the resource base, and evidence of social injustice. Often they have been able to spearhead strategies for wise resource management and forge cross-border and inter-institutional links for cooperative research and policy formulation.

Environment and development in Ghana

The special problems of the host country, Ghana, provide detailed examples of the difficulties of policy implementation in resource and environmental management in relation to current social, political, and economic changes. In Ghana, legislation to protect the natural environment dates back to 1901 and the Wild Animals Preservation Ordinance, followed by the Rivers Ordinance of 1903 and the initiation of forest reservation in 1907. At present no fewer than 22 departments, commissions, research organizations, and corporations have responsibilities for land and other resources management. In 1974, only two years after the UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm, the Ghana Environmental Protection Council (EPC) was created to organize research and educational programmes, to ensure observance of proper safeguards in all development projects, and to cooperate with national and international environmental organizations. The approach, however, was largely protectionist and cosmetic until the droughts and bush fires of the early 1980s and the realization that the natural resource base of Ghana was deteriorating rapidly.

In 1983 Ghana embarked on its Economic Reform Programme (ERP), which resulted in some environmental degradation and led the government to direct the EPC in 1988 to set up an environmental "think tank" to reconcile economic development and natural resource conservation. The ERP stopped economic decline and created some growth - especially in the rural areas, where commercial agriculture, mainly led by the cocoa industry, has played an important role in economic recovery. The terms of trade for food staples have tended to deteriorate, however. On average, poverty was reduced under the ERP, although admittedly the data are limited and there are some people below the poverty line whose condition has worsened.

The current development of palm oil provides an important special case. In the 1970s, peasant and state-owned plantation production of palm oil had failed to keep up with demand. After 1981 attempts were made to promote oil-palm plantations through private enterprise, foreign-aided government ventures, and joint governmentprivate projects. These have expanded rapidly and have made a significant contribution to palm oil production, besides raising income and employment levels locally. The costs include local resistance to land expropriation and the creation of monocultural systems of plant production, which are vulnerable to insect pests and diseases. However, the development of nucleus estates by three major plantations in cooperation with smallholders and outgrowers under contract combines more traditional farming methods on small plantations with the technical advantages of modern agricultural production on core estates and may be able to offer a more sustainable future if production becomes more diversified on the basis of organic and other ecofarming and with low external input principles.


For several of the issues concerning the sustainability of environmental and resource management futures in Sub-Saharan Africa, the analyses and arguments produced at the conference provided the basis for a number of recommendations:

1. Only a marked acceleration of the pace with which cooperation is developed both between the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and between the countries of the North and Sub-Saharan Africa in research programmes and in future policy-making and management of key resource problems will make it possible to cope with increasing environmental deterioration, but first the complex interrelationships between population, environment, and sustainable development will require more study.

2. It is essential to halt the vicious spiral of worsening poverty and environmental degradation wherever it occurs, although most of the Sub-Saharan countries are poorly provided with the means to do so or even to undertake the necessary research. In fragile environments afflicted by poverty, with high levels of vulnerability to hazard and frequently dependent on external aid, the prospects for the long-term programmes required are bleak, more especially also where economies have been damaged or destroyed by warfare. In many cases the economic reforms meant to reverse current economic decline have incurred a heavy cost, worsening the condition of many poor people.

3. Promotion of social and political restructuring is required to make economic and environmental reforms effective, and should be combined with the development of more appropriate international relationships, particularly in the fields of world trade and international finance, where Sub-Saharan Africa has a heavy burden of debt and declining levels of international investment.

4. In order to promote the rehabilitation of already degraded areas and prevent further degradation, wherever threatened, strategies are required to improve natural resource management. For this purpose the network of the UNU's Research and Training Centres, including UNU/ INRA, should be developed further. The need to examine the political realities of financing such environmental activity, to improve the public accountability of the appropriate government departments, and to impose financial discipline was accepted, together with advice on how research organizations and government agencies should approach the Global Environmental Facility.

5. To minimize future environmental damage and degradation, research should be developed into modifying production systems in both agriculture and industry, including mining, and into developing new methods of production. Land use and labour efficiency need to be improved, including, for example, the minimization of drudgery in farm work, especially in the various operations performed by women, and this will have important implications for health, nutrition, and education.

6. Research and development in appropriate technology should also be expanded, particularly in the area of biotechnology, including, for example, the introduction of more productive seeds and livestock, the development of local capabilities in the use of biogas and more efficient woodstoves, the expansion of agro-forestry techniques, and the recycling of waste, in part to relieve resource pressure by widening the resource base and improving productive efficiency.

7. To improve the urban environment it is essential to promote the acceleration of key elements in the urbanization process. These include the training of urban management, the elimination of inequitable management practices, the improvement of the revenue and resource base, and the adoption of more realistic and practical development codes and standards, including strategies for upgrading squatter settlements and self-help housing and improving water supply and waste disposal.

8. The environmental institutions of Sub-Saharan Africa must be strengthened, particularly environmental education at all levels. A more holistic approach to a whole range of economic, social, political, and environmental problems must be adopted and taught. Such an approach, based on both multi- and inter-disciplinary studies, is regarded as essential for policy formulation and should be based on sound monitoring, data recording, and analysis.

9. It is essential that research and development should be participatory. That is, the people of Sub-Saharan Africa should themselves be involved in and contribute to the design and implementation of programmes intended to change their lives and to create a sustainable environmental future that is technologically feasible, economically viable, and socially acceptable.


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Jazairy, 1., M. Alamgir, and T. Panuccio. 1992. The State of World Rural Poverty: An Inquiry into Its Causes and Consequences. London: Intermediate Technology Publications for International Fund for Agricultural Development.

Pearce, D. W., E. B. Barbier, and A. Markandya. 1988. Environmental Economics and Decision-making in Sub-Saharan Africa. London: International Institute for Environment and Development/University College London Environmental Economics Centre.

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--- 1991 World Development Report 1991. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.