Sustainable development: the African journey towards sustainability


Sustainable development (SD) has increasingly played a key background role in government policy making across the world, especially for the least developed countries in Africa. This paper examines the SD of African countries in public life, education, and welfare, and helps policy makers better monitor the status of SD and formulate development policies in these aspects. The paper first proposes a new method to assess the SD in public life, education, and welfare. Then it assesses and analyzes the Sustainable Development of African countries. The findings of this paper are situated both in the context of prior studies and in relation to opportunities for further academic study. The findings however reveal three issues: first, that there was a positive correlation between income level and SD across African countries; second, that the most SD leading countries were in South and North Africa, while most low SD countries were in the middle; and third, that there were different characteristics of SD status between North African and Sub-Saharan African countries. This paper discusses an important research question that needed to be discussed: What should Africa do to rectify its development trajectory and to make economic development more inclusive? And made comparison between African countries and the countries in other continents. This paper suggests the following possible recommendations. First, the basis of all development is the establishment of a stable political power for those countries still in political chaos. Second, following the practices of European and other developed countries, establishing and improving the judicial, economic, and fiscal institutional systems in combination with the characteristics and development situation of their own countries is vital. After that, taking economic growth as the priority of national development, and establishing economic and trade cooperation with Europe, the United States, China, and other more developed countries is needed. Lastly, the government should pay more attention to sustainable development in public life, education, and welfare when the economic and income level reaches a certain stage.

Keywords: Sustainable development (SD), Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), environmental sustainability


Sustainability-related efforts remain central to development, and their accomplishment varies across places for a variety of reasons including climatic and geographic differences. This variability makes a regional focus important[1]. With the adoption of the SDGs in September 2015, Africa made commitments to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Africa Union Agenda 2063. It always faced a steep climb, its starting point being lower than the rest of the world’s. The continent was at a crossroads, with low tax revenues in relation to GDP at one end of the problem and enormous development needs at the other. The SDGs were conceptualized and adopted during a period of tight global economic and financial conditions. Recent analysis of the SDGs, including the previous Sustainable Development Goal Centre for Africa (SDGCA) reports on the 2030 Agenda and the first Africa SDG Index 2018, shows that African countries still lag in terms of achieving the SDGs, with different countries facing different problems.[2]

Despite the widespread adoption of, and the progress toward the SDGs, Africa continues to lag in most of the world when it comes to social and economic development. In fact, a recent report by the SDGCA — “Africa 2030: Sustainable Development Goals Three-Year Reality Check”—reveals that minimal progress has been made and, in some instances, there is complete stagnation. More than half of the global poor (those who earn under $1.90 PPP per day) are found in Africa. One in three Africans is at the risk of food insecurity (Begashaw 2019). According to Begashaw, Africa is relatively on track to meet three goals: SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 13 (climate action), and SDG 15 (life on land). In fact, the SDG Centre’s forecasts (for the SDGs for which we have sufficient data: poverty, malnutrition, maternal mortality, net school enrolment, access to electricity, and access to drinking water) show that all African regions except North Africa are unlikely to meet the SDGs. The struggle is more pronounced for Central Africa across all the goals.

Economic Growth and Human Development Gaps

The region’s growth over the SDG period was well below the SDG target of 7 percent per year and below the historical long-term average. In 2016—the year after the adoption of the SDGs—the sub-Saharan African region’s growth dropped to 1.4 percent. Globalization (migration, trade, and finance) has been under pressure or even reversing; China’s growth, which historically has been positively correlated with Africa’s, has decelerated in recent years; global trade growth has also dwindled; commodity prices remain depressed; and climatic conditions remain unfavourable. At the same time, social inclusion continues to be outstripped by population growth, impeding structural transformation and future productivity. Twenty-eight African countries are categorized as low income and 37 as having low human development (Begashaw 2019).

A child born in Africa today is still at risk of not receiving a full, high-quality education or decent health care. An African child in school today continues to struggle to read and write due to poor quality of education services. Too many Africans continue not to visit the hospital due to lack of money. In fact, some African countries have a Human Capital Index score of less than 0.4. In other words, a child born today in these countries will be only 40 percent as productive at 18 years of age as one who completes their education and enjoys full health.

Data Gaps Persist: While we do have a snapshot of the progress Africa (and the world) is making towards achieving the SDGs, a holistic review of SDGs over the last years was not possible given that not enough data exists. In fact, only 96 indicators have data (41.4 percent of the global indicator framework). Where data exists, it is not comprehensive and consistent. Too often, African countries do not possess updated data for crucial indicators in poverty, health, nutrition, education, and infrastructure. Household surveys are irregular: Their scope, comprehensiveness, quantity, and quality vary wildly. At the continental level, there is just not enough data for tracking SDGs 10, 11, and 12 (Begashaw 2019). This paper however reveals that education is the most important factor for sustainable development in public life, education, and welfare. And education is as important as health.


The Assessment Framework of SD in Public Life, Education, and Welfare[3]

Sustainable development in public life, education, and welfare was assessed by adopting the social dimension of the National Sustainable Development Index (NSDI) that was built with 12 indicators in economic, social, and environmental dimensions based on the concept of sustainable development (see Jin et al. (2021))[4]. Sustainable development is to coordinate socio-economic, and environmental development, and balance the intra-generational welfare, to maximize the total welfare of generations[5] [6]. In other words, the government should set sustainable development as a comprehensive goal including economic, social, and environmental dimensions[7]. Governments should also pursue a relatively high and fair income for citizens, a potential for economic growth, and a reasonable economic structure to improve the welfare of the present generation, in the economic dimension. From the resource and environmental dimension, the climate and air quality not only reflect the living conditions and quality of human beings in the present generation, but also affect that of future generations, while forests, arable land, and energy consumption represent the current resource and environmental conditions and affect the performance of economic activities. And in the social dimension, governments should not only improve social welfare, but should also consider social fairness and harmony, thus education for the young, medical treatment for the sick, basic sanitation, and drinking water should be guaranteed. Therefore, Jin et al suggest that the NSDI should contain these factors, namely “economic growth,” “income level,” and “economic structure” in the economic dimension, “climate,” “air quality,” “forest,” “arable land,” and “energy” in the resource and environmental dimension, and “education,” “health,” “drinking water,” and “sanitation facilities” in the social dimension. And they should select the corresponding indicators for each factor, based on the principles of representativeness, comparability, and data availability. So, we choose the social dimension of the NSDI to study the SD in public life, education, and welfare for Africa countries.


This paper measures the weight of four indicators with the entropy method (see the last column of Table 1 below). As a result, each indicator accounted for the following weight: education 36.36%, health 35.09%, drinking water 14.60%, and sanitation facilities 13.95%. It means that education is the most important factor for sustainable development in public life, education, and welfare. And education is as important as health.

This paper measures the weight of four indicators with the entropy method (see the last column of Table 1 below). As a result, each indicator accounted for the following weight: education 36.36%, health 35.09%, drinking water 14.60%, and sanitation facilities 13.95%. It means that education is the most important factor for sustainable development in public life, education, and welfare. And education is as important as health.

Table 1. The weight of the four indicators

According to the weights in Table 1, we aggregate the four indicators into a composite index, and assess the SD score for 51 Africa countries as well the other countries (see Table 2 below). As a result, the SD score of each country is ranged from 0 to 1. The SD score of each Africa country is shown in Table 2, the top five countries are Mauritius (0.6514), Gabon (0.5836), Gambia (0.5648), Morocco (0.5496), and Togo (0.5474), while the bottom five countries are Mali (0.3863), Mauritania (0.3857), Central African Republic (0.3377), Chad (0.3260), and Niger (0.3031).

Table 2. The score of SD in public life, education, and welfare in Africa[]

The SD score of each country showed distinct characteristics in income level. These countries are divided into four categories according to income levels following the World Bank’s standard, namely high, upper-middle, lower-middle-, and low-income countries. As Table 2 shows, countries with higher SD score tended to have a higher income level. For example, there are only three low-income countries in the top 20, while 13 low-income countries are in the bottom 20. This means that there may be a positive correlation between income level and SD score. The main reasons are: (1) Those low-income countries have very limited fiscal revenue, leading to insufficient supply of public goods, such as education, medical care, public health, etc.[8]; (2) Some low-income countries lack a systematic and efficient public management system, which makes the supply of public goods inefficient[9].

Figure 1. Geographical distribution of SD scores in Africa. (1) The darker the blue, the higher the SD score of the country, while grey indicates missing data. (2) Above the dark blue dividing line are North African countries, and below are Sub-Saharan African countries.

Figure 1 shows the geographical distribution of SD score in Africa. It should be noted that the darker the blue, the higher the SD score and SD performance in public life, education, and welfare. The countries in North and South Africa have the deepest blue and the highest SD score, such as South Africa and Morocco. On the contrary, central African countries north of the equator have the lightest blue and the lowest SD score, which means that SD performance is at the bottom level, such as in Central African Republic, Chad, and Niger. In sum, the geographical distribution of SD score shows that SD is high in South and North Africa, while low in the middle.

Africa need to adopt a new development trajectory

African youths did not benefit from the recent economic growth, since many of them either lack the relevant training or are unable to access capital to improve production. Nevertheless, Africa accounts for a significant fraction of the world’s youth (1/5th in 2012).[10] This share is expected to increase to 1/3rd of global youth by 2050. If Africa wants to benefit from the potential demographic dividend over the coming decades, it will be crucial to empower its youth with the relevant skills to meet the continent’s future job market needs. In today’s labour market, the transition from school to work is already challenging. Youth unemployment/underemployment rates are two to three times as high as those of adults. The “Arab Springs” demonstrated that youth unemployment might be a “ticking time bomb” if the transition from school continues to lead to unemployment.[11] Youths face challenges when searching for wage employment, in both the formal and the informal sectors. Governments need to make the appropriate supply-side responses to improve both the quantity and quality of education and skills training. This will require collaboration between governments and the private sector in order to create an enabling macroeconomic employment environment. In addition, because of the high prevalence of informality in Africa, a further challenge will be to find an effective way to harness the potential of youth entrepreneurs.[12]

The recent growth performance in Africa did not help to address issues of inequality resulting in the exclusion of both women and youth from the benefits of growth. Therefore, inequality and poverty are still Africa’s major challenges. These need to be addressed in order to achieve the SDGs. Over 120 million Africans are out of work, and more than 672 million live in poverty. Consequently, Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest prevalence of hunger: With one in four people being undernourished; More than 32 million children under-five are underweight; and, about 45% of deaths in children under-five are caused by poor nutrition (FAO, 2015). In addition, out of Africa’s 312 million adult women, 115 million are at risk of domestic violence. This disrupts their productive and reproductive roles as well as being a clear violation of their human rights. Therefore, achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) remains unfinished business for most African countries. The solution proposed is to adopt a development trajectory that is both more inclusive and sustainable.

What should Africa do to rectify its development trajectory and to make economic development more inclusive?

A new development trajectory should enable Africa to provide decent jobs, including most of the youth and women. It also needs to produce enough food for Africa’s population, especially the most vulnerable. To do so, Africa needs to industrialize, but this requires that the continent to first resolve some of its major deficits. One priority is to address the infrastructural deficit, especially the energy deficiency. Without energy, nothing else can happen. Energy fuels economic activities, especially production, industrialisation and the delivery of services. The continent will also need to resolve important shortfalls in its labour market, labour productivity and costs, and the adequacy of skilled labour for market needs, especially in the industrial and manufacturing sectors. Another important priority for Africa will be to expand domestic market sizes in order to benefit from potential economies of scale across the continent. This can be achieved by increasing intra-regional trade so that Africans can feed themselves, instead of allocating most of their income to imports from mainly western and emerging markets. Adopting such a development trajectory will lead to a real structural transformation in the continent and, thereby, to improvements in the living conditions of many of Africa’s poor people. These are precisely the priorities of the African Development Bank for the next decade.

Discussion: A Comparison Between Africa and Other Countries [13]

The SD scores of 179 countries are shown in Figure 2. As a result, the top 10 countries are Denmark (0.7840), the Netherlands (0.7423), Sweden (0.7095), Finland (0.7075), Norway (0.6960), Germany (0.6915), Canada (0.6895), the United States (0.6856), Belgium (0.6807), and Austria (0.6799), while the bottom 10 countries are Nepal (0.3980), Eritrea (0.3959), Sierra Leone (0.3952), Mali (0.3863), Mauritania (0.3857), Afghanistan (0.3729), Yemen (0.3391), Central African (0.3377), Chad (0.3260), and Niger (0.3031).

Figure 2. SD score for each country (upper) and continent (lower). The darker the blue, the higher the mean SD score of the country (upper) or the continent (lower).

The SD score and ranking of each country show distinct characteristics. Most of the high-SD countries are in Europe and North America. The countries with a low SD score are mainly in Africa and Asia. In addition, we find that all the developed countries [14] [15] are high SD score countries, and most of them are ranked in the top 30, while most of the bottom 30 countries are developing countries in Africa.

There are three main reasons for the poor SD performance in developing countries. First, the level of economy and residents’ income is relatively low. Second, the supply of public goods and services is insufficient and inefficient, like education, public health, and environmental protection, due to poor governments or inadequate fiscal revenue[16]. Lastly, some developing countries, such as China, are bombarded with such problems as inadequate management and technology of pollution control and resource utilization, while still promoting economic growth at all costs, which damages national sustainable development[17].

The geographical distribution of the SD score is shown in Figure 2. As the figure shows, the darker the blue, the higher the NSDI of the country and the better its performance in sustainable development, while the white indicates missing data. We find that European and North American countries have the highest average SD scores, Africa the lowest, and South America and Asia in the middle.

There is an important reason for that geographical distribution. On the one hand, the countries with a higher economic level always maintain a good performance in sustainable development, because of their established and sound system in public management. On the other hand, those low-income countries not only have a poor economic foundation, but also do not have the above conditions, so they always find it difficult to improve SD performance. Some countries have even been mired in war and extreme poverty.


Overall, the problems highlighted in this paper, future growth in Africa will, for most part, depend on successes in diversifying towards highly productive manufacturing and improving the productive capabilities of African economies through science and technology, especially in agriculture and agro industrialisation. Achieving these ends calls for increasing investment in key growth determinants such as physical and human capital, and improvement in the institutions that optimize the combination of these resources. To this extent, investment in energy for people and for firms, in agricultural technology, and in other infrastructure and human capital needs will remain priority areas for the Bank. Making growth more inclusive requires enhancing the capacity of segments of society with limited opportunity to participate and benefit from the continent’s growth. The Bank’s prioritized intervention areas are selected with this in mind. An industrial process that is underpinned by improved agricultural productivity, accessible and reliable sources of energy and well-integrated markets will generally contribute to poverty reduction by raising productivity and improving the level of participation among the poor and other marginalized groups.

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[1] Riva C. H. Denny, Sandra T. Marquart-Pyatt; Environmental Sustainability in Africa: What Drives the Ecological Footprint over Time? Sociology of Development 1 March 2018; 4 (1): 119–144. doi:

[2] Sustainable Development Goal Centre for Africa (SDGC/A), 2019, Africa 2030 2019 Version, ISSN 2077-5091.

[3] Li D, He G, Jin H and Tsai F-S (2021) Sustainable Development of African Countries: Minding Public Life, Education, and Welfare. Front. Public Health 9:748845. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2021.748845.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Guillén-Royo M. Sustainability and wellbeing: Human-scale development in practice. London, UK: Routledges (2016).

[6] Kwatra S, Sharma P, Kumar A. A critical review of studies related to construction and computation of Sustainable Development Indices. Ecol Indic. (2020) 112:106061. doi: 10.1016/j.ecolind.2019.106061

[7] Goodland R, Daly H. Environmental sustainability: universal and non-negotiable. Ecol Appl. (1996) 6:1002. doi: 10.2307/2269583

[8] Jin H, Qian X. How the Chinese government has done with public health from the perspective of the evaluation and comparison about public-health expenditure. Int J Environ Res Public Health. (2020) 17:1–16. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17249272s.

[9] Jin H, Jorge Martinez-Vazquez. Sustainable Development and the Optimal Level of Fiscal Expenditure Decentralization. Georgia, USA: ICePP Working Paper Series, #2103, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University (2021).

[10], Accessed 18 February, 2022.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.


[14] According to the standards of the CIA’s World Fact Book and IMF.

[15] Hametner M, Kostetckaia M. Frontrunners and laggards: how fast are the EU member states progressing towards the sustainable development goals? Ecol Econ. (2020) 177:106775. doi: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2020.106775.

[16] Jin H, Qian X. How the Chinese government has done with public health from the perspective of the evaluation and comparison about public-health expenditure. Int J Environ Res Public Health. (2020) 17:1–16. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17249272s.

[17] Jin H, Qian X, Chin T, Zhang H. Global assessment of sustainable development: based on the modification of human development index with entropy method. Sustainability. (2020) 12:1–20. doi: 10.3390/su12083251.