The SDGs Investments Africa Needs

Global discord represents another obstacle to Africa’s ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. But the continent can still play a major role in fulfilling the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda – especially if it makes further progress on tackling epidemics and strengthening national health-care systems.

GENEVA – The late Michael Elliott, the former president and CEO of the anti-poverty advocacy organization ONE, described the year 2015 as the most pivotal since 1945 in terms of humanity coalescing in pursuit of a common aim. In 1945, the world was searching for peace; 70 years later, it agreed on a roadmap toward a better, more prosperous future in the form of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

By 2016, however, the global coalition started to crack and suffer setbacks. There have even been attempts to retreat from some of the SDGs and their targets – such as tackling climate change or promoting open trade. For Africa, this global discord represents another obstacle to achieving the SDGs. But the continent can still play a major role in meeting them – especially if it makes further progress in tackling epidemics and strengthening national health-care systems.

After all, Africa has been one of the world’s faster-growing regions in recent years. Although this growth is volatile and uneven, the steady reduction in poverty on the continent is real. So are the increases in life expectancy and the decreasing number of deaths from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and other diseases.

Meanwhile, Sub-Saharan Africa’s increasingly young population is projected to double to more than two billion by 2050, and to almost double again by the end of the century. The urbanization rate will probably reach 50% by 2030.

Yet these demographic trends may produce a burden rather than a dividend. According to the World Bank, 299 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa lived in “fragile situations” in 2017. And although many African countries have made inroads against disease, several regions have not, and in some places the gains have been partly reversed. This is the case in the Sahel region, where the fragile balance between development, security, and the environment is particularly evident.

Faced with such trends and challenges, African policymakers have an overloaded (and front-loaded) agenda. Promoting greater inclusion and job creation, moving up global value chains, managing conflict-affected regions, and adapting to climate-induced stresses will all be crucial to Africa’s chances of meeting the SDGs. But governments sometimes have limited toolkits, and the best policies and investments for driving sustainable economic growth – and therefore promoting equity, inclusive development, and prosperity – can be complex.

Moreover, although economic growth is necessary for achieving the SDGs, it is insufficient.

Increasingly, Africans are less interested in headline GDP growth than in what it means for their living standards: access to education and health care, and gender equality, for example. These are not only human rights; there is also a clear positive correlation between investments in these areas and economic growth. Improvements in women’s health, lower infant mortality, and greater access to vaccinations are linked to stronger and more stable societies.

Better health is key to Africa’s prospects of fulfilling the 2030 Agenda. One of the targets of SDG 3, which focuses on health and wellbeing, is to end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria by 2030. Earlier this year, I was elected as Chair of the Board of the Global Fund, an invaluable organization which, along with Gavi, PEPFAR, and others, has helped to reduce the number of deaths from these diseases by one-third. The Fund has produced phenomenal results by combining science and resources with an innovative business model, and by forming partnerships with donors, governments, civil-society organizations, the private sector, and people affected by these epidemics.

This model will be sustainable only if implementing countries take greater ownership. Encouragingly, African governments are doing so and are investing more in health. Nonetheless, global solidarity and partnerships remain essential. This autumn, the Global Fund will hold its Sixth Replenishment Conference in Lyon, hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, with the aim of raising at least $14 billion to consolidate the gains made to date and address new threats such as insecticide and drug resistance.

Investments by the Global Fund have also helped African countries to strengthen their health-care systems, and thus build the necessary resilience to counter emerging threats. I saw this first-hand when, as president of the African Development Bank, I traveled to West Africa during the Ebola outbreak. Countries with stronger health-care systems, like Senegal and Mali, managed to contain the outbreak, whereas those that were ill equipped, such as Sierra Leone and Liberia, were overwhelmed.

Improvements in public health – the result of combined efforts by governments, philanthropic organizations, and the private sector – are one of the biggest successes in the history of global development. This demonstrates what humanity can achieve by working together.

For far too long, Africa was seen as an outlier and a global laggard in terms of development. Not anymore. The SDGs are achievable, and African countries are increasingly taking responsibility for meeting them. But only a collective global effort can make the world fairer, healthier, and safer by 2030.