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Constraints on sustainable development in Sub-Saharan Africa

Constraints on sustainable development in Sub-Saharan Africa are legion. Some are general and others are sectoral or specific. Some are local while others are national or regional. It must also be admitted that, prior to the adoption of the current sustainable development paradigm, Sub-Saharan Africa lagged behind other regions in food security, standard of living, and various aspects of development. Consequently, the adoption of a new development paradigm that places more emphasis on environmental resource conservation does not eliminate the existing constraints on development. Rather it requires more interdisciplinary or systems approaches, greater sensitivity to environment in policies, strategies, planning, and execution of development programmes, and stringency in defining the characteristics and nature of technologies that can be used to ensure the maintenance of environmental quality and the conservation of natural capital stock, which is imperative for sustainable development.

General constraints

The general constraints on sustainable development are political, socio-economic, and technological in nature.

Political constraints

THE COLONIAL LEGACY. At the time when explorers established contact with Africa and pushed further inland and developed a lucrative trade in spices, ivory, and forest products in exchange for alcohol and various manufactured goods, the prevailing development ideology in Europe was based on the Old Testament idea expressed in Genesis that God gave man "dominion over the fish of the sea, over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." Consequently, it was generally believed that humans had the right to exploit the natural resources of Africa and other parts of the world as desired. No serious effort was made to conserve natural resources until late in the eighteenth century when it was observed that with the extinction of the dodo in Mauritius it became necessary for measures to be taken to ensure the survival of diverse species of organisms through the establishment of reserves. The establishment of colonial spheres of influence and the arrival of Christianity, which in some areas preceded colonial administrations, dealt a death blow to the appreciation of even ecologically sound sustainable traditional or indigenous resource management strategies, practices, systems, attitudes, and behaviour patterns in African culture. This was most pronounced where these practices were applied as taboos associated with traditional African religion. It is not surprising, therefore, that taboos dealing with hunting and fishing were abolished outright and in agriculture such practices as intercropping were regarded as primitive. With colonialism came changes in the African perspective of looking at things, Westernization, and the propensity for consumption patterns of a more materialistic kind that are satisfied only with imports of food and manufactured goods, leading to increasing dependence on the developed countries.

POLITICAL INSTABILITY. NO sustainable development can be achieved in Sub-Saharan Africa with the kind of endemic political instability that has been the order of the day since independence in the 1960s. The instability is not unrelated to the artificial boundaries cutting across ethnic groups or groupings of incompatible people in the same country. Although inter-tribal wars were in existence before colonial administrations were established, there are indications that Europeans actually encouraged inter-tribal conflicts that supplied captives or prisoners to be sold in the slave trade. Moreover, the divide-andrule policies prior to independence often led to incompatibilities and unequal development among different areas or peoples lumped together in the same country. Coups and frequent changes in government have resulted in inconsistencies in policies and development programmes and a lack of continuity in development activities, all of which are incompatible with sustainable development. Figure 7.5 shows the extent of political instability in African countries, as indicated by the numbers of military regimes, by civil strife, and by stages in the democratization process.

CORRUPTION AND DEFICIENCIES IN GOVERNANCE. It has been indicated earlier that one aspect of modernization is the collusion between the elite or politicians in power in African countries with businessmen or agents of the former colonial powers and, in fact, other countries to ensure that certain development activities are executed in ways that are of mutual benefit to the individuals or businesses involved, often to the detriment of the common people in the African countries concerned. It is also well known that, while some African countries are unable to allocate funds to vital development projects, some of the politicians are busy stashing millions of dollars of ill-gotten money in Swiss banks or in investments in property in foreign countries. Related problems are a lack of accountability, waste, and a lack of grass-roots democratic institutions and participation in decision making. In the past, more emphasis was given to top-down approaches to extension work and development programme execution. It is only recently that emphasis is being given to bottom-up participatory approaches.

Fig. 7.5 Stage of democratization, civil stability, and economic status of African countries, October 1992 (Source: L 'Express, Paris, 8 October 1992))

DEFICIENCIES IN PLANNING. Sustainable development necessitates the adoption of holistic or systems approaches, which call for multidisciplinary interaction involving all relevant disciplines and ministries simultaneously working together in the planning process in an integrated manner. In sustainable development, environmental concerns are best integrated into the programme at the planning stage, when measures are taken to ensure the compatibility of all sectoral plans and the integration of environmental and developmental concerns at all stages. This necessitates special training and orientation of all concerned.

INAPPROPRIATE POLICIES AND STRATEGIES. Concern about the environment must be embodied in development policies and strategies. In other words, policies must be formulated in relation to the objectives to be achieved, and the strategies to be adopted must aim at a range of alternative strategy options that ensure conservation of resources and as far as possible enhancement of the quality of the resource base.

DEFICIENCIES IN LEGAL AND LEGISLATIVE SUPPORT OF DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMMES. There is need for economic incentives and legal and legislative instruments as a back-up for development projects in which maintenance of environmental quality and the conservation of resources are given high priority. Without such instruments, it would be difficult to ensure the achievement of resource conservation and environmental quality and to take the necessary measures to enforce compliance. In developing such legal and legislative instruments, it would be necessary to develop appropriate guidelines based on ecological and economic principles.

LACK OF EFFECTIVE REGIONAL INTEGRATION AND COLLABORATION ;IN DEVELOPMENT. Since the 1960s when many African countries became independent, all regional R&D organizations such as the CCTA (Commission for Technical Cooperation in Africa), EAFFRO (East African Freshwater Fisheries Research Organization), and related inter-territorial research organizations have broken down. Yet, with the small size of many countries, the limited resources available, the potentialities for sharing information, and experience and participation in R&D activities of mutual interest, there is no reason why African countries should be more strongly linked to their former colonial masters than to their African neighbours. This is the case not only in trade but sometimes also in the sharing and exchange of information on natural resources management and utilization. Even political and economic organizations such as OAU (Organization of African Unity), ECA (Economic Commission for Africa), and ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) rarely function as well as intended.

Socio-economic constraints

Socio-economic constraints on sustainable development include deficiencies in education and training, the lack of an effective campaign of public enlightenment and orientation, poverty, unfavourable economic conditions, and limitations in financial support.

Doubts continue to be expressed about the relevance of African education at all levels to the requirements of human resource and institutional capacity-building for innovative R&D in African countries. Sustainable development calls for environmental education at all levels and the development of appropriate curricula in science and technology embodying various aspects of natural resources conservation and management. The recommended ratio of 60:40 of students in science and technology to arts and humanities, respectively, in African schools and universities is rarely achieved at all levels in any African country. There are also deficiencies in the education of women, with the number of women at all levels far below the number of men, especially in the sciences.

With the change in development paradigm, there is a need for a public enlightenment campaign aimed at creating better awareness about sustainable development, what it is, what it entails, and the role of the masses in ushering it in sooner rather than later in Africa. Special training courses need to be developed in environmental monitoring, resources inventorying, and environmental impact assessment.

The prevailing poverty and adverse economic conditions in African countries owing to heavy debt burdens, unfavourable economic effects of structural adjustment, and two decades of continuing decline in commodity prices have left African countries with limited funds to maintain adequate levels of relevant R&D activities, to purchase, repair, and replace scientific equipment, as well as to acquire journals and literature in relevant scientific disciplines.

Technological constraints

Development involves the application of science and appropriate technologies to the conservation, management, processing, and rational utilization of natural resources. Since most African countries have neither the critical mass of trained personnel in many fields and at different levels, nor the institutional capacity for the generation and adaptation of technologies in order to make them appropriate for executing development programmes, self-reliance and success in development have eluded them. In the past, many development projects have been either disappointing or total failures owing to attempts at horizontal transfer of technologies and use of inappropriate technologies in location-specific situations. Moreover, because sustainability was not an explicit objective of development projects, no serious effort was made to choose and develop technologies that ensure economic viability, ecological soundness, and cultural acceptability.

Specific or sectoral constraints

In addition to the above general constraints on sustainable development, there are sectoral constraints on agriculture, including forestry and fisheries, industrial development, and mining.

Constraints on agriculture

The major constraints on sustainable agricultural production in tropical Africa are physico-chemical, biological, and socio-economic in nature. They are listed in table 7.4.

Constraints on industrial development

Constraints here are of three types, namely: environmental and natural resource constraints, technical and technological constraints, and socio-economic constraints.

The environmental and natural resource constraints include: high levels of environmental pollution and an inability or lack of means

Table 7.4 Constraints on agricultural production in tropical Africa

Physical constraints
Unfavourable climatic conditions include:
- rainfall that is unreliable in onset, duration, and intensity
- unpredictable periods of drought, floods, and environmental stresses
- reduced effective rainfall on sandy soils and steep slopes
- high soil temperature for some crops and biological processes (N-fixation)
- high rates of decomposition and low level of organic matter
- cloudiness and reduced photosynthetic efficiency
Most soils of the humid and subhumid tropics
- are intensely weathered, sandy, and low in clay
- have very low cation exchange capacity (CEC) and thus also less active colloidal complex
- have very low inherent fertility (except on hydromorphic and young volcanic soils)
- have very high acidity and sometimes high surface temperatures
- are extremely subject to multiple nutrient deficiencies and toxicities under continuous cultivation
- have very high P-fixation
- are extremely leached, and thus at high risk of erosion under prevailing rainstorms
- have serious salinity problems under poor irrigation management
Biological constraints
- unimproved crops and livestock
- low yields and low potential
- susceptibility to disease and pests
- high incidence of disease, pests, and weeds owing to environment that favours these phenomena
- drastic environmental changes, brought about by human activities that have adverse effects on ecological equilibrium
Socio-economic constraints
- small farm size, more drastically reduced by population pressure
- unfavourable land tenure systems, often resulting in fragmentation of holdings
- shortage of labour
- lack of credit and low income
- poor marketing facilities and pricing structure
- high cost and extreme scarcity of inputs
- poor extension services
- illiteracy and superstition, which sometimes hamper adoption process
- poor transportation
- inappropriateness of inputs
- lack of package approach to technology, development, and use

Source: Okigbo (1982).

for enforcing safety standards; dependence on imports for a substantial proportion of raw materials and equipment needed in industries; and limited allocation of resources for the conservation of natural capital stock and environmental protection.

Technological and technical constraints include: dependence on imported equipment, which often does not meet safety standards in the originating countries; lack of adequate capabilities for the maintenance and repair of equipment; deficiencies in human resources development, experience, and training; and limited research in promoting energy efficiency and the use of alternative energy resources.

Socio-economic constraints consist of: a lack of clear-cut industrial policies and strategies for sustainable development; high priority given to heavy industries at the expense of agricultural and light industries based on available renewable natural resources; high priority given to the achievement of rapid economic growth at the expense of environmental quality; limitations in industrial managerial experience; inability to monitor, control, and enforce environmental safety standards, and deficiencies in legal and economic instruments to support these; use of subsidies to promote practices that are environmentally degrading; the existence of poverty among large segments of the population, with markedly unequal distributions of wealth; and deficiencies in legal provisions for the protection of workers and for ensuring a safe and healthy work environment.

Constraints on mineral industry development

Constraints on sustainable development in the mining industry, as in industry, consist of environmental and resource constraints, technological and technical constraints, and socio-economic constraints.

Environmental and natural resource constraints consist of: a lack of adequate environmental safeguards to minimize environmental damage and degradation, especially in several sectoral development activities including road construction and open-cast mining; the fact that mining activities and practices sometimes cause gullies and considerable damage to the landscape and surrounding useful land; deficiencies in laws and regulations concerning the safety and protection of workers; considerable amounts of sediments and waste released into rivers and streams where they pollute the environment; limited provision for environmental rehabilitation of mined sites.

Technical and technological constraints may arise because mining, except for semi-precious stones, is often under the monopolistic control of multinational companies that conduct very little research and training in the host countries. The main constraints include: a lack of improved technologies for small-scale mining; limited endogenous capabilities for exploration and mining R&D activities; the monopolization by multinationals of information on reserves and characteristics of mineral resources; limited research on the rehabilitation and afforestation of mined sites; limited capabilities for attaining a reasonable level of minerals-based manufacturing to ensure the realization of the benefits of the value-added.

Socio-economic constraints include: deficiencies in policies that give multinationals control of relevant information on mineral resources; limited capabilities in mineral resource economics and the ecological economics of mineral resources; deficiencies in legal instruments; deficiencies in policy research; a lack of provision for the effective monitoring of environmental impact and the enforcement of regulations; frequent fluctuations in commodity market prices; and the social problems of female-headed households resulting from the migration of men to mines in southern Africa.


Sustainable development in Africa can be achieved only where appropriate policies, strategies, and priorities in research and development are carefully chosen and adhered to with the continuous commitment and allocation of resources and the creation of an enabling environment by governments. The elements of necessary ingredients for such sustainable development are briefly summarized below.

The adoption of a holistic or systems approach in planning, policies, and R&D

Sustainable development applies to the conservation, management, and rational utilization of natural resources in such a way as to maintain the integrity of each ecosystem, support all life, ensure no loss in biodiversity, and prevent environmental degradation. This calls for compatibility in sectoral development programmes in such a way that activities in any one sector do not have adverse environmental impacts, which would make it difficult to achieve the desired sustainable management of resources in any other sector now and in the future. For this to be successful it must involve the interaction of relevant disciplines in the planning and policy formulation stages, and in all stages of research and development (R&D) activities at local, national, regional, and global levels.

Conservation and development

There is need in all countries to adopt an environmental perspective in the management of natural resources in development programmes so as to ensure that conservation goes hand in hand with development in order to enhance sustainability. Conservation is defined as "the rational use of the earth's resources to achieve the highest quality of living for mankind" (UNESCO/FAO 1968), with the additional qualification that the quality of life also should apply to humans and to other organisms since this is the way to ensure conservation of biodiversity. When environmental quality is good for the survival of humans and other organisms then it is obvious that the environment is being given the due consideration it deserves in development if the earth is to function largely as a self-regulating planet.


Sustainable development calls for the adoption of a holistic and integrated approach in natural resource management. Opportunities for this exist in the following situations:

Land use

The adoption of an integrated land-use plan in which integrated watersheds as units for planning and development are a component entails the development of a master plan that provides for all the competing multiple land-use options, ranging from land for wildlife reserves and forest plantations to land for mining and human settlement, at least at national and regional levels.

Traditional and modern systems and technology

The integration of traditional, modern, and emerging resource management systems and technologies is one way of ensuring the relevance of technologies to the farmer's needs and circumstances, thereby facilitating rapid and widespread adoption. It involves the integration of desirable compatible elements of the different technologies in order to achieve sustainability. This approach also ensures that systems of production and their component technologies are ecologically sound, economically viable, and culturally acceptable.

Cropping systems and animal production systems

The integration of production systems involving, for example, the integration of arable (field) crop production with agro-forestry species in hedgerows and sometimes also with livestock into agrisilvopastoral systems can achieve a wider spectrum of objectives than can any of the systems alone.

Pest and disease management systems

Reliance on environment-polluting pesticides and chemical control in pest management can be minimized by mixing different strategies that interact synergistically to produce the desired effects. The combination of compatible chemical, biological, physical, and/or cultural methods in the control of pests and diseases aims to reduce reliance on any one method that, when used alone, may have adverse environmental effects - e.g. using a resistant variety and a few sprays of dilute chemical pesticide, instead of high concentrations and several sprays of more pesticides, which causes environmental pollution.

Species of crops and/or animals

Growing different species of crops or using different species of animals can ensure higher and more stable yields over time than growing only one commodity.

Alternative energy systems

It is necessary to develop alternative energy systems because reliance on fuelwood as the main energy source will not only lead to depletion of fuelwood resources and deforestation but also cause erosion and desertification.

Monitoring of resources and environment

For sustainable development to succeed, there must be monitoring of the status of various natural resources and analyses of the data in order to predict the likely consequences of environmental change in the future. Related to this is the inventorying of natural resources so as to determine changes in biodiversity causes and remedial measures.

Regulatory and guidance measures

Monitoring provides the basis for legislation and enforcement measures for protecting the environment. The results can also be used to guide actions to be taken or to enforce related laws and regulations.

Education, training, and orientation priorities

The existing educational curriculum needs to be modified so as to facilitate the provision of environmental education at different levels and the provision of training in environmental monitoring and assessment, in addition to orientation of the public so as to enhance popular participation in sustainable development projects. Any effort aimed at combating the development of inappropriate attitudes or standards as a result of the influence of the media can best be achieved through the educational system, formally or informally.

Other strategies

The above strategies are by no means exhaustive. It would be necessary to take appropriate measures to see that there are in place policies, strategies, technologies, systems, and other actions that are needed for combating or eliminating any of the constraints identified above.


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