United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Global Environment Outlook-1 - The Web version

Chapter 2: Regional Perspectives

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Underlying Causes

[ Social | Economic | Institutional | Environmental ]

Environmental deterioration in Africa is intricately linked to poor economic performance and poverty. The chain of dependencies is all too familiar: rapid population growth and poverty accelerate deforestation and the expansion of agriculture into marginal areas, leading in turn to land degradation, which exacerbates food insecurity, loss of biodiversity, decline in water quality, and decrease in health status (UNEP, 1995).

Taken in isolation, any one link in the chain is neither entirely irrational nor perverse. Large families, for example, ensure an adequate labour force to cope with increasing time costs for gathering fuel and water, clearing of new land, or moving herds farther afield in the dry season (World Bank, 1995). Clearing a patch of forest and selling the timber to buy improved agricultural technology may be the most sustainable form of conversion in that situation.

The largest unknowns in the equations of environmental degradation are not the states and magnitudes but the relative importance of the driving forces and what actually drives what. Such knowledge would allow progress beyond the usual truisms and tautologies-for example, that economic development is a key to protecting and improving the environment and that growth must be environmentally sustainable to achieve the necessary economic development.


The population of Africa is approaching 700 million (UNFPA, 1994). The current annual average growth rate is about 2.9 per cent and nearly half the population is below 16 years of age, yielding a population doubling time of 20-30 years. At this rate, the regional population will exceed 1 billion by 2005 (World Bank, 1995).

The African Common Position on Environment and Development (UNECA, 1992) states that the regional problem is not so much the high population growth rate but its distribution: a number of countries in Africa are underpopulated, and their resources are underexploited. Nevertheless, rapid population growth may frustrate Government efforts at meeting future demands for services and jobs, and slowing it will not necessarily minimize or eliminate existing levels of poverty, unemployment, and unevenness in income distribution (UNECA, 1993a).

While there is admittedly no evidence to show that reducing the population growth rate would solve poverty problems and regenerate abused environments, failure to do so will certainly worsen the situation. A precautionary principle seems to be emerging, and the consensus is that socio-economic development and population programmes should be planned and implemented simultaneously to ensure that the benefits of each are fully realized (UNECA, 1993a).

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to an estimated 35 million international migrants, including some 4 million refugees. Out-migration from the inland countries of the Sudano-Sahelian belt to the coastal countries in West and Central Africa has been considerable. In West Africa, for example, the coastal countries are thought to have absorbed about 8 million people in the last three decades. These trends are likely to continue and even to expand (World Bank, 1995).

In several countries, migrants are not only pulled towards cities by the prospect of jobs and higher incomes, they are also pushed out of rural areas by such factors as poverty, lack of land, declining returns from agricultural commodities, war, and famine. Migration is also often part of a complex household survival strategy, in which families minimize risk by placing family members in different labour markets. An estimated 40-60 per cent of the annual urban population growth in developing countries is due to rural-urban migration, particularly where rural poverty is rampant (WRI/UNEP/UNDP/WB, 1996; SARDC, personal communication, 1996).

Africa still needs to improve in the areas of education and health. Since the promise of the 1990 Jomtien Conference on Education for All, slow but steady progress is being made in most regions of the world. In Africa, however, the downward trend in educational enrollment of the 1980s has not been reversed (UNDP, 1996). Repetition rates are excessive, retention is poor, and the gender gap is high. The health situation in Africa is cause for some satisfaction, in that life spans have increased significantly, in part from the impacts of concerted health initiatives. Yet it remains a cause of outrage in that preventable deaths, suffering, and loss of human potential are still high (UNDP, 1996).

Conflict arising from political instability has been a primary impediment to development in a number of African countries. The social, economic, and environmental impacts can be immense, as demonstrated in the recent armed conflicts that resulted in massive displacements and loss of human life. The causes for these outbreaks have been largely internal to the countries in question. Although such conflicts may be more amenable to intervention and management before they lead to violence, they also have wider implications: violence spillover, refugee flows, and regional destabilization. For example, the influx of Mozambican refugees into Malawi had a catastrophic effect on land and forest resources (Babu and Hassan, 1995). Some conflicts and social unrest were the result not only of political instability but also of ethnic tensions, food insecurity, poverty, limited access to resources, and land pressures.


Of the 30 poorest countries of the world, 21 are in Africa (World Bank, 1995). The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa points to the scarcity of a financial capital base for the initiation, stimulation, promotion, and sustenance of development activities as being the root of underdevelopment and environmental degradation in Africa (UNECA, 1992). Availability and suitability of imported technology to local situations is also a problem (SARDC, personal communication, 1996).

Lack of or slow growth, particularly in central and northern Africa, has contributed significantly to the overall low aggregate regional output. The annual average growth rate from 1990 to 1993 was a mere 1.5 per cent, barely half of the regional population growth rate (UNECA, 1993b). Western Africa did better (2.7 per cent), while central Africa stagnated (UNECA, 1993b). In the last few years, however, nearly half the countries have diverged from the general trend, reaching rates between 3 and 8 per cent, with three of them exceeding even the 8 per cent level (UNDP, 1996).

Poor people are most at risk from environmental damage, whatever the cause. In economies based on natural resources, which most African countries are, resource degradation reduces the productivity of the poor, increases their susceptibility to extreme weather, economic and civil events, and environmental health threats. Poverty also makes recovery from such events even more difficult. Extreme events, especially those related to weather, appear to be increasing in frequency in Africa (World Bank, 1995).

Most African countries depend on primary commodities for a significant part of their export income. Yet the values of the continent's agricultural and mineral raw material exports have been falling dramatically from the combined effects of stagnation in industrial countries, substitution by synthetics, and competition from, for example, the Commonwealth of Independent States (UNECA, 1993b).

Africa's external debt continues to be a major impediment to the achievement of accelerated economic growth and development. The total debt stock stood at US$313 billion in 1994, equivalent to 234 per cent of export income and 83 per cent of GDP. The debt burden was higher than that of any other region. Four fifths of severely indebted low-income countries (as designated by the World Bank) are in sub-Saharan Africa, and the number is increasing. In sub-Saharan Africa, the average per capita debt servicing load was US$43, compared with US$35 spent on health and education. Nineteen African countries have manageable debt burdens, but even under the most optimistic assumptions, 24 countries will continue to face an unsustainable debt burden (by World Bank criteria) well into the twenty-first century.

There are also problems of high dependence on foreign aid and marginalization in the flow of foreign direct investment (FDI). African development has had very heavy involvement by donors, who in some cases have provided the full funding for long-term development investment activities (UNDP, 1996). But donor-driven development has not always been co-ordinated or fully appreciative of Africa's development efforts and priorities. While FDI increased to Latin America and Asia, Africa's share of FDI remains at less than 2 per cent of total flows (UNDP, 1996). A study by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development concluded that, contrary to common perceptions, FDI in Africa can be profitable and at a level above the average in other developing regions (UNDP, 1996).

In the face of declining export earnings and debt burdens, many Governments have tried to boost their cash crop production and timber sales. This has led to further environmental damage as well as forced poor farmers to move further onto marginal lands (UNECA, 1993a). Many of the institutions and infrastructure supporting agriculture often operate inadequately, with little impact on food supply and a lack of support for agricultural technologies (UNECA, 1993a).

Thirty-five African countries have been implementing structural adjustment programmes for more than a decade, and have put in place economic reform measures in an attempt to correct some fundamental economic imbalances and to support private-sector development. Although African Governments are committed to removing obstacles to growth, current projections indicate that socio-economic recovery is still not in sight for most countries (UNDP, 1996). It has also been argued that structural adjustment programmes have been leading to wider gaps between rich and poor (Ohlsson, 1995).


Political liberalization is spreading across Africa (UNDP, 1996); pluralism and accountability are more evident. In the last five years, 30 sub-Saharan countries held national pluralistic elections. In the wake of such changes, civil society is growing in strength, with significant movements towards more open communication, a freer press, decentralization, attention to human rights, social justice, and popular participation in the development process; evidence of this includes the fuller inclusion of women in positions of economic and political prominence (UNDP, 1996). Grassroots participation and initiatives are playing an increasingly important role in the process of policy-making and implementation (UNEP, 1996b).

Yet institutional infrastructures to support democratic changes often lag behind. Physical as well as institutional infrastructures were designed to support the colonial economy, not to promote production diversity and industrial development in general. Given a long history of dependence on imported technological inputs, African countries have only relatively recently begun to be involved in acquiring appropriate technological capability (UNECA, 1993a), thereby increasing both local capacity and competitiveness.

Financial institutions, too, need attention. In many African countries, the banking system is weak and in some cases bankrupt (UNDP, 1996). There is dominance of State-owned banks, with Government control of credit markets and interest rates. In many countries, Government expenditures outstrip revenues: 30 countries have fiscal deficits of nearly 10 per cent of GDP, draining savings from the rest of the economy (UNDP, 1996).

A number of Governments, centres of commerce and learning, non-governmental groups, and private and public donors, including United Nations agencies, are actively working to expand the information and telecommunication infrastructures in Africa, so that Africans can become full actors in the global information revolution. As the rest of the world also adapts to this, the resistance of African central Government and parastatal institutions to communications entrepreneurship is fading, thereby creating opportunities for information exchange rather than information hoarding and exploitation. The ensuing participation by a wide range of community sectors offers great opportunities for Africa to compete effectively in an international marketplace and thereby bolster and accelerate development.


Some underlying natural environmental factors in Africa reinforce the effects of the human-driven causes of environmental degradation. One major factor that affects the continent is the climate, which is generally dry with frequent severe droughts and highly variable rainfall. Droughts and the great unevenness in the distribution of natural resources (such as water and vegetation) are the predominant impediments to development and are intrinsic to environmental degradation. It is clear that Africa is endowed with diverse and rich natural resources; the greatest problem lies in the imbalance in the use of these resources as a result of a combination of factors discussed already. These include a lack of investment capital, inappropriate technologies, and poor management.

Little can be done about the natural climate variability save discovering, teaching, instilling, and encouraging behavioural changes to adapt to prevailing conditions. Global climate change could disrupt the weather patterns and contribute to the worsening of the natural climatic conditions. The potential impact of climate change is a concern in Africa.

The poor quality of soils is another constraining environmental factor. In addition to the climatic conditions, phosphorus deficiency, low content of organic matter, and low water infiltration and retention capacity on much of the African soils have been a limiting factor in agriculture. Unlike climate variability, however, this problem can be addressed: soil quality can be augmented through considerable investment in careful management and importation of nutrients.

Natural disasters other than droughts that have negative impacts on the environment and the sustainability of economic growth include invasion by desert locusts, storms, and floods. Although the need is global, in Africa there is a particular sense of urgency about understanding the causal links and the relationships between the various driving forces behind environmental problems in order to help formulate policies that will work.

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