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Accelerating progress towards the SDGs in Africa: focusing on three thematic priorities

I was recently invited to attend the event co-hosted by UNU-WIDER and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and heard some of UNU-WIDER’s recent research findings and engaged in a discussion on SDG progress in Africa with experts from across policy and academic networks. The expert panel discussion centered on UNU-WIDER’s recent report on peace, decent work, and greater equality, where panelists took on the challenge to identify opportunities for action to accelerate the achievement of the SDGs. Below are some of the key lessons and areas I hope to see progress on in the future.

The aspiration for peace in vulnerable societies

Although global poverty rates have broadly reduced since 1990, poverty in conflict-affected countries has risen. The nexus between peace and progress on poverty reduction is overwhelming, where conflict endures, ambitions of poverty reduction cannot be successful. By 2030, two-thirds of the world’s extreme poor will live in fragile and conflict-affected countries.  

Kunal Sen, Director of UNU-WIDER, emphasized three critical elements for peacebuilding in conflict-affected areas, which are: rebuilding the state, strengthening the social contract and social cohesion, and encouraging non-violent political participation.

However, these ingredients can work to achieve lasting peace only when they are combined with a profound understanding of the post-conflict environment, underscoring the need for continued academic work to understand the complex nature of conflict and the enduring effects.

Although the issue of aid is complex and sometimes challenging in Africa, he argued that development aid serves a critical purpose in peacebuilding, particularly in developing state capacity and building institutions that allow countries to move out of conflict. However, this needs to be done in an informed manner, as Mohamed Salih from the University of Rotterdam shared, there are common pitfalls that can jeopardize the success of peacebuilding efforts by donors.

For example, donors often focus on short-term solutions while neglecting the much longer-term challenge of state formation. He emphasized that statebuilding is an arena of confrontation and attestation of the different forces that make history. Further, in this process we build the social contract through interactions between actors. The importance of local institutions and grassroot democracy is critical in this process.

The aspiration for decent work

The conversation on decent work covered three primary areas—informality, social protection, and gender gaps. Sen said that the majority of the world’s workforce is employed in the informal sector and rates of informal employment in the Global South countries are much higher than in the Global North. Overall, informal workers make up nearly half of the global workforce. Informality is a major barrier to decent work as informal jobs are often low paying and do not offer job security, insurance, or legal protection.

Going forward, Abebe Shimeles from the University of Cape Town says the political economy must be considered in the creation of decent jobs in Africa. There needs to be more investment in human capital, in improving labor market conditions, and market reforms in Africa. He also encouraged policymakers to rethink job creation for the long-term.  

On the growing gender gap, Sweta Saxena, Chief of Staff, UNECA, emphasized the need for governments to modernize laws and implement family-friendly policies to help bridge the gender gap. The gender gap in terms of female labor force participation is especially low in the Middle East and North Africa where only around one in five women are working, likewise, in Southeast Asia, only around one in four women are in the labor market.

The aspiration for greater equality

Income inequality affects all areas of society and is closely linked to lower levels of health and education and an erosion of social cohesion and trust. It weakens democracy and democratic values in societies and hampers economic performance. Further, in highly unequal societies economic growth is less effective at reducing poverty. Saurabh Sinha, Chief of Section, Social Affairs of ECA, stressed the need for policymakers to rethink the nature of growth given the inequality present in Africa. Citing examples from Southeast Asia, he stated that inequality is something that policy can, and should, address.  

Ultimately, the panelists underlined opportunities for action that are plentiful and go far beyond economic growth. The key takeaway is the need to re-establish a workable social contract between citizens and government, society, and the state, both for current and future generations. (This article first appeared on UNU-WIDER)

(Malang B. S. Bojang is a research fellow at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. He researches e-Government in developing countries, public value creation, democracy and good governance, and public sector reforms.)

Contributed by Malang B. S. Bojang

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