Second of a two-part series

After 20 years, it should be clear that the Brundtland Commission’s goal of meeting people’s basic needs has not been met in sub-Saharan Africa. Since the 1960’s, sub-Saharan African nations have received an estimated $500 billion in foreign aid, yet the entire continent today accounts for just 2% of global gross domestic product despite having 13 percent of the world’s people.

Sub-Saharan Africa is in very short supply of energy and power, especially electricity, and overland trade is greatly hindered by an almost total lack of infrastructure such as highways. Millions die each year from diseases that are rare in first-world nations, and millions more are beleaguered by diseases that stem in large part from the lack of clean water and sanitation facilities and from burning wood and dung . And yet there is hope for change.

As noted by Dr. Holger Thuss, director of CFACT-Europe, the European Union in June 2006 adopted a new “EU Sustainable Development Strategy” which listed as key objectives both environmental protection and economic growth . In so doing, the EU pledged to return to a more market-based approach to sustainable development and away from its previous approach, which according to Thuss, “relied heavily on ideologies that prioritized social engineering [as more important than] prosperity and the advancement of individual liberties.”

Thuss contends that, despite the lip service Chairman Brundtland gave to economic growth and ending poverty as critical elements of sustainable development for poor nations, the Commission, and the United Nations as a whole, failed to recognize that true sustainable development can only be achieved by enabling people – not the state – to improve their own well-being. Instead, government bureaucracies stepped in to “guide” development instead of merely encouraging the development of functional democratic institutions to expand civil liberties, free markets, the rule of law, and strong property rights.

Thuss also contends that sustainable development, already burdened down by the UN’s adherence to central planning, was further stifled by the doctrine of “deep ecology” and the “precautionary principle,” in which the “needs” of nature are prioritized as being of more import than those of human beings. Out of this marriage of centralized planning and deep ecology was born Agenda 21, which was unveiled at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero in 1992.

In concert with Agenda 21, the EU in 1992 announced its fifth Environmental Action Plan, which sought (among other things) to “de-couple environmental impacts and degradation from economic growth” and to integrate environmental concerns into other policies. By 1998, the EU backed further away from consideration of economic growth as an important factor in sustainable development for poor nations. The new “Cardiff Process” aimed instead at gradual integration of environmental considerations into every EU policy and activity.

According to Thuss, the Europeans eventually realized it was incompatible to ask people to refuse to seek a higher standard of living and at the same time to adhere to economic growth as a basis for achieving higher living standards. The EU now says that its new “Lisbon Strategy”for growth and jobs and its new sustainability strategy will work together to ensure that economic development is seen as essential in facilitating the transition to a more sustainable society.

Thuss notes that “something substantial has changed.” The EU is now focused clearly on prosperity, development through growth, environment, competitiveness and progress for the developing world. He only wishes the EU had also stated more adamantly that the heart of its sustainability policy is empowering people in developing nations to solve their own problems.

One Example of Real Sustainable Development – Guinean Bauxite

The nation of Guinea in west Africa is rich in gold, diamonds, uranium, and high-grade iron ore; it is also home to a third or more of the world’s resources of bauxite, the ore from which we get aluminum. Yet Guinea’s people are among the world’s poorest.

All this may be about to change, thanks to a new $3 billion refinery that will start to turn Guinea’s bauxite ore into alumina. The project, a joint venture between Canada’s Global Alumina Corporation and the United Nations Development Programme, appears to be a model for large-scale sustainable development in the developing world.

The only other bauxite refinery in Africa is a small operation that supplies alumina for aluminum smelters in Russia and the Ukraine. According to Haskell Sears Ward, who spearheaded the Guinean agreement, his company from the outset of negotiations (back in 2001) “placed special emphasis on seeing to it that Guineans at the community level see benefits from this project.”

Indeed, the company sought the opinions of nearly all of the target community’s 4,000 residents and then promised to build two new villages with sanitary sewers, schools, and dispensaries, to compensate people for lost trees and land parcels, and to pay special attention to upgrading the status of women.

To assist the project, Global entered into a partnership with the Africa Development Foundation to foster community participation and create opportunities for Guinean enterprise development. A second partnership will train Guineans for skills needed in the construction and operation phases so they can fill most of the 4,000 construction jobs and 2,000 permanent jobs – as well as for the thousands of spinoff jobs to be generated in the region. The partnership has also set aside funds for financing micro-enterprises as well as for midwife training and various poverty alleviation programs.

There are still major obstacles to the potential success of this project, including a recent national strike followed by imposition of martial law, looting, killing of demonstrators, and a near total collapse of commerce. This violence was very likely brought on by the inability of Guineans to afford fuel and food, thanks in large part to inflation. Yet these very problems demonstrate very clearly the immediate need for new jobs and investment.

Despite these concerns, Alcoa Inc.-Alcan has signed a new agreement for another alumina refinery, and negotiations are under way with other key players in that industry. Ward earlier this year held out hope for a major economic take-off, but only if the country can avoid chaos.

Ward acknowledged that “the roads are bad, electricity unreliable, skilled labor in short supply, and political uncertainty exists” – that is the template for far too much of the sub-Saharan landscape. But, he said, Guinea has never expropriated or nationalized any foreign assets and has been a hospitable destination for investors. And why not? One village elder, whose family was paid for 50 lost trees, explained, “I want the project to develop as quickly as possible. We ourselves think of development, and that’s why we accepted to be relocated.”

Sustainable Development Challenges

Anyone looking for sustainable development challenges need look no further than Haskell Ward’s own comments about Guinea, which are equally applicable almost everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Bad roads, unreliable energy and power supplies, a lack of education and job training, and political instability – not to mention disease and malnutrition – all play major roles in keeping people poor.

While the common wisdom cries out for more and more foreign aid, the fact is that Africa is very rich in resources and is in much greater need of at-risk investment coupled with the entrepreneurial energy that sent explorers of old around the world in wooden ships, built a railroad across the American desert, and created and defended the institutions of liberty that have made it possible for anyone to rise from abject poverty to great wealth.

One key element for sustainable development in Africa is the removal of the stigma from the use of fossil fuels. Last November, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Nairobi, OPEC Secretary General Mohammed Barkindo made it clear that, “Energy is fundamental for economic development and social progress. While the use of all forms of energy is welcome, it is clear that fossil fuels will continue to satisfy the lion’s share of the world’s growing energy needs for decades to come.”

Earlier last year, Barkindo chided first-world nations for failing to provide promised investment capital, capacity building, and technology transfer to developing nations and noted that “technological options that allow the continued use of fossil fuels in a carbon-constrained world must be actively promoted.”

Nigeria, Barkindo’s home country, is but one of major African nations with sizable quantities of petroleum reserves, but the full benefit of petroleum resources cannot be tapped until there are locally based refineries that provide local access to the many valuable byproducts of gasoline production.

The lack of highways across Africa is perhaps the most glaring evidence of the continuing influence of colonialism on the economies of African states. About a year ago, at the U.S.-Africa Infrastructure Conference, David Wheeler of the World Bank’s Development Research Group presented a paper showing how a capital investment of $30 billion over a 5-year period plus another $1.8 billion annually for maintenance and security could build a 100,000-kilometer highway network to connect every capital city and every other city of half a million people or more throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Such a highway system, Wheeler said, would more than pay for itself in a short period by generating an additional $250 billion in overland trade between nations and providing an estimated 14 million jobs for the continent’s rural poor. Even more revenue would be generated, he added, from trade expansion within individual countries and with non-African countries and from induced growth in urban and rural areas.

Clearly, not everyone has an extra $6 billion a year to toss around, but significant portions of such a highway network can be built for far less so as to connect cities in nations ready to trade with one another. Kenya hopes to complete construction of the Mombasa-Nairobi-Addis Abada highway by 2009, and the Economic Community of West African States has been building large sections of the Trans West African highway network. For years, South Africa has relied on private funds to build toll roads that will one day revert to public ownership.

A third macro-level challenge could be to help rebuild (or perhaps better yet, reinvent) the African university system, which is in a state of near-total collapse according to Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times. Polgreen reports that the decrepitude “is forcing the best and brightest from countries across Africa to seek their education and fortunes abroad and depriving dozens of nations of the homegrown expertise that could lift millions out of poverty.”

The Commission for Africa, a British government research organization, in 2005 harshly concluded that Africa’s universities had become warehouses for a generation of young people for whom society has little use and who can expect to be just as poor as their uneducated parents. Perhaps this crisis can be addressed in part through distance learning, utilizing the internet, and through multi-purpose laboratories in which students learn by assisting at hospitals, factories, and other entities that require laboratory facilities.

On other key fronts, business consultant C. K. Prahalad has stated that innovation is rampant in the developing world, because people there must focus on conserving resources through eliminating, reducing, or recycling wastes they cannot afford. The poor, he added, must not be seen as victims or as a burden but as resilient and creative entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers. In short, as people who may one day teach the rich how to live more abundantly, yet sustainably.

Economist Hernando de Soto has shown that the world’s poor are in reality sitting on vast wealth that, once unlocked, can provide the springboard to economic growth through commerce. And visionary Michael Strong has provided evidence that economic freedom is perhaps the critical factor in achieving peace – echoing the words of Montesquieu, who said over 250 years ago that “peace is the natural effect of trade.”

But What Can Ordinary People Do?

While the multi-billion-dollar alumina project in Guinea may provide a significant breakthrough for sustainable development in that nation, and other large-scale projects may provide similar benefits for other nations, even ordinary citizens can play a valuable role for advancing true sustainable development in the developing world.

Growing out of its efforts in Valle Verde, Mexico, CFACT is currently creating a program of Social Entrepreneurship and Free-Enterprise Development known as SEFED. The program will involve ordinary people engaged in missions of a secular or religious nature becoming true servants of the people in whose communities they live and work (or just visit for short time periods). These are the people who know their indigenous neighbors as partners and friends and who can work with them to prepare business plans and community-serving projects.

This is the template for our newest project in the nation of Uganda. There, CFACT is developing pilot research projects in three impoverished rural villages that can have more thorough and long-term impact through reliance on integrated, holistic approaches; expanded property rights, entrepreneurial opportunities, and other market-oriented mechanisms; and increased cooperation among governmental, non-governmental, academic, philanthropic, and other actors in the field, as well as greater interaction between local village leaders and outside experts.

The CFACT projects will also look at how the resources and strengths of the faith-based community in general, and local churches in particular, can be more effectively brought to bear on poverty alleviation programs in Africa, and throughout the developing world.

In one case, CFACT is looking at working with local villagers to start a poultry and pig training and production facility, where Ugandan families can learn how to raise and care for the animals, and then use the proceeds for school fees, a small hydro project, a health clinic, or other local priorities. Elsewhere, the program is working with local farmers to build a maize mill where corn can be ground and more easily transported and sold at market for higher prices.

In each of these cases, it is the initiative of local villagers that is driving the selection of the first projects, and will lead to subsequent projects of economic growth and poverty alleviation as relationships are established and solidified.


In summary, CFACT’s position on sustainable development for the developing world is very much the same position espoused 20 years ago by Chairman Gro Brundtland – that “sustainable development requires meeting the basic needs of all and extending to all the opportunity to fulfill their aspirations for a better life,” and that meeting these essential needs “requires not only a new era of economic growth for nations in which the majority are poor, but an assurance that those poor get their fair share of the resources required to sustain that growth.”

Moreover, CFACT’s methodology for sustainable development in the developing world is akin to that recently adopted by the European Union, which our colleague Dr. Thuss interprets as a clear new focus on prosperity, development through growth, environment, competitiveness and progress for the developing world. Our approach to sustainable development must not be patronizing. We must never forget the words of Cameroonian journalist Jean-Claude Shanda Tonme (New York Times, July 15, 2005): “They still believe us to be like children that they must save us, as if we don’t realize ourselves what the source of our problems is.”

CFACT thus believes that the heart of any true sustainability policy must be to empower people in developing nations to create and manage their own wealth, develop their own free and healthy institutions, and solve their own environmental and human health challenges as best they see fit. Such an approach will clearly foster a brighter and more constructive tomorrow.

(Special thanks to CFACT senior policy analyst Duggan Flanakin who greatly contributed to this article)


  • Duggan Flanakin

    Duggan Flanakin is the Director of Policy Research at the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow. A former Senior Fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mr. Flanakin authored definitive works on the creation of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and on environmental education in Texas. A brief history of his multifaceted career appears in his book, "Infinite Galaxies: Poems from the Dugout."