On the occasion of the Wellbeing Economy Festival, which took place in Pretoria on 27-30 November 2017, we spoke to the former deputy regional director for Africa of the United Nations Environment Programme, Prof. Desta Mebratu, who has just launched a revolutionary programme at the University of Stellenbosch (South Africa) with the aim of transforming Africa’s economies through technological leapfrogging, decentralisation and empowerment.

Desta Mebratu at Decoupling Launch, April 2013

1) What are the key development challenges facing Africa?

A brief review of key regional reports provide endless list of development challenges faced by African countries. However, focusing on the fundamentals, the following could be cited as the key factors that are at the centre of our development challenges in Africa. Access to productive energy has been at the centre of every development process in human history. In this context, Africa is the region which has the highest level of energy poverty with two out of every three person living in the region not having access to productive energy thereby adversely affecting its development possibilities. As a result of this and other factors,  economies of most African countries are largely characterized as subsistence economies which are primarily dependent on the extraction and/or export of primary commodities or resources. This coupled with the unfavourable conditions of globalization that has been dominant over the last couple of decades exposed African countries to the vicious circle of underdevelopment. The extractive nature of national economies combined with the fast rate of population growth in the region has led to increasing rate of natural resource depletion and degradation. Finally, the oppressive and undemocratic mode of governance propagated both by colonial and post-colonial regimes has continuously weakened institutional capacity of development governance in the region.

Desta Mebratu Shanghai Lecture

2) How can these challenges be addressed effectively, also taking into account the overall global context marked by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

The adoption of Agenda 2030 and the SDGs represents a major turning point in global development policy discourse and provides a valuable framework for addressing some of the basic challenges faced by African countries. The effective implementation of the SDGs would, however, require some serious rethinking. Countries need to recognize that making an isolated effort with one or a couple of the goals without considering the others would be a self-defeating exercise that results in limited progress towards the overall objective. One of the key aspects of such integrated implementation is ensuring the contextualization and full integration of the SDGs in national development plans. This would require all African countries to avoid implementation of SDGs as stand-alone programmes that are exclusively dependent on or driven by external donor support. Most importantly, given the early stages of development of most African countries, they need to give particular attention to those goals that are specifically related to basic infrastructure development which are critical for putting Africa in a new development path. These include: Goal 4 on education and skill development, Goal 7 on affordable and clean energy, Goal 9 on industry and innovation Infrastructure; Goal 11 on sustainable cities and communities and Goal 12 on responsible production and consumption.

3) Can the African continent be a pioneer in building a different development path? 

Yes, it could and should seize this opportunity. While Africa is currently recognized as a continent that is on the rise, it is also faced with enormous social and environmental challenges that are posing major threats to the livelihood of its population. But, it also has a unique opportunity of leapfrogging to a more inclusive, sustainable and resource efficient society that eradicates poverty and ensures an improved wellbeing to its people. This is primarily related to the lowest lock-in inertia it has from unsustainable physical and institutional infrastructure due to its early stage of development. This gives it the opportunity to leapfrog to more sustainable economies by developing socioeconomic infrastructure that are climate resilient and resource efficient. Africa could also be the highest technology beneficiary since most of the technical and technological solutions that are needed for the transition – from green energy to communication technology – are already developed and available for use. Through an effective social innovation regime, Africa could be a primary beneficiary of these emerging and resource efficient technologies and techniques. Finally, the widely prevalent communal philosophy known as Ubuntu in Southern and Eastern Africa, which is based on the principle of “I am because you are”, gives African societies better possibility for the transition to inclusive and sustainable economic systems.

4) How would your approach to ‘distributed renewable economy’ work in practice? 

Distributed Renewable Economy (DRE) is an operational and planning tool to facilitate Africa’s transition to an inclusive, low carbon and resource efficient society through a bottom-up process. It supports the development of networks of sustainable local communities, which could also serve as a basis for the integrated implementation of the SDGs. The transition to low carbon economy driven by the fast pace of renewable energy provides a unique opportunity to address energy poverty in African countries and promote an inclusive development. It is crucial, however, that this is linked with enhancing the productive capacity of local communities. Furthermore, recent developments in information and communication technology as well as modular manufacturing in combination with distributed energy systems provide a viable technological basis for the empowerment of local economies by redefining economy of scale to the benefit of the majority. In a nutshell, building Distributed Renewable Economies provides the basis for an inclusive wellbeing economy that creates jobs and add value to locally available resources

5) What are the next steps in making the ‘distributed renewable economy’ approach a reality? 

We need a fundamental paradigm shift in development planning and implementation. Primarily, policy making, development planning and budgeting processes at the national level need to foster broad-based and inclusive processes to empower local economies, besides providing the basic suitable development infrastructure. Secondly, community organizations and non-governmental organizations that are involved in development activities at the local level should transition from isolated and piecemeal development activities to an integrated approach to holistic development focused on wellbeing and the creation of sustainable livelihoods. Bilateral and multilateral development cooperation should also emphasize the integrated implementation of the SDGs with a particular attention given to development of inclusive and resource efficient local economies. Finally, we need to enhance the capacity of microfinancing institutions and establishing new microfinancing mechanisms that are directly supporting local communities with a view to nurturing micro and social enterprises that are the foundations for a sustainable local economy.

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