The biggest impression I take with me from the recent 6th Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development (ARFSD) in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, is the enthusiastic and exuberant energy of children and young people. The ARFSD is an annual intergovernmental platform convened by the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the African Union Commission, the African Development Bank and the United Nations system. Its purpose is to review progress, share experiences and lessons learned, and build consensus on recommendations to accelerate implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Agenda 2063 of the African Union.
I was invited to participate in the Forum by the ECA to highlight data from Save the Children’s child inequality tracker, GRID and, more broadly, to promote the importance of tracking and reporting on progress across the SDGs for those who are furthest behind.
This was the first of several regional consultations taking place this year as part of the UN@75 reform process. Increased recognition of young people as drivers of change was evident in the youth dialogue convened by UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed (pictured below). In her opening remarks she called on all actors to ensure during the Decade of Action and Delivery that young people are at the centre of our collective efforts to scale up ambition and accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Those words were reinforced throughout the week: young voices were present in the plenaries and the side events in the pop-up SDG village. Bringing ideas, ambition and much-welcomed candour, they gave a festival-like mood to the Forum. I loved the spontaneous performances of song and dance (and obligatory selfies) from young people all over the continent, from climate activists to youth parliamentarians. More important, children and young people bring a unique body of knowledge and experience to discussions on development. And they have a fundamental right to have their voices heard in decision-making processes.
The 6th ARFSD saw the launch of two significant reports:
- the Africa Sustainable Development Report 2020
- the inaugural AU Continental Report on the Implementation of Agenda 2063.
Both reports underscore the formidable challenges that lie ahead for the continent as a whole. While the region has made progress in reducing poverty since the SDGs were adopted, progress has not been fast enough. The absolute number of people living in extreme poverty has grown since 2015, and now stands at over 400 million, disproportionately affecting women and children. While some countries in the continent have registered some of the fastest economic growths in the world, income inequality continues to grow. Young people, who make up 60% of the continent’s population, are twice as likely to be unemployed as adults. The absolute number of people who face food insecurity has increased since 2015. Over the week, I heard from governments about how the impacts of climate change threaten to roll back many of the human development gains made in the last few years.
Save the Children’s analysis reveals why we must drastically scale up investments in essential public services while progressively pursuing equitable public policies to bridge the gaps between most marginalised and deprived children in the region and their more advantaged peers. If not, we will fail to meet the targets on the SDGs that ensure that all children survive, learn and are protected. And we’ll betray a generation of children and young people.
For example, Africa remains the continent with the highest prevalence of undernourishment, affecting one fifth of its population, while a third of all children under five are stunted (see graph).
These regional trends are concerning enough. But beyond the surface, our analysis reveals that malnutrition disproportionately affects particular groups of deprived and marginalised children, including those who are excluded or discriminated against on the basis of wealth, geographical location, disability and ethnicity. In Africa, the poorest 20% of children bear the greatest brunt of stunting, with a rate of 40%, compared with 20% for the richest quintile (see graph). This means that the poorest children are more than twice as likely to be stunted than their richer peers. Even more worryingly, there is no sign that this gap is closing. The present gap of 20 percentage points between the richest and the poorest children was the same divide 20 years ago and, on current projections, will virtually be unchanged in 2030.
Signs of hope
But these challenges are surmountable. Three reasons give me hope.
First, there’s a striking contrast between the general mood of pessimism that seems to have engulfed the UK and the US in recent years and what I witnessed at the Forum. I felt there was the genuine sense of hope among all participants, whether from government, civil society, activists or youth, and optimism that the future ahead is bright and theirs for the taking.
Second, it’s evident that, despite shrinking civic space in some countries and notwithstanding the presence of large international non-governmental organisations, local civil society is playing an increasingly active role in holding their governments to account. Participation from various civil society actors in the ARFSD has continued to grow from year to year. During the preparatory workshop of Major Groups and other Stakeholders (MGoS) – the global platform for civil society on Agenda 2030 – I learned a lot about the fantastic work that national advocacy coalitions are doing in SDG monitoring and reporting processes, from gathering citizen-generated data at the grassroots level to putting together robust shadow reports to sit alongside government-led reports.
A major positive development has been the launch of the Africa regional civil society engagement mechanism. This will give African civil society a legitimate seat at the table inside the MGoS to present their priorities and suggestions within global SDG debates for the way forward for the region. This is a role that needs to be supported by all actors in the development process, particularly donors, so that civil society actors beyond the international and national levels have the capacity and are empowered to bring the voices of the most marginalised and deprived, to these vital conversations. Third, I felt there was much more openness to the discussions among member states on the challenges in SDG implementation and how they needed support to produce stronger Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs), which are state-led, comprehensive reviews on progress and challenges in SDG implementation. The VNRs are presented to the UN. Governments who had recently submitted their reports – such as Uganda and Benin – were there to share lessons learned and practical recommendations of how SDG reporting could be strengthened, including planning early on in the process for multi-stakeholder participation.
With cautious optimism, I hope that SDG accounting will be more meaningful in the future, given that political will is the toughest nut to crack. To date, 35 African countries have conducted VNRs, and 17 African countries will present at the 2020 HLPF session, some for the second time. The task now is for the UN system and member states to strengthen the role of the regional fora as genuine avenues for learning and accountability on the SDGs and to ensure that the outcomes link strongly to the UN’s High Level Political Forum in July.
One of the most important messages from the MGoS communique to the Forum was the need for data on SDG progress to be disaggregated, in order to understand intersectionality of group-based inequalities. And that it must be made accessible to all stakeholders, such as civil society organisations, the media and citizens.
This call now needs to be amplified so that it creates resonance at the global level. With ten years to go to the 2030 deadline, this is urgent.
Policy choices for today – and beyond
On the shuttle bus back from the Forum, I spoke to an official from the Agricultural Ministry in Uganda, who is currently trying to develop a low-carbon-emitting fertiliser for use in her country’s agricultural sector. I told her about how I felt buoyed by the energy that I witnessed at the ARFSD. She turned to me and said that in many ways she felt that planning ministries in her country and others in the region were in better shape than, say, the UK. Pressed on this, she replied frankly that, while it’s good that the UK government has announced plans to cut its contribution to global warming to zero by 2050, the current economic model that Britain is locked into doesn’t allow for simple solutions for each and every citizen to lead a zero-carbon lifestyle. By contrast, in making key decisions on infrastructure, energy, water and other sectors, Uganda has the opportunity to avoid these pitfalls.
Her response brought home the message I heard all week from young people: there is a demand for policies that, rather than being informed by paradigms of the past, reflect young people’s current realities.
In the words of a member of Zimbabwe’s Junior Parliament, Vannesa Chivhizhe, at the Forum: “Young people are able and willing to step forward to tackle the challenges that are facing Africa. We ask our leaders to make space for us.”
The message is clear. For young people in the region, the future is now – and it belongs to them.