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Africa needs peace to hit sustainable development goals

September 14, 2023

Conflict, climate change and a lack of access to basic services hinder Africa's progress towards the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. To achieve lasting success, experts say the continent needs more than money.

Residents of the Kanyaruchinya camp for IDPs in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo
More than 32 million children across Africa don't have access to a proper school educationImage: Cunningham/Getty Images

The new academic year is underway in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — but dozen of schools in the territory of Nyiragongo, near the North Kivu capital of Goma, have become makeshift homes to internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Antoinette Gahizi is one of the IDPs, who every morning has to pack up her belongings and carry them out of the classroom she calls home. She needs to make way for the school children who will use the same space for their lessons. 

"After classes, we head back to the classrooms," Gahizi told DW. "But we're hit by the rain here, our things get wet and there's no way to shelter our children. We are suffering a lot."

M23 rebels withdraw from the Masisi and Sake areas in eastern Congo
Violent clashes between M23 rebels and the Congolese army have displaced thousand in eastern DRCImage: Jerome Delay/AP/picture alliance

Displacement and violence in DRC

Gahizi is a victim of a conflict in eastern DRC which, since the beginning of the year, has kiled more than 2,750 people and displaced 1.6 million — expanding the country's overall numbers of IDPs to 6.3 million.

Tensions flared in March 2022 when M23 rebels, after a decade of relative calm, attacked Congolese army positions near the border between Uganda and Rwanda, causing locals to flee for their safety. 

Among the displaced are more than 800,000 children, who suffer violence of "unprecedented levels," according to UNICEF.

Over 2,000 schools have been affected — and thousands of children have been deprived of their right to education. 

Meanwhile, the UN hopes that by 2030, every child will have access to a school education that gives them an opportunity to have a career in the future — one of 17 so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that aim to end of all kinds of poverty.  

The SDGs are aimed at promoting a fairer, more eco-friendly world without hunger and poverty, and will be the topic of conversation at a summit in New York next week.

The action plan was adopted at a UN summit in 2015, however the DRC is a long way from achieving them. 

Half a billion people live in poverty

The SDGs also call for the eradication of poverty "in all its forms everywhere" and zero hunger.

But almost 1 in 10 of the world's inhabitants are suffering from hunger, according to the World Bank.

And there are more than 110 active conflicts taking place globally, according to the The Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights — more than 35 of which are in Africa.

The UN in March 2022 stated that 26% of the world's population does not have access to clean drinking water. Although access to energy has increased in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 50% of the region's population still lacks access.

More than 72 million children of primary education age are not in school, said NGO Humanium, with Sub-Saharan Africa being the most affected area with over 32 million children.

"Two thirds of African countries are said to be in the suboptimal human development category," Lebohang Liepollo Pheko, a senior research fellow and a political economist at feminist think tank Trade Collective, told DW.

Schoolchildren learn the English and the Chichewa languages
Among the displaced are more than 800,000 children, who suffer violence of 'unprecedented levels,' according to UNICEFImage: Andrea Hanks/UPI Photo/Newscom/picture alliance

Development is even declining in almost one-third of the continent's countries. 

The decline is blamed in part on the COVID pandemic, which shook up health, economic and social systems.

Russia's war in Ukraine sent prices for commodities skyrocketing worldwide.

And millions of people in the Horn of Africa face a severe humanitarian crisis due to drought, flooding and conflict.

Making headway

Amid the challenges, however, are major achievements that are worth mentioning.

Ghana has made strides in tackling maternal mortality, as well as providing access to improved drinking water services and electricity.

Tanzania has made progress towards reducing inequalities, providing education and setting up climate action interventions.

"The DRC made very significant progress on a number of areas," pointed out Grant Leaity, UNICEF's representative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"The number of under-five mortalities has reduced by half to 70 under-five mortalities per 1,000 live births from 2013 to 2018. We also saw the government of DRC very committed to the reduction of multi-dimensional poverty, and building a social protection system."

Doraleh Multi-Purpose Port in Djibouti
East Africa's smallest country, Djibouti, seeks to capitalize on its strategic position on one of the world's busiest trade routesImage: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP

But despite these achievements, Pheko was critical that the SDGs "promote a very universal agenda which is really good by global north interests," but fetishized countries that failed to meet SDG standards without considering individual starting points.

According to Pheko, the problem is the "neoliberal and colonial context as to how certain regions and countries came to be supposedly ‘underdeveloped' and 'developed'."

"There's a correlation between the two," Pheko pointed out. "The extraction from the Global South versus the so-called prosperity of the global North, the slave trade, colonialism, apartheid and so on. And then how the global economic architecture continues to support these extractives."

It takes more than money

Aid agencies and the UN emphasized that there is a massive requirement to increase funding for education, healthcare and agriculture — not to mention a need to invest in basic services, clean energy and digital transition.

Africa needs about $194 billion (€182 billion) annually to achieve the SDGs by 2030, according to the African Union Commission and the OECD.

"We need to rethink trade relationships which make it difficult for African countries to trade finished products rather than exporting raw products which are then ironically sent back to us," suggested Pheko.

Also required is a conversation around debt forgiveness and "redistribution of benefits, wealth and resources from the global north to the Global South, including reparations and a more reparative solidarity approach," added Pheko.

A student works to Solar systems in a Training facility for and to the Strathmore University Nairobi
Renewable energy offers Africa best opportunity to achieve the SDGs, according to the African Development BankImage: Thomas Imo/photothek/IMAGO

Aside from protecting the environment to minimize the impact of climate change, Leaity pointed out the importance of ending the conflict.

"We need peace. We need the 1.6 million internally displaced people in DRC to go back home," Leaity said.

"If we find a political solution to the conflict in the east, that will provide the favorable conditions to getting back to the pre-pandemic trajectory of improvement towards SDGs."

Back in the east of Congo, Noëlla Ngezabera and thousands of others fleeing the violence hope for nothing else. But the dream of peace seems far away. Ngezabera feels forgotten — and considers drastic measures.

"It leaves us to ponder if it might be preferable to return to our villages and coexist with the rebels. But our government seems to care less about our situation."

Zanem Nety Zaidi contributed to this article

Edited by: Keith Walker

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DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.