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Addressing Subnational Inequalities to Advance Africa’s Sustainable Development Agenda


When it comes to Africa’s delivery on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the policies of national governments and their partners will determine the continent’s overall success. Inclusive development policies will be pivotal to this.

Africa is trailing other regions when it comes to the SDGs, which were introduced in 2015. And there is reason for concern with respect to inclusive development policies, especially on the back of marked imbalances in development in most African countries.

By 2030, the target year for the attainment of the 17 SDGs, Africa’s performance will be a determining factor in whether they succeed or fail.


Addressing Uneven Development

Too many rural locations still contend with limited access to social services like health care, electricity, potable drinking water and sanitation, raising serious concerns about the continent’s commitment to inclusive growth and development policies. In Madagascar, the rural-urban inequalities in terms of access to social services is staggering: for instance, electricity access is below 5 percent in rural areas compared to about 58 percent for urban areas.

On a continental level, available data shows growing uneven subnational development on the continent. Poverty remains more pervasive in landlocked areas, about 86 percent compared to 14 percent for coastal areas. A multidimensional poverty index study found that out of 508 administrative units in 43 African countries, nearly two-thirds had populations that lacked adequate access to health, education, and decent living standards.

For example, in Ghana, three regions in the north of the country – Northern, Upper West and Upper East regions – have half or more of their populations being poor per the index.

The imbalances in peri-urban and subnational development in Mozambique and Ghana reflect the gravity of uneven development across Africa. It points to the incapacity of local authorities to support Africa’s development priorities, often, due to limited financial and institutional resources.

Another reason underpinning this widespread underdevelopment is that development aid flowing to African countries –from multilateral development banks or other development partners – tends to have a bias for wealthy regions. Thus, aid ends up in already relatively endowed regions, particularly national capitals and urban areas, a situation that leaves citizens of other regions with the short end of the development stick – poor access to infrastructure, services, decent jobs and the benefits of industrialization.

Ultimately, subnational inequalities create regions of discontent, which inevitably have adverse implications for the continent’s structural transformation and integration.


Mainstreaming subnational development in SDGs Implementation

To alleviate poverty, advance industrialization and ensure greater development impact for quick wins, territorial development policies and strategies need to be mainstreamed into the implementation of SDGs. This territorial lens, using regional strategies to create economic opportunities and shared prosperity for all, will ensure that lagging regions are not excluded from development.

Having a comprehensive territorial development policy at the national level to cement subnational agendas and local governance systems is also crucial. This overarching national territorial development blueprint will be an invaluable resource for multilateral development banks like the African Development Bank, which has a key role to play in Africa’s poverty eradication and development agenda.  

The Bank can better leverage its economic data, policy, advocacy, capacity development and financial resources to support the subnational development plans of its Regional Economic Communities and Regional Member Countries, especially the poorer, fragile, post-conflict and hugely underdeveloped economies on the continent. 

Without achieving inclusive growth, African countries will struggle to attain the SDGs. By mainstreaming balanced subnational development plans into their national development agenda, governments may very well begin to stem the tide of growing subnational inequalities. This is a prerequisite for social and economic transformation.


Sehili is Chief Strategy Officer, Strategy and Operational Policies, and Mensah is a Consultant with the Independent Development Evaluation at the African Development Bank

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