Africa's future: introduction

“Africans declare that we will no longer allow ourselves to be conditioned by circumstance. We will determine our own destiny and call on the rest of the world to complement our efforts.” NEPAD 2001


Scenario analysis offers a way to consider long-range futures in light of uncertainties and to examine the requirements for a transition to sustainability. Scenarios are possible sets of future events which, unlike projections of trends in human affairs, may be legitimate over the short term, but not as time horizons expand over months and years to decades and generations. They are stories about the future with a logical plot and narrative governing the manner in which events unfold and they illuminate long-range problems and possibilities.

Scenarios are indispensable tools for environmental management that focus on large-scale, long-term interactions between development and environment. Scenarios have two particularly advantageous qualities:

  • First, they provide a coherent framework for analysis of how various issues or sectors impinge on one another and interact; and
  • Second, they serve as tools to foster creativity, stimulate discussion, and focus attention on specific points of interest for policy on environment and development, and for opening up a constructive analysis of future problems.

The integration of scientific knowledge helps scenario development, as a tool for “peeping” into the future, to look more closely into what types of development and environmental strategies are risky and how they can be avoided, as well as into which ones are plausible and need to be reinforced. A scenario approach can be valuable for stimulating analysis and sorting out urgent policy issues, and as a means of communication between scientists and policymakers. However, it should be strongly emphasized that scenarios are simulations: they make an effort to introduce analysis of different “what if?” developments and should therefore be distinguished from projections.

Africa's future: four scenarios provides qualitative and quantitative documentation of the scenarios developed during the Africa Environment Outlook 2 (AEO-2) process. It analyses four development scenarios adopted in the AEO-1 process:

  • Market Forces,
  • Policy Reform,
  • Fortress World and
  • Great Transitions.

Although different in nomenclature, these are similar to those used in the ongoing Global Environment Outlook (GEO) processes: Market First, Policy First, Security First and Sustainability First. Both AEO and GEO highlight the environmental implications over the period 2005-25. The underlying assumptions of both sets of scenarios are also similar.

Developing scenarios

caption Box 1: PoleStar and T21. (Source: Raskin and others 1999, MI 2002)

Comprehensive information on the future state of environmental elements is required to assess the social, economic and environmental consequences of policy and other development actions. Scenarios of environment and development issues have been developed to help assess possible effects of different biophysical, social and economic processes on the future state of the environment in selected themes and issues. The aim of this chapter is to provide guidance to the regional, sub-regional and national policy community for converting the threats to and opportunities for environment and development into practical policies and actions. They can be an important tool for defining strategies to achieve the aspirations of Africa’s leaders and people:

“We are convinced that an historic opportunity presents itself to end the scourge of underdevelopment that afflicts Africa. The resources, including capital, technology and human skills, that are required to launch a global war on poverty and underdevelopment exist in abundance and are within our reach. What is required to mobilize these resources and to use them properly, is bold and imaginative leadership that is genuinely committed to a sustained human development effort and the eradication of poverty, as well as a new global partnership based on shared responsibility and mutual interest” (NEPAD 2001).

The scenarios described in this chapter are based on qualitative narratives and quantitative back-ups that have been developed using the Stockholm Environment Institute’s (SEI) PoleStar® system and the Millennium Institute’s (MI) Threshold 21 (T21).

The four scenarios

The scenarios provide narratives about four possible futures that may result from different policy choices at the regional and sub-regional levels. All four scenarios are plausible but not equally probable. They have been considered because they incorporate alternative social visions and values, highlight significant causal processes and provide critical pointers for environmental responses. The narratives are also intended to provide a common framework for diverse stakeholders, including policymakers, to address the critical concerns related to the environment and development of our time, as well as a forum for discussion and debate on sustainable environmental management.

Scenarios since AEO-1

While it is too early to fully assess how these scenarios have played since the production of the Africa Environment Outlook 1 (AEO-1), selected regional trends are consistent with environmental implications which were highlighted in the scenarios of that report. For example, the expansion in use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has continued to be controversial, with countries divided over whether to welcome it as a necessary technology to help resolve Africa’s food security problems or to reject it due to uncertainty about its impacts on environmental and human health . The AEO-1 report stated that the “release of GMOs threatens agricultural biodiversity in some areas, especially where farmers depend on maintaining a mix of species and races as a hedge against annual and seasonal variations in farming conditions”. At the sub-regional level, in 2002, economic communities including the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) developed policies for dealing with GMOs. At the global level, IUCN – the World Conservation Union (IUCN) declared a moratorium on the use of GMOs citing poorly understood human and environmental health risks. Concerns around environmental and human health were highlighted in the Fortress World scenario of AEO-1. The debate continues and so does the expansion of the use of GMOs. South Africa has become a leader in the use of GMO technology, and in 2004 passed legislation to regulate GMO use. In Egypt, the National Environmental Action Plan (NEAP) of Egypt 2002-2017 has proposals for legislation on the intentional and unintentional release of GMOs that need to be passed by the People’s Assembly. These concerns have been identified as an emerging issue in AEO-2 and they are discussed in Genetically modified crops in Africa

However, in other instances the scenarios developed in AEO-1 have not been realized. Under the Policy Reform scenario, the AEO-1 report stated that the dependence on biomass by the majority of the people would be reduced, because there would be more energy choices available. Although the issue is on the agenda of African Ministers for Energy, the region has yet to make significant progress in this area. Chapter 2: Atmosphere and Chapter 6: Forests and Woodlands of this report suggest that Africa’s achievements in the field of renewable energy are modest while the rate of deforestation due, in part, to fuelwood demand and charcoal production, continues to be high; this is contrary to the AEO-1 report’s assertion that this dependence would be “reduced considerably.”

In other instances, one scenario has been played out and not another. The Fortress World scenario of the AEO-1 painted a negative picture concerning regional cooperation on transboundary water issues. It suggested that cooperation would be weakened further and strained by escalating tensions and conflicts, as openness and transparency are eroded. However, given the policy choices the region has made, a different trend is evident. Contrary to the Fortress World scenario, there have been increased efforts to promote regional cooperation in managing transboundary resources. For instance, after more than two decades of negotiations, in 2004 the eight states of the Zambezi River basin concluded an agreement establishing the Zambezi River Commission (ZAMCOM). Although not highlighted in the scenario narrative, Africa also has witnessed the birth of the African Ministerial Council on Water (AMCOW) in 2002. These developments mirror the narratives presented on two of the AEO-1 scenarios – Policy Reform and Great Transitions.

Different scenarios have been and will continue to play out in the region, combining and overlapping to chart a new course. The overlaps and contradictions, in and between different scenarios, are the essence of any narratives – they are not laboratory experiments with predetermined controls to achieve the desired results. Scenarios address the question “what if?” and the resultant narrative follows an “if…then” logic. In so doing, scenarios help in preparing for different possibilities, and in enabling policymakers to deal effectively with new challenges and minimize impacts on people and the environment. With this in mind, the chapter presents scenarios focused on the regional and sub-regional levels.

The AEO-2 scenarios presented here are founded on the commitments countries in Africa have made, along with the international community, to meet the targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). And they build on the analysis of this report which, among other things, demonstrates that the challenges faced in achieving the MDG targets are still real and will continue to demand prudent policy responses. The underlying assumptions of the four scenarios have been refined to reflect changes since AEO-1, and to purposively highlight a limited number of the environmental issues over the course of the next twenty years. The 20-year period has been chosen to allow meaningful assessment of the driving forces and indicators of the selected issues – over the ten years leading up to and the ten years following 2015, ie, the MDGs target year. The driving forces have also been refined to better address the more recent policy decisions contained in initiatives such as the MDGs and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) Environment Action Plan (NEPAD-EAP).


From the scenario narratives it is clear that contrasting yet plausible stories can be created as to how Africa and its sub-regions will develop in the next 20 years. Each has fundamentally different implications for the environment. The scenarios constructed here are based on the understanding of current conditions and driving forces, a vision of the future and a coherent story of a process of change, leading to that future. Specific assumptions have been made across a range of dimensions and issues: economic growth and structure, population, technology, resources and the environment. The alternative possibilities that emerge are significant as points of departure that can guide policy for the harnessing of environmental resources for sustainable development. Although there can be marked delays between human actions, including policy decisions, and associated impacts on the environment, positive long-term impacts of the policy decisions obviously outweigh the cost of inaction. The achievement of widely-agreed environmental, economic and social goals will require dramatic and coordinated action, starting now and continuing for a number of years. Steps must include proactive policies based on prevention and adaptation that address issues of development and human vulnerability.

The scenarios presented here demonstrate the importance of interlinkages between the environmental, social, economic and political spheres, both within and across sub-regions. Environmental and sustainable development policy must look for the synergies or “co-benefits” and conflicts between policies must be avoided. The establishment of strong institutions for environmental governance, as policy, is a prerequisite for almost all other policies. The political will and vision of governments and other authorities determine, above everything else, whether environmentally sustainable development comes within reach of countries in the region. The mainstreaming of environmental issues in the development process will demand that timely access to accurate information is ensured as this in itself is a robust policy. The achievement of environmental goals will require decisive action, will encounter unforeseen eventualities and will not happen overnight. AEO-1 noted that, “Fortunately or unfortunately, much of the success or failure of this endeavour is in our hands. The four scenarios show that the future is not something that we should wait for passively” . The choice is up to us, in the words of Nelson Mandela, first president of democratic South Africa:

“Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation.”


Further reading

  • Cole, S., 1981. Methods of analysis for long-term development issues. In Methods for Development Planning (UNESCO). United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Paris.
  • Gallopin, G., Hammond, A., Raskin, P. and Swart, R., 1997. Branch Points: Global Scenarios and Human Choice. PoleStar Series Report No. 7. Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm.
  • Miles, I., 1981. Scenario analysis: identifying ideologies and issues. In Methods for Development Planning (UNESCO). United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Paris.
  • NEPAD, 2001. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development, Abuja.
  • Schwartz, P., 1991. The Art of the Long View. Doubleday, New York.
  • Toth, F.L., Hisznyik, E., and Clark, W.C. (eds. 1989). Scenarios of Socioeconomic Development for Studies of Global Environmental Change: A Critical Review, RR-89-4, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg.
  • UNEP, 2002a. Africa Environment Outlook: Past, Present and Future Perspectives. United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi.
  • UNEP, 2002b. Global Environment Outlook 3. United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi.
  • UNEP, 2006. Africa Environment Outlook 2.

This is a chapter from Africa Environment Outlook 2: Our Environment, Our Wealth (e-book).
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Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



Programme, U. (2008). Africa's future: introduction. Retrieved from


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