Africa's renaissance for the environment: the human dimension


Poverty has many faces. It includes extreme or absolute poverty, relative poverty and social exclusion.

Extreme poverty and underdevelopment continue to plague the region with hundreds of million of people, particularly women and children, affected. Poverty is not just about the lack of access to financial resources but also the lack of other resources required for survival; poverty is the denial of opportunity. Extreme poverty has been described as “poverty that kills,” depriving individuals of the means to stay alive in the face of hunger, disease and environmental hazards. Relative poverty refers to the level of inequity and inequality – the differences between rich and poor.

caption The production of herbs and plants used in traditional medicine. Ethiopia supports local livelihoods and increases the value placed on indigenous knowledge systems. (Source: P. Virot/WHO)

The health burden due to HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases is a major factor for such underdevelopment. For example, malaria which kills more than 900 000 people in Africa per year, mostly women and children, has been described as a slow-onset “tsunami” whose impact is shielded from television cameras while its davastating effect on household security and national development is massive. It is a major threat to human well-being in Africa. As long as extreme poverty and disease continue to ravage the people in Africa, the realization of NEPAD goals, the objectives of Poverty Reduction Strategies and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will continue to be elusive. The MDGs are a “life-and-death issue” seeking to address the most extreme aspects of poverty. Achieving them is but one stepping stone on the path to overall African aspirations for development and human wellbeing. The goals for hunger and disease relate to human capital. The goals for water and sanitation and slum dwellers are part of those for infrastructure. The goal for environmental sustainability is part of protecting natural capital.

Poverty, poor health and education, poor economic performance and environmental degradation are liabilities; they impede the region’s ability to realize the opportunities provided by the environment for development. With vast natural resources in Africa and the majority of the people directly dependent on agriculture and these natural resources for their livelihoods, it is ironic that the highest percentage, globally, of poor people are found in the region. Poor people cannot invest in the environment nor do they have the power and resources to limit damage to local resources, particularly where ill-conceived policies and greed are factors in, for example, soil nutrient depletion, deforestation, overfishing and other environmental damage. The vicious circle of poverty exacerbates environmental degradation, which in turn limits opportunities for development.

While the formulation and implementation of Poverty Reduction Strategies as a policy response has gained currency in Africa, the weak integration of environment into these strategies has partly contributed to poor performance so far on MDG7. However, countries such as Zambia, Ghana and Mozambique have progressively improved the environmental contents of their strategies, providing useful leads for the other countries. Given the intricate links between environment and other facets of poverty, persistent neglect of environmental issues in the Poverty Reduction Strategies can undermine the prospects for sustainable growth in the medium term and, therefore, of poverty reduction and the attainment of the other MDGs. The Commission for Africa recommendation that African governments include environmental sustainability in their Poverty Reduction Strategies is in recognition of this strong environmentpoverty linkage.

Africa has the highest rate of urbanization in the world (3.4 percent per year) and poverty in these areas is likely to be a growing problem. These slums are home to 72 percent of Africa’s urban citizens. That percentage represents a total of 187 million people.


Without innovative interventions which tackle the root causes of poverty, rather than its symptoms, extreme poverty and hunger will continue to be critical issues in Africa. Although there may still be much that we do not know about poverty and how it is related to environmental degradation, we know enough for this to be an area of urgent activity. It is important to go beyond policy discussions and focus on the implementation of policy so as to make a difference to the hundreds of millions of people who live in poverty. Poverty will be a growing problem in both urban and rural areas. In urban areas population growth will continue to outstrip the rate of infrastructure development, leading to an everincreasing problem of shanty towns and slums. Reducing the vulnerability of poor people to natural disasters and other environmental change is essential. This requires increasing the capabilities people have to adapt to and mitigate such change.

caption Figure 1: Countries affected by food insecurity due to natural hazards during the 2005-06 cropping seasons. (Source: WFP 2006)

The region has signed up to policy responses such as NEPAD and the MDGs. These provide opportunities to seriously address the socioeconomic problems currently facing Africa. Trends show the interest and commitment of countries in the region to alleviate extreme poverty and hunger, address health and education, and provide more services and so on. Action is now required on these commitments in advancing Africa’s sustainable development agenda.

Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), overseas development assistance (ODA) and debt relief are some of the tools available. These need to be complemented with structural changes that address gender issues, access to resources and secure tenure to those resources. Effectively tackling extreme poverty and hunger translates into providing universal education, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and reducing the disease burden exacerbated by HIV/AIDS, malaria and other waterborne diseases. Success in these areas would facilitate building the resilience of Africa and helping in realizing its opportunities. The UN Millennium Project (2005) argues that “geographical vulnerabilities (which are common in Africa) can and need to be offset by targeted investments in infrastructure, agriculture and health.” By the end of 2005, under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative, 24 African countries have benefited from debt relief. In terms of the Group of 8’s (G-8) Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative, by the end of 2005, a total of 19 countries had been granted total debt relief – or debt forgiveness. Of these 13 are in Africa. This debt relief increases the prospects for enhanced investment in Poverty Reduction Strategies and if those strategies are MDG-based, then the likelihoods of enhanced performance on both the MDGs and the NEPAD goals are high.


While improved governance is necessary, it alone cannot guarantee poverty alleviation. There are critical policy and institutional changes that deserve serious consideration (UN Millennium Project 2005). Discussions and decisions on the relevant policy and institutional changes should involve all stakeholders, including the private sector and civil society.

It is proposed that policymakers in Africa take serious consideration of the actions that have already been proposed in relation to poverty-environment linkages and reaffirmed by both the UN Millennium Project and the Commission for Africa:

  • Strengthen the resource rights of poor people.
  • Enhance the capacity of poor people to manage the environment.
  • Expand access to environmentally-sound and locally appropriate technology.
  • Reduce environmental vulnerability of poor people.
  • Integrate poverty-environment issues into economic policy reforms.
  • Increase the use of environmental valuation.
  • Encourage appropriate private sector involvement.
  • Implement pro-poor environmental fiscal reforms.
  • Incorporate gender-based measures in social, economic and environmental policies and ensure that data collection and analyses are genderdisaggregated.
  • Promote indigenous knowledge systems in strengthening education for sustainable use and management of the environment.
  • Invest in improving the quality of life in urban areas, including through the better provision of essential services and diversifying the livelihood opportunities available to urban dwellers.
  • Improve urban planning to minimize the impact of settlements on the environment, particularly the encroachment and conversion of habitats and ecosystems.
  • Lobby for improving the international and industrial country trade policies.
  • Ensure that foreign direct investments are more propoor and pro-environment.
  • Negotiate effectively to ensure that the implementation of multilateral environmental agreements benefit poverty reduction.


Tackling extreme hunger and poverty is not exclusive to governments, but should also involve poor people, civil society, the private sector including big businesses, research institutes and other stakeholders. Partnerships between and among all relevant players are critical to the success of tackling extreme poverty and hunger, and other socioeconomic issues.

Result and target date

Governments should work to meet the MDG targets to halve extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. These issues should remain top on the agenda into the future. However, it is worth noting that it is hardly possible to completely eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.

Further reading

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 renaissance for the environment: the human dimension. Retrieved from


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