Contributing to the SDGs Africa Summit 2021

Image: Screenshot of an introductory slide of a presentation during the SDGs Africa Summit 2021.

The International Summit on the Sustainable Development Goals in Africa 2021 was aimed at mobilising collaborative efforts that can accelerate African-led activities in support of achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) and the African Union’s Agenda 2063. Hosted in mid-September by the University of Cape Town (UCT), it brought together strategic partners from higher education, government and civil society, including three university networks representing 43 universities globally: the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), the International Alliance of Research Universities, and the Worldwide Universities Network.

The gathering focused on seven thematic tracks that were identified by a summit steering committee based on the focus areas’ potential to address important cross-cutting complexities and dilemmas and speed up achievement of the SDGs on the continent.

The two convenors of the Poverty and Inequality track both served on the steering committee: The director of UCT’s Development Policy Research Unit, Prof. Haroon Bhorat, who in 2012 served at the United Nations Development Programme as head of research to the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons to the Post-2015 MDG Agenda, that guided the development of the SDGs framework.

Co-convening with him was SALDRU’s director, Prof. Murray Leibbrandt, who also heads the African Centre of Excellence for Inequality Research (ACEIR) that is hosted by SALDRU.

Setting the scene
The opening session of the summit provided sobering food for thought to the online participants who joined from around the globe.

Despite two decades of annual UN conferences to address global challenges, “the world is in a crisis of development provoked simultaneously by different threats”, asserted the first keynote speaker, Prof. Carlos Lopez. The list of perils was long: the impact of two recent global economic recessions on human development, weak institutional accountability, food and energy crises, climate change, growing inequality, pandemics, natural disasters, conflicts …

Prof. Lopes, a former UN representative and now Honorary Professor at UCT’s Mandela School of Public Governance and current African Union High Representative, stressed that sustainable development implies social and economic progress that will not exhaust natural resources.

Sustainable development is thus based on the interaction between these three pillars: the economy, the social, and the environmental.

However, as he pointed out: “It’s the way in which we manage the economy that will allow sustainable development … we need to change our frame to understand that it’s the economy that influences the social and the environment.”

Sustainable development is about intergenerational solidarity, he explained. “When thinking in those terms, it is not possible to continue with an economic system that’s based on inequality – we need to change the way we deal with the economy to have a different type of growth.”

African growth, inequality, and poverty
It was against the backdrop of these and other VIP reflections at the summit’s first morning sessions that the Poverty and Inequality thematic track gathered for two half-day workshops. These were preceded by a preparatory workshop to inform a position paper on the prevailing relationships between growth, poverty and inequality as the basis for actions to ensure inclusive development and the achievement of the SDG 1 (end poverty in all its forms everywhere) and 10 (reduced inequalities).

Authored by SALDRU and ACEIR researcher Fabio Andrés Díaz Pabón, with Prof. Leibbrandt and Prof. Bhorat, the position paper served as a working paper for the break-out sessions of the workshops.

These sessions discussed:

  • An impactful research programme on poverty and inequality dynamics in support of social policy for inclusive growth
  • Growth, inequality and poverty and the just transition: Climate change and inclusive development
  • What are the key data needs to fill growth, poverty and inequality research gaps and support achievement of the SDGs?
  • Impactful partnerships between universities and civil society to overcome inequality

These break-out sessions were framed by preceding input from internationally acclaimed development economist, Prof. Erik Thorbecke; the Resident Representative for the United Nations Development Programme in South Africa, Dr. Ayodele Odusola; the Secretary-General of ARUA, Prof. Ernest Aryeetey; and Dr. Abebe Shimeles, the Manager of the African Development Bank’s Development Research Division.

The two workshops generated a wealth of critical thinking and knowledge sharing by these and other poverty and inequality scholars, experts and other participants. Among those who also presented to the workshops were SALDRU’s deputy-director, Prof. Vimal Ranchhod, and scholars from key partner institutions – DataFirst; the University of Ghana, where ACEIR’s Ghana node is located; the Agence Française de Développement; the University of Bristol; the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science; and the UN University’s World Institute for Development Economics Research.

The engagements of the Poverty and Inequality thematic track were focused on honing an agenda of research and action to ensure virtuous interactions between growth, poverty and inequality. “This is a tough ask”, explained Prof. Leibbrandt, “especially as we now start from the post-COVID realities”.
“But these realities have sharpened the imperative to understand the economic, technological and climate change forces that are coming from the globalised world into African contexts, and to connect these with detailed understanding of the constraints confronting ordinary people in responding to this milieu and navigating productive economic paths.”

Highlights from the summit sessions can be viewed online.