Prof. Allam Ahmed, founding President of the World Association for Sustainable Development, speaks to COVID-19 Africa Watch about financing the SDGs, human capital, and access to electricity.
The following are a few of the main takeaways from COVID-19 Africa Watch’s conversation with Prof. Allam Ahmed, founding President of the World Association for Sustainable Development:
- One of the most severe impacts of COVID-19 may be the hit it will take on human capital. African countries need to be thinking seriously about collaboration (SDG #17) and to prioritize education.
- Donors and investors need to think of Africa through a new lens. Debt relief should be a priority. And support needs to be swift and robust.
- Agriculture should be a priority sector, because agriculture can produce tradable goods quickly.
- Another major challenge is electricity, so the international community and investors must particularly fast-track their support on renewable energies, particularly solar.
- Africa has the resources and talent, but science and technology experts across the continent need to become more strategic and vocal about their work and publications.
The interview was conducted by Ahmed Aboshock, an IFC-Milken Institute Capital Market Scholar from the Central Bank of Sudan. A transcript is available below.
Hello. My name is Ahmed Aboshock from Central Bank of Sudan. Today with us, we have Professor Allam Ahmed, the President of the World Association for Sustainable Development, which focuses on the role of science and technology in achieving sustainable development all over the world.
There are fears that with COVID-19 many of the sustainable development gains achieved by African countries in the last half century are at risk of being reversed. COVID-19 containment measures combined with weaker global demand and disruption in supply chains have impacted many crucial sectors of African economics, and debt is also of increasing concern.
Professor Allam, thank you for being with us today to discuss some of these issues. What are the main ways in which you think COVID-19 will impact African countries to reach the sustainable development goals?
Prof. Allam Ahmed
When you look across the world map, we started with the Millennium Development Goals. When we did that study in 2003, we calculated all African countries and we find all of them are either seriously off track or moderately off track. We couldn’t find a single country back in 2000, which was on track to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. The entire African continent really was off track before the COVID-19. So that is a fact very important to keep in mind. Second, to progress towards achieving any of the Sustainable Development Goals and be on the roadmap which has been laid out by the United Nations, there are lots of issues to solve on the ground. Yes, of course finance is one of them. But really the most important one is human capital.
“COVID-19’s impact is really on human capital because of the fact we are not talking to each other, we don’t see each other. The fact we don’t meet each other affects our mental wellbeing. So African countries are really going to be hit hard.”
COVID-19’s impact is really on human capital because of the fact we are not talking to each other, we don’t see each other. The fact we don’t meet each other affects our mental wellbeing. So African countries are really going to be hit hard; they had already been hit hard, but they will continue to struggle. They need to be more strategic. They need to really be more focused. They need to be really thinking seriously about goal number 17, which is collaboration with others. African countries need to work together because there is not much left for them to really capitalize on apart from unity and working together.
What role is there for international investors and corporations, as well as African private sector, to play in making progress towards the SDGs, after the pandemic and in what sectors?
Prof. Allam Ahmed
The international community in general, which means United Nations agencies, IMF, World Bank, all NGOs, all the donors and research funds, they really need to look at Africa through a different lens. They need to consider quickly lifting any debt possible, they need to quickly think of us in a more fast-tracked way in relationship to trade. You can see most African countries are struggling to engage with export and import. So they have to support African countries swiftly and more robustly by enabling them to have this base quickly, to trade, to invest, to export.
Investors in general have to think of Africa more seriously and rapidly. Sectors which I think they will be more encouraging for investors? I will definitely say energy. Africa’s major developmental challenge is really electricity. So renewable energy could be a very good place or a very good start, but it has to be done quickly, fast. You need to fast-track. The same way our colleagues at Oxford University are fast-tracking finding a vaccine, I would also urge and encourage investors to fast-track their risk assessment, everything to try to get engaged into African investment.
The agriculture sector, which will produce tradable material quickly, not just for self-sufficiency of African, but the agriculture, which will produce the fruits and vegetables, which cannot be grown in Europe for example. So we need to look at Africa from a different perspective.
I would really say renewable energy, energy in general, and agriculture are definitely the sectors to be considered. Africa is a very hot country. There is no shortage of sun in Africa, in the entire Africa continent. So that means the main components or input, which you need to produce something is there. So I will really encourage as fast as possible investment in renewable energy, in energy in general, which will produce a clear outcome for African general development, because with electricity and energy, you can develop quickly and fast.
When Africa recovers from COVID-19, what areas of the Sustainable Development Goals do you think will be the most at risk and require the most attention?
Prof. Allam Ahmed
I think I will continue to raise this issue, which is education. Because education will solve many problems. One of the reasons we in the UK and other OECD countries, we are able to cope with the seriousness of this pandemic is education, so Africa really needs to invest and invest and invest in education.
Of course, many people would argue health, but our health system believe it or not received lots of attention over the last 10-15 years. In most African countries, there are many NGOs who did huge efforts, from the U.S. and many organizations. They have been directed at health. I’m not saying we are good at health now. No. But lots of investment and funding and attention was being given to health. And with this pandemic, many countries in all over Africa, they received lots of support from WTO, charities, countries like UAE helped many African countries. Many other donors have sent supplies to Africa. So we will be in a reasonably resilient situation, not financially. So I would say we really need to focus on education because it will help us to quickly fast-track our efforts to come back on track towards achieving these goals.
What do you think Africa needs in order to get back on track for reaching the SDGs in the short time and what role can science and technology play for that?
Prof. Allam Ahmed
Africans, they need to unite. I really mean it. We have an African Union, yes, but we are not united. So Africa, you need to unite. They need to think about themselves as friends, as family. So they need to really extend their arms to each other for survival, and for competitiveness.
“If you look at Africa, we have everything.”
If you look at Africa, we have everything. We have almost everything. So Nigeria are a major producer of oil; they could easily be helping us in African countries. Sudan is major on agriculture, why doesn’t Africa invest in Sudan and so on and so forth. South Africa, Kenya and so on. So they need unite. They need to have a plan for 3 to 5 years, we really need to stop all the fights or the conflict.
Number two, in terms of science and technology, we do have centers of excellence in all over Africa. In South Africa, in Egypt, in Tunisia, we have very good data scientists. I know a Tunisian company who is being commissioned by the British government to undertake major project here in the U.K. In Sudan, we have the center for Mycetoma, which is at Khartoum University and is recognized by the World Health Organization as the world leader in combating that disease. We do have very good pockets of science and technology, but with unity, with sharing knowledge together, we don’t need anything from outside this continent. In South Africa, there is very good science and technology, and I have seen lots of publications from Nigeria. America is full of professors with a Nigerian origin. Ghana, if you look at them, Sierra Leone on that part of Africa, Morocco.
I really have visited all these countries and they do have a good science base. They just need to be more sophisticated, more ‘corporate’. I always say to scientists, when I see them in Sudan or in Tunisia or Morocco or Egypt, ‘You need to be corporate.’ And they say to me, ‘What do you mean by corporate?’ I mean be smart, think of funding, of how to attract funding from major European organizations. Show yourself, show your publications, show that you are very good scientists. We are not showing that. So we need to be more strategically focused, more corporately oriented, but definitely we can do it just within this continent called Africa.
I am a strong believer that Africa can survive everything. We are very resilient if we stay together. The whole idea is Africa can do all that. All Africa is really a fertile soil for all that kind of investment, all that kind of productivity.
The Milken Institute and I thank you again for these insights. Please keep up the great work. Goodbye, and stay safe.
More analysis from COVID-19 Africa Watch:
COVID-19 Africa Watch tracks major developments and policy announcements from across the continent and also offers a curated selection of analysis on how the pandemic will impact African economies and development efforts. The site is a project of the Milken Institute’s Global Market Development Practice.