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Triggering research leadership for sustainability

As the world reflects on how the concept of sustainability came into being, I decided to pause on the previous article on ‘Celebrating 30 years (1987-2017): is it too late to learn sustainability?’ Thankfully, new leaves are now blossoming and greenlining have emerged for sustainability conversations. This article is written to re-fresh debates about research leadership in the global South. The call for action is to double funding for research in both public and private sectors towards securing global sustainability.

Adapted with permission

Adapted with permission

Global sustainability is a strong desire, which all nations are vigorously pursuing (Stockholm Memorandum, 2011; United Nations, 2016; Sachs et al., 2017). The nations are rallying around the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve this. Undoubtedly, society is changing towards the realisation of the desired global goals. The change is not of evil but full of prospects, which African countries are not exempted from milking. The path to global sustainability is unpredictable and rough, though. Drifting to prosperity in the near future depends on using researched information to invent new technologies, reproduce accurate facts to enrich decisions, and scheming how the benefits derived from natural resources can  reach everyone.

Scale of the research issue
In the global South, weak research capacity often affects the availability of quality data to frame policy and how the policy can be practised to sustainably manage natural resources to create national wealth (Makinda, 2001) to equitably benefit people.  In 2006, the World Bank found that ‘80% of Africa’s agricultural researchers are concentrated in 13 countries, while the remaining 20 % are dispersed in 35 countries across the continent. This uneven concentration of talents affects research priorities, organisations, and financing.’ Makinda similarly identified the research deficit and suggested that attention should be given to ‘capacity building’. The research gap is considerably caused by the funds to organise institutions, deploy technology and equipment, train people, and to embark on field research itself.

Debt, economy and research budgets
The burden of debt on national economies is well-documented. In sub-Saharan Africa, the UN Brundtland Commission indicated that debt reached 31% of export by 1985 (Brundtland, 1987). The debt was US$218 billion in 1987 (Kwapong, 1990) and, in 2001, ‘twenty-nine of 46 countries in the world’ that spent 80% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or 220% of exports on debt servicing were from Africa (Makinda, 2001). Africa’s debt recently reached US$443 billion representing 22.0% of Gross National Income (UN Conference on Trade and Development, 2016). Servicing the debt reduces national budgets with consequential limitations for what amount of fiscal resources is available to allocate to research. Is this not a reality? The intriguing question that follows is ‘do we need global sustainability?’ The choice to spend money on research must be prioritised because of its multiple links to the SDGs.

SDGs as a research opportunity
Countries in Africa are among those in other continents that are inseparable from seeding global sustainability. As leaders contemplate of how to achieve the ambitious international development agendas, the evaluation of the country level achievements of the SDGs has also began to help fine tune the path to the desired goals. The precaution is that identifying realistic indicators to measure the successes and challenges of the SDGs must be informed by scientific research since the indicators can bring development-environment concerns to light on roundtables for critical sustainability assessment (Garnåsjordet et al., 2012). Building a sustainable society requires utilising appropriate indicators scooped from research to effectively influence public international policy, behaviours, discovering new products and delivering the products to reach where they are needed most.

Africa is economically buoyant – and is rapidly expanding in the face of challenges like youth joblessness and digital violence. The activities of informal stakeholders provide foundations for the economic improvements. The smallholders produce, supply and distribute almost 65% of food and 78% of charcoal. Urban street vendors circulate the biggest volume of ‘sachet drinking water’ and consumable organic goods. Soil nutrient is incomplete. Internet connectivity can go off at any time. GMO continues to baffle civil society. Hunger and gender inequalities are troubling across national and social boundaries. The relevance of investing into research to redress the issue of brain-drain in Swaziland’s health sector was re-echoed by Dlamini (2006). Carbon research is another important theme, which requires sufficient funding not necessarily in Africa but in other parts of the world (Rockström et al., 2017). Nowadays, the rationale to increase research funding is necessitated by the global ambition to meet SDG targets. The contemporary data is lacking in regards to most of the SDGs.  For example, Zehra Sthna (@zahra_sethna) based at the IISD recently twitted: ‘There is no data available in African countries to track #SDG Goal 13—Take urgent action to combat #climatechange and its impacts.  via @BrookingsInst’.

2017 SDGIndexFunding research to generate quality results to boost monitoring of the SDGs and measurement of its outcomes ought to be viewed as a chance to expand developmental opportunities rather than an economic cost. The 2017 SDG Index does not profess the view that the level of investment into research will automatically speed or result into a certain level of progress towards achieving the SDGs. Israel invested more into research than Sweden in terms of GDP. Yet, Sweden shows an excellent model of getting closer to achieving the SDG targets. The progress made by Sweden in terms of the SDGs is higher than Israel. The most important thing is that the SDG performance indicators exhibited by Israel are superb as well. Kenya’s investment in research proportionally outstripped that of South Africa but the latter ranked better than the former in the 2017 SDG Index (Sachs et al., 2017). Thus, the link between research investment and the probability that the invested monies can contribute to realising the 2030 Agenda is not linear. What is, however, obvious is that achieving over 90% of the total SDGs in a single country or across the continent by 2030 will depend on the bold decision of leaders to quadruple funding for sustainability research? The current research funding in countries such as Namibia (0.1% of GDP), Botswana (0.3% of GDP), Burkina Faso (0.2% of GDP) and Congo Dem Rep (0.08% of GDP) cannot remain the same (Sachs et al., 2017) till 2030. As at today, the understanding is that cooperation is paramount in putting money, people and other resources together to generate wealth out of research (see Box 1).

Stepping up
How easy is it to get access to research funding from African institutional sources? How much national budget is devoted to applied and advanced sustainability research? Can young researchers easily get post or start research career? How are governments supporting the distribution of new knowledge products derived from research? Is employment statistics on research landscape credible? A combination of factors, including carbon impacts, causing food insecurity are evidenced in Somalia and South Sudan. Population growth has increased millions of hands and mouths around food tables, while the sources of obtaining the food are increasingly threatened by high carbon concentrations. The World Vision says 6.9 million people need food-related assistance in East Africa. Answering the above questions and getting out of the challenges urgently needs new direction in reframing development policy and action-taking, not going the conventional ways. Public policy must encourage funding of research and, in turn, promote utilisation of the research outputs for coming out of the development challenges. Investing adequate finances into sustainability research is about making human lives meaningful. It fulfils the unimaginable aspirations of people beyond complex barriers of territory, gender, faith and cultures. Research investment is not only about generating ‘sustainability books’. It is synonymous with cultivating finest brains to lead and govern society fairly – task research training is capable of doing. The global groundswell of nurturing future young leaders ought to explore research entrepreneurship as one of the areas the expertise of the young leaders can be harnessed to deal with disinterested development challenges. The developmental benefits of research are endless. So, who is to lead the way for research renaissance? Is it the government, business, church or civil society?


  • Brundtland GH. 1987. Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: our common future. WCED, Geneva.
  • Dlamini SV. 2006. Brain drain: can everybody be happy? The case of nurses leaving Swaziland for the United Kingdom. A paper presented at the ‘Governance in the Commonwealth: civic engagement and democratic accountability’ conference. Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London. March 11-13, 2006.
  • Garnåsjordet PA, Aslaksen I, Giampietro M, Funtowicz S, Ericson T. 2012. Sustainable development indicators: from statistics to policy. Env Pol and Gov 22:322–336.
  • Kwapong AA. 1990. The challenge of education. In: Obasanjo O and O’rville H (eds.) Challenges of leadership in African development. Taylor and Francis: New York. pp 136-152.
  • Makinda SM. 2001. From natural resources to national wealth: ethical, national interest and policy issues for Africa in the new millennium. UNU-INRA, Accra.
  • Rockström J, Gaffney O, Rogelj J, Meinshausen M, Nakicenovic N, Schellnhuber HJ. 2017. A roadmap for rapid decarbonisation: emissions inevitably approach zero with a “carbon law”. Science 355 (6331):1269–1271.
  • Sachs J, Schmidt-Traub G, Kroll C, Durand-Delacre D, Teksoz K. 2017. SDG Index and Dashboards Report 2017. Bertelsmann Stiftung and SDSN, New York.
  • Stockholm Memorandum (2011) Tipping the scales towards sustainability. 3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium on ‘global sustainability: transforming the world in an era of global change’. Sweden, 16–19 May 2011.
  • United Nations. 2016. Global sustainable development report 2016. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, New York.
  • UN Conference on Trade and Development. 2016. Economic development in Africa: debt dynamics and development finance in Africa. (Accessed on 22 November 2017).

Research to expand and sustain green economic opportunities

‘We cannot continue on our current path. The time for procrastination is over. We cannot afford the luxury of denial. We must respond rationally, equipped with scientific evidence’ (The Stockholm Memorandum, 2011[1]).

The need for gathering ‘scientific evidence’ to support clear-cut sustainability decisions that will lead to expanding and sustaining green economic opportunities is unprecedentedly rising. A well-formulated and planned research is the origin of ‘scientific evidence’. Research generates fresh ideas, policies, solutions and ignites how new innovations can be fairly disseminated to reach the widest human population, especially the most poorest. The building of a new green economy or re-greening existing economy starts with tapping varied ingredients from scientific-inspired evidences through research and efficient utilisation of its products and services. Research is really crucial. If research is ignored or underestimated, it equals the suggestion that sustainability does not matter at all. The UN Environment Programme (2011[2]) informs that ‘sustainability is still a vital long-term goal, but we must work on greening the economy to get us there’. The central issue is that promoting research into green economy must firmly reflect in resetting sustainability agendas. In other words, greening an economy based on realistic researched-data is one of the assuring ways to formulate potent solutions to withstand or overcome the troubles of income disparity, hunger, shelter deficit and pollution over time.

The green economic development strategically embedded with green industrialization presents enormous opportunities for all countries, especially in transitional and emerging economies. In and outside of Africa, green opportunities ranging from organic food production systems through public policy and housing to clean technologies are very huge and incentivized by abundant natural resources and democratic institutions. All indications point to the fact that there are good grounds for the implementation of green economy in African countries reflecting in their responses to green issues (economy, jobs, industry, etc.). In an earlier write up, I concisely examined some examples of how Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and Uganda among other countries had started initiatives toward greening their economies. The general politico-environmental conditions seem extremely conducive to engage in collective design and putting into action green solutions capable to furnish socially inclusive, economic and environmental needs.

Now, one of the things needed is policy focus on how research can deliver appropriate tools required by industry, governments and civil societies to green mainstream economies. From country to country, central governments are particularly looking forward to invest into research on the “principle” of ‘value-for-money’ while industry expects to receive research products that will significantly increase profits. Whatever the research outlook seems in developing economies, the 2015 Human Development Report clearly illustrates that governments’ investment into research has generally been inadequate in relation to their gross domestic product (GDP). For African countries, in the exception of Tunisia and Kenya, which had invested a little over 1% of the GDP into ‘research and development’ between 2005-2012, all other countries have more to do to upwardly adjust research funding with regards to green economy, which is a component of sustainable development. The growing momentum to harness green opportunities demands sufficient green investment into research to provide the quality of “green data” and cleaner technologies to facilitate transition to green economy. The financial investment is not required only in undertaking research but also in investing into various aspects of green economy for which the precise amount of money ought to be put into it is not known. According to the UNEP (2011:34-35), the ‘World Economic Forum and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, on the other hand, calculate that clean energy investment needs to rise to US$ 500 billion per year by 2020 to restrict global warming to less than 2°C, while HSBC estimates that transition to a low-carbon energy market will require US$ 10 trillion between 2010 and 2020’.

The immediate assertion confirms that, in a green economy, research is indispensable and is not carried out in a vacuum. The research activities must be financed publicly or privately or through public-private partnerships.

At country and organisational levels, financing research is perceived with misgivings. What will be the real outcomes of the financial investment? Putting all fears aside, what has to be strongly stressed and communicated to green donors and all actors is that ‘finance is the means by which we channel accumulated wealth into productive new activities to generate more real wealth and wellbeing. As such, finance is critical to sustainable development. But it cannot deliver real wealth without being responsive to the fundamental value of social, physical and environmental capital’ (UNEP, 2015:2[3]). Knowing the extent to which market failures can negatively influence economic interactions and therein limit green growth, some governments tend to ‘provide direct grants or tax credits’ to support green economic research ‘carried out by businesses’, which is a common practice in developed countries (UNIDO, 2011[4]).

It can be said that carrying out scientific research into green economy and industry is an important path towards finding solutions for managing both undesirable and desirable trade-offs that go with the complex relationships amongst economic growth, environment and society. For that reason, government policies geared at promoting green economy must pay attention to financing research and taking the step to reap the full opportunities that go with green economic services.


[1] The Stockholm Memorandum, 2011. Tipping the scales towards sustainability. 3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium on ‘global sustainability: transforming the world in an era of global change’. Sweden, 16-19 May 2011.

[2] UNEP, 2011. Towards a green economy: pathways to sustainable development and poverty eradication – a synthesis for policy makers.

[3] UNEP, 2015. New rules for new horizons: reshaping finance for sustainability. Inquiry into the design of a sustainable financial system. on-reshaping-finance-for-sustainability/  Geneva/Paris [Accessed on 31.03.2016].

[4] UNIDO, 2011. Green industry: policies for supporting green industry. Vienna, Austria.


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