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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).

Can climate solutions support food justice and sustainability?

Sustainability is now the desire of all nations. Yet, climate disruption is powerfully shifting path from sustainable life-choice of food, water and energy. Consequently, the overpopulating world is witnessing food justice movements more than the conventional social justice movements known previously. Has hunger not motivated such movements?
seedwheelEveryone eats. Besides, eating to nourish human body, food spawns social peace to curtail youth radicalisation, aggression, fear and civil distortions like bloody wars as well as ills related to malnutrition. For millions of smallholder farmers involved in cultivating food, malnutrition and starvation are still self-troubling. ‘Starvation is the characteristics of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristics of there not enough food to eat’[1].

Scanning hunger trends and futures 
Today, hunger and starvation situations are harsh but not worse as compared to 18th century. The 2016 Global Hunger Index[2] (GHI) uses four broad technical indicators namely undernourishment; child stunting; child wasting; and child mortality for 118 countries to demonstrate that the level of hunger is declining. The GHI score for developing countries had reduced from 30.0 per cent in 2000 to 21.3 per cent in 2016. The concern, however, is that proactive effort is required if goal #2 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to be achieved.seedfjb

The global community is in crucial times to collectively get the zero hunger job done by 2030. There is no time to wait. This is because there are approximately 800 million – 1.02 billion people[3] who fall short of the ‘2100 kcal per day’[4]. On the basis of what the World Food Programme describes as ‘hidden hunger’[5], the malnourished population is arguably over 2.5 billion. And, if the ‘sustainable world scenario’ is not realised, then 13-25% of children can become ‘undernourished’ by 2050 – the period 9 billion people will likely inhabit the planet[6].

Is climate change not disrupting the earth’s resource systems to trick people into hunger trap? Apart from climate uncertainties, new causes of hunger have mushroomed in complex forms and scales, including digital violence, in the global South where there is high digital illiteracy.

International alliance against hunger
seedinterThe impact of climate-induced food insecurity is unevenly affecting all societies but developing economies are the hardest hit. Food inadequacies triggered the formation of global alliances and calls for innovative action from Stockholm 1972 — Rio 1992[6] to raise ‘the levels of nutrition’ (FAO, 1992) and, during the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), the delegates came up with voluntary commitments to achieve food security. What about the happenings at Marrakech COP22 and Paris 2015?

Nexus of food justice, security and rights
The 1996 World Food Summit defines food security as a condition ‘when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’. How to feed ‘all people, at all times’ to fulfill this vision of global food agenda is a challenge. Many households, governments, NGOs and faith-based organisations are not able to feed all their people through mainstream food interventions. The indications are clear that actors can progress faster towards zero hunger by greenly funding and implementing Food Justice Bill (FJB). Some societies have recognised food justice as an assuring antidote to meristematically deliver food needs to all. Indices of food justice activisms or research activities had occurred in developed and emerging countries, including UK by FoodEthicsCouncil, Kenya by FoodFirst, Guatemala by Oxfam International, Ethiopia and India by IDS that stimulated the enactment of food justice-related instruments like Food Security Bill (FSB[7]). Food justice is  at the centre of the UN programme on Zero Hunger Challenge and the University of Sheffield is one of a few universities that runs an academic programme on food justice.

Literally, the meaning of FJB is not the same as Food Security Strategy (FSS) or Food Security Bill (FSB). From a new sustainability science context, FJB is distinctively a subset of FSS/FSB and best compares to the Right to Food. Most countries have been ‘slow in putting’ the latter into practice as a ‘human right’ (FAO, 2011: xiii). FJB has countless benefits for humans and nature. One of them is the elastic propensity to move food issues from the boundaries of ‘Rights’ to ‘Human Values’ reflecting the sense that, at a given time, a person may genuinely be incapable to feed him or herself due to socio-legally defined limitations. Is it not that ‘Rights’ go with ‘Responsibilities’? Fulfilling responsibilities in order to access food to eat is certainly beyond ‘all persons’ and, as such, the global agendas for zeroing hunger will be incomplete if they do not strategically build-in FJB. In classified war zones, it may be prudent to encourage governments to adopt ‘Right to Food’ in tackling hunger and malnutrition. In migrants’ situation, FJB does not promote ‘rights’ as priority. Instead, it encourages human values, which implies that migrants have micro-spaces to explore access to food at interpersonal, corporate and charity levels. Also, when it comes to the destruction of 0.5ha plot of food crops by adverse climate changes, this can be dealt with using climate solutions nested with human values — having spaces for disabilities and capacity inequalities.

Is integrated climate solution not needed?SDGs #2
Ideally, climate solutions should not exclude soft solutions of which human values are integral for fostering sustainability base for a society. The integration of human values into the formulation of climate solutions helps to facilitate fixing of complicated hunger ills alongside resolving conflicts and other sustainability challenges. Thus, integrated climate solutions mean producing and manufacturing of various foods through cleaner, greener and sustainable processes that rebuild resilience of the biosphere and avert pollution of both the hydrosphere and the atmosphere. This suggests that global governing institutions, donors and national governments ought to sufficiently invest in decarbonising economy, researching low-carbon knowledge system, sustainably conserving biodiversity, and funding ‘appropriate sustainable agricultural technology to deliver significant yield increases on small farms in developing countries’[8]. More importantly, reframing and co-creating local and international food policies to embrace FBJ can rapidly tip significant changes in social-ecological systems to aid zeroing of hunger among restricted and inactive persons, including prisoners, children, mentally-challenged persons and pregnant women living in marginalised conditions. A universal FJB will keep off the food saddle on the neck of central governments to working together with families, communities, churches and traditional authorities. It has high potential to globally force and move people out of chronic hunger and malnutrition. The UN SDGs will win big and society will be safer and sustainable.


Further readings
[1] Sen A., 1981. Poverty and famines: an essay on entitlement and deprivation. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.
[2]von Grebmer, K.; Bernstein, J.; Nabarro, D.; Prasai, N.; Amin, S.; Yohannes, Y.; Sonntag, A.; Patterson, F.; Towey, O. and Thompson, J., 2016. 2016 Global Hunger Index: getting to zero hunger. Bonn, Washington, DC, and Dublin: Welthungerhilfe, International Food Policy Research Institute, and Concern Worldwide.
[3] FAO, 2011. Right to food: making it happens. Progress and lessons learned through implementation. FAO, Rome.
[4] FAO, IFAD and WFP, 2015. The state of food insecurity in the world 2015. Meeting the 2015 International Hunger Targets: Taking Stock of Uneven Progress.  FAO, Rome.
[5] World Food Programme, 2007. World hunger series 2007: hunger and health. Earthscan: London.
[6]Pinter, L., 2016. Envisioning the transition to a green industry. A paper presented at the UNIDO/Central European University, Budapest, Hungary July 13. 2016.
[7] FAO, 1 992. Sustainable development and the environment: FAO policies and actions, Stockholm 1972-Rio 1992. FAO, Rome.
[8] The FSS is a large-system framework that deals with the past, current and future food security issues concerning an entire population while the FJB focuses on current food requirements of a particular underserved people constituting a fraction of a larger society at a time.
[9] Stockholm Memorandum, 2011. Tipping the scales towards sustainability. 3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium on ‘global sustainability: transforming the world in an era of global change’. 16-19 May 2011, Sweden.

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