UN Economic Commission for Africa opening ceremony of the 14th Intergovernmental Committee of Experts for West Africa Meeting - Ms. Mia Seppo, UNDP Sierra Leone Country Director

01 Mar 2011

Statement by Ms. Mia Seppo, UNDP Sierra Leone Country Director on behalf of the Executive Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations

Honorable Minister of Finance and Economic Development,

The Director of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) Sub-Regional Office for West Africa,

Distinguished Experts and Delegates of Member States and Intergovernmental Organizations,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honor and a great pleasure for me to address the opening session of this meeting on behalf of the Executive Representative of the Secretary General of the UN to Sierra Leone.

It gives me even greater pleasure to do so with our sister organization the United Nations ECA with whom we have build up a fruitful cooperation framework based on the capitalization of mutually supportive comparative advantages over the years.

The UN has indeed become a “One UN”, thus increasing the effectiveness in order to serve our member States better. The collaboration between UNDP and ECA will find a formal expression with the planned launch of a Regional framework for Coordinating Mechanism for West Africa which aims to promote synergy and coordination among the agencies and organizations of the UN system, so as to improve the collective response by the UN system in addressing the priority needs of West African member States.

UNDP, working with the AU, UNECA and AfDB, contribute to improved monitoring and reporting on progress toward the MDGs.  Substantive support is provided to the preparation of national MDG Reports (MDGRs) in almost all African countries, including Sierra Leone, placing special emphasis on the impact of the global financial, economic and food crises on the achievement of the goals. In turn, data and information from these MDGRs were fed into the preparation and publication of the African 2010 MDGs Report “The Path to Achieving the Millennium Development Goals: A Synthesis of Evidence From Around the World”.

These efforts, together with the UNDP supported MDGs Breakthrough Strategy and the MDGs Breakthrough Strategy, contribute to more nuanced analysis of progress in Sub-Saharan Africa bringing forth the policy and institutional arrangements that have made a difference.

Honorable Minister, the Director, Distinguished Experts, Invited Guests,

The Theme for this ICE meeting for West Africa “A Decade of implementation of the MDGs in West Africa: Achievements and Shortfalls” is urgent and timely.

2010 capped a decade in which Africa has seen rapid and stable economic growth. There were also reductions in poverty rates and progress towards the MDGs in many parts of the continent especially in terms of education and gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Moreover, economic growth has been broad-based, encompassing not only resource-rich economies and middle-income countries, but also low-income countries that are not natural-resource-rich. These short remarks will not elaborate on the challenge of managing the new revenues expected from natural resource windfalls for human development.

These gains made were due in part to a favourable global economic context, but also underpinned by improvements in governance and policy formulation and implementation. The cumulative effects of reform and growth have improved Africa’s medium- to long-term prospects.

Looking ahead, three challenges loom large:

  • Can rapid growth continue going forward and how effective will growth be in bringing down poverty rates
  • How can the resilience of the African economies and societies to internal and external shocks be increased
  • The impacts of and the need to mitigate climate change.

In terms of the first challenge, the effectiveness of growth in reducing poverty and improving living standards in Africa has been historically low. Several studies have documented that the responsiveness of poverty to income growth - the poverty elasticity of income- has been significantly lower for Africa than in other developing regions.

Income distribution plays a dramatic role on the impact of growth on poverty reduction. In many African countries, high and increasing inequality hampers the effectiveness of economic growth in reducing poverty. The UNDP 2010 Human Development Report concludes that people in sub-Saharan Africa suffer the largest human development losses due to inequality followed closely by South Asia and the Arab States.

Another factor refers to the composition of economic growth, with slow structural diversification in the region. Growth originating in improvements in agricultural productivity tends to be poverty and inequality reducing. The Agenda for Change of the GoSL has as one of its four goals promotion of economic growth through the agriculture and fisheries sectors and the Smallholder Commercialization Programme could be noted in this context.

Finally, the population in Africa is young (average age of 25 years) and it has very high dependency ratios - the ratio of elderly and young to the working age population - which are a drag on per capita growth rates. Fertility rates continue to be high in the region and so are mortality rates. Although fast growth in the labor force has the potential to be a positive driver of growth, if employment opportunities do not match the pace of increase in population, this may turn into additional pressure on unemployment and underemployment, a problem well known to many ECOWAS countries. In Sierra Leone, the UN Joint Vision which is the response of the UN system in Sierra Leone to the Government’s Agenda for Change gives high priority to the economic and social integration of youth.

The second challenge relates to vulnerability of the continent to internal and external shocks. On the internal front, political and social instability remain a threat to economic prosperity and development. The implications often spill over beyond the country where instability and conflict originate; creating problems for neighbouring countries ranging from refugees to disrupting production and trade, the Great Lakes Region and parts of West Africa remain particularly vulnerable to these challenges.

External economic and financial shocks may still overwhelm the current resilience of African economies and societies. These shocks have not only an almost immediate effect on households’ income through depressed earnings and wages, job losses and other means of transmission. Evidence suggests that their impact on income as well as on human development outcomes often surpasses the transitory effect of the crisis, impacting long term well-being, particularly in the case of low income countries and poor households. This is why social protection policies are so important.

On the external front, the current global spike in food and oil prices and the possible decline in financing of aid is a stark reminder of the dangers that loom in the international context.

On the third challenge, climate change, although the region’s carbon emission levels are marginal, the impact of climate change will be more severe in Africa than in other parts of the world. Evidence suggests that the region is warming faster than the world average and that this will likely persist. Furthermore, the proportion of people working in the agricultural sector, the importance of agriculture for economies, and the reliance on rain-fed crops further compounds the exposure to weather variation.

Thus, climate change will likely exacerbate existing vulnerabilities across Africa.
But climate change is a challenge for Africa on the mitigation side, too. While current emissions are low, as noted, the energy and infrastructure needs of the continent are massive. It is simply not possible for African countries to grow and improve living standards without massive investments in power and transportation. And yet, these investments will have to be made in a carbon-constrained world, facing conditions that rich countries and the fastest growing developing economies did not have to grapple with. Climate change mitigation, therefore, lies at the heart of the development policy in Africa.

With all these three challenges, there are parallel opportunities. Growth in Africa can not only be accelerated, but its effectiveness in reducing poverty enhanced, if the opportunities of “catch-up” growth are explored. This can be done by adopting existing technologies that may enable African countries to leapfrog and have quick productivity gains in agriculture, business transactions, trade, transportation, and energy. The opportunities are there especially as they relate to energy and climate change mitigation. Similarly, investing in productive social protection may increase not only resilience, but provide incentives and conditions for long-term growth if they go along with investments in human capital. A young population is a challenge, but also a tremendous opportunity if the creativity and energy of young people are unleashed in productive activities and innovation.

This statement only allows for briefly referring to questions and challenges that require more elaboration, elaboration that this august gathering is well placed to provide.
I trust that these recommendations and policy prescriptions will be practicable rather than theoretical only because the implementation of the MDGs is NOW.