Citizen-centric approaches to achieving the SDGs in Africa: reflections from practice

Programme Type: ProjectsUrban Research Programme: PEAK Urban

On 23 October Namhla Mniki, Executive Director of African Monitor, presented a talk on citizen-centric approaches to achieving the SDGs in Africa. The talk was attended by researchers and academics from various UCT departments, as well as the UCT Research Office and a representative from the Western Cape provincial government.

Mniki started by showing a video on the work of African Monitor, an independent Pan African continental body, which works on monitoring development commitments through grassroots based approaches. So far, the organisation has worked with over 77,000 people across seven different African countries on data follow up and review initiatives, development finance and partnerships and on building the capacity of African civil society, with a specific focus on the promotion of sustainable development through the domestication, implementation and review of Agenda 2030 and Agenda 2063.

She then outlined three fundamental tensions between the ways in which the SDGs have been designed and the ways in which development goals are too often implemented, centred around the notions of: responsiveness and accountability; ownership in decision making; and agency and capability.

Central to the SDGs is the notion of ‘leaving no one behind’, described in paragraph 74 of the 2030 Agenda as the need for the SDGs to be “people-centred, gender-sensitive, respect human rights and have a particular focus on the poorest, most vulnerable and those furthest behind”. However, in practice the state delivery machinery is often ill equipped to respond to citizen’s needs, limiting state responsiveness and accountability. Moreover, development policies are often premised on the notion of service delivery from a supply perspective, rather than on local needs and demands.  This is illustrated by the ways in which most Voluntary National Review reports, that states submit to the UN on their progress towards achieving the SDGs, mostly focus on inputs such as plans and policies that have been designed, resources that have been allocated, rather than the outcomes and impact of such actions.

Drawing on research conducted by African Monitor in Malawi and Senegal on social protection and costs of schooling, she further showed that although many African countries have social policies, in practice few people benefit from any kind of social assistance of the state and additional costs associated with services such as schooling limits access, even when primary education is free.

Mniki then went on to discuss issues around ownership of development agendas. Many people in Africa are not aware of global or continental agendas such as Agenda 2030 or 2063, let alone have they been involved in the decision making around them. However, there are initiatives around the continent that show that citizens can be decision makers. These include the experience of Tanzania’s Voluntary National Review process which was co-written by government and civil society. In other countries, such as Burkina Faso, African Monitor worked with civil society organisations on the development of citizen’s reports on the SDG, which reached the highest level of government.

Despite these successes, decision-making spaces for society remain limited or contested, with successes often representing a negotiated settlement, subject to the political climate in specific moments in time, such as the run-up to the annual UN High Level Political Forum on the SDGS, after which many governments often go back to business-as-usual.

An example that shows the potential of local agency and capability is the African Youth SDG summit and its off-shoots. Started by the Ghana Youth Advocacy group the first conference took place in Ghana 2017 with little external support or funding and brought together about 500 youth from different African countries to network, learn and celebrate the success and participation of young people in the implementation of Agenda 2030 and Africa’s Agenda 2063. The second summit in 2018 drew over 1000 delegates and this year the summit has branched out to countries like Botswana, Namibia and Nigeria.

This initiative shows that citizens are capable, creative and visionary actors who can drive development, not just receive it. Regardless of how good governments are in delivering services, citizens are central to bringing about the kind of individual action and cultural and behavioural change that is needed to achieve the SDGs.

Mniki concluded her presentation by stressing the need for new spaces and systems that allow and enable the kind of citizen agency and capability for development in more structural ways.

Questions that followed picked up on the gap between traditional institutions and existing practices, down to the community level. Government  often struggles to effectively engage with local communities, resulting in fatigue at best and anger at worst. Academic researchers often face similar challenges. Community interests and expectations are often very different from that of the state and the state’s assumptions about what people think or know about how the state works are often flawed. On the other hand, state institutions face a difficult challenge in terms of balancing both social needs and agendas as well as safeguarding the environment, representing difficult trade offs.  Methods focused on knowledge sharing and co-production represent possible ways to create more direct feedback loops between different stakeholders, including local communities.


The presentation and recording of the seminar is available upon request. The SDG seminar series is scheduled to conclude with a high level SDG roundtable in the first week of December, more details to follow soon.