Africa: Finding pathways for sustainable development

© Riccardo Lennart Niels Mayer |

A new project funded under the Belmont Forum’s joint Collaborative Research Action on Pathways to Sustainability will develop novel tools and capacities to understand and manage interlinkages between the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and support sustainable development pathways for African countries, tailored to local capacities and priorities.

Achieving the interconnected aspirations of the SDGs will be no easy feat – not least because there is no one-size-fits all solution that will work for everyone. Transformations will have to be designed, directed, and adapted, taking into consideration the development stage, socio-political, cultural and physical context, unique needs, and existing governance structures of individual countries. One such governance transformation involves the “localization” of the 2030 agenda to facilitate the endorsement and the engagement of local and regional actors in the design and implementation of required sustainability transformations. This is key given the integrated nature of the 2030 Agenda and the need to break existing policy silos and promote horizontal and vertical cooperation.

The new SDG-pathfinding: Co-creating pathways for Sustainable Development in Africa project, funded under the Belmont Forum’s Pathways2020 – Transdisciplinary Research for Pathways to Sustainability initiative, will bring together a highly inter- and multidisciplinary consortium to develop novel tools and capacities to understand and manage SDG interlinkages, and support sustainable development pathways for African countries that is adapted to local capacities and priorities.

The consortium comprises three research partners from leading institutions in systems analysis, governance of sustainability transitions, and participatory scenario development from diverse geographical settings (IIASA, Austria; France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Environment (INRAE); and Rhodes University, South Africa). In addition the consortium partners will enlist a leading national NGO practitioner (Groupe d’Action et d’Initiative pour un développement Alternatif, GAIA, Senegal) with vast experience in working with local communities, municipalities, and national governments on capacity development around sustainable development and the SDGs.


“Addressing this complex landscape of physical-social-governance-context-dependent drivers and solutions will require a systems approach suitable to mapping and untangling the many interlinkages that emerge across sectors, policies, actors, and scales, through the integration of different sources of knowledge, tools, and values. This will involve a combination of analytical tools with strong stakeholder engagement approaches to support social learning in order to drive the change in mindsets needed to match our ambitions for sustainability,” explains project coordinator Barbara Willaarts, a researcher in the IIASA Water Security Research Group of the Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program. “We will also have to design transformation pathways that match countries capacities and socioeconomic-physical-governance contexts.”

Over the course of the project, the researchers will analyze multi-level governance structures and path dependencies to identify impediments and enablers to sustainability and equity, and develop and test an innovative, online, and participatory SDG scenario policy tool to support the development of inclusive and bottom up narratives and transformation pathways encompassing the strategies and solutions needed to reach the SDG agenda. Importantly, they will aim to foster exchange and collective learning experiences throughout the project to promote social learning and innovation on SDGs, and support the institutionalization of the sustainability agenda beyond the lifetime of the project.

The SDG pathfinding approach is envisioned as an experiential and fully participatory process, that will engage stakeholders from across government, business, and civil society in defining their desirable futures, assessing trade-offs, and finding solutions within the chosen sustainability pathways. The approach will be tested and implemented in two regions where multiple SDG gaps intersect due to a number of drivers of different nature and operating scales, namely the Fimela district in Senegal and the Swartkops catchment in South Africa. While the project’s approach is local in focus, the researchers anticipate that its outcomes will be relevant both nationally and globally.

“Our project outputs will be of practical importance to the case studies to raise awareness and support the institutionalization of the 2030 sustainable development agenda, which will be grounded in our living lab approach. Moreover, we expect that through this collaborative effort, we will be able to develop tools and practical knowledge that can be transferred to other regions in order to further operationalize the SDG agenda at the subnational level in the African context,” Willaarts concludes.