Should Achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in Africa be the Monopoly of the Public Sector?

Mrs Bridget Katsriku, Chairman, Public Services Commission, GhanaMrs Bridget Katsriku, Chairman, Public Services Commission, Ghana
Bridget Katsriku is currently the Chairman of the Ghana Public Services Commission. Before assuming that role, she held several key positions including the Director of Policy Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation. She was the Chief Director (Permanent Secretary) for nine years in the civil service. Under her leadership as Chief Director in the Ministry of Employment and Social Welfare and later in the Ministry of Tourism, many policies were initiated, including the National Disability Policy, a Policy on NGO- Government Relations, Aging, Street Children, Co-operatives Development, HIV/AIDS at the workplace, HIV/AIDS District Response Initiative and Tourism policy. She was responsible for the establishment of the Ghana HIV/AIDS Commission and headed it for two years. Mrs Katsriku is a product of the University of Ghana, Legon, with a degree in the Arts. She holds a Post Graduate Diploma in Public Administration, and numerous postgraduate certificates in Management, Public Policy Analysis, Manpower Planning and Auditing. Currently she is Vice-Chair of the African Association of Public Administration and Management (AAPAM) headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, representing the whole of West Africa. Mrs Katsriku has won several awards including Best Worker in the Civil Service in 2007 and a National Award of the Order of Volta in 2011, for her excellence and contribution to the Public Service.


This article is intended to stimulate discussions around mechanisms for the achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within the African Region.  It focuses on the public sector’s role in the SDGs, using achievements and lessons from the 2000- 2015 Millennium Development Goals to provide alternative approaches for successful implementation.  It also highlights some of the processes by which countries in Africa may trigger change for sustainable impact of the SDGs.  In addition, the role, especially of civil society and other non-governmental partners or actors within this development space, shall be examined, with a focus on how to leverage the synergies of this important but often side-lined sector to ensure maximum spread and success of the SDGs. 

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were eight global initiatives adopted by the United Nations to improve upon the living standards of the world’s population, with an implementation period of fifteen years.  The main objectives were to: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and promote a global partnership for development.  

A 2010 United Nations (UN) report on the MDGs indicated that although a lot of encouraging achievements were being made at a global level, the sub-Saharan African Region, lagged significantly behind the plan in most of the goals set.  Even then, there existed significant disparities among the various countries in Africa as highlighted in a 2013 UN report.  Some countries in Africa had made modest progress in achieving many goals, while others had achieved very little in realising any of the MDGs. 

In underscoring the progress and challenges found in the implementation of the MDGs, Tilahun Kassaye (2010) in his paper “Millennium Development Goals: Progress and Challenges” stated that “The MDGs did represent an unprecedented opportunity for partnership among nations to better the lives of the hungry and poor people across the globe”.  He was, however, sceptical about the progress Africa had made with only five years to the target date.  By 2015, the assessment made in the country reports indicated that progress towards reaching the MDGs was fairly uneven across African countries.

In this article, the experiences of three countries, namely, Rwanda, Ghana and Nigeria, will be examined.  

Rwanda achieved all MDGs at the goals level and all targets were met, except the ones on poverty, stunting and waged employment for women. Notable progress was chalked in eliminating extreme poverty, and gender, education and health targets were exceeded.

In the case of Ghana some of the goals were achieved.  Targets such as halving extreme poverty, the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water, universal primary education and gender parity in primary school were attained.  Substantial progress had also been made in reducing HIV prevalence, increasing access to information and communications technologies (ICTs) and reducing the proportion of people suffering from hunger.  However, little progress was made towards meeting the targets of achieving full and productive employment; equal share of women in wage employment in non-agriculture sector and involvement in governance; reducing under-five and child mortality and reducing maternal mortality; and reversing the loss of environmental resources and improving sanitation.

The Nigerian experience in the implementation of the MDGs also presents chronically mixed results.  Within the context of the MDGs Framework, Nigeria’s efforts mainly focused upon improving health care delivery, notably in the areas of maternal and child mortality reduction, eradicating polio through: effective national and international partnership; and the reduction in the spread of malaria, HIV and AIDS.  Some modest progress was recorded in the achievement of a higher net enrolment rate in basic education, gender parity at the primary school level, and improved access to safe drinking water. 

These modest achievements, notwithstanding, Rwanda, Ghana and Nigeria and for that matter the rest of Africa, have unfinished business in all the targets that need to be rolled over to the SDGs implementation framework.  This, therefore, calls for post evaluation of what went wrong. 


Critics of the MDGs have cited lack of analysis and justification behind the chosen goals and objectives, and the difficulty or lack of measurements for some goals and the uneven level of progress among countries, amongst others.  A one-size fits-all panacea for assessment of progress was assumed as a standard message.  Others also believe that the Goals were too ambitious and based on western standards, not taking into consideration conditions prevailing in the developing world.  These arguments, even though valid up to a point, did not negate the relevance of down-to-earth initiatives and common sense MDGs.  Developing African countries do not have any excuse for not meeting the goals.  Indeed, they were part of the negotiations of the MDGs from the beginning to the end and had pledged to improve on their governance systems and their citizen participation models in development to achieve them.  Significant progress had been made by African countries to improve democratic governance, albeit, with a few countries still struggling under autocratic regimes or makeshift democracies.  Innovative approaches were adopted to surmount barriers to achieving the MDGs.  Some of the barriers were quite unique to the set targets themselves; others were country-specific; while others were broadly shared challenges.

Some of the common problems faced by many African nations have been categorized as:
  • Weak governance systems
  • Conflict, insecurity and instability
  • Increasing food prices                                
  • Incidence of diseases and epidemics
  • Environmental degradation
  • Global economic crisis
Clearly, most of the challenges mentioned above are critical issues best addressed by government and public administration institutions, since most issues and targets contained within the MDGs were primarily social factors and issues of public goods and services, delivered by public service institutions. 

Against this backdrop, the public sector role in achievement of the MDGs cannot be over-emphasized.  However, it is still important that in addressing these challenges, coupled with the complexities of public administration, more adaptive and inclusive approaches need to be adopted.  More so when, many of the public sector institutions were not only considered weak, inefficient and insensitive to the needs of citizens, but also had limited resources and outreach capacity to reach those who needed the services the most.  With hindsight, partnerships with civil society and local communities to support initiatives would have produced better results. 

Sadly, in the African context, governments have regarded partnerships from a myopic standpoint and are mostly comfortable with the international development partners.  The focus was mainly on how they could leverage aid from development partners to implement their MDGs programmes.  African governments failed to partner with their own local counterparts in finding solutions to local problems.  They were oblivious to the fact that some of the problems their countries faced were created one way or another by their own citizens.  To effect positive changes, the people must be involved in identification of problems and their eventual solutions.  

The prevailing practice and belief that the public sector has the solution to each problem has strengthened the notion of government as an all-knowing solutions provider to their citizens without involving them in key decisions.  In some cases, solutions were benchmarked wrongly against foreign examples, which did not fit into local conditions.  This was the case in the implementation of the MDGs as public authorities took control of all of its aspects.  Individual ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) undertook planning and implementation of programmes with little or no public consultation coupled with poor coordination and collaboration even amongst themselves.  There were little or no effective accountability frameworks that involved the local population who could attest to the effectiveness or otherwise of services.  One acclaimed exception was Rwanda, which excelled in the implementation of the health targets by involving local communities through appointment of volunteer community health workers.  These resources were unpaid but encouraged and supported to form cooperatives of their own and with their families’ support. The effectiveness of this level of community involvement seems to suggest that the SDGs, which have replaced the MDGs, may be attainable if African countries adopt the all-inclusive local approach.  Rwanda demonstrated that achieving the MDGs was possible even for a country with limited resources and that the partnership approach between government and civil society played a major role in attaining success: “national ownership involving stakeholders from all sectors that is not matched in many other African countries – or countries elsewhere in the world.”  (World Bank, 2014).  


Over the years and for many reasons, there have been tremendous developments and changes in the role of the state.  The role of the state has been changing due to various customs, traditions, values, as well as political, economic, social, and technological advancements.  These factors have greatly impacted the manner in which the state and state actors have related to the development of policies, rules and regulations to meet the challenges of the people and the time, at the national, international, sub-regional and more importantly at the local levels.  The 20th century has witnessed radical changes in the role of the state the world over.  The basic function of the state, which is made up of a number of public sectors, was to provide goods and services to citizens based on policies, rules and regulations.  However, the public sector in Africa was not able to perform its function effectively because of its inordinate focus on power, lack of accountability and transparency, and indifference towards the needs of its citizens, amongst others.  Traditionally, it has been the role of the state to provide substantive rules on the content of socio-economic transactions such as health, education, housing, agriculture, labour laws, import controls, etc. 

With increased privatisation in the 21st century (a shift from public to private provision of goods and services) as well as the over-powering influence of globalisation, it can be argued that the functions of the state have taken on a new focus.  It has shifted from being a sole and direct provider of public goods and services to a regulator, controlling the processes of effective service delivery in both the social, political and economic context.  It looks to manage issues of, for instance, competition to ensure fair market practices, regulating privatised industries, regulating the provision of social and economic services and preventing monopolistic behaviour.  This implies a reduced role for the state in national economic management. The state is, instead, expected to provide an enabling environment for private sector economic activities by implementing appropriate socio-economic policy reforms and providing the necessary enabling environment to promote growth.  The state is also required to take the lead in providing the economic and social infrastructure, in some cases working with investors and other partners.  This role shift should have contributed largely to the adoption of innovative approaches facilitating the achievement of the SDGs, however these failed to materialise as the public sectors in Africa lacked the capacity to exploit the new dimensions of their roles to their advantage.  Therefore, the public sector in Africa continues to do business as usual, from making policies to policy implementation.  Above all, the state has not developed its capacity to enable it partner with non-state actors to provide goods and services to its citizens, hence the woeful implementation of the MDGs. 


The SDGs, which replaced the MDGs in 2016 and code named officially as “Transforming our World, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, has 17 “Global Goals” with 169 targets.  The main characteristics of the new agenda and its goals are that they seek to tackle all sectors of development and address the three pillars of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental.  These key pillars are expected to be integrated so that progress in one area relates to progress in other areas.  For example, health targets are distributed across all goals, and the integrated nature of the SDGs provides new legitimacy for addressing the wider determinants of health, poverty, gender, education etc.  It also has a focus on equity and on reaching all people, especially those that are hardest to reach.  Unlike its predecessor (MDGs), the SDGs are global in nature and are relevant to all countries, both developed and developing, with common but differentiated responsibilities.  Goals and targets take into consideration different national realities, capacities, and levels of development. Each government is tasked to set its own national targets guided by the global level of ambition but taking into account national circumstances.

The SDGs are expected to draw on the implementation, experiences, and also the strengths and weaknesses of the MDGs, and to help define a more sustainable approach in meeting the targets and goals set.  Within this context, this article seeks to identify such key areas where the public services or the public sector’s contributions could be more enhanced by finding other models for implementation.  There is the growing realisation of an increasing demand in new partnership cooperation – governments, civil society and the private sector working together for the collective wellbeing of humankind.

In order to meet the targets created by the SDGs and for the purpose of strengthening a sustainable path to development, African countries must adopt policies and programmes to overcome the challenges that restrained the achievement of the MDGs. Within the limited resources of various countries, a new perspective of leadership in the public service is very much desirable going forward.  In recent years, global society has witnessed a rapidly changing world bringing about both new opportunities and new challenges.  Nowhere is this more obvious than at the interface of government, business and society.  Again, globalisation and the increasing reach of the explosion of information communication technology; the emergence of democracies in most African countries as well as powerful civil society groups; and the increasing prominence of citizen action and demand for accountability have all contributed to a new landscape that offers opportunity for a better achievement of the SDGs, provided governments take advantage of this positive wind of change.

Many a time, the changes and innovation required are normally overlooked or perhaps not really considered in addressing the critical and ultimate needs of the people for whom these SDGs are set to benefit.  It is thus important, first of all, to appreciate the common understanding and knowledge within the public sector in Africa against the backdrop of the principles of good governance, inclusiveness, and the culture of accountability and their relationship with progress in realising the SDGs.  The holistic approaches towards achieving this is a public sector leadership that is able to accommodate the different dimensions and oft-diverging views of society, and bringing the various actors on board.  Indeed, it is when government leads the private sector effectively and also facilitates the effective participation of the third sector – the civil society – that any country will develop.  This interesting nexus, therefore, creates the need to broaden the scope of engagements in achieving the new major SDG targets, particularly in considering the emerging role of the state and the public sector. 


Explaining why many African countries failed to score the MDG goals, some development experts have argued that there was a weak sense of ownership among the people as they were not sufficiently involved in crafting solutions to their own problems.  It is therefore critical to underscore the causes of failure for delivery of the MDGs in Africa and to see how the African public sector could learn from these deviations in order to position itself to effectively achieve the SDGs.  In addition, the actions of corrupt public sector officials hurt the underprivileged disproportionately by: diverting funds intended for development and undermining government’s ability to provide basic services; promoting inequality and injustice; and discouraging foreign investment and aid.  It thus becomes important to fashion out a stronger network of actors and stakeholders to help change the dynamics needed to ensure a critical path to success under the SDGs.

Africa played a significant role in the development of the SDGs. The Africa Union Agenda 2063 which preceded the SDGs agenda process was done with a clear intention to influence the SDGs from an African perspective.  Furthermore, African leaders participated in the Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN) at the UN on the SDGs, which led to their adoption in September 2015.  This gives implementation of the SDGs a fillip for success in Africa, with the proviso that the political commitment proclaimed at the IGN would be sustained.

It is heart-warming to learn that African governments have acted faster in putting in place strategies to implement the SDGs than they did with the MDGs.  Nigeria gave the late start of the MDGs as one of the reasons for their failed implementation (OSSAP-MDGs, 2015).  African governments are also putting emphases on localisation or local ownership of the implementation plans and striving to feature the SDGs as the central pillar for their medium and long-term development plans.  Ghana has domesticated the SDGs into the overall National Development Plan.  There is an active inter-ministerial committee on the SDGs at the national level, which has had interactions with many civil society organisations.  Guidelines have been issued for mainstreaming the SDGs in every sector with the aim of localising the implementation.  It also aims to prioritise SDGs targets across the span of fifteen years, which will form part of the Forty-Year Development Plan for each sector in Ghana. 

In Kenya, the Ministry of Devolution and Planning provided guidelines to all public institutions to implement the SDGs and report to it quarterly on their performance. These institutions were advised to identify SDG targets relevant to their mandate, integrate them into their annual work plans, and create awareness on them to their public.
This implies that Kenya, like Ghana, has taken implementation of the SDGs seriously and has cascaded their implementation to diverse institutions. Nigeria had by 2015 begun mainstreaming the SDGs in their development planning processes, with the aim of promoting them at all levels.  There have been spirited efforts by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society organisations (CSOs) at sensitising people at different levels about the SDGs.

In 2015 the then Deputy State Governor of the Lagos State, Mrs Orelope-Adefulire, confirmed what should be the role of government in the realisation of the SDGs.  She declared, “With the new mandate, our roles are to coordinate the advocacy, partnerships and implementation of the SDGs.  We have begun the process of galvanising partners in ministries, departments and agencies, international development partners, civil society groups, the academia, vulnerable population groups as well as state and local governments, to work towards domesticating the SDGs in Nigeria.”  This summarises the role of governments, and for that matter the public sector, in leading nations to achieve the SDGs and for them to have greater impact than realised in the MDGs.

What is not readily obvious though, is articulation of various partners’ roles, especially civil society and citizens’ roles within the implementation frameworks in achieving the SDGs by various African governments.  In particular, less attention has been paid to how to best implement the national frameworks at the local level in communities where most populations in Africa live.  The role of local communities, citizen organisations, women, youth, private sector, and civil society organisations, must be well defined, monitored and evaluated.

The fear is that African countries may once again miss the boat if their focus is on receiving aid from development partners and they discount the strengths and advantages brought by CSOs and their own citizens who are the beneficiaries of the SDGs.  Governments need the involvement of all local stakeholders if they are committed to the  “localisation” of these goals.  While national and local governments hold primary responsibility for delivering services in their country, the private sector, communities and CSOs also play key roles in shaping demand, contributing and shaping state policies and delivering services (UNCDF, 2010).  This is particularly relevant in areas where governments lack capacity, or the will, to provide essential services for their citizens (UNCDF, 2010; Save the Children, 2012).  Given the scope and expectations of the SDGs, it is clear that governments alone cannot achieve the agenda 2030.

To move forward on achieving greater impact, African countries would have to include all facets of society in planning, execution, monitoring and evaluation of programmes.  It is not enough to only hold consultations with CSOs and NGOs when planning as reported in all three countries referred to above, but also to see them as partners in implementation, monitoring progress and evaluation of outcomes.  What follows are a few strategies for consideration that are intended to promote citizens’ ownership of the SDGs for a wider spread of their benefits.  These proposals are not oblivious to other key indicators for achieving the SDGs, such as macro-economic stability, effective democratic governance, political stability, and promotion of gender equality, amongst others.
  1. At all levels of government there should be institutional spaces that facilitate meaningful CSO participation with the aim of ensuring that SDGs-related decisions can be adequately made starting from an early stage and through implementation of participatory partnership programmes.  This will enable demand of accountability from both government and other partners through joint reviews.  This mechanism will ensure everyone plays their role according to plan.
  2. Local governments should partner with CSOs to achieve localisation of the SDGs. CSOs give a voice to the poorest and most marginalised citizens. Therefore, it is crucial to create opportunities, spaces, and platforms for engaging with these groups at the local level in order to promote dialogue, build community awareness, and develop strong relationships.  These organisations reach the hardest of the poor by providing services hardly delivered by government agencies.  They also have the capacity to monitor progress through data collection and reporting. 
  3. Localising the MDGs must reflect regional realities, which may involve resource mobilisation at the local level to address local problems.  This does not only relate to financial resources.  There are human, material and technical resources for addressing local problems that need to be appreciated, mobilised and utilised.  Governments are oblivious of this fact and assume that “spoon feeding” local communities would solve their problems.  Through advocacy, sensitisation, and the provision of basic infrastructure and tools, communities would provide some services for themselves, which would free governments to focus on policy, strategy, monitoring and evaluation.
  4. African governments must fully embrace current technological advancements to reach out to their citizens. Even though significant inroads have been made to use ICT in public service delivery, there is a dearth of commitment from both politicians and bureaucrats to embrace technology fully in their operations. To create awareness of the SDGs and their implementation, in addition to other strategies, an online interactive data platform that enables the general public to comment on programmes (e.g. health, education, women, environment etc.) can facilitate information gathering by government and partners for progress review and planning. 
  5. Despite significant progress made by African countries in recognizing the role of women in development there is still a big gap between men and women in their social, cultural, political and economic status.  If Goal Five of the SDGs, which is only dedicated to women, is to be achieved, African governments must renew their commitment to review policies that are women-friendly.  More so, women and civil society groups that advocate for women empowerment and equality must not only be at the centre of such policy-making process, but more importantly at the forefront of implementation.
  6. One important group of people in Africa that is emerging as vulnerable is African youth.  To reduce the vulnerability of youth today is to promote peace and security tomorrow.  Therefore, African governments must galvanize their commitments to promote the rights of their young and invest in quality, relevant, and inclusive education with a focus on science, technology and innovation at all levels. Governments must also prioritise the promotion of quality health care for youth as well as involve them in the socio-economic development of their countries.

This article has brought to the forefront some critical issues that need to be examined and discussed by the public in African countries in designing plans, programmes, projects and activities for the achievement of the SDGs.  Of outmost importance, is the need to guard against the tendency of the public sector to singularly assume ownership of the actions and goals of the MDGs and SDGs.

The call to foster a closer collaboration between state and non-state actors should be the first practical step for creating an understanding of the implementation challenges faced by the public sector towards achieving the SDGs.  The shortfalls identified in the MDGs should help position the public sector as a rallying point for galvanising energies from all actors for action to bring success. The active role of citizens and CSOs should definitely be sought towards achieving and realising the SDGs going forward. The operationalisation of the SDGs shall improve the lives of all citizens, especially women and youth. It will also speed up the decentralisation of the entire governance process to help bring development closer to the doorsteps of the citizens.

There is an urgent need to create the enabling environment for a more active role and participation of the private sector in the realisation of the SDGs. The private sectors’ contribution in achieving the SDGs will be considered in a business-like manner, with higher stakes in ensuring social stability. The successful implementation of the SDGs involving the private sector would ultimately be regarded as contributing to sound corporate social responsibility and good corporate citizenship on the part of the private sector.

All told, a new dimension for development, synergising the latent potentials, competences, and energies among the tripartite actors - the public sector, the private sector and civil society (women, men, youth, religious groups, CBOs, etc.) would work together towards achieving the SDGs. The successful implementation of the SDGs should be a shared and collective responsibility.


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