Africa’s tripartite condition requires careful considerations on spending Official Development Assistance

Africa is facing a tripartite problem that often require access to foreign funds. But Official Development Assistance flows from developed to developing often come with a caveat – donors often express how their concessional loans must be spent, such as on a specific climate project. But such preference sometimes conflicts with national priorities. This often leaves politicians choices between implementing policies for international agreements, such as for the Paris Accord, which requires climate mitigation and adaptation projects, and fostering economic and social development. Considering the centrality of energy in the history of human development, Michael Davies-Venn argues that capitalizing on the continent’s unique opportunities for renewable energies provides an added benefit by complementing decarbonization gains being made in other regions, but that this requires coordination between donors and recipients.

Politicians across Africa are in a bit of a quagmire. On one hand, they must take care of a continent that presently contains one‐fifth of the world’s 8 billion people, is the fastest growing in the world and subsequently has the largest proportion of young people. On the other, they juggle a manifold array of climate change impacts, in a region that for the past two generations scientists have concluded is among the least protected from such developments.

Notwithstanding broken climate finance promises by developed countries to these foreign cash-strapped politicians, Official  Development Assistance (ODA) that does reach them must be spent. But their dilemma is exactly how they should spend this money. Across Africa, the decision between protecting ordinary people from climate change impacts and providing them much needed energy isn’t an easy one to make if you’re a politician with pressing social challenges, such as providing education or access to health. Limited access to foreign exchange often forces a choice between fostering such socio-economic development or climate mitigation, such as with renewable energy technologies and climate adaptation measures.

Protecting people from climate change impacts is perceived by some to be equivalent to rebuilding a country. This is because compared to mitigating climate change, such as by transitioning to renewable energy, climate protection through adaptation actions spans virtually all sectors, such as drought resistant seeds and building dykes against sea level rise. The gap at adapting to the crisis ‘is highest in Africa’ where a number of ‘key risks’ persist, including species extinction, ecosystem disruption, loss of food production, increased poverty, water and energy insecurity, and loss of human life. For example, hundreds of millions will be at the mercy of foreign food imports when they cannot grow food or raise cattle because of drought. And when the oceans rise to drown their communities and storms rage and raze their homes to the ground, the lucky ones left standing will have to flee to protect their lives from these events. Unlike most developed countries, where people are informed in advance, when cyclones come calling across Africa, it’s to the skies people look to assess the immediate threat posed to their lives and livelihoods. To minimally reduce these climate impacts – as the reality of climate change means none can ever be eliminated – governments must secure drought resistant crop seeds, build walls to keep rising waters from coastal flooding at bay and develop Early Warning Systems (EWS) to forecast dangerous weather and observe weather patterns, and warn of imminent dangerous storms. All this costs money that African countries do not have.

Mitigating the effects of climate change may not be as complex as adapting communities to those impacts because adaptation measures are across sectors, compared to mitigation, which is often forced at decarbonization such as transitioning to renewable energy. However, historic conditions concerning energy in Africa, for example, are by now common paradoxical parlance. For example, there are now 675 million – 540 million in sub-Saharan Africa – without access to electricity. As yet, the consistency of solar radiation as an energy resource has had an evidently insignificant influence on the continent’s energy mix. As of last year, ‘only 1% of installed solar PV capacity’ of energy consumed in the continent was from solar, with much of the rest coming from diesel generation. The risk of reliance on such sources increases with social and economic developments, such that ‘diesel doubled in some countries, such as Nigeria, over the year to April 2022’. Economic development driving up energy consumption gives evidence of links between the two, and also explains why reduced access to energy is ‘contributing to a sharp increase in extreme poverty in sub‐Saharan Africa’.

It is in Africa that the global impetus to transition to renewable energy has the highest hope because the continent ‘has the lowest emissions per capita of any region’, which means that the fossil fuel energy infrastructure rampant in developed countries is not as present across Africa. So ripe for renewable energy yet so riddled with challenges, not the least of which is raising ‘USD 25 billion per year’ to pay for modern energy for all Africans. The latest world energy analysis shows, regardless the scenario and measure of counting, Africa has the least number of people with access to energy compared to all other regions. Yet long before the pandemic, international public financial flows for clean energy in developing countries had been declining, through to 2021.

But one exception is Germany. With 0.83 per cent of its GNI, far more than the internationally agreed 0.7 per cent, Germany was a leading contributor in 2022, with USD 35 billion towards ODA, which reached ‘USD 204 billion’ in loans, grants, debt relief or contributions to multilateral institutions, such as the World Bank Group, with Sub-Saharan Africa receiving slightly more than USD 29 million, about a 10 per cent decline from the previous year. But ODA is hardly consistent and that means countries that are heavily dependent on this public financial flow – which includes 46 least developed countries in a continent with 54 states – such inconsistency impacts long-term development goals. Further, developed countries often decide how their ODA loans to developing countries should be spent. Three years ago, when ODA reached USD 161.2 billion, 44 billion went to climate mitigation and adaption, with 39 and 37 per cent going to adaptation and mitigation, respectively. It was ‘the first time’, more ODA went to adaptation than mitigation. That means since aggregating ODA on climate funding started in the 2000s, donors had preferred their loans to be spent on mitigation projects.

It is virtually impossible to say precisely why ODA countries are so motivated to prefer their loans are spent on mitigation projects. Further, ODA aside, climate finance for mitigation from developed to developing countries was close to 60 per cent in 2020, and a greater percentage were loans to fund ‘activities in the energy and transport sectors’. Differences between comparatively industrialised Asia, receiving 41 per cent of total ODA in 2020, and Africa receiving 25 per cent, might offer clues on why donor countries always elect to finance mitigation. Politicians in Africa are placed in a difficult position between refusing loans tagged for projects that are not compatible with national priorities, or allowing loans to determine the direction of national policies. But as they need assistance from overseas, which is not charity, they often have little choice but to accept loans based on availability rather than priority. ‘From two billion euro in 2014 and more than four billion euro in 2020, we tripled our contribution last year to six billion euro,’ declared German chancellor Olaf Scholz, during the 78th United Nations General Assembly debate. But how might Germany – a leading renewable energy technologies producer – translate such help with regard to the delicate balancing act between climate protection and mitigation that his counterparts in developing regions such as Africa are having a hard time with?

As yet, the problem between protecting vulnerable populations, providing energy and fostering socio-economic development remains an economically and socially debilitating conundrum in such regions. The answer should be obvious because energy is fundamental to societal development, as human social and developmental history is incomplete without more than a passing mention of energy. But a key difference between, for example, the Industrial Revolution and now – and certainly concerning Africa – is in contrast to that period in history, instead of coal, it ought now to be solar, and instead of oil, it ought now to be wind. Across Africa, transition to renewable energy has great potential, because from Morocco to South Africa, and Lesotho to Tunisia, the continent is surrounded by coastal waters. And solar radiation in landlocked countries from Mali to Botswana, and Zimbabwe to Niger, means the continent is ‘home to 60% of the best solar resources globally’, ready for conversion to reliable renewable electricity. With such ideal natural conditions, and considering Africa has the fastest growing population, grasping this opportunity will certainly help ensure that gains from emission reduction in developed countries would have a net global environmental effect. The IPCC projects energy generation in Africa must ‘grow 2.5 times from 244 GW in 2018 to 614 GW by 2040’. This need is an opportunity that must be seized, as no one in either region will countenance that energy demand should be met by fossil fuels.

Since last year, the world has been in ‘the middle of a global energy crisis of unprecedented depth and complexity’. Amidst growing unmet energy demands and unreliable supply in Africa, the crisis puts the ‘immediate and absolute priority’ of providing affordable energy for all Africans at risk because it means continuing energy production using inefficient diesel generators that provided 45 GW in sub‐Saharan Africa two years ago. Africa’s triple need for energy, environmental protection and socio-economic development must be addressed simultaneously. This creates demanding conditions that require a delicate balance, with significant policy implications for the continent and donors.

The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.


Michael Davies-Venn researches global environmental governance. A policy analyst, he puts emphasis on climate mitigation and climate adaptation measures within the Paris Agreement. A communication professional, his political commentaries address climate change topics, including European decarbonisation, Paris Agreement implementation between developed and developing countries and human rights. He has studied and worked worldwide and is presently a Guest Researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

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