Sustainability appraisal framework for southern Africa

IIED assisted Southern African countries to perform realistic sustainability appraisals of their national development plans, national long-term visions, and sectoral and regional plans.

2007 - 2009

This project aimed to show that sustainability appraisal is not as complicated or esoteric as people might think, and that there are manageable tools that could be used to great effect.

The main aim of the project was to assist Southern African countries to perform realistic sustainability appraisals of their national development plans, national long-term visions, and sectoral and regional plans, using a framework that is:

  • Realistic and flexible so that it can improve existing processes
  • Built on regional experience and practice
  • Adapted to Southern African decision-making, policy and planning systems, and
  • Sensitive to skills requirements and capacity constraints.


Awareness and commitment to the idea of sustainable development is increasing around the world. Yet there remain real challenges concerning how it can be achieved and how progress might be measured.

A number of developed countries have made some progress on both counts, but developing countries, particularly those in Southern Africa, are still struggling to find the right answers. Nevertheless, many countries in the region have expressed genuine interest in the sustainability appraisal agenda. From this regional perspective, several observations can be made:

  • There is an apparent mismatch between political expectations, stated political objectives and commitments on the one hand, and the ability of the natural resource base to sustain possibly unrealistic development objectives on the other
  • National or regional strategic planning documents often contain (unrecorded) conflicting sectoral objectives
  • Assumptions about internal capacity to implement policies, plans and programmes are often unrealistic
  • The impacts, and possible opportunity costs, of policies, plans and programmes is usually inadequately assessed
  • There is a widely held assumption that better strategic, integrated planning will improve the chances of countries to realise their development targets and achieve sustainable development.

In addition to national interests, SADC itself has developed a number of regional policies to promote its stated objective to "achieve sustainable development". Similarly, NEPAD is directly interested in this issue, and there are raised expectations that sustainability issues will be integrated into the African Peer Review Mechanism.

But, to date, sustainability has not become a part of mainstream thinking, mainly because the concepts are perhaps too vague to capture the imagination of high level decision-makers.

What IIED did

An initial scooping and planning workshop was followed by analysis of regional trends regarding:

  • The state of the natural environment
  • The use of renewable and non-renewable natural resources
  • Economic development and growth in various key sectors
  • Regional and national development objectives (including progress with National Strategies for Sustainable Development)
  • Human resources and institutional capacity
  • The use of sustainable development planning tools and their effectiveness, and
  • Political "entry points" and strategic partners that might be useful in implementing sustainability appraisal approaches.

This analysis was undertaken through a combination of literature research, workshops with key stakeholders and knowledgeable persons and expert opinion.

A draft framework for sustainability appraisal was then developed by a small team of regional experts, and this was then tested in pilot applications in several countries. 

This project also sought to significantly raise awareness and knowledge about sustainability within the SADC region. By working with in-country experts, the SAIEA/IIED team planned to build capacity so that local expertise can conduct future sustainability assessments.