Toward a Sustainability Framework for Development in Niger

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

The concept of sustainability is catching on in the developed world, but how does it fare in the developing world? What does sustainability look like for emerging economies? Does it make sense for nations struggling to modernize and feed their own people? In countries where development requires resources, how can a philosophy marked by minimalism be justified? This paper analyzes these questions through the lens of Niger, a landlocked country in West Africa. It examines the causes of perpetual impoverishment, including the tragedy of the commons, overpopulation and the culture of dependency borne out of the present international aid paradigm. This paper argues that a sustainability framework, defined as a consideration of the future in present decision making, is an essential planning tool for developing countries. Such a tool, however, only reaps enduring solutions when there is effective agreement between each dimension of society: social, environmental, and political. Specific examples of solutions that simultaneously address these dimensions are addressed.



Toward a Sustainability Framework for Development in Niger

The concept of sustainability is catching on in the developed world, but how does it fare in the developing world? What does sustainability look like for emerging economies? Does it make sense for nations struggling to modernize and feed their own people? In countries where development requires resources, how can a philosophy marked by minimalism be justified?

Niger is a prime example of this issue. A landlocked country in West Africa, it is plagued by drought. Though consistently ranking near the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index,[1] Niger is forecasted to have one of the fastest growing economies in 2012.[2] This writer had the opportunity to witness firsthand both the destitution and the unexplored promise that characterize Niger’s state of development.
The Perfect Storm
It is first necessary to explore the Nigerien context. The country is ideal for this case study as it represents many of the problems facing developing countries, such as extreme poverty and ineffectual rule of law. Niger’s depressed and stagnated state is the result of a “perfect storm” of factors, economic, environmental, health-related, political, and security-related, that in unison undermine meaningful progress.
The City of Niamey, Niger. Ginsberg. 31 December 2011
Niger’s economy is rather limited, with unrefined uranium its only major export. The opening of an oil refinery in Zinder in November 2011 established the first domestic power source in this otherwise entirely resource-dependent country.[3] Power lines for electricity and Internet originate from its southern neighbors, Nigeria and Benin, along with the majority of oil, agricultural produce and other commercial products consumed.
The average per capita GDP is $800 per year, with an average of 1.4 years of formal education. Many children are forced into hard labor, their futures squandered in the interest of familial survival.[4] Child labor and other forms of indentured servitude are also highly prevalent, with slavery having been officially outlawed only in 2003.[5]
The civic of environmental protection is largely absent from social vernacular. Since the introduction of plastic bags in the 1970s, non-biodegradable trash has been strewn throughout shared spaces, streets and virgin land. A fact further disconcerting for health concerns is that goats, chicken and donkeys—which are a primary source of food for the population—consume the street waste.
Despite a climate favorable to the production of solar energy, the technology has yet to truly take hold. Meanwhile, imported gas that sells at roughly $4 per gallon ($1.07 per liter) at the pump supplies the country’s energy demand.[6]
Mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria are prevalent. Lack of potable water is another major concern. The limited water table in Niamey, near the Niger River, is largely unsuitable for human use, since it is polluted with commercial, human and animal waste. Nonetheless, residents bathe in and consume the water, which can cause hepatitis A, typhoid, bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, and parasitic infections.
Mother with Malnourished Child UNICEF-funded Hospital.  Tillabéry, Niger. Ginsberg 9 January 2012
These illnesses exacerbate malnutrition, creating an often-lethal combination, particularly among children. Access to adequate healthcare is severely limited due to the lack of medical professionals, facilities and an emergency response system; in the western Tillabéry region there is only one accredited medical doctor and one working ambulance for a population of roughly 2,5 million.[7]     
Persistent drought has a devastating effect on food and economic security in Niger, especially since the agricultural sector comprises 40 percent of the GDP. USAID’s most recent food security outlook projects stressed conditions in the Tillabéry region due to low yield millet and sorghum harvests. On a trip to a village in Tillabéry in January 2012, this author observed the threat of an impending food shortage. Villagers claimed that due to inadequate harvests they would have no food within two to three months, or by April 2012.[8] Impending food insecurity will be further exacerbated by the recent arrival of thousands of Malian refugees fleeing violence and a coup d’état in Mali.[9]
Lack of governmental stability underlies and compounds the problems. In October 2010, a coup d’état overthrew the presidency of Mamadou Tandja, who at the time was attempting to revise the constitution to lengthen his term in office.[10] The present political situation is far from stable. The legitimacy of the current government, restored after the coup, is under attack. In January 2012 a deliberate arson incident at the Ministry of Justice destroyed evidence of corruption among judges in the previous and current administrations.[11]
Perhaps even more worrisome are recent security developments. Niger is in the “eye of the extremist storm.” Its porous borders in vast stretches of uncontrolled land in the Sahara Desert, along with its weak government and ineffectual law enforcement, create prime conditions for rampant illicit trade, human trafficking and weapons exchange. More concerning is the rise of Al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, which threatens foreign interests and, in so doing, deters the international investment needed to support Niger’s fledgling economy.[12]
AQIM has also been seen to “subcontract” its kidnappings to locals who can earn more than a lifetime’s worth of wages for the bounty on a foreigner’s head. According to Dr. Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center and member of the Senior Advisory Group of the U.S. Africa Command, extremism in Africa is becoming decentralized through widening its scope of actors. [13]
In his January 2012 article “The Islamist Threat to Africa’s Rise,” Pham argues the problem has only been exacerbated by developments in Libya. He writes, “AQIM has been an unintended beneficiary of the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Buoyed by the flow of arms and fighters out of Libya, the group has in recent months initiated skirmishes with government forces in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger.”[14]
In January 2011, two French civilians were kidnapped from a restaurant in Niamey, the first of such events in the capital. Following a pursuit toward the Malian border, both civilians were killed.[15] Since then, both the Peace Corps and Boston University’s scholastic exchange program have closed their operations in Niger. Locals have noticed a significant drop in foreigners, effectively erasing any progress in the development of a tourism industry.[16]   
Causes from a Sustainability Perspective: A Macro-Level Analysis
What underlies these extensive problems? The following interdisciplinary trends across the fields of ecology, psychology and sociology outline the backbone of Niger’s current state of affairs and the primary causes behind the enduring crisis. This is by no means a comprehensive analysis, but rather a guide to further study through an interdisciplinary “sustainability” perspective.  
Tribal Cliques and the Extreme Tragedy of the Commons
 The ruin of shared space arises out of a lack of ability to imagine the greater good beyond the immediate family, village or tribe. Niger is home to several tribes, with the Haoussa, Djerma Sonrai, and Tuareg comprising the greatest segment of the population. Though the official language is French, each tribe has its own language. Nigerien society thus functions more as a conglomeration of self-interested, often conflicting tribes rather than a cohesive entity. Of its nine presidents since independence in 1960, all but one has not been of Haoussa or Djerma descent. [17]
“The Tragedy of the Commons.Burning Trash Field in Niamey, Niger. Ginsberg, 31 December 2011
The tragedy of the commons is the concept that each individual will attempt to maximize his or her own benefit without consideration for others, and in so doing, deplete shared resources. The myopic tribal perspective prevalent in Niger exacerbates the tragedy of the commons, as they are over-utilized and under-kempt, while private property is kept pristine behind barbed wire.
Maslow’s Pyramid and Short versus Long-Term Thinking
The primary focus on the short term—fulfilling immediate survival needs—prevents leadership from taking into consideration the well-being, improvement and sustainability of the country and of the next generation. According to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, an individual develops through satisfying his or her needs in a ranked procession. The needs are ordered: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.[18]
Niger has not achieved a tipping point of citizens who have reached the middle or higher levels of the pyramid. Without a fed and educated populace, true democracy, which requires a participatory citizenry, cannot occur.
Overpopulation, Islam, and the Demographic Transition
 Overpopulation is perhaps the most significant factor in Niger’s “perfect storm,” and the few resources that exist are being depleted before they can naturally replenish. At 50.54 births per 1,000 people, Niger has the highest birth rate in the world, and with a 3.64% growth rate, the second fastest growing population in the world.[19] 80% of the populace is Muslim, and Nigerien Muslims’ interpretation of Islam allows men to marry four wives.[20]
Children at Boubon Market. Niger. Ginsberg. 21 December 2011
Demographic transition explains another factor in population growth. As noted by Jeffrey Sachs—special advisor to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute—demographic transition is a tool to measure a country’s development based on the country’s view toward youth.[21] In Niger and other developing countries, children are viewed as economic assets that help support the family, while in developed countries children are economic liabilities. In Niger, this translates into a higher birthrate, and a vicious cycle marking the perpetual inability of the economy to meet the needs of the population.
A Sustainability Framework
How can a sustainability perspective solve the problems of a country that needs to upsize, not downsize? How can a philosophy that was developed to reduce the oversized consumption of late capitalist societies be of use in Niger?  
The “Future Value” of Present Decisions
Sustainability—defined elementally as consideration of the future in the present—is a simple and effective planning tool for developing countries. As a method of qualitatively valuing the impact of present decisions on the future, as in calculating the future value of an investment in finance, a sustainability perspective can be useful in emergent nations struggling to define a path forward.
Multidimensional Solutions
Sustainability advocates for an integrated reflection on impact. Considering the severity of Niger’s troubles, any one solution must simultaneously address multiple dimensions of society. The primary dimensions of society can be seen as the socialthe economic and emotional well-being of the population; the environmental—the health of the natural environment and perpetuity of natural resources; and the political—the continuity and legitimacy of governmental institutions. Any one solution should work toward solving issues in at least two of these dimensions. These types of programs can aptly be called synergistic solutions.
As Dr. Steven Cohen—executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University—introduced in his book Understanding Environmental Policy, environmental problems can be viewed through several dimensions, namely values, technology, politics and management. Cohen shows that environmental problems are comprised of issues in each of these domains. He uses this analysis to find solutions to select problems, such as NYC’s solid waste, toxic chemicals in Love Canal, and global warming. In the case of NYC’s solid waste, Cohen identifies that the main issue is political and involves siting – no one wants a waste management facility in his or her backyard. From this analysis Cohen argues funding is not needed for new technology, rather what is needed is political will and innovative solutions like pay-as-you-throw, wherein residents are charged for the collection of waste based on the amount they discard.[22]
It is also useful to apply Cohen’s analysis in reverse to judge solutions to Niger’s and other country’s problems. Just as in Cohen’s analysis that showed environmental problems can be seen through their constituent parts, solutions to Niger’s environmental problems can be viewed through the dimensions of society they work to improve. The framework is a method of looking at to what extent a solution is able to simultaneously improve more than one dimension of society.
This reverse analytic framework is especially useful in developing countries where problems are vast, far-reaching and particularly interconnected; it is more useful to first look at solutions and the multiple problems they can address, than at problems and the discrete solution that can solve them.   
Recognizing that solutions will have an impact on disparate elements of society is crucial. Through observing the dominant impacts of solutions, leaders can better understand the implications of their decisions.
Social – Political
Investment in Agricultural Projects (Immediate and Research & Development)
Food insecurity is one of the key issues plaguing Niger. In a country where the agricultural sector contributes about 40 percent of the GDP and provides livelihood for approximately 80 percent of the population, the government should address food insecurity by focusing on both immediate measures to increase food delivery and production, as well as long-term research into drought-resilient crops.[23]
Such projects would improve the socialwell-being of the populace by providing food and hope in the short term, and food security in the long term. The viability and continuity of Niger’s political system depends on its ability to meet its people’s needs not just now, but in the future. Such initiatives are therefore essential for the political stability of the Nigerien government in the short and long run.    
Social – Environmental
Park Rehabilitation Project
Currently public space in Niamey is littered with plastic bags, human and animal feces, and other trash. Former green spaces in the capital have become mass waste sites. A park “cleanup” project that involves the community would simultaneously educate the public on the virtues of a clean environment, the social value, and improve the health of the natural environment and those inhabiting the area. Such a project could be an opportunity to teach a new generation of Nigeriens about the civics of shared space, recycling, and reuse.
Solar Schools
Niger is well positioned to use solar energy to fuel its energy needs. Benefiting the social dimension, schools could be fitted with photovoltaic panels. While reducing the schools’ fossil fuel use, students could also be taught how to build and install photovoltaic panels as part of vocational programs, providing them with a valuable skill and fostering an understanding of the utility of renewable energy. This project would reap both social and environmentalbenefits.  
Solar-Powered Villages
Solar-powered pumps and drip irrigation systems would be immensely useful in Niger’s most rural states. With minimal costs and maintenance requirements, solar-powered pumps could provide vital drinking water, and reduce the use of fossil fuels and the prevalence of water-borne illnesses. Solar-powered drip irrigation systems, another low cost technology, could be employed to efficiently irrigate crops. The environmental and social benefits are numerous and come at a relatively low cost, considering the expense of transporting fossil fuels to these remote areas.
Environmental – Political
Energy Independence through Domestic Power
Niger imports roughly 70 percent of its electricity—440 million kWh of the 626 million kWh consumed—from neighboring countries, such as Nigeria.[24] Domestically generated power would improve economic well-being and in so doing, promote political stability. However, environmental impact should be considered when planning to utilize natural resources. The following are a few alternatives to fossil fuels that could meet Niger’s energy demands.
As a product of Niger’s agricultural economy, animal waste is abundant. This waste could be used to power Niger’s transportation sector by producing biogas. Since decomposing manure releases nitrous dioxide and methane, gases that contribute to global warming, such an approach would both improve hygienic conditions and reduce the use of fossil fuels.[25]
Trash Mounds by Sewage Holes. Niamey, Niger. Ginsberg. 31 December 2011
Energy from Waste
At an upfront cost of roughly $75 million, and annual operating costs of about $5 million, Niger could build an Energy from Waste (EfW) facility that would solve its waste problem and produce roughly 20 percent of domestic energy demand by processing 700 tons of municipal solid waste per day.[26] Additional electricity demand could be met by importing waste from other countries, a service Niger could provide for a cost, promoting economic development.[27]
While this method would improve the visible health of the environment by eliminating accumulated waste, it would produce CO2 and other greenhouse gases emissions that contribute to global warming. The ash that remained from the combustion process would need to be disposed of in a landfill. Appropriate considerations would have to be made for installing systems that use the cleanest technology and limit emissions. Under current international agreements, however, developing countries are entitled to emit more greenhouse gases than developed countries.
Solar and Wind Energy
Though there has been significant interest in solar and wind energy-sourced power in Africa, the high upfront costs and risk of intermittency has discouraged meaningful investment. However, new technologies in both utility-scale and distributed solar and wind power, are emerging that should be considered. For instance, NYC-based small wind energy company, Urban Green Energy, recently released a hybrid wind and solar energy solution, Fusion, which can be used to power off-grid telecommunication systems. Since this solution produces power from two renewable sources and without grid-tie, it both reduces the risk of intermittency and is useful in rural areas without access to grid power.[28]
Another emerging technology is microgrids, which enables the “integration of on-site power generation and load management,” according to microgrid expert Michael Roach.[29] This technology solves the problem of intermittency by allowing seamless communication between different energy sources, switching to an electricity-producing utility when one is inactive. Microgrids are currently being piloted off-grid to power remote villages in rural areas of Africa, such as Diakha Madina, Senegal.[30] Leadership should leverage Niger’s favorable conditions for renewable energy to attract businesses and donors seeking to prove these new technologies.
Indigenous Solutions
It is important to note that domestic initiatives—those that have historically evolved within Niger’s society—should be nurtured and even subsidized. For instance, the recycling of aluminum cans is already prominent in Niamey since they have an economic value and are repurposed and sold as cookware. The government should formally encourage this activity by creating a system to collect aluminum waste.
Aluminum Hat. Boubon, Niger. Ginsberg. 21 December 2011
Smart Aid versus the “Culture of Cadeaux”
Clearly, in a country with a budget of which 60 percent is foreign aid, external investment would be required in the initial financing of many of these projects.[31] However, international aid should be focused on long-term sustainability rather than short-term relief, and should address more than one realm of society. The aid should fit into a strategy that the Nigerien government has set, and for which it takes partial to full economic ownership. External financing should focus on domestic resource utilization, since it is most useful to invest in a country’s ability to raise its own resources, rather than on short-term needs.
Begging Child. Giraffe Park Outside Niamey, Niger. Ginsberg.  13 January 2012
As the long-term welfare of the country may not be a foreign investor’s primary interest, donors should be careful not to create a culture of dependency. In Niger a culture of cadeaux—gift giving—has evolved, resulting in everyone from street beggars to politicians expecting and even demanding aid. Ultimately this is to the detriment of Niger’s development as it conditions Nigeriens to rely on others rather than themselves and their own faculties.
Car Beggars. En Route to Tillabéry. Ginsberg. 9 January 2012
Sustainability in developing countries emerges out of effective agreement between the social, environmental, and political; each proposed development solution must strive to work for at least two, if not all three dimensions. More so than in the developed world, sustainable planning in emerging nations requires an intensely thoughtful and forward-looking process. Considering the impact of any solution on such dimensions will help Niger’s leaders make strategic decisions that reap tangible benefits. By addressing more than one segment of society at once, solutions will take root quicker and have a greater success rate and impact.
By applying this framework a true strategy can emerge, raising Nigeriens to the higher levels of Maslow’s pyramid, and facilitating authentic democracy. The impact of policy decisions and aid programs must therefore be considered and evaluated based on the degree of their cumulative positive influence on the social, environmental, and politicaldimensions vital to Niger’s development.
Michael Ginsberg is a Master of Science in Sustainability Management candidate at Columbia University. He recently returned from Niamey, Niger in West Africa where he observed humanitarian relief and nascent renewable energy efforts. Prior to studying at Columbia University, he worked as a program development associate for World Learning.

[1] UNDP, Equity and Sustainability: A Better Future For All, 2011 Human Development Report,,011_EN_Tables.pdf. According to the 2011 UN Human Development Index (HDI), Niger is ranked 186 out of 187, less than one point away from the last HDI statistical value.
[2] “Growth in 2012:Which economies will grow and shrink the fastest in 2012?” Economist, 4 January 2012,
[3] Auwalu Umar, “Nigeria: Niger Republic Opens New Refinery – Very Close to the Country’s Border,” allAfrica, 29 November 2011, Niger is also developing a hydroelectric dam, titled Kandadji Dam.
[4] The World Factbook: Niger, Central Intelligence Agency,
[5] “Niger slavery: Background” Guardian, 27 October 2008,
[6] Miguel Barrientos, Claudia Soria, "Niger – pump price for gasoline," Index Mundi, 12 July 2011, Data based on author’s observations, as well as 2010 German Agency for Technical Cooperation analysis.
[7] Dr Saley Daouda, Chief Medical Doctor of Tillabery, interview with Michael Ginsberg, 10 January 2012.
[8] “October 2011 – March 2012 Niger Food Security Outlook,” USAID Famine Early Warnings Systems Network (FEWS NET), March 2012,
[9] “Niger: MSF helps Malian refugees,” Médecins Sans Frontières, 13 February 2012,
[10] “Military coup ousts Niger president Mamadou Tandja," BBC, 19 February 2012,
[11] Reuters, “Arson Destroys Anti-Corruption Files,” New York Times, 3 January 2012,
[12] Rukmini Callimachi, Krista Larson, “Mali attracts Islamist fighters in void after coup,” CBS News,
[13] J. Peter Pham, “When Crime Does Pay: The Threat of an Emboldened al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” World Defense Review, 23 September 2010,
[14] Peter J. Pham, “The Islamist’s Threat to Africa’s Rise in 2012,” Atlantic Council, 3 January 2012,
[15] “Two French hostages in Niger killed in rescue attempt,” BBC, 8 January 2011,
[16] Warden Messages and Special Announcements, Embassy of the United States Niamey, Niger, 17 January 2011,; Gina Currieri, “Study Abroad officially closes Niger program,” The Daily Free Press, Boston University, 24 January 2012,
[17] Samuel Decalo, Historical Dictionary of the Niger, Third Edition (Boston & Folkestone: Scarecrow Press, 1997)
[18] Abraham Maslow, Motivation and personality, (New York: Harper & Row, 1954).
[19] The World Factbook: Niger, Central Intelligence Agency,
[20] Holy Quaran, chapter four (sūrat l-nisāa), verse three.
[21] Jeffrey Sachs, Dalton Conley and Gordon C. McCord, "Africa’s Lagging Demographic Transition: Evidence from Exogenous Impacts of Malaria Ecology and Agricultural Technology" National Bureau of Economic Research, February 2007,
[22] Cohen, Steven, Understanding Environmental Policy, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).
[23] The World Factbook: Niger, Central Intelligence Agency,
[24] Ibid.
[25] Michael E. Webber and Amanda D. Cuellar, “Cow power: the energy and emissions benefits of converting manure to biogas,” Environmental Research Letters 3, no. 3, (2008),
[26] About Covanta Essex, Covanta Energy, 20 percent of demand being met is 125 million kWh of electricity/year out of Niger’s 626 million kWh. The facility cost is based on a November 2011 interview by Michael Ginsberg with Covanta Essex Vanessa Huff/December 2, 2011.. Covanta’s plant has been scaled down by a factor of four to better suit Niger’s needs/waste stream. Covanta’s Essex facility cost $280 million, with an average of $5.25 million in operations costs. This plant produces 500 million kWh of electricity/year and processes 2,800 tons per day of waste. If desired, Niger could import waste from neighboring countries, such as Nigeria, for a greater energy capacity;
[27] “Energy Profile Niger,” Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (Ren 21), February 2012,; Matthew Hicks and Sam Rawlinson, "Economics: Cost Model Energy from Waste," Davis Langdon, 23 April 2010,; The World Factbook: Niger, Central Intelligence Agency,
[28] "Urban Green Energy Announces Fusion, the Cleantech Solution for Telecom Applications," Press Release, PRWeb,
[29] Michael Roach, "Extreme Events & Microgrids," MicroGridHorizons,
[30] Xavier Vallvé, "Rural PV microgrids in Africa," Lecture, 26 May 2011, 2011 Symposium on Microgrids from Trama TecnoAmbiental, Jeju Island, Korea.