Changing Perceptions And Realities For NGOs in Africa

Africa is a land of great contrast. On one hand it contains many of the most underdeveloped nations in the world. On the other, it's one of the richest places for young workers and consumers. The later has propelled the continent into a path towards success, despite lingering perceptions of the regions fragility.

Consider for a moment, 6 out of 10 of the world's fastest growing GDPs are located in Africa. Also consider the fact that the country is currently leap-frogging many traditional technological development patterns and quickly moving towards newer models which oddly enough resemble the direction many western countries are heading towards. An excellent example of this can be found in M-Pesa. A mobile payment system in Kenya that allows users to easily send funds via traditional cell phones. With a bank integration at roughly 9%, it's quite remarkable that Africa has one of the world's highest mobile banking populations.

Despite all of the rapid change and development in the continent, the mindset about the place seems dated by many consumers, companies, and executives. To them, it's still about "saving the hungry kids in Ethiopia." While this might be a powerful mantra to rally around, it misses the reality of the situation. In fact, when compared with other emerging economies a number of nations in Africa are doing quite well. A recent report from the World Bank recently reported that Ethiopia's growth rate recently surpassed China's. With this lens firmly affixed a new reality starts to emerge, one focused not on Western nations rushing to the aid of African nations but one of an Africa that can fend for itself given the right tools and resources.

This new shift in thinking was recently put on center stage during the U.S. - Africa Leadership Summit held in Washington D.C. last month. At the Summit, nearly $1 billion worth of deals were announced between the U.S. and African nations. It also brought together President Obama and the leaders of more than 40 African nations. A notable initiative discussed at the Summit was a new partnership titled "Women and the Web Alliance." This new program aims to introduce more than 600,000 Kenyan and Nigerian women to the Internet and engage them in using it as a tool for social and economic empowerment.

The U.S. Africa Leadership Summit is part of a greater shift focused on promoting opportunities available in Africa. For NGOs this new reality creates a new challenge. Traditional models for funding and doing business are falling to the wayside as more direct initiatives begin to take root. One example to consider is Give Directly, a NGO which enables donors to directly donate money to households in Kenya and Uganda. For-profit organizations are also starting to enter the development space, intervening and solving problems once located in the realm of NGOs, i.e. connectivity, health, and education. A recent example of this trend can be witnessed in Facebook's recent launch of the app, which provides free access to online resources like Wikipedia, weather updates, job listings, health information and Facebook's own social network.

With new players quickly moving into the sector, the NGOs that have traditionally led development in Africa are facing new options and choices. One option is to step aside and allow for profit companies and new organizations to tackle the work that many NGOs have traditionally done. While private sector organizations often scale more quickly and more sustainably than NGOs, they often lack the on-the-ground experience and knowledge that be critical to long-term impact.

The second option is for traditional NGOs to take an active role in helping shape the future by becoming more active in the discussion by forming new types of partnerships that combine their deep - and often hard-won - expertise and connections with the strengths of the private sector. The later provides the opportunity for NGOs to reposition and refocus their work, rather than be outpaced by new sector entrants (as mentioned in my previous Innovator's Dilemma Post). NGOs must innovate before it's too late. With decades of experience, trust of local communities, and global scale, global NGOs have a critically important role to play in the future of international development. The greater question is whether these organizations will be active participants in shaping that future, or be shaped by it.

NetHope is a partner of Cisco CSR. Cisco sponsors The Huffington Post's ImpactX section.