Dr Mary Okumu: ForAfrika senior director and head of the technical unit
Along with saving lives and livelihoods, Africa’s homegrown non-governmental organisations have an important role to play in establishing platforms for economic development and smoothing the way for the private sector to invest.
Africa is a continent brimming with economic opportunity, one that would need less humanitarian aid if investors would only take hold of what is on offer. As African Development Bank president Akinwumi Adesina said at the Africa Investment Forum 2022, by 2050 our continent will account for more than a quarter of the world’s population, also it has the largest sources of renewable energy in the world, and – importantly – 65% of the globe’s uncultivated arable land.
It is also not as risky a place to invest as is often made out. Moody’s Analytics has reported that Africa has the lowest default rate on infrastructure projects among the world’s regions – 5.5%. This compares favourably with 12.9% in Latin America, 8.8% in Asia and 5.9% in Western Europe. However, for many investors based in developed countries, Africa can be a place difficult to get a handle on, and one in which outsiders must overcome the suspicions of the people on the ground. We Africans have lost so much to plunderers.
The good news is, indigenous non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can help smooth the way.
These organisations are born from the quest to solve local challenges, and are run by people who come from, and often still live among, the communities they serve. They know the lie of the land, literally and figuratively. Investors who work with indigenous NGOs can benefit from their strong local knowledge, well-informed risk mitigation strategies and resilience.
These organisations can facilitate and encourage private sector engagement, and will often do so enthusiastically because this unlocks significant additional resources that will benefit their own causes. Importantly, because they come from the
communities they serve, they have intimate knowledge of those communities’ plans and ambitions. Investment can benefit us all.
These innate attributes can also benefit the international humanitarian aid community.
While African nations are working to escape the need for humanitarian aid, that day has not yet come.
Climate change is wreaking havoc across Africa, a continent that is responsible for just 2% or 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations. However, it is the region most vulnerable to climate change, and has experienced higher warming than the global average since pre-industrial times.
The economic decline caused by the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, coupled with the increasing impacts of climate change and the effect of the war in Ukraine on global food markets, mean that hundreds of thousands of people across Africa face starvation.
Urgent aid is required across the Horn of Africa region that encompasses Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Somaliland and Djibouti, and drought and heat stress are evident as far south as north-western Namibia, south-western Angola, northern and central Mozambique, Malawi and Madagascar.
Sadly, a rise in religious and political fundamentalism, and the economic upheaval caused by the pandemic and climate change have caused cracks in our continent’s hard-won peace. Research by the Institute for Security Studies shows that while “reported incidents and fatalities in Africa were at a low in the mid-2000s”, they have risen since 2012.
Humanitarian aid workers have, unfortunately, too often found themselves in the crossfire. Research by the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action found that attacks on aid workers rose by 54% between 2017 and 2020, and that access constraints have increased in many countries. Because of the increase in security concerns and the rise in access constraints, humanitarians find it more and more difficult to get into the very areas where they are most needed. Aid workers also often lack the support, skills and will to make difficult judgement calls in complex environments.
Again, this is where indigenous aid organisations have a unique role to play in making sure vulnerable people get the help they need.
Indigenous organisations are better able than their international peers to retain access to communities struggling with political upheaval and even conflict. Plus, these organisations bring with them grassroots innovation, context and efficiency that is vital, particularly in the current environment.
Most indigenous organisations’ staff come from the communities they serve and so have a deeper understanding of conflict triggers. They often have working relationships with local authorities, and an understanding of what aspirations the community has. All this can smooth troubled waters.
It is vitally important that localisation in humanitarian aid be prioritised in a way that ensures we build the capacity of indigenous organisations, be they national or regional. Doing so will benefit vulnerable people. It will also benefit investors, and aid workers.
* ForAfrika is proudly African and an example of an indigenous non-governmental organisation. We were born on the continent and are proud of our indigenous roots. Our largest country programme, in South Sudan, is a $40-million operation that employs 350 staff and up to 4 000 contract staff. When everyone else is running out, we’re running in. This is our community, this is our home; we never leave when others are folding up their operations.