Not long ago, an unnamed global corporation decided that it wanted to help children in the southern African nation of Namibia — and so it spent millions to donate scores of new computers and television sets for the classrooms in a particular region of this poverty-plagued, mostly rural nation.

They should have talked to someone like Jonathan Johnnidis first. Currently pursuing his doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on virology, Johnnidis recently spent time in rural Namibia working to improve healthcare with a non-governmental agency (NGO) called WorldTeach. The rural aid worker had information the large corporate benefactor apparently did not — that there is no electricity grid in that region.

Johnnidis drew a sharp contrast between that misguided project and another, more successful partnership between Namibia and the government of Germany, which was once colonial ruler of the African nation and now is helping to build miles of new roadways there.

“It was one of the best investments,” said Johnnidis, who recounted his story during a panel discussion on new types of partnerships on the continent. The panel was part of the 15th annual Wharton Africa Business Forum, whose theme was “Africa Rising: The New Dawn of Trade and Investment.” Germany “didn’t provide money for drugs and it didn’t provide money for computers. They just built roads.” But the unglamorous, low-tech roads, he noted, will form the infrastructure that will eventually bring better healthcare and schools to these isolated regions.

The Wharton panel, entitled “New Partnerships in Business and Leadership Development,” was focused on how a relatively new breed of NGOs — not just WorldTeach but newer, high-profile ones like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Mo Ibrahim Foundation created by a Sudanese mobile-phone billionaire — are bridging the gaps between cash-strapped governments and traditional Western relief funds.

According to the five panelists, one way the new NGOs are achieving this is by placing more people like Johnnidis directly in the areas that need the most help, and by better identifying the initiatives that can make a difference right away. Too often, the panelists agreed, what Africans need are not glitzy high-tech items, but basic infrastructure as well as human capital, such as health care workers.

Donors “pour money into countries that don’t have the infrastructure to support everything the initiative plans to do,” said Brian Anderson, who raises funds for a program in his native South Africa called MaAfrika Tikkun, which seeks to help children in AIDS-ravaged families. “What is critical is to create structure, to create systems, to create ecosystems.”

The panel was moderated by Emma Osong, a Maryland-based former engineer for the Federal Aviation Administration who now works as a consultant and actively promotes African development. She said she believes partnerships involving new-style NGOs are critical to Africa’s future. “Investment opportunities remain on the continent,” she noted, “but many are still cautious about investing.”

The tenor of the discussion matched themes sounded by many who attended the Forum — that the long-troubled continent is now in a new period of economic revival with gross national product on the rise and the world’s fastest growth in cellular telephones. At the same time, huge problems persist, from AIDS to abject poverty to corrupt governments that interfere with aid efforts.

It’s this vast downside of the African story that has lured new players to the region, such as the Gates Foundation, which has spent a major part of its funds in Africa, or the Ibrahim Foundation, which seeks to support and reward good government. Increasingly, the panelists noted, this new breed is finding the gaps between inadequate government programs and slow-moving, poorly targeted, traditional aid programs.

Indeed, many of the African programs that the panelists are involved with have an economic development component, some directly and some more indirectly. An example of the latter would be the MaAfrika Tikkun program, established in the 1990s as the rate of AIDS infection in South Africa was soaring. MaAfrika Tikkun takes in hundreds of children whose parents have died or been rendered helpless by AIDS, and offers them schooling and nutrition while also seeking to empower the surrounding community. According to Anderson, the program helps economic development in several ways, both by training children from the poorest families for a future in the South African workforce, and by sometimes making it possible for an infected parent to work as well.

“We’re focusing on children from infancy to age 20, when they can get jobs,” Anderson said. “It’s a very exciting opportunity because we are terrified that a whole generation is going to be lost. We have had moderate success.” The MaAfrika Tikkun effort is backed personally by South African leader Nelson Mandela as well as the government.

Aid Money Never Spent

Throughout the Wharton panel discussion, a constant theme was finding new ways to put the considerable human capital of Africa to work — not only to spur new economic investment but also to reduce the drain of poverty on the region.

One of the most intriguing concepts was outlined by Jern Lyseggen, a Norwegian entrepreneur who recently founded a global business-to-business search engine called Meltwater News, which has a substantial presence in Africa. Through his start-up company, Lyseggen also helped to found the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology in Accra, Ghana. Its goal is to train young Africans to develop and market commercial software. “The reason we chose commercial software is that you don’t need the infrastructure,” Lyseggen said. “You just need a few hundred dollars and a computer. If you get the right people and a computer, they can come up with all of these marvelous ideas.”

Several panelists noted that the reason NGOs are thriving outside of governmental channels is that they operate relatively freely, outside the entrenched system of corruption. That corruption has led to the squandering of a significant portion of development and relief money.

Chris Odindo, CEO of International Development and Policy Corp., a global social enterprise venture, told the audience of his frustration when he learned, while playing squash with the minister of an African nation, of hundreds of thousands of dollars of aid money that was unspent. “That money could have been used more creatively for development,” Odindo said. “That money could have been used for my passion in social enterprise. That money could have looked at how you can generate a new breed of entrepreneur.”

Given the pervasiveness of corruption, it’s not so surprising that many partnerships seek to sidestep governments and take a more direct, hands-on approach to specific projects. Johnnidis pointed out that one of those partners is the University of Pennsylvania. Penn’s School of Medicine recently received a nearly $1 million grant from a U.S. government fund to combat AIDS in the African nation of Botswana, which has the highest rate of infection in the world. This initiative continues work that started in 2001 with private money from the Gates Foundation and the Merck Foundation.

As panelists noted, the AIDS epidemic also has had huge economic development consequences, because unlike most diseases, it tends to target adults who normally would be in the prime of their employment years. “You have all these qualified and motivated people who are being cut down,” Johnnidis said, adding that the biggest problem is simply a stunning lack of health care. In all of Namibia, where Johnnidis worked, there were 500 health care workers serving about two million people. In some other nations, like Mozambique, the ratio is less.

Several of the audience members at the Wharton forum wanted to know what, if anything, these new relief partnerships were doing to address the so-called “African diaspora,” the wide scattering of people of African descent around the globe. Although this process began during the slave trade centuries ago, there has also been a modern so-called “brain drain” as some of Africa’s best-educated have departed the continent to work and raise families in the more stable environment of the West.

Odindo suggested that African nations take steps to encourage those of African descent who now live elsewhere to return — even if just for a week or two at a time — and assist in the redevelopment of the continent. He noted that Kenya already has such a program, allowing and encouraging Western physicians and health care professionals of Kenyan heritage to work in local hospitals. “That’s one of the things we’re working on,” said Odindo, “to make it easier for people to go back.”

The panelists all seemed to agree that Western-backed aid partnerships have the same goal — to solve problems up to a level where Africans can ultimately implement and run things by themselves, whether that involves training more African-born health care workers and software entrepreneurs or handing over control of the schooling for children of AIDS-ravaged families. “Most of all, we work from the ground up,” said Anderson of MaAfrika Tikkun. “We are focused on establishing partnerships and embracing community leadership and developing community leadership — so that ultimately, we can leave the community.”