The World Economic Forum has launched several initiatives to help improve grassroots development in Africa. Each year, the Forum, based in Davos, Switzerland,  brings together hundreds of leaders of business, government and non-governmental organizations to discuss global social and economic issues. Members devoted to African issues also meet yearly on the continent. From Washington, reporter William Eagle takes a look.

Some development activists take a dim view of the economic giants who attend the World Economic Forum meetings and the decisions they make.

MP Giyose chairs the debt relief group Jubilee South Africa: "They do work that is completely against the interest of grass roots communities, ordinary people," he says.

Giyose says the WEF is committed to free trade, which he says for the developing world means the penetration of local markets by large northern corporations. He and others say the WEF and its members do little to reach down to the grassroots.


World Economic Forum leaders see things differently. WEF officials stress that the group is not a development agency. But it is sponsoring several efforts, including pilot projects, to help advance development in Africa and around the world.

Lisa Dreier, who works on public-private partnerships for the WEF, says the organization today is a coalition not only of businesses and governments but also of NGOs and other development-oriented groups. Together, they work to exchange ideas and, at times, to sponsor projects that, if successful, can be duplicated in a number of developing areas around the world.


For example, Dreier says in 2006 a group of Forum member companies met with Kofi Annan, then the secretary general of the United Nations, to discuss how business could help reduce hunger in Africa. The result was the formation of the Business Alliance Against Chronic Hunger. It operates in countries around the world, including Kenya, where a group of 20 locally based companies and organizations are working on a pilot project to increase food production and incomes.

The alliance is based in Siaya, a district in Nyanza Province with about half a million residents who often suffer from seasonal hunger.

Dreier says they have been working to strengthen food production ? from farming to processing and retail -- for staple crops like maize and beans, as well as export crops.

"A couple of examples of what the companies are doing (in Siaya)," she says,"is extending the retail distribution network for agricultural inputs. (They are) helping small shops and kiosks to sell low-cost feeds and fertilizers to farmers and help train them to use those things to improve production of maize to feed their families."

"Often you?ll have a little shop that is not able to take out a loan to buy the supplies from a big company. But if you have [an] intermediary partner like the Rockefeller Foundation or NGOs, they can provide credit guarantees to the small shop to buy the supplies they need and then develop a business relationship with that company and sell the goods to local farmers. They also help establish new distributors and new shops through training and business financing," she continues.

With greater use of fertilizers and seeds, farmers can increase their maize production dramatically.

Other companies linked to the project are working with local farmers to create high-value products like honey, spices and fresh vegetables; establish business relationships with small-scale retailers; and support women?s groups packaging and selling newly fortified foods.

The World Economic Forum also has projects linked to developing electricity and water sources in Africa.


Dominic Waughray is the WEF?s director of environmental initiatives.

He says in Africa and other parts of the developing world, there?s not enough public money available to supply enough water to meet the needs of people and economic growth without enlisting help from the private sector. There is also the potential to develop more creative forms of private/public partnerships. He says what the WEF provides is a way for these partners to come together and develop a plan.

That?s exactly what it has done with several projects in South Africa, including a water initiative near the town of Burgersfort in the dry but mineral-rich Limpopo region.

Waughray says the provincial government there has made the development of mining a key part of its economic development plan for the region, which, along with the community of workers working in the industry, would require a lot of water.

He describes the problem faced by the mining company and the local government.

"Unless there is a smart piece of integrated planning with government," says Waughray," [the private sector] [will] be forced to build its own water infrastructure to service the mines. It takes about a ton of water to process a ton of rocks, and you get about 250K tons of rock out of an average size mine per month. So that's a lot of water. "

"[In addition to the mine], just down the road you?ll also have a community that will grow because of the mine. It also needs water services, like sanitation and clean water, which are in the domain of the public sector to supply."

"If one could broker a [creative] project that uses [what water there is] in this very dry area, provide it to the town, then the mine could use the grey [dirty] water?and it could even go to the mine through a processing plant and be cleaned and [go] back to the town."

The idea became a reality. The World Economic Forum brought together all stakeholders in the effort and helped broker a deal between private and public sectors, government agencies and banks.

The project, which will be completed in a few years, will bring clean water to 150,000 people, including 105,000 below the poverty line. Many of them are now using boreholes and manual pumps.

A similar effort aimed at bringing together public and private sectors is expected to provide sustainable electricity to the continent.

Christophe Frei is the WEF?s director of Energy Industries.


In Lesotho, he says the WEF helped pull together a project among three companies, the African Development Bank and the government. It will cost nearly three million dollars and will bring electricity to 1,800 households, using both hydro and solar energy.

The World Economic Forum is currently in negotiations to help bring electricity to more than10,000 households in the Kimbanseke district of the Democratic Republic of the Congo at a cost of about $13 million dollars.

"But we have delivered a concept for electrification.? We are in negotiation with the government and local utilities. We?re in the process of getting an agreement to move the project ahead. The project plan has been developed by the companies done totally for free?. If we get the political buy-in, then we can start soon with the implementation," says Frei.

Supporters of the World Economic Forum say the projects are an example of what the group does best -- bringing together those with the financial resources, the know-how, and above all the interest in development issues, and encouraging them to talk. The result often shows that one of the most efficient ways of spurring development today is bringing together the public and private sectors. Supporters say neither one can do it alone, and projects sponsored by the WEF show what can be done by working together.