Africa Revisited

07/23/2012 07:32 pm ET | Updated Sep 22, 2012

Touchdown: Malawi.

As my plane landed on the tarmac of this Sub-Sahara African country, I began to recount what brought me here, and prepare both mentally and physically for what lay ahead. Instead of traveling to Africa for business or pleasure, I would be spending the next two weeks entrenched in my first activities as a board member for a global health foundation. Far from the comforts of my coastal New England hometown, I began thinking about why I became involved.

Although a frequent traveler, I had merely a passing interest in the issues facing Africa. I could not have told you that Africa contains over 1 billion people in 54 countries, or that diseases, such as tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS are the biggest health threats, not genocide and war. I falsely assumed the entire continent was mired in corruption, poor governance and endless war, making humanitarian efforts futile.

In reality, political stability, transparency, and governance are improving. The continent has also seen infrastructure gains. Cellular phone reception is better in Uganda and Malawi than in my hometown and many people use their cell phones to pay bills. Soon, every individual in Rwanda will carry health records on their phones - an innovation that the U.S. has not yet seen. Africa is at a critical juncture. With new signs of economic progress, it is possible to envision a much different future for the continent.

However, we are not there yet. Health is an essential component of development. Strong African leadership is required to overcome the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS on already weak health systems and to prevent a similar epidemic from happening again.

As an investment professional, I care about long-term "return on investment." I want to know that my philanthropic dollars will have a systemic impact that goes beyond charity and builds leadership, provides opportunity, and supports innovation. I want to change the underlying dynamics that cause social problems.

Aid, as we know it, has not worked. I believe we need collaborative efforts with Africans to build sustainable healthcare infrastructure and leadership -- with the ultimate goal of Africa becoming more self-sufficient and internationally competitive. This is the premise on which Accordia Global Health Foundation was built.

Accordia invests in Centers of Excellence, a model that is rooted in and sustained by African ownership and is evaluated by global standards of transparency and accountability. Performance metrics, accountability and proactive management are part of its language.

The talent on the ground in Africa is compelling: young researchers, doctors and nurses are sacrificing greater opportunity abroad to address an overwhelming burden of disease in very difficult circumstances. However, Africa's best and brightest lack the environment, opportunity and support structures to put their skills to optimal use. In a Center of Excellence model, international and local researchers and doctors work side by side, ensuring that the next generation will be able to carry this work forward and inform efforts around the world. It is a model that makes sense to me.

Certainly, there were days during my trip to Malawi where the challenges felt insurmountable. I saw children walking barefoot to school, and met a woman in her early '20s who had contracted HIV when she was forced to sleep with her boss or lose her job. I spoke with a mother of five living in a remote village without running water or electricity and limited access to even traditional health care. But the people are rising to the challenges and taking control over their own health and wellbeing.

As my plane took off for New York, I felt not despair, but hope. I look forward to seeing what, together, we can accomplish.

Stephen Sinacore is a board member for Accordia Global Health Foundation.