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Elemental

COVID and the Uprisings have put us on notice that we longer have time to piss around with the same brutality and ineptitude that have characterized much of our nation-making. 

Women need to inhabit all key leadership roles In the movements that arise at this time.  We want to crowd out the possibility of a planetary train wreck that men in power would greedily host. Now is the most stunning opportunity in most of our lifetimes to remove the barriers between us and to spread around the capital controlled by too few.

What makes women so much better suited to tending the human herd?

Our blood attachment with our children means we viscerally prefer not to see them killed, maimed, starved, or shot it.

We can get a lot done with just a look.

We are trained from a very early age to take care of people not us.  Then we learn to take care of us too.

We’re quick to read subtext, value nuance, and engage in soul-lifting conversations with those who share our dot in the universe.

The depression thing that has undercut so many of us will lighten or dispel as we gain traction being in charge and being valued, including by ourselves. Are you in for the long haul?

Biting the Hand that Needs a Shake

In past periods of  famine in Africa, relief organizations often flew in food staples from America and Europe at enormous cost. Regional suppliers seldom were tapped, depressing prices, consigning African agriculture to low output.  Rather than build the economy of the nation in distress, helpers tended to co-opt their means of recovery.


The same appears to be happening with PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) in Africa.  My particular interest is Kenya where, through Baraka Women’s Center, I know some back stories of Kenya’s COVID response.

The Plan

In April 2019, the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI), the Kenya National Federation of Jua Kali Associations  (KNFJKA), and The Micro and Small Enterprise Authority (MSEA) formed a coalition to promote small business in the so-called ‘informal sector.’ For COVID response, MSEA was tasked with forwarding the Ministry of Health’s orders to vetted small businesses, and paying invoices when the masks were delivered.

In an April 24th speech (at approx. 8 minutes in) Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta promised  KES 1.5 billion (about $17.5 million) to enable the Jua Kali sector to take ‘center stage’ in the production of face masks for domestic and export markets. 

Informal sector businesses contribute about 83% of economic activity in Kenya.  Anything that supports growth in this sector will have a huge positive impact on the country’s recovery.

Money Arrives!

Since March 2020, money has been pouring into Kenya for COVID response:

$724 million from the International Monetary Fund

$1 billion from the World Bank

$208 million from The African Development Bank

$69 million from the European Union

Total:  about $2.1 billion.  This does not include smaller pledges and donated goods. Most of these funds are directed through the Ministry of Health.

The Train Wreck

Now we come to the Kenyan tradition of corruption, though profiteering has been a worldwide phenomenon during this pandemic.

Speaking on Monday, Aug 10, Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe said he and President Uhuru Kenyatta are determined to eliminate cartels in the Procurement Department inside the Ministry of Health. 

Meanwhile, 42 small manufacturers throughout Kenya have, or can acquire, the capacity to meet the government goal of getting 24 million face masks to Kenyans. Thirty- four of the organizations (80%) are managed by women.

Orders came to some like Baraka Women’s Center in May. As of Aug 10, they still have not gotten requests for delivery nor received payment for finished masks.

For them, finished inventory is taking up too much space. Cash flow has fallen to a trickle. The women who sew cannot be paid.  Families go hungry and feel more panicked about it.

Enter COVID-19 Action Fund for Africa (CAFA), a PPE initiative of over 30 organizations “dedicated to protecting Community Health Workers on the frontlines of Africa’s COVID-19 response” in 24 African countries (including Kenya). Key objectives: Find an urgent unmet need and protect community health services delivery.

The only reason there could be unmet needs for face masks in Kenyan is that MSEs / Jua Kali have been sidelined. CAFA’s incoming Western- or Chinese-made masks could depress prices in Kenya where, with sufficient capital, small women-lead businesses could deliver a wider and more durable country-based response.

The next two months offer an “opportunity window” to grow Kenya’s PPE manufacturing capacity.

It’s hard to predict when the train wreck debris will be sorted.  The livelihoods of thousands of women  now depend on a probe of government corruption, the actions of illegal cartels, and the reach of “well-wishers.” But the virus and hunger pause for no one.

Thanks to Dannika Andersen for fact-checking.

Running the Gauntlet of Funding for Women

The domain of funding for “women’s issues” has long troubled me.  Statistics vary concerning the percentage of money earmarked for women’s programs; the numbers are always in low single digits. A tragedy, given the often repeated truth that women are society’s best game-changers.

Women’s funds like to point out how they are collaborating with other women’s funds, amassing capital.  Yet we are told little about how exactly that capital translates into specific activities that help women, especially those most affected by poverty and conflict.

Those funds that do publish RFPs usually require lengthy complex applications that would discourage all but experienced grant writers in large organizations, a bias that eliminates a whole tier of important small local organizations.

We petitioners for funding always must frame the ‘problem’, consigning women to deficit status rather than framing their assets, as the brilliant Trabian Shorters speaks of it. We’re asked to stigmatize women (underserved, marginalized, low-income, etc. ) rather than focus on equipping them to navigate and change systemic barriers to their power.  Until philanthropists, foundations, and government agencies define their giving in terms of fostering aspirations rather than solving problems, they will be stuck in the ‘savior’ mode, with little lasting impact on real lives.

Businesswoman Lucy N, a member of Baraka Women’s Center, Nairobi

We petitioners for funds must have evidence-based solutions, backed up with data that UN Women says is hard to come by. They reckon that as much as 60% of gender data is missing / never gathered by governments or other international actors, especially as relates to violence against women and women’s mental health. For the foreseeable future, those two concerns have to be integral to any initiative helping women build better lives.

We petitioners for funds must continually address a favorite buzz word of the humanitarian/development communities: sustainability. It’s easy to promote this capital-based concept when you yourself have plenty of capital to work with. The bias favors long-established wealthy INGOs, over locally based community organizations with limited access to capital. One-off project funding will almost never produce lasting results. If we want sustainability, we have to insure that adequate capital finds a new home in smaller organizations that can build – and be – community assets.

The pandemic and the movement for racial justice have ushered in a swell of possibilities, not unlike the Renaissance  (which followed the Black Plague). We have a unique opportunity to alter the dynamics of grant-giving.  As Angela Bruce-Raeburn points out in her astute Devex Op-Ed: “Aid organizations consistently spout rhetoric about “working themselves out of a job,” and yet many of them have worked in some countries for over 50 years.  Is that not failure?” 

Women-led grassroots organizations are the way we transform the options and the power of all women.  That is the raison d’etre of Women’s Centers The Movement welcomes collaborators.

Public and Private Reparations

Many more of us than ever before are beginning to imagine ways out of the dismal swamp of racism in our cultures –  in the US and around the world.

Cruelty no one could deny shoved us out of complacency. ‘The Spark’ had to be brutal and captured on video.

Most of us white folks have been uneasily blind and guiltily defensive about the centuries of punishments meted out to blacks in America.  Some of us will find redemption in activism for racial justice, each committing to action that fits, with ‘No Whining’ please.

Reparations seem an especially significant action.  A vast debt is long overdue. America has denied generations of black families access to the capital through enslavement and discrimination. All our systems were designed and aligned for that to happen. Changing the hard-wiring requires a lot of small and large efforts over a long period of time.

I began my private effort at reparations with this ever-growing understanding:   

Women of color, especially those living in poverty, need access to resources to heal from the traumas of their lives. It takes a long as it takes.

The healing process point to long-deferred dreams and the skills needed to achieve them.

Deploying those skills makes women the best change agents a community is likely to have.

I’ve leveraged my white privilege to deliver those resources in spaces women have found safe and welcoming. Those places are Women’s Centers.

Women’s Centers took wing when I understood how this approach could serve refugee women, women displaced from their homes by wars, and ultimately all women systematically denied basic human rights.

Capital to meet the needs of even a small portion of this vast population of women has been notably  difficult to access.  I get it that (R)Evolutionary ideas can take awhile to catch the tow-rope of capital commitments, but it’s time now to hurry up the slope.

Meanwhile, our societal reparations plan deserves sorting out with all possible dispatch. As was dramatically illuminated with COVID, our federal government finds money when circumstances are dire.  A massive 400-year-old debt certainly qualifies.

The effort to prepare a reparations package cannot take years, certainly not the more than fifty years that the Equal Rights Amendment has languished without ratification. The struggle for black lives to matter  – socially, economically, politically, educationally, in health care, banking, the art, the trades – is bound up with the struggle for women’s lives to matter. Those changes will be just a wrenching and breathtaking and compelling.

No question that the best ideas and energy should catch momentum now.  It took centuries to construct the evil empire; it will take day after day of healing and safety and breakthroughs for all of us find our way home to each other.

Momma had no clue there’d be days like this

We don’t know if the virus is slowly killing us or if we’re gaining traction subduing it.

Some of us are doing the prudent thing:  laying low.  The less prudent are engaged in a sort of Russian roulette with a lethally unknowable adversary.  The President is taking  a potentially dangerous medication; perhaps he will manage to off himself through sheer stupidity.

In the absence of sane national leadership, it’s tricky to know what to think.

Resilience has it limits.  The Earth is demonstrating hers – the virus demonstrating ours.

Entrenched food supply lines are being compromised. People get crazy when they’re hungry. For those of us who live in cities where unequal access to resources has long divided people, the possibility of riots rears its head.

The poorest bear – early and often – the blunt force of a crisis.  Anger and desperation make ravenous bedfellows in times of societal deterioration. Our worst impulses rise up.

We’ve been such colossally wretched stewards of our planet,  redemption may take a while. The time required to adopt intelligent ways to inhabit the earth may shove us a lot closer to extinction than anyone could imagine.  There’s a sinister impatience in that calculation.

These thoughts do not feel like maudlin speculation, but rather a necessary investigation of trigger events for self-preservation strategies. 

I live my days feeling unstuck in time, not a bad outcome for one who’s lived life on schedule.

I work at home, have done so as often as possible in my careers because I cannot tolerate, temperamentally or ecologically, commuting.

I’ve managed to get comfortable with virtual meetings.

Finally, we all get to see ourselves as others do – that’s the new part. Informative and sobering.

All of my plants are blooming spectacularly this year.  All my neighbor’s plants are blooming spectacularly. The Lake Merritt Gardens are awash in brilliant flowers, Monarch butterflies, inquisitive squirrels, and singing birds.

Is this fecund outburst the result of less vehicle pollution, or ‘good enough’  rains in the land of an expanding  megadrought, or generous sunlight in an untroubled sky?  A consolation prize for all the darkness of COVID?  A small indicator of benefits if we as a species revise our reckless ways with Her ecosystems? 

We weren’t prepared for any of this. Not in any meaningful ways. We’re left to consider worst case scenarios, while inveterately hoping for good outcomes.  Caution and the clarity of preparedness might have saved us falling this far. We consider a new kind of future, agitated but not despairing.