Billions in Play

In 2022, 274 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection. This number is a significant increase from 235 million people a year ago. Devex estimates that donors provided

17.2 billion – less than half of the 37.7 billion needed. And that doesn’t include development assistance. 

The Women of Baraka Center, Nairobi

International humanitarian aid is Big Business, involving the U.N., multi-national corporations, international NGOs, Governments, and an assortment of foundations and individuals.

The question “Who gives what to whom?” plunges one into a dizzying array of analyses.

And then there are scary rumors about millions gone missing in a pipeline leaky with corruption, poor accounting and accountability, and just plain incompetence.

In my little corner of this mess, I’m troubled by organizations whose largesse creates cash flow challenges for small community-based organizations like Women’s Centers. An example: a well-meaning foundation ships a bunch of equipment but requires the recipient to pay customs clearance and transport costs to their location. Never mind that all of the equipment is available locally. Why not just send the cash – avoiding all the drama of international shipping, and feeding a national economy in recession.

Then there’s the tragically hilarious conundrum of USAID, wringing its hands over how to localize aid, but evidently not willing to part ways with old buddy U.S.-based INGOs working in the so-called developing world. 

Baraka Women’s Center can knit together an astonishingly effective national program to empower Kenyan women. But no joy from the monied in Kenya. For now, an productive local asset advances, but much more slowly than the needs of the women it could serve. A generous infusion of cash changes everything. Often the obvious is not.

Buzzword: Girls

I love girls.  I used to be one. It was a time not particularly festooned with lovely experiences, but one thing that defined it: the presence or absence of mom. The role of adult women in shaping girls’ lives can never be understated.

In the non-profit and philanthropic universe, ‘Girls’ has become the latest buzzword.  Do we have a shared definition of the word ‘girl’? For me, a girl is a female age 3 through 12 years. A child. Do current trends indicate teens should now be included? Consider also the expression ‘one of the girls’, usually referring to adult females and used either pejoratively or affectionately depending on source.

This – and society’s – often fawning obsession with youth ignores certain realities.

  • Girls don’t know what they don’t know. 

They haven’t lived very long but may have seen more than a child should. That doesn’t infer understanding. If they’re smart, they find answers from women –  mothers, grandmothers, aunties, older sisters – with wisdom based on lived experience. Women’s Centers uniquely serve this role.

Mom sewing African bags with young daughter at Baraka Women’s Center, Nairobi, Kenya
  • Girlhood delivers different experiences depending on culture.

These tender years ideally would be the realm of unimpeded curiosity, of playful explorations that reveal innate gifts, and of gilded dreams to use those talents. In less privileged places, girlhood is a forced march, a time of repression, with limited opportunities for the flowering of femaleness.

  • Expectations for girls  to assume adult responsibilities can hobble or destroy aspirations.

While some girls possess natural instincts for leadership and activism, most must be guided by the hackles that rise over injustices they see or experience. Their leadership skills emerge with compassionate and patient coaching.

‘Young females’ doesn’t fall easily from the lips, but ‘youth’ offers less of an ambiguous pigeonhole than ‘girls.’  I love the idea of promoting and celebrating girls, especially feisty ones. But we gain little by seeing them as standard bearers for the gender justice struggle that requires the power of women’s wisdom.

The Obvious in Detail

I often make the mistake of believing that something obvious to me is just as obvious to others, especially those working in the field of women’s equality. But often the obvious is missed. The Women’s Centers Model is a prime example.

How to describe the enormous impact of Baraka Women’s Center (BWC)? Nearly 1,200 women are members.  If you read any of the Success Stories, you’ll understand how vital BWC is to poorest women living in Nairobi’s slums.

Baraka Women’s will celebrate its tenth anniversary in October. Teresia Njora, the Center Director, Wanjiru Ngigi, Program Director, and their 10-member Board of Directors – all of them are on fire to meet the challenges so many women bring to the Center. They are uniquely gifted with shauku (passion) for healing and elevating the young single moms, the undereducated older moms, the struggling elders. They see needs and do as much as they can to ease a woman’s crisis. The crises are many: living on the streets with children, parenting at age 15, addiction, fleeing domestic violence, scratching for capital to boost a small business, unemployed with no marketable skills.

Poverty’s effect is universally the same:  chronic trauma from the unrelieved dismantling of self-worth and aspirations. When a Women’s Centers brings resources to ease the struggle, a woman can make her first leap to the “other side” – the place where she has what she needs with a sense of control over her choices.

BWC deserves to thrive.  To see what the Center is and does watch:  Amazing Place.

Women’s Centers should be opened and sustained in every major city, in every refugee camp, in every rural area where women’s education, health, livelihoods, and protection have not been considered, much less nurtured.

After years of effort, I’ve detailed the process in The Women’s Centers Guide: Best Practices for Creating and Sustaining a Women’s Resource Center

WCI is building an affiliate network of community-based organizations using the Guide as their roadmap. The Guide will be available also to large NGOs interested in elegantly integrating gender in global programming. 

On June 30th, find it here: Women’s Centers International 

Taming the Beast of Poverty

Poverty preys on the human soul.  Its predations are hard to understand fully without having experienced destitution.  The most pernicious damage is the erosion of hope – the belief that opportunities come not to oneself but to others.

Beneath hopelessness dwells a kind of psychological lassitude born of chronic effort simply to survive.  While this bedrock instinct may allow certain cleverness in exploiting random good luck, it muffles incentive like a heavy quilt. In the long term, ‘working the system’ or waiting for what you need to fall off a truck does not build momentum for plans of real consequence. 

The burden of poverty falls most heavily on women, and women of color in particular. In every area of life – education, livelihood, health, housing, personal safety – ways to improve life circumstances are systematically and routinely denied by the complexity of the qualification process, by overburden providers, and by the indifference of those who could afford to help in meaningful ways but prefer to look away.

Not knowing one’s purpose, ‘hanging on’ through days of no consequence, inflicts the sort of hollowness that leads women to drugs, alcohol and/or other destructive habits. These painkilling survival strategies are often misread as character flaws. Their descending vortex is hard to notice, much less to escape.

A thoughtful look at the range of services offered to low-income people in Oakland argues that the 34% of West Oaklanders who live below the federal poverty level should not be living below the federal poverty level. Why does this situation seem intractable?

Even the most miserable woman will not capitalize on opportunities to change her circumstances without a belief that her life matters. There are no quick fixes to poverty’s psychological damage.  A disabled sense of self-worth is a deep and abiding wound. 

While handing out food may stave off hunger, it does not make a self-reliant woman. What does?

Women’s self-reliance comes from belonging to a group. One of the best things a woman can do for her mental and physical health is to nurture her relationships with other women.

A Women’s Center provides this opportunity. I have not been able to understand how this important Model is consistently overlooked by funders, especially those who profess to support ‘women’s issues.’ 

The elegance and utility of the Women’s Center Model derives from it use by women who understand how much it allows them to accomplish in their community. Baraka Women’s Center in Nairobi, Kenya continues to play the edge in this regard, uplifting nearly 1,200 women living in extreme poverty. Women’s Centers International is ready to support their initiative to establish two new Centers in Kenya. Who is ready to step up and support this ambitious initiative by a women-led community-based organization?

Just as important: when will Oaklanders rally to support the re-establishment of Oakland Women’s Center? 

Women’s Centers are all about taming the beast of poverty. It’s time to open this toolkit in service to women – locally and globally.

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.