From the Front Line

May 22, 2020

Every day I see the staggering numbers of COVID-19-related deaths and illness in my state, the U.S., and around the world.  While the numbers are overwhelming, I know they are also essential for driving decisions to keep people safe and healthy.

Data is critically important.  But it is the stories and faces of people that give context and reveal the fragility and strength of humanity during this crisis. These stories are all around us: interviews with families who have lost loved ones, jobs, homes, and businesses; photos of thousands of cars lined up for hours to collect food; viral celebrations of gratitude over social media for frontline workers; and virtual graduations, birthdays, and weddings hosted over Zoom.

These bring tears, joy, and hope.

I lead Counterpart’s WomenLead Institute, born from an organization called CEDPA (the Centre for Development and Population Activities.) I have spent more than 30 years of my life working with women around the world to build their skills and knowledge to assume leadership roles in their communities, promoting gender equality and advancing sustainable community development along the way.

So, it was with great interest that I read a report about the effects of COVID-19 on civil society organizations. The data presented are distressing but not surprising.  I have been hearing the stories behind these numbers from women who lead local community-based organizations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America since early April.  

For the past seven weeks, the WomenLead Institute has convened Virtual Peer Mentoring (VPM) programs with alumnae of our Global Women in Management Program (GWIM). We shifted to an online model when we realized a workshop planned for June would not be possible. We were able to move quickly thanks to the flexibility of our donor, the ExxonMobil Foundation’s Women’s Economic Opportunity Initiative, and to an earlier pilot test with a smaller cohort.

Since then, we have held twice-weekly VPMs that have been consistently attended by over 50 women leaders from NGOs, CBOs, cooperatives, and social enterprises operating in 10 countries. They live and work in towns, rural communities, urban slums, and city centers; some have high school diplomas and others have master’s degrees and PhDs. They range in age from mid-twenties to early sixties. They are incredibly diverse. What binds them is their GWIM experience and their commitment to their teams and their communities.

Each one of these women is struggling. They are no longer able to run women’s economic empowerment programs, sell goods from their agricultural and handicrafts cooperatives, or provide services to victims of gender-based violence.  They have zero to low cash reserves. Some are trying to stretch the cash on hand to pay a small living allowance to their staff now that payroll is a thing of the past. Others have asked their teams to become volunteers to do the limited outreach possible in their communities. 

They are all seeking innovative ways to generate revenue rapidly for the health, humanitarian, and economic needs of the women, girls, and families in their communities. They tell stories of entire communities who think COVID-19 is a scam being perpetrated by their government, and they see mothers going to sell produce in crowded markets so they can feed their children.  They are traumatized by the extreme food insecurity and alarming increases in gender-based violence they are witnessing daily. They are overwhelmed by requests for help and frustrated by their inability to respond. They are desperate, their circumstances are tragic, and yet they remain resilient and committed to serving.

We have no doubt that our virtual meetings provide valuable information. We know these women are desperate for resources. But the real need being met is the need for human connection. From Guyana to Papua New Guinea and from Mexico to Mozambique, our alumnae join the calls from bedrooms and backyards at all hours of the day and night. They join to see each other, to hear and share frustrations, to learn from one another, and to reassure themselves that they are not alone.  They know that no one else knows what they are facing more than their GWIM sisters.

The situations described by our alumnae are beyond dire. Yet, there are also stories that inspire. These are the stories of civil society organizations not giving up.

In Indonesia, a large cooperative has lost 60% of its sales. To support its members, they purchased fabric for masks and materials to make hand sanitizer and distributed the materials to their co-op members. The organization then bought back the masks and sanitizer from its members. Now, with every online purchase of seeds or technical resources, the organization includes a free mask and hand sanitizer. The director is also convening weekly staff meetings to develop a strategy for expanding their online presence for a post-COVID reality.

In Ghana and Guyana, NGOs are constructing hand-washing pumps in communities without running water—the pumps are all operated with a foot pedal.  They are reaching out to local companies and donors so they can provide more communities with the pumps.

In Papua New Guinea, the local alumnae NGO has secured contracts with the private sector to produce thousands of masks. They provide their members with the design and raw materials and pay each sewer by the mask.  In many cases, the women use their earnings to buy clean water for their families.

As incidents of gender-based violence are increasing and access to shelters and counseling centers is decreasing, women in Nigeria and Indonesia tell how their informal women’s networks are mobilizing to identify cases and provide shelter and support to victims.

In Nigeria, a beauty product entrepreneur is distributing her hand sanitizer free of charge. Other Nigerian alumnae are moving around their communities to distribute masks, sanitizer, food, and information on the virus to the most vulnerable when they are allowed access. They work with religious and traditional leaders to spread the message that the virus is real and deadly. Other NGOs are contacting local businesses to solicit in-kind donations that they can sell to support their projects. All report close working relationships with local government, health centers, and other NGOs to maximize resources and minimize risk.

So as U.S. government leaders argue over the stimulus packages so desperately needed by Americans, let us hope that it and other donors do not forget about the essential role played by our civil society partners in developing countries. As always, in times of humanitarian crises, it is civil society who responds first and is trusted most. Let us use the data and the stories to influence how donors give.

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