You could have heard a pin drop. It was September 2011, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Rita Thapa, who founded Tewa, the Nepal Women’s Fund back in 1996, had just described to a room of NGO and development practitioners how Tewa had a network of over 3000 individual Nepali donors - “ordinary” people - whose combined contributions have formed the backbone of Tewa’s small grants to women’s groups and organizations across the country for almost twenty years. After the silence, the marvel: “If you told me you were talking about the NETHERLANDS,” said one man, “then I would believe it…but you are talking about NEPAL! If this is possible in Nepal, then it must also be possible in Bangladesh!”
That is what is so remarkable about Tewa, whose bus drives through the streets of Kathmandu and its outskirts, with the words “Philanthropy for Social Justice” painted in English on its side. For twenty years, this organization has been living its values in a profound, and also rather humble, way. Tewa is a women’s fund, shaped by the politics of feminism. Women continue to constitute a highly marginalized majority in Nepal, where common practice dictates that women must seclude themselves during menstruation and levels of domestic violence remain high.
Tewa is also a community philanthropy organization that has walked its talk, embracing the values of local ownership and local agency in the way it does its work. Tewa’s small grants to local women’s groups have always been sourced from local donors (that “3000-in-Nepal-not-the-Netherlands” mentioned above), a principle that seeks to reinforce the importance of local participation in development and the existence of resources in even the poorest countries. In the same manner, community organizations that receive these grants are often encouraged to “give back” (no matter how small their contribution) as a way of flattening power dynamics that often prevail between “donor” and “recipient” and fostering a sense of shared and equal ownership of the Fund. And the vision of Tewa has always been long-term: external funding has helped support operational costs but they have also been leveraged to enable the construction of the Tewa Centre, a complex of offices and, most recently, a residential centre that perches on a hill on the edge of Kathmandu and overlooks rice fields. It was just in November last year that Tewa hosted a meeting of Global Fund for Community Foundation (GFCF) grantees who came from all over the world. Everyone – whether they came from China, Russia, Zimbabwe, or Mexico – was blown away by the Centre which is a testament, in bricks and mortar, to the power of community philanthropy. The name of each donor is carved into the wall, with foreign donors listed alongside local ones.
In recent months, we at the GFCF have been exploring the role that community philanthropy can play in disasters and emergencies. We believe that, while there are clearly crucial roles to be played by specialized internal and external actors in the immediate aftermath of a disaster (helicopters to deliver food, heavy lifting of rubble and debris, the establishment of emergency / temporary medical facilities), community philanthropy organizations – who are known and trusted in their communities —have a huge part to play.
These organizations possess unique insights into and knowledge of their local communities, and they are perfectly positioned to play an important role in making sure that community voices are heard as talks turn to reconstruction. In 2005 in the United States, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, community foundations played an instrumental role in physically bringing community members from the most marginalized communities who had been displaced by the hurricane – often hundreds of miles away. Five years after the earthquake in Haiti, a Haiti Community Foundation is on the verge of being registered, after an extensive process of community consultations.
Today, Tewa – like so many in Nepal – has found itself in a situation it had probably never envisaged for itself, at the heart of a national emergency on a huge scale. Tewa staff are relocating from their offices on the edge of town to a café in downtown Kathmandu. In the short term, they plan to mobilize their network of volunteers to distribute essential supplies to neighbourhoods on the edge of the city, and will also prioritize pregnant and post-natal women in some of the makeshift camps to ensure that they have access to medical care. In addition to these and other priority areas that they have identified, Tewa is working with a range of different impromptu networks that have emerged.
In the short to medium term, Tewa will be assessing the situation of its grant partners in more remote areas of Nepal with a view to both immediate relief and rehabilitation. In the long term, Tewa will continue to be there too. That is why the GFCF has launched a campaign in support of Tewa, the Nepal Women’s Fund. It’s amazing how quickly one’s world can be thrown up in the air. Tewa is there and ready to work: let’s help them.
The Global Fund for Women has also established a campaign to support Tewa (which may be more tax-efficient for US donors). Donations can also be made directly to Tewa itself: please contact us for further information.