Lorraine Flores, Dr. Susan Hughmanick, Joas Kahembe, Marianne, and I direct the Karimu International Help Foundation, which Marianne and I established and named not quite three years ago. Marianne deserves all the credit for “Karimu,” a Swahili word meaning “generous,” but blame for those lumbering boxcars that Karimu strains to drag behind it has to go to me.
I have an excuse, though: too cheap to hire a lawyer for the paperwork we needed to qualify for nonprofit status, I did all of it myself, using How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation, published by Nolo Press. The author, one Anthony Mancuso, recommended choosing a name unlikely to belong to any other nonprofit in order to win fast approval. I didn’t want to wait around for a couple of months only to have my paperwork returned with instructions to start over so, calculating that nobody else would have taken the clunky “International Help Foundation”—at least not in sacred union with “Karimu”—I went with that.
We got the quick award of nonprofit status that we sought. Yet calling Karimu a “Foundation” also revealed my ignorance of the nonprofit world, since Karimu lacks the endowment which ought to mark a foundation. Firelight Foundation of Santa Cruz, for example, directed by our friend Peter Laugharn, has several million dollars to work with, while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—that is a foundation!—has many billions. In contrast, Karimu’s endowment totals exactly zero dollars. I pretend to make a virtue out of our poverty in this blog’s “About the author” section, writing that “if one can justly accuse the global development community of spending foolishly, at least Marianne and I and the small nonprofit we founded in 2008, the Karimu International Help Foundation, have very little to misspend.” However, tongue withdrawn from my cheek, I concede that I would love to see Karimu possess a tiny fraction of the Gates Foundation’s endowment. If poverty were a virtue, after all, Karimu would have no reason to do what it does.
Of course, it doesn’t follow that wealth means unalloyed virtue. Bill Gates recently admitted to Donald McNeil Jr. of The New York Times that “up to two-thirds” of his Foundation’s five-year grants to scientists for taking on the world’s worst health problems “either did not get renewed or may not in the near future” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/21/health/21gates.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1). McNeil reports that Gates, though still hopeful, appears “somewhat chastened” by having spent hundreds of millions in pursuit of dead-end ideas and told him, “only half-kidding,” that “you get a hundred grand if you even pretend you can cure AIDS.” Gates explains that he knows this small sum “won’t buy a breakthrough,” as McNeil writes, but “lets scientists ‘moonlight’ by adding new goals to their existing grants, which saves the foundation a lot of winnowing.”
The Gates Foundation has cash to burn and, despite having already burned through a fortune, may well achieve the major breakthroughs it seeks. One can hardly refuse to appreciate the intention, anyway. Yet maybe Gates swings too hard for the fences and should consider bunting once in a while. A foundation for which a grant of a hundred thousand dollars is almost an afterthought overlooks the possibility of helping small local businesses and NGOs which would never dare to “pretend” to “cure AIDS.” Nevertheless, with much better odds of success than Gates’ moonlighting scientists, such local businesses and NGOs could accomplish far more for poor people with his cash than the scientists do when they strike out.
I don’t disparage scientific research or the enormous value of medical breakthroughs. Still, work by residents of poor communities with deeply ingrained knowledge of what their communities need, and unalterably devoted to living in them, will have a staying power to which wealthy foundations—and faux foundations like Karimu—should give greater respect. Karimu’s effort to help find grant money for the Mother and Child Health Care Association, just formed by nineteen nurses and midwives from Dareda Kati and the surrounding villages, represents a big step in that direction for us.
But we must also pay attention to what Rakesh Rajani, head and founder of the East African citizen-centered initiative Twaweza (Swahili for “we can make it happen”), told a blogger for the World Bank last month at http://blogs.worldbank.org/publicsphere/node/5586. Religion, mobile phones, mass media, makers of consumer goods as well as the shops selling them, and teachers, Rajani pointed out, all make up networks that “matter to people’s lives” and “would be there even if every aid dollar dried up tomorrow.” Yet they “are typically not the organizations or the institutions that development actors work with.”
Because Karimu began as a school renovation and expansion project, we have strong links to teachers in the Dareda Kati area. Now we need to start figuring out how to connect with the other networks Rajani mentions.—Don Stoll