Ambassador Jimmy Kolker on why CBOs are the best investment for African development

Firelight is honored that Ambassador Jimmy Kolker — after a long career in the U.S. government as a diplomat and at UNICEF as Chief of the HIV and AIDS Section —joined the Board of Directors in February 2017.  Below we share Ambassador Kolker’s thoughts on why he supports Firelight and why he believes funding community-based organizations is essential to development in sub-Saharan Africa. Jimmy Kolker 1

I’ve had a wonderful but unusual career – 30 years as a Department of State Foreign Service officer, with five posts in Africa and three in Europe and then a decade working fulltime on AIDS and global health with UNICEF and the US Department of Health and Human Services.

When I think back to my best experiences, one day probably best illustrates why I joined Firelight’s board as my first commitment after retiring in January.

As U.S. ambassador to Uganda in 2005, I was visiting Nebbi district in West Nile, one of the remotest parts of the country.  Responsible for what was at the time the largest country program of PEPFAR, President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, I insisted that a small fraction of the PEPFAR millions be made available in small grants to community-based organizations.  My experience with the “self-help funds” that most embassies in Africa had available for small grants to CBOs showed that these could demonstrate quick results and encouraged grass roots mobilization and innovation.  My visit was to one of those grantees, a women’s group, to see what they had done with one year and $10,000 funding.

The trip on kidney-crushing roads to their remote village was agonizingly long.  Arriving at a small room in a simple cement-block building, 15 women were seated around the walls, which were completely covered with hand-drawn maps.  The women had formed a “post-test club,” meaning that most of them had tested positive for HIV and joined together for mutual support.  They applied for the US government grant because they believed there were numerous widows and orphans in their sub-district (>10,000 people) who were not identified and therefore not getting even the meager assistance available to those who joined local AIDS organizations.

They estimated that by visiting every home in the district they would find an additional 70 widows and 200 children who had lost a parent.  The magic marker-on-posterboard maps were the result of their remarkable year-long survey, showing roads and every house visited.  Each compound with a widow was marked with a blue dot, and a red dot represented every orphan.  Their original estimates undercounted by a factor of three.  There were around 200 widows and 600 orphans identified – and this remarkable group knew what the local authorities did not:  where every one of them was located!

Furthermore, the women had asked each affected household to identify their greatest need.  These were many, but the top need identified was school uniforms (without which a child cannot attend school, which is nominally free).

Explaining their survey methods and use of the PEPFAR grant, the women noted that the funds went for local transportation and an occasional meal while canvassing the entire sub-district.  None of them was paid any stipend. They had been frugal, and a couple of thousand dollars were left over.  They had asked and gotten permission from their USAID liaison to use that money to buy sewing machines and fabric and start a reduced-price school uniform business.  Was this alright with the Ambassador, or was I there to tell them to return the machines and the rest of the money?

I was completely blown away.  We were spending $1 million PEPFAR dollars in what I already knew was going to be an unsuccessful attempt to help the government develop a national health management information system.  Here, for $10,000, 15 HIV-positive village women had the most complete and useful data set on AIDS-affected and vulnerable families that I had ever seen.  Not only was their use of the money permissible, but it was exactly the kind of empowerment and local initiative that we hoped the grants to community organizations would produce.  I pledged that we would find a follow-on small grant to help make their amazing work sustainable.

Why Firelight?

When I subsequently learned of Firelight’s model and the work they are doing, it reminded me of that emotional day in Nebbi, when my faith was reaffirmed that helping local people, setting their own priorities and working in their own communities, was the best way to address those communities’ needs.

The evolution of the Firelight funding model has achieved some remarkable successes by linking grass roots organizations and enabling these networks to advocate for policy changes at national level.  In addition to empowering ordinary people democratically to use their own voices to influence government actions that affect them, the community -based organizations are learning from practical experience which practices work and scaling up on that basis – often superior to trying to impose a national strategy that may not correspond to local needs.

Today, cutbacks and policy changes from the Trump Administration threaten many proven and longstanding programs that benefit America and Americans.   There is greater need than ever for private contributions to promote civil, women’s and minority rights, environment, and many other causes.  But investments in education and child protection in Africa are also more timely than ever to sustain progress achieved and at the same time address the huge gap in rural African communities that have been left behind by their own governments and international aid agencies.

Supporting grass-roots organizations is complicated; it requires staff effort and tolerance for risk.  That is why governments and large foundations and aid agencies rarely do so.  But in my experience, community-based organizations are the best investment we can make in African development, through health, education and reducing rural poverty.  Firelight recognizes communities are where change is making a difference in people’s lives, and it is why I am proud to support the organization as a member of the Board of Directors.

Jimmy Kolker retired as the Assistant Secretary for Global Affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) January  2017. In that role, Ambassador Kolker was the Department’s chief health diplomat, representing the United States at meetings of the World Health Organization  and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. He advised Secretaries Sebelius and Burwell and HHS’s operating and staff divisions on health security and HHS' international engagement. Amb. Kolker had a 30-year diplomatic career with the U.S. Department of State where he served as the U.S. Ambassador to Uganda (2002-2005) and to Burkina Faso (1999-2002). From 2007 – 2011, he was Associate Director at UNICEF. Read more about Jimmy Kolker’s background here: