Why Did These Big Foundations Get Behind Afghan Women?

Before Afghanistan turned into a war zone in the late 1970s and fell under Taliban rule in the 1990s, Afghan women saw fairly steady progress. Some of that progress resumed after the U.S. ousted the Taliban in 2001, ending a harsh period of subjugation for Afghan women. Yet with the Taliban once again making military gains, now controlling as much as a third of the country, Afghanistan ranks as one of the most dangerous places in the world for women and girls. And women also face repression from other traditionalist forces in Afghan society.

The top organization confronting this challenge is Women for Afghan Women (WAW), which describes itself as a “grassroots, civil society organization dedicated to securing and protecting the rights of disenfranchised Afghan women and girls in Afghanistan and New York.”

Since 2001, the rights group says it has helped nearly 26,000 clients and trained more than 300,000 people in the women’s rights field. And it’s the only organization in Afghanistan dedicated to helping women and children through its operating facilities and provision of much-needed services.

Over the years, WAW has received financial support from a number of donor organizations and foundations, including the NoVo Foundation and the van Ameringen Foundation. Now, it's in a better financial position thanks to a consortium of formidable funders that came together earlier this year with a combined commitment of $750,000 in general operating support for WAW.  Here’s the breakdown: Carnegie gave $100,000, Ford wrote a check for $200,000, and Hewlett gave $150,000. MacArthur and Packard pitched with $200,000 and $100,000 grants respectively. 

The funds are expected to help WAW build and strengthen its infrastructure and support the costs of high-level positions held by Kevin Schumacher and Kimberly Otis, who are serving as deputy executive director and director of advancement, respectively. WAW also expects to increase its reach and therefore its impact through programmatic expansion and strengthening operations. As part of a five-year strategic plan, the organization hopes to diversify its funding portfolio.

So how did a relatively low-profile outfit like WAW get the attention of five of the largest foundations in the United States? In this case, it seems like it was all about who you know.

As the story goes, a WAW supporter facilitated a meeting between Carnegie president Vartan Gregorian and WAW executive director Manizha Naderi.

Gregorian, an intellectual heavyweight who has served as president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York since 1997, has more than a passive connection to the Middle East. Born in Iran to Armenian parents, he attended elementary school in Iran and secondary in Lebanon. He’s also the author of a few books including The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, 1880-1946. 

While Gregorian surely did not act alone in landing $750,000 in grants for WAW, he most definitely had a heavy hand in making it happen. 

All of the big foundations that stepped up for WAW have histories of supporting work for women's equality or backing nonprofits working in conflict zones. But none had backed WAW before—it's the kind of group that can easily be overlooked by top funders. 

Now, with heavyweights like Ford, Carnegie, MacArthur, Hewlett and Packard on board, it should be easier for WAW to get the attention of other major funders—especially as the Taliban continue to win more territory and the future grows more ominous for Afghan women.