Winter 2015

First, Do No Harm

Linda Cole’s rules for international development

By Julie Flaherty

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The Community Action Fund for Women in Africa focuses on building the capacities of communities. Illustration: Betsy Hayes

Soon after graduating from the Master of Arts in Humanitarian Assistance program at the Friedman School in 2006, Linda Cole set out to start her own relief agency in Uganda. She knew that she wanted it to be an organization to help women in Africa affected, or more typically, devastated, by war. She also knew what she didn’t want it to be.

“We had to make sure we wouldn’t make their situation worse,” she says.

There would seem to be little danger of that, what with many of the women she was targeting uprooted by conflict and struggling to survive. And yet, during her many years working for development organizations throughout Africa, she had seen one program start a clinic just for rape victims and one that gave out yellow water basins to HIV-positive women. Going to the clinic or carrying a basin was as good as guaranteeing the women would be shunned by their communities. Or there was the program that taught 500 women how to sew, but once the training ended, the women didn’t have enough skill to be very good tailors or access to sewing machines.

“So many programs have a grant that lasts for six months or a year, and then they are out,” Cole says. “It doesn’t necessarily build the capacity of the community.”

“There is a cycle of poverty, and if we don’t invest in these women, we are never going to break it.” —Linda Cole

So as she was creating what would become the Community Action Fund for Women in Africa (, Cole traveled all over northern Uganda to see what the women in that war-torn region were already trying to do for themselves and then figured out how she could assist them. The obvious route was agriculture. Farming is the main livelihood in northern Uganda, but many women run out of food months before their crops of cassava, corn, millet or rice are ready to be harvested. During those times, “they eat maybe once a day, sometimes every other day,” Cole says.

CAFWA introduced them to the concept of permagardening—keeping a kitchen garden in addition to their field crops. That way, they can harvest vegetables throughout the year. “Some of them have one garden they eat from and another for vegetables they sell at the market,” Cole says. Young girls have even started gardens to pay for their school fees.

CAFWA has also helped the women with microfinancing based on a savings-and-loan model. A group of women contribute small sums so that at the end of the month one woman gets the money that has been pooled to buy livestock or farming supplies.

The women also asked for education, as most cannot read, write or do the simple calculations needed for farming or small business. So CAFWA set up adult learning centers, where the women can come for lessons twice a week, on the days they choose.

The programs took a while to get off the ground, and even longer to see the effects. Martha is a case in point. She and her husband had once owned a store in Uganda, but during the conflict, her store was burned down, and her husband and two of her sons were killed. When she and her youngest son fled through the bush, his eyes were cut by the long elephant grass and the resulting infection left him blind.

Martha participated in several CAFWA programs, but none seemed to make a dent in her poverty. Then, on Cole’s most recent visit (she lives in California but travels to Uganda at least four times a year), Martha offered to show her the goats she had bought with her savings. Cole expected to see one or two, but Martha trotted out more than a dozen. “She now has all these goats that are giving her financial security,” Cole says, adding that Martha plans to send her son to a secondary school for the blind. “It took six years, but we didn’t give up on Martha.”

With many other development programs, that wouldn’t happen, Cole says. Large humanitarian organizations have to follow the available grants. “Money moves around, and that is just the reality of development,” she says. “The emergency here is over, and everyone goes to Darfur.”

CAFWA is planning to stick around. “Aid is not reaching these women, because they are not seen as viable investments; they are basically too poor to help,” she says. “We disagree. There is a cycle of poverty, and if we don’t invest in these women, we are never going to break it.”

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