‘We all have power, different types of power. When we don’t acknowledge that power, it’s easier for others to step all over us.’
As both grantmaker and fundraiser, the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) has been on both sides of the fence. As a result, Theo Sowa, AWDF CEO and chair of the African Grantmakers Network, has very clear views about the use and abuse of power. Caroline Hartnell asked her what power AWDF has and how it seeks to use it responsibly, and about the importance of African women setting their own agenda.
As an African women’s fund that works ‘towards the empowerment of African women and the promotion and realization of their rights’, AWDF confronts a range of power dynamics. What power does AWDF itself have?
There are so many different types of power. I think being part of women’s rights movements in Africa, but also internationally, gives us significant power. We have a lot of knowledge about what’s going on in African women’s lives and organizations, which gives us power when we’re trying to influence decision-making in national and international spaces. It gives us the power to push for change. For example, we can use our knowledge to steer other foundations towards good investments that support the kinds of social change they want rather than undermining it – which is all too easy to do. The information we have, that closeness to what’s happening in women’s lives, strengthens our legitimacy.
We also have power because we’re a grantmaking organization, and that’s a power you have to be very careful with as it can easily be abused. One of our strengths as an organization is our closeness to the ground. If we abuse our power, we’ll lose those strong relationships.
I can’t think of any other women’s fund that carries that sort of clout. How has AWDF acquired it?
I think that women’s funds have clout but don’t always use it effectively. We don’t ‘own’ our strengths and achievements sufficiently. If people don’t understand what you know, they won’t value what you have to say. Too often we women have underplayed our information, underplayed our strengths.
The other thing is that AWDF was the first continent-wide women’s fund, run by and for African women. That gives us a unique place on the continent and internationally. The three founders developed an ethos ‘as African women we are strong, we have knowledge, we have been fuelling social change for a very long time’ – so everyone at AWDF has learned to own a certain level of power.