Global Social Event: North & West Africa

event re-cap by Global WA volunteer Saira Abbasey McDonald

El Centro de la Raza – Seattle, WA
October 21, 2009

Featured speakers:
·    Valerie Nkamgang Bemo, MD, MPH – Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
·    Carol Schillios – Founder and President of the Fabric of Life Foundation

Originally from Cameroon, Dr. Valerie Nkamgang Bemo worked with several field-based health non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Africa before joining the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  She is now engaged in work related to emergency medical response related to natural disasters like cyclones and flooding, food crises, and diseases like meningitis.

Dr. Bemo detailed some of the critical issues that affect development progress in West African countries today, including:
·    Conflict.  Though there is officially peace in most of the region, pockets of armed conflict remain in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote D’Ivoire.
·    Population movement:  Conflict often gives rise to population movement.  Displaced people face a host of threats to their health and security, as well as issues of integration in their new environment.
·    Climate change:  Climate change has had great impact on the populations living near the Sahel, the arid band of land that stretches the continent.  Inconsistent rainfall has had significant economic impact on farmers and others who depend on the rains.
·    Health:  In the last ten years, West Africans have made significant progress in health.  Dr. Bemo noted several remaining issues, including:
o     Maternal and child health:  Many women are dying preventable deaths in childbirth, and child mortality rates remain very high.
o    Malaria claims many lives—especially those of children—due to the high cost of treatment
o    Meningitis outbreaks occur frequently due to the increasingly dry climate

Despite these troubles, Dr. Bemo noted that West Africa has great economic potential and an abundance of natural resources including diamonds, coffee, seaports, as well as the Niger River for irrigation.  The people of West Africa, she described as “warm and colorful.”

It was noted by an audience member that there seems to be collaboration between the countries of West Africa.  Dr. Bemo was asked if West African collaboration with the countries of Central Africa will follow suit.  She explained that though trade occurs between the two regions, political leaders impede the flow of people and ideas.

Dr. Bemo was also asked to describe a typical day in the field.  Who does she meet?  What types of things does she monitor?  Dr. Bemo noted that she spends a lot of time on the road.  She and her colleagues spend time examining a project to see what the challenges are, and what they can do differently to improve it.  She gave drought as an example – how can one address future challenges associated with it?

Dr. Bemo was asked how she typically identifies organizations to fund.  She noted that most funding is given mainly to international organizations, as it needs to be fast and flexible money.  West Africa, she added, has a thriving civil society but is comprised mainly of community-based organizations that lack institutional capacity.

Carol  Schillios of the Fabric of Life Foundation, spoke of her experience working in microfinance for the past 25 years.  Working as a grassroots trainer, Ms. Schillios help to build institutional capacity of microfinance organizations.  She eventually started a school for poor girls in Bamako, Mali – a city where the begging population is growing at 5% per year.  Ms. Schillios’ school teaches the girls income generating skills to its members. Along with skill-building, the girls take classes in health and nutrition, family planning, AIDs prevention and literacy skills.  The girls’ products are available for sale at a boutique in Edmonds, Washington, which is run exclusively through volunteers.

For more information:

Organizations represented by attendees at the event:

Americans for UNFPA,
Global Business Analysis,
American Red Cross,
The Max Foundation,
Grameen Foundation,
Prosthetics Outreach Foundation,
Mo Tribe, Bamboi, Ghana
Real Life Church,
African Chamber of Commerce of the Pacific NW,