A Global Network of Hummingbirds

By Giving List Women   |   May 20, 2024
Zainab and women leaders during the Daughters for Earth event in NYC during Climate Week. (photo: Getty Images - JP Yim)

What part can I play in the climate fight? To answer this question, the late Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, told the parable of the hummingbird: As a wildfire tears through a forest, all of the animals stand frozen, immobilized by fear. All except the hummingbird, which flies to the river, fills its beak with water, and drops it on the fire. The other animals ridicule it as it zips back and forth, fighting the fire one droplet at a time. The tiny bird looks at each of them and says, “I am doing the best I can – are you?”

For Zainab Salbi, co-founder of Daughters for Earth, the hummingbird story is key to her organization’s mission: to elevate women around the world who are proving that no effort is too small.

“With everything going on in the world, every day can become fear oriented,” Salbi says. “The Hummingbird [story] is about shifting the focus and putting it on hope.”

Take Flávia Neves Maia, a Brazilian urban planner. And a Hummingbird. When Neves Maia moved to Barra Grande, a fishing village threatened by both climate change and tropical deforestation, she joined a local women’s circle that took a personal approach to discussing climate action. Together, they devised a plan to regenerate local mangrove forests – and created a model to spread and scale community-led climate responses.

Funding is only the first step. Step two: “We celebrate the heck out of them.” Neves Maia is now the hero of a colorful graphic novel. These “Hummingbird Community” novels come out weekly, forming a series that shares stories of women like her.

Reframing the Narrative

In philanthropic giving, Salbi says she’s seen the bias against women-led, small-scale solutions firsthand. She says philanthropists often prefer to invest in expensive, high-tech solutions over small-scale, human ones.

“Other donors chase after the inventions, the ‘let’s extract carbon from the sky,’” she says. “We say, ‘Let’s get back down to Earth and see what people are doing to solve this.’”

And they’re gathering data to help show that investing in local, women-led solutions is not just the right thing to do – it will be essential to global climate-related goals.

In 2023, Daughters for Earth teamed up with Vital Voices to power Foreign Policy’s FP Analytics division report “Accelerating Nature-Based Solutions to Climate Change Through Women’s Leadership.”

This report helped prove that both women-led and nature-based solutions remain under-prioritized and underfunded. Yet research shows that women act as multipliers leading nature-based solutions around the world. If used widely, nature-based solutions could provide roughly 30% of the cost-effective mitigation necessary to keep warming below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2030.

“Women don’t need to be empowered. They are in their power,” Salbi says. “What they need is to be reinforced, echoed, heard, supported, and celebrated.”

Today, Daughters for Earth has funded 103 women-led organizations in 37 countries, with plans to expand. Every Hummingbird and their story, Salbi hopes, will help mobilize women around the world.


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