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Archives for Agriculture

Pounds of Prevention – Focus on Malawi

“Pounds of Prevention” is a series of short articles that illustrate how disaster risk reduction works and why it is important. Take a behind-the-scenes look at aid work in action, long before the disaster occurs. How is that possible? Read on!

A farmer in Malawi demonstrates how she diverts water from a main irrigation channel to a row of crops. Photo: Helen Ho, USAID

Today’s installment, Pounds of Prevention – Focus on Malawi highlights our work in the southern parts of the country where prolonged dry conditions and macroeconomic forces have combined to drive up food prices, making it especially difficult for poor and vulnerable households to grow or buy enough to feed their families.

Throughout the past decade, however, USAID has worked to improve people’s ability to weather and recover from these types of shocks. In partnership with a variety of groups, USAID is helping farmers to access capital and credit, conserve water and soil, grow different crop varieties, and construct small-scale irrigation systems.

Live at UNGA – Day Three

To see the online conversation at UNGA, visit USAID’s Storify Feed

Day three at UNGA included two marquee events spotlighting progress to date on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.  We also announced a new partnership to expand access to contraception for 27 million women and girls in low-income countries.

With only 15 months until the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) deadline, USAID partnered on an event with the UK Department for International Development for a second year to draw attention to the importance of the global community working together to reach the MDG targets by 2015.  The event brought to life the enormous development advancements made on the way to achieving the MDGs and featured innovators from across the development community sharing transformative programs and policies.  The world has met two MDG targets ahead of the 2015 deadline – poverty has been cut by 50 percent globally and the proportion of people with no safe drinking water has been cut in half.

That afternoon, Administrator Shah co-hosted with other G8 members the New Alliance: Progress and the Way Forward event.  President Obama announced the New Alliance for Food Security & Nutrition earlier this year, in which G8 nations, African partner countries and private sector partners aim to help lift 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa out of poverty in the next 10 years by supporting agricultural development. Initially launched in Ethiopia, Ghana, and Tanzania, at the event, representatives from the New Alliance, G8 countries and the private sector announced the expansion to other African countries, including Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, and Mozambique.

Finally, Administrator Shah took part in the UN Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children. Prior to the meeting, Dr. Shah joined the Commission Co-Chairs, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of Norway and President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, alongside former President Bill Clinton, to launch a new partnership to make a safe, effective, long-acting, reversible method of contraception available to more than 27 million women in the world’s poorest nations. Under the agreement, Bayer is reducing by more than half the current 18 USD price of its long-acting, reversible method of contraception, Jadelle, in return for a commitment to assure funding for at least 27 million contraceptive devices over the next six years.  Dr. Shah stated, “The US Agency for International Development is proud to have funded the development of this life-saving product. Today is a major step forward to making this product more accessible to millions of women, empowering them with the ability to make decisions about their health and family.”

As always, follow us live on Twitter to keep up with the latest developments!

From Conflict to Coping

Tisda, Mercy Corps Program Officer, in Ethiopia. Photo Credit: Erin Gray, Mercy Corps

Last summer, amidst the Horn of Africa’s worst drought in generations, Mercy Corps received encouraging news from local officials in the Somali-Oromiya region of Ethiopia.  In this area – long known for conflict, scarce resources and harsh conditions – communities that had participated in USAID-supported Mercy Corps peacebuilding efforts were reportedly coping better than they had during less severe droughts in the past.

We were intrigued, so we sent out a research team—and the findings were striking: when local conflict had been addressed, people were far better equipped to survive the drought.

To understand why, put yourself in the position of an Ethiopian herder.  When a drought hits, you can cope in several ways.  First, you will sell the weakest animals in your herd, raising cash to meet your family’s short-term needs while reducing grazing pressure on a water-scare environment. You may migrate with the remaining herd to areas where the grazing potential is better.  Along the way, you will rely on sharing access to scarce remaining water resources wherever you go.

Yet conflict can make these coping mechanisms impossible – blocking market access, freedom of movement, and access to shared resources like water. In this part of Ethiopia, population pressure and climate change had strained resources, spurring violence that in 2008-09 resulted in massive loss of lives and assets. In response to that conflict, Mercy Corps initiated a peacebuilding process in 2009 with support from USAID.  We helped participating communities focus on establishing peaceful relations, economic linkages, and joint management of natural resources.

A “resilience” approach to aid focuses on understanding, and improving, how communities cope with drought and other shocks.  Instead of just providing assistance that meets immediate material needs, a resilience approach also focuses on factors that affect a community’s ability to cope.  As Mercy Corps found last summer in Ethiopia, this often means focusing on factors that fall well outside the traditional assistance toolkit.

The program had focused on reducing violence – but our researchers found that it also built resilience along the way. Communities that participated in Mercy Corps’ program reported greater freedom of movement and fewer barriers to accessing resources, markets and public services than did non-participating communities. They identified greater freedom of movement as the single most important factor contributing to their ability to cope and adapt to the severe drought conditions. As one herder from the Wachile community said, “It is very difficult to use or access dry reserves (grazing areas) located in contending communities in a situation where there is no peace…the peace dialogues in the area have improved community interaction and helped us to access these resources.”

Our research report – titled Conflict to Coping – confirmed the important link between conflict and resilience in this region, and demonstrated that effective peacebuilding interventions help build resilience to crises.  Participating communities showed less reliance on distressful coping strategies, especially depletion of productive assets, than other communities. Importantly, the increased peace and security has allowed participating communities to employ more effective livelihood coping strategies, enabling them to better cope with extreme droughts.

USAID Book Club: A Farewell to Alms

Fall semester @USAID banner image

As part of USAID’s Fall Semester, we will host an online book club for our readers this fall. The Impact Blog will post suggestions from our senior experts at USAID to suggest a book on important issues in international development.  We’ll provide you and your book club with the reading suggestions and discussion questions, and you tell us what you think! Our fall reading list will  explore solutions to the most pressing global challenges in international development—mobile solutions, poverty, hunger, health, economic growth, and agriculture.

This week’s choice comes from: USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah

Dr. Rajiv Shah serves as the 16th Administrator of USAID and leads the efforts of more than 8,000 professionals in 80 missions around the world.

Dr. Rajiv Shah serves as the 16th Administrator of USAID and leads the efforts of more than 8,000 professionals in 80 missions around the world.

Book: A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, by Gregory Clark

Synopsis: The source of human progress has long been a subject of debate. What makes rich countries rich, and poor countries poor? In the this book,  University of California, Davis, Economist Gregory Clark offers a provocative take on the age-old question, arguing that it was culture—rather than geography, natural resources or centuries of exploitation—that left some parts of the globe behind.

According to Clark, relative stability and effective workforces enabled certain societies to take better advantage of the Industrial Revolution’s new technologies and opportunities. Those countries with lax systems or undisciplined workers lost ground, and stayed there.

Clark’s book is skeptical of whether the poorest parts of the world will ever achieve real progress. For development professionals, it offers up a challenge to the belief that outside intervention can help bridge the vast economic divide between rich and poor.

Review:  This book impacted me because it shows how for hundreds, or even thousands, of years basic economic progress was largely stagnant. You didn’t have rapid compound increases in living standards until the Industrial Revolution when some countries and some societies got on a pathway towards growth – towards better health, longer life expectancy, higher income per person and more investment in education. Others remained on a slower-moving pathway.

That great divergence, and the study of it, is at the core of development. It is that divergence that we try to learn from and correct for. We define success in development as helping communities and countries get on that pathway towards improved health and education, and greater wealth creation.

I didn’t choose this book because I think it is the definitive story on development, but rather because I share its focus on core economic growth as the driver of divergence.

I disagree where Clark concludes that some societies failed to take advantage of the availability of modern technology because their cultures were antagonistic to development. With the right conditions in place, you can unlock a formidable work ethic from a range of different cultures and communities. The last 50 years have shown us that. By investing in local capacity and local institutions, we can leave a legacy of economic infrastructure, strong and capable leadership, and transparent, effective public and private sector institutions.

USAID’s partnerships in Latin America helped country after country develop strong institutions. The same can be said for South Korea. Unfortunately, there have been examples where aid and assistance have been provided in a manner that was not as sensitive to building lasting local capacity and institutions. This is true for all partners, not just our Agency. That’s why we’ve launched a program called USAID Forward, to refocus on working in a way that will create durable and sustained progress.

Administrator Shah is on Twitter at @rajshah. You  can also “Ask the Administrator” your questions on Crowdhall

Discussion Questions

1. Do you agree with Clark that some societies failed to take advantage of the availability of modern technology because their cultures were antagonistic to development?

2. The Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Solow has said Clark does not take into account how institutional factors, such as cronyism, inequitable taxation and ineffectual government cripple development. What role do you think these institutional factors play?

3. Clark challenges how effective outside intervention can be in helping poor nations progress. Do you agree?

4. Regardless of why some nations have fallen behind, how do you think they can bridge that gap today?

5. Has your world view changed after reading this book and how?

Get Involved: Use the comments section of this blog post to share your answers, or tweet them to us at #fallsemester

Afghanistan’s Banner Year for Agriculture (and how to get more of them)

The 2012 wheat harvest in Afghanistan is shaping up to be one of the best in the last 35 years, according to a new report by the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture.  This is fantastic news for the Afghan people and economy. Afghanistan has been one of the least food secure countries in the world due to a combination of drought, conflict, and low productivity. In 2002, under famine conditions, 10 million Afghans required substantial food aid.

With an eye to the future and to overcome these perennial challenges, USAID and the Government of Afghanistan have made support for agriculture a top priority of our efforts in Afghanistan. This support has been instrumental in enabling Afghan producers to capitalize on favorable conditions through programs that increase farmer’s productivity. For example, our IDEA NEW (Incentives Driving Economic Alternatives-North, East, West) program has trained over 300,000 Afghan farmers on agriculture productivity and provided technical expertise for almost 6,000 businesses. Watch this short video.

Afghanistan requires an estimated seven million metric tons of wheat to feed its population. Wheat is especially critical in Afghanistan as it accounts for a substantial proportion of average nutritional intake. Without enough wheat, Afghans are either forced to purchase more expensive imported wheat or reduce their consumption. Reduced consumption leads to widespread undernourishment which in turn affects child mortality and growth, educational attainment, and worker productivity.

The Big News: the prediction for this year’s harvest is 6.7 million tons of wheat, or 94% self-sufficiency. A primary reason for this record harvest is favorable weather conditions and rain and snow melt at the right times in the planting cycle. Significant investments by American taxpayers in Afghanistan have also been critical. Improving irrigation has allowed farmers to get more water to their fields at the right time. Improved seed distribution and hands-on programs to introduce improved cultivation techniques has made the land more productive. And improved storage and transport infrastructure allows a lot more of the produce to get to market. Each of these improvements adds up to a big difference, and Afghanistan’s farmers increase their crops and their family nutrition and income.

Now the challenge is to make these gains sustainable. In Nangrahar, USAID is working with “agro-entrepreneurs” to build packaging facilities and pave the way for increased exports. In the south, melons are being exported to India and Pakistan thanks to improved roads and trade agreements that allow for transport of goods where before most produce spoiled on the way to market or didn’t have markets to reach.

This year of success does not diminish the need for the US and Afghan governments to stay focused on addressing the long-term food security challenge in Afghanistan.  USAID’s agriculture strategy is working to reduce the influence of weather and increase the self-sufficiency and resiliency of Afghanistan’s farmers.

Alex Thier serves as assistant to the administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs.

Building Our Legacy

Originally posted at Feed the Future.

A week ago, against the backdrop of the Olympics, I witnessed history. I was there not for the Games, but for the Global Hunger Event, which was co-hosted by U.K. Prime Minister Cameron and Brazil Vice President Temer.

The event brought civil society and private sector partners together with leaders from across the globe—and even a few Olympic heroes including in incomparable Mo Farah—to commit to championing for change against global hunger.

At the top of the list of priorities that emerged: Making significant gains against undernutrition before the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Just as is true for Olympians to be at their best, we know that adequate nutrition—especially in the critical 1,000-day window between pregnancy and a child’s second birthday—is key to a healthy, productive life. However, two billion people in the world, including nearly 200 million children under 5 years of age, suffer from undernutrition and its irreversible effects.

The good news? We can change this. And we are already taking the steps needed to do so.

Through Feed the Future, we support countries in developing their agriculture sectors to spur inclusive economic growth that increases incomes and reduces hunger and poverty. We are integrating nutrition and agriculture programs, and have set ambitious targets that contribute to the World Health Assembly’s new global goal to reduce the number of stunted children by 40 percent by 2025.

If it sounds like a big undertaking, it is. We have the know-how and tools to make a difference. But we can’t do this work alone. We need strong global partnerships to champion that our generation’s legacy should include the not “heroic,” but simply “human,” act of ending huger.

It’s why we work with partners like Pepsi, HarvestPlus, DSM, and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition to foster private sector-led innovation and public-private partnerships that can strengthen agriculture value, spur productivity, and develop more nutritious foods that are accessible to the poor. And we know that our civil society and NGO partners are critical to making this a reality.

That spirit of partnership is what drives the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, which was announced by President Obama just prior to the G8 Summit this year. A commitment by G8 nations, African partner countries and private sector partners to support agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa, the New Alliance aims to lift 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa out of poverty in the next 10 years.

What I realized at the Global Hunger Event was that the momentum we’ve all created—through Feed the Future, the New Alliance, and this event—is real. Next year, the G8 presidency will transition from the United States to our friends in the United Kingdom, and I couldn’t be more thrilled that food security and nutrition, as evidenced by the Global Hunger Event, will continue to be a clear priority.

In the days ahead, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Tanzania will host workshops to kick off New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition Cooperation Frameworks. These workshops will bring host-country government partners, African and G8 country government officials, international donors, private sector partners, and civil society groups together to focus on the implementation of actions to accelerate country plans and priorities for improved food security and nutrition.

The fact that so many leaders from so many sectors are committed and working together toward a common goal is groundbreaking. It is the stuff of history. In our day-to-day routine, it’s easy to get caught up in the details and miss the big picture: We’re making progress on incredibly urgent and important issues like hunger, poverty and undernutrition.

If we all continue to champion these efforts, and work alongside our colleagues, partners, and heroes to fight hunger, what will our legacy be?

Investing in Africa’s Smallholder Farmers

Recently, an idea has circulated that there is a fundamental contradiction between President Obama’s model for African agriculture and the model set out by the distinguished Africa Progress Panel (APP) under Kofi Annan’s leadership.  As head of the USAID Bureau leading a major part of the President’s Feed the Future initiative, an unprecedented effort supporting smallholder agriculture, nutrition and food security, I would like to present a differing opinion. The argument assumes that the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition is meant to bring what has been called “giant agribusiness” into Mozambique.

The New Alliance is actually about increasing the financial resources, technical capabilities and access to markets and new technologies required to help smallholder African farmers become successful, grow more food, increase their incomes and thereby help lift 50 million people out of poverty.

Why is Feed the Future’s approach focused around helping smallholder farmers? Evidence in poor countries from around the world demonstrates that smallholder agriculture can be more efficient than large farms, and that investment in improving smallholder agriculture is the best way to create income at the grassroots level, generating demand for goods and services that create a broader base of jobs and incomes in rural areas.

Creating these opportunities for smallholder farmers – giving them the means and technologies to move into 21st Century, high-productivity farming – requires the investment and market savvy that the private sector brings to agriculture. We have learned from experience and recognize that private sector entities – as suppliers of agricultural inputs, buyers and processers of agricultural products, marketers of finished commodities, and sources of beneficial new technologies – must be front-and-center in any sustainable approach to improving the opportunities and incomes of Africa’s smallholder farmers.

Involving the private sector also contributes to solving another problem: inadequate investment in Africa. Despite the US$1 billion in annual support that the President has provided for smallholder agriculture since 2009, donor funding cannot and should not be the primary source of funding for Africa’s economic growth, a point on which Annan’s Panel agrees. At best, donor resources are only catalytic, paving the way for sustained and responsible private investment.

The APP and President Obama are both concerned about increasing the pace of private investment to contribute to the growth rates required for sustained poverty reduction in Africa. One early result of the New Alliance is commitments by private companies (including Cargill and 47 other international and African-owned companies) to more than US$3 billion worth of new agricultural investments in Africa. Some of these are American and international multinational firms, all of whom have committed to the spirit of the Principles of Responsible Agricultural Investment and the U.S. Government-chaired FAO Voluntary Guidelines on Tenure of Land, Water, and Forestry in the Context of Food Security, but many of them are also local companies of varying size, not “giant agribusiness.”  Of the companies investing in land, the primary model is using a smallholder contract farming or outgrower model.  Further, all companies in the New Alliance have committed to working with smallholder farmers, with current targets of reaching at least four million farmers.

Agriculture is a complex and risky undertaking; for that reason, many private firms don’t feel comfortable investing in African agriculture as opposed to other economic opportunities. The ability of the G8, under President Obama’s leadership this year, to leverage $3 billion in private investment into the sector should be the beginning of the much greater investment that Africa needs to achieve the growth targets of the African Union and the APP and to reduce poverty.

However, we do agree there is potential danger of smallholder farmers losing out from careless, poorly planned investment and the need for rigorous safeguards, and we will work hard to ensure fairness and a laser-like focus on improving the lives of smallholder farmers. But President Obama’s approach, the G8 New Alliance and the African Progress Panel under Kofi Annan’s leadership are not in disagreement. All three agree that the private sector can bring to bear investment, technologies and innovative spirit to benefit Africa. This will help create the opportunities, access and markets that Africa’s smallholder farmers must have in order to thrive and grow, and will establish the basis for even faster growth and higher incomes. We must support and embrace responsible private-sector investment in African agriculture in order to achieve these goals as soon as possible.

USAID Hosts Annual Ramadan Iftar

Dr. Rajiv Shah serves as the 16th Administrator of USAID and leads the efforts of more than 8,000 professionals in 80 missions around the world.

Dr. Rajiv Shah serves as the 16th Administrator of USAID and leads the efforts of more than 8,000 professionals in 80 missions around the world.

Last night, together with USDA, we hosted our 10th annual Iftar—a tradition also reflected in the field as Missions host dinners in recognition of this important time. As President Obama has said, Ramadan is a chance to honor a faith known for its diversity and commitment to the dignity of all human beings. A faith deeply rooted in its commitment to caring for the less fortunate and reaching out to those in greatest need.

These are values that are reflected in the founding of our own nation, the vibrancy of our diverse national community, and in the work USAID does every day across the world.

Around this time last year, we were working together to respond to devastating drought in the Horn of Africa and address the urgent needs of 13.3 million people across Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya. Although the worst of this particular crisis is over, we know that 1 billion people still go to bed hungry every night across the world. And we know that there are steps we can take right now to alleviate hunger and malnutrition and lay the foundation for a safer, more prosperous future.

That is the vision of Feed the Future,  President Obama’s global food security initiative that brings together the expertise of a range of U.S. agencies. Today, we are:

  • Bridging our long-standing commitment to humanitarian assistance and food aid with increased investment in agriculture, nutrition, and governance;
  • Harnessing the power of science and technology to deliver transformational agricultural research, like drought and disease-resistant tolerant seeds;
  • Supporting safety nets and innovative insurance programs that are the backbone of farming in the United States.

We are also working to dramatically increase private sector investment in agriculture—bringing companies, local smallholder farmers, and partner governments together to lift 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa out of poverty and hunger in a decade.  So far, more than 45 global and local companies have committed more than $4 billion—to expand seed production and distribution, establish small-scale irrigation systems, and source for food for global supply chains.

Our focus on strengthening food security isn’t just limited to Africa. In the Middle East, we’re working closely with smallholder famers to improve the efficiency of water and land use. This effort is especially critical in a region already classified as water scarce—which possesses less than one percent of the world’s renewable freshwater resources. At the same time, population growth rates in the region are averaging over 2 percent, increasing pressure and competition for resources.

Launched in 2010, the Middle East Water and Livelihoods Initiative works across eight countries to connect American universities and their local counterparts with the smallholder farmers who need that information the most, spurring joint research on important issues like desalination, irrigation, and energy with the ultimate goal of helping farmers grow more food with less water.

Challenges like water conservation and food security are immense, but we know that we are more than equal to the task if we harness the ingenuity, passion, and commitment across the world.

That’s the idea behind open source development. Development that doesn’t dictate answers, but paves the way by bringing the creativity of the entire global development community to bear on today’s problems.

By doing so, we not only overcome the greatest challenges of our time, we continue to lift up the values that are celebrated during the month of Ramadan—and that we carry with us every day in our work.

A Lasting Impact on Food Security

I recently traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to visit food assistance programs implemented by USAID’s Office of Food for Peace. My first impression of the Congo was the same feeling I had in Uganda when visiting projects there last year – why in countries so lush and ripe for agriculture were people so food insecure? Food insecurity is a complex issue, and for the DRC it includes key issues such as low productivity, lack of market access and infrastructure, ongoing conflict and poor nutrition practices.

As a country struggling to pull itself out of conflict, the DRC is a challenging environment to work in. Never mind the logistical challenges for our partners and staff: little infrastructure in program areas; communities cut off by rains, conflict or other factors at certain times of year; and monitoring difficulties due to USAID staff being based on the opposite side of the country from the projects.

Despite these challenges, I was amazed at the ability of USAID’s partners to have as much positive impact as they have had on food security. This was particularly apparent in the visits where development assistance had ended the previous year, but the lasting impact of programs was still very visible.

I visited two communities previously supported by Food for the Hungry (FH) – Kamalenge and Kateba – which continue to benefit from initiatives started under FH’s previous program.

In Kamalenge, the water management committee responsibly manages the use of water from the community water pump installed by FH, by creating a fee-based system for maintenance. Under this system, households pay 100 francs a month per household and adhere to a strict usage schedule, ensuring each household has access to the water and the water source does not run dry.

Nearby, a women’s goat breeding group is still working, giving goats to households in the community and selling the extra goats.  This income is helping with children’s school fees. In the coming year, with additional proceeds, the 25 members of the goat breeding group hope to start a pharmacy in the village for community members.

In Kateba, I met a mother care group who continue to teach health and nutrition messages to new mothers and child caretakers in their community. Using songs and flipcharts to teach the messages introduced by FH, women are improving their household’s health and nutrition, all with their own food resources. They were proud to declare the village free of malnutrition as a result of these efforts.

The seed multiplication station in Emilingombre made a lasting impression on me. This station resulted directly from the difficulties they had in their first development food aid program procuring improved seeds and cuttings of disease resistant varieties of cassava, bananas, and other crops. This challenge resulted in FH creating a seed multiplication station within its new beneficiary communities so farmers had more direct access to seeds and seedlings. Using seeds and seedlings developed on demonstration plots from their previous program, they have built a 22 hectare station and nursery, which the communities will maintain with Food for Work during the life of the program. Eventually, the station will be self-sustained by the community to provide plant seeds and tree seedlings of multiple varieties. The tree seedlings will also help reforest nearby areas.

These small examples are reflective of a holistic set of activities USAID partners are implementing to address food security from all angles. I left DRC impressed by our partners’ ability to operate and communities to thrive in such a challenging environment. I am eager to see the gains they will make in the coming years.

Developers for Development: The Evolution of the Food Security Open Data Challenge

Geeks, Coders, Hackers, Developers, Computer Scientists, Technologists- whichever term you choose, people with technical acumen have proven to be some of the most prolific volunteers for social good.  It is not hyperbole to state that on any given weekend, in nearly every major city around the world, volunteers can be found gathering together to create products that benefit education, security, economic, and other social interests. Participants cobble together the vision, team, the code, and the experts over 48 hours, and present themselves for judging by Sunday evening.  These gatherings are dubbed “hackathons,” “codeathons” or “codesprints” and they have found success: out of the Disrupt Hackathon, which is hosted by TechCrunch and connects developers and entrepreneurs, the Docracy team formed to make legal and business documents more free and accessible, and went on to raise $650,000 over the next year to expand its operations.  StartupWeekend, a hackathon targeting entrepreneurs, claims hundreds of new startups including Reddit, a widely popular user-generated news aggregator.  In 2010, the State Department and iHub launched the Apps4Africa challenge  to connect local developers and global mentors to local NGOs to learn and solve local problems.  The winner, iCow,  is a successful mobile-phone application that tracks cows’ hormone cycles to inform better breeding, milk production, and nutrition information to Kenyan dairy farmers.

Indian woman arranges a display of grains and seeds at Millet Fest 2012, in Hyderabad on March 24, 2012. The three day event aims to promote use and increase knowledge of the nutritional benefits of millet seeds when used as part of a daily diet. Photo Credit: AFP

If you’re not familiar with the hackathon model, you’re not alone.  Government engagement with the tech community, though expanding, is limited.  And though hackathons bring together widely diverse communities to contribute their time and expertise to solve problems, they are not a flawless solution.  Rare is the startup that can convene and be commercially viable in 48 hours.  To increase the impact of the products of these hackathons, and ensure that those volunteering their time are doing so wisely, we have to improve on the existing model.

Enter White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, and his bold concept for public sector improvement of the hackathon model to connect developers directly to the people who will ultimately use their product, and to incubate solutions to be attractive to investors.  Under his model, weekend sessions are stretched across at least ninety days and buttress the hackathon with brainstorming and planning session weeks prior and an incubation period of the successful products for weeks following.  He outlines this model as an endeavor of the White House’s “Open Data Initiative” and, following on the successful implementation at HHS, has taken it to various other agencies including the Department of Energy, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Education, and USAID. Through his leadership, each agency has taken up the mantle of instituting their own open data initiatives.

USAID is  building its first data initiative around food security, and I encourage anyone who is curious to get involved.  All backgrounds and interests are welcome; participants need not be an expert in food security nor in software, a willingness to contribute to the efforts of innovative solutions and commercially viable products is all that’s required.  Writers, designers, networkers, and creative thinkers from all walks are welcome.  As access to information increases globally, so does the potential for innovation and great ideas to be borne and fomented across borders.  USAID is convening a global community to engage more directly with those who are willing to volunteer their time and expertise to the cause of development, and who want to work together to “hack” new and creative solutions to long-standing development priorities.  Just yesterday, Secretary Clinton observed “Data not only measures progress, it inspires it.” At USAID we want to build and support the platform for those who are inspired to create and sustain lasting progress.

For more information and to participate, visit agrilinks.org/openagdata and contact OpenAgData@USAID.Gov

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