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Light Above Darkness – The Global Struggle for Democracy & Human Rights

Sarah Mendelson serves as deputy assistant administrator for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance

Two years ago at the Community of Democracies (CD) in Vilnius, Aung San Suu Kyi appeared via video message, addressing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, foreign ministers, presidents, and human rights activists from under house arrest in Burma. While she wasn’t physically present, her grace and strength were felt even from thousands of miles away. I remember she said she was “full of hope and full of anticipation for what the not too distant future will bring us.”

Those were telling words. This week, in Ulaanbaatar, at the seventh ministerial of the CD, Aung San Suu Kyi once again addressed the audience – this time in person. Back straight, regal, and elegant with flowers adorning her hair, Dau Suu said she never lost faith that humans “desire light above darkness.” She walked among the other dignitaries and yet always stood apart. As one official noted, she seemed like “the next Mandela.” Her moral force reminded all of us that we have a duty to remember those who do not live free and to work tirelessly to ensure that one day they can.

Dau Suu’s remarks were followed by Tawakkol Karman, a brave young Yemeni woman who won the Nobel Prize for her non-violent struggle for the safety of women and women’s rights in peacebuilding work in Yemen. Her emotional appeal to “stop the killing in Syria and the killing of Muslims in Burma” was blunt, forceful, and a sharp contrast to the more diplomatic speeches that such gatherings inevitably generate.

Deputy Secretary Burns delivered a powerful message from President Obama about generating the “new technologies and tools for activism.” It is our hope that the information technology revolution means we will continue to open governments and transform the global struggle for democracy and human rights. For innovation not only makes hiding corruption even harder, it can help governments listen and respond to their citizens.

And we are already seeing results. One of the most interesting and informative presentations was from an Indonesian leader proudly showing how her government is using technology to empower citizens to hold governments accountable in ways that even the world’s oldest, most established, democracies would do well to replicate. Mongolian officials, our hosts, were talking of transparency, open societies, shared lessons on democratic transition and cooperation with emerging democracies.

At USAID, we are embracing this virtuous cycle through Making All Voices Count, the Open Government Partnership, and by supporting game-changing innovations from governments, partners, organizations, and change agents around the world. We believe these efforts will help new democracies deliver to their citizens, empower civil society activists, and challenge authoritarians everywhere. We have seen a lot of progress since the last CD in 2011 but we have also seen a backlash in many places. Governments attempt to rule by laws designed to close space around civil society and activists. While many of us have hope that such efforts do not have a bright future in the hyper-connected 21st century, we met many activists that live daily with security services trailing and jailing them. I must remind myself that change is possible and hope that when I see them at the next CD, their lives are transformed by freedom.

Video of the Week: Nancy Lindborg Speaks at InterAction Forum

Yesterday, Nancy Lindborg, Assistant Administrator, USAID Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance joined the InterAction Forum’s opening plenary panel, “Facing Vulnerability in a Changing World,” to talk about the importance of resilience in addressing the current crises and challenges that we face.  Following the panel, Nancy sat down with Joel Charny of InterAction to discuss in greater detail USAID’s work to address some of the word’s humanitarian crises. Video is from InterAction.

Learn more about how USAID works in crises and conflict.

Follow Nancy Lindborg on Twitter @nancylindborg.

Photo of the Week: Department of Choco in Colombia Celebrates 200 Years of Independence

On February 1, 2013, the Department of Chocó (Pacific Coast), one of the Colombian departments with the largest Afro-Colombian population, celebrated 200 years of independence (1813-2013).  The United States Agency for International Development supported this commemoration as well as the development of several initiatives aimed at improving the living conditions of the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous population in the region.

On April 29-30, Administrator Shah travels to Colombia with Mark Feierstein, Assistant Administrator for Latin American and the Caribbean to meet with President Juan Manuel Santos and other senior government officials to discuss economic and social development initiatives and aspects of the ongoing peace process.

Read more about the Administrator’s trip to Colombia.

Visit USAID Colombia for more information about USAID’s work in Colombia.

Follow @rajshah on Twitter for updates of his trip.

Who Stole My Cow? Open Data and Praedial Larceny

On December 23, 2012, thirty-two cows were stolen from a farm in Trelawny, Jamaica. By the time the story was picked up by a national newspaper three months later, the farm had been practically shut down, with only six of the original twenty-two workers still employed. Praedial larceny — the theft of agricultural produce and livestock — is widely acknowledged as a major threat to agricultural production and food security in developing countries. It robs legitimate producers, stifles incentives for farming entrepreneurs and adversely affects the poor. In Jamaica, this scourge deprives farmers of more than JA$5 billion (US$52 million) each year. The Rural Area Development Authority (RADA), an agency of Jamaica’s Ministry of Agriculture, has demonstrated a strong commitment to using open data to combat this economic drain and improve the resilience of the island’s agricultural industry.

Stanford Political science professor talking with farmer in Cornation Market in Kingston, Jamaica about praedial larceny. Photo credit: Matthew McNaughton

At its core, praedial larceny thrives on information asymmetries that limit coordination between stakeholders, such as farmers, law enforcement, and buyers of produce. The free flow and accessibility of information about registered farmers, their production, incidences of theft and linkages between production and market are all a part of the information ecosystem that is needed to combat this challenge.

It is within this context that I am excited by the G-8 International Open Agriculture Data Conference and the U.S. Government and USAID’s commitment to supporting agriculture open data. While the value of data is derived from its usage, the principle of ‘openness’ is founded on access and participation. Having more relevant and timely access to data for not only policy makers and data scientists, but also farmers, innovators and other intermediaries, will help to create the solutions needed to prevent threats to food security.

Over the last three years RADA has collaborated with universities, NGOs, and entrepreneurs, including the Mona School of Business & Management, the Caribbean Open Institute, and the SlashRoots Foundation, to publish agriculture open data through APIs and develop a number of proof of concept applications and visualizations to improve extension services and policy making. They partnered in Developing The Caribbean, a regional open data conference and code sprint that spanned six islands this year, where they released data and helped define problem statements to development challenges, along with government agencies from across the Caribbean. The event attracted over 200 volunteers software developers and domain experts in agriculture, tourism and data journalism, who generated over twenty-five prototypes in response to thirty problem statements.

Testing low tech prototypes in largest market in Jamaica after two day workshop to collaborative build solutions with users. Photo credit: Matthew McNaughton

Looking forward to further collaboration with RADA focused on specific development challenges, such as praedial larceny, one thing is clear: open government data in agriculture will be critical to breaking down the silos that typically create governance bottlenecks. This requires focusing not aggregate macro datasets, but instead opening small, service level indicators, originating from any development partner, that can provide “just in time” data to inform decision making. Early program prototypes include employment opportunities as data collectors for at-risk youth, and mobile farmer ID verification for law enforcement and buyers of produce.

To this end, we’re embracing open data that not only helps to catalyze innovation outside of government, but also lowers the barriers for RADA and the farmers they serve, to explore new ways of collaborate to solve the problems that impact them both.

Matthew McNaughton (@mamcnaughton) is an Open Innovation & Development Consultant at the World Bank, and Director of the SlashRoots Foundation, a Caribbean Civic tech non-profit, aiming to accelerate the evolution of the technology ecosystem in the region. SlashRoots is collaborating with the Caribbean Open Institute to launch the Code For The Caribbean Fellowship program. CftC is a member of the Code For All Network, Code For America’s International Program.

Half the Sky: Building a Movement Through Media & Technology

I remember reading Betty Harragan’s Games Mother Never Taught You when it first came out over thirty years ago. As a woman entrepreneur, that book had a huge impact on me—both in how to navigate at work, a new universe that felt like I had been dropped onto Mars, and how I saw myself as an agent of change.

This was long before cell phones, the Internet, and mobile readers exponentially increased people’s access to information around the world. Today, USAID is working to make sure a whole new generation of women (and men) are exposed to life changing stories and media that have a positive impact for them, but also their families, communities, and countries.

USAID joins Half the Sky, the Ford Foundation, Show of Force, and Games for Change to launch the Half the Sky Movement Media & Technology Engagement Initiative, an integrated media campaign to create behavior change toward gender issues in India and Kenya. Photo credit: Half the Sky

That’s why I’m thrilled that USAID is a part of a new alliance, along with the Ford Foundation, Show of Force, and Games for Change, called the Half the Sky Movement Media and Technology Engagement Initiative. This new alliance builds on an initiative developed with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, authors of another incredibly inspiring book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

If you have not yet read Half the Sky, it shares powerful stories of women who have lived through horrendous but also horrendously commonplace experiences of forced prostitution, maternal mortality, devastating injuries in childbirth, abuse, and extreme forms of discrimination. Yet it makes an equally powerful argument that women can be, should be, and are agents who transform the world for the better.

At USAID, we know that gender equality and empowerment not only advance our development goals, they’re essential to their long-term success. No community or country can realize its full potential without women and girls having the freedom to be all that they can be. However, in many low- and moderate-income countries, women and girls continue to struggle for equal access to healthcare, education, the justice system, and professional opportunities.

In India, one of two key focal countries of the initiative, there is strong evidence of continued son preference. Girls are underrepresented in births and overrepresented in child deaths. Today, the literacy rate for females is barely 50% and men are twice as likely to be employed. India is home to 40% of the world’s people living in extreme poverty—think about how this problem could be eradicated if girls and women were educated.

In Kenya, the second key focal country of the initiative, a 2008 study shows very low female representation in post-primary education, formal employment, enterprise ownership, and political decision-making processes. Kenya is placed well to be a part of the Africa renaissance, but will only succeed if it embraces the power of its girls.

Over the next two years, together with Nick, Sheryl and our partners, we will work to inspire and create lasting change for women and girls in India and Kenya through an integrated media campaign. The campaign will use a combination of traditional and social media, a powerful approach for shifting gender-related norms and behavior.

To get an idea of the kind of messages and approaches the initiative will implement, I encourage you to check out videos released as part of previous collaborations between USAID and Half the Sky Movement partners. One of my favorites is the story of Pooja, who gains her family’s support to defy convention and continue her education. If this young girl can be brave enough to forge a new path, it is the least we can do to support others in following her lead to become part of the movement.

Shared Ag Data is a Secured Future for Vulnerable Populations

In Kahuho village, up on the foot of the Aberdare Ranges, is a potato farmer, Loise Mugure. Loise owns a two-and-a-half acre piece of land but while she could plant it all at once, she only cultivates a quarter an acre each season. She is among the 87 farmers from her village who approached M-Farm for help.

The price uncertainty on agricultural commodities has forced farmers to gamble on how much to plant each season.

Yes, these farmers had learned and embraced good agricultural practices. They have adopted new climate resilient crop varieties, even improved the health of their soils but their problems persisted. They needed information on how the markets behaved.

Local farmer sells potatoes. Photo credit: USAID

At M-Farm, we set out to five markets in Kenya to provide them with real-time agricultural price information. We went a step further and made this information readily available through SMS platform. We thought this was the ultimate solution the farmers needed. There still existed a gap. The farmers wanted to be shown the future of markets. It needed data. The data was scarce. We could only do much with the few months’ data we had gathered.

Working with farmers on a daily basis, I became frustrated too. I could not provide them with the outlooks they needed because I did not have the agricultural data to analyse and present to them.

It is exciting to have the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) dataset on Agriculture available to M-Farm. As a software solution and Agribusiness company focused on connecting farmers, we intend to integrate this dataset into our SMS information platform for our farmers.

We are processing the data to more meaningful information to farmers, then package it to suit their needs. This will help the farmers take important decisions on agricultural productivity.

What is beautiful about the FEWSNET data that the USAID has provided to our farmers is that it is from markets we know and on crops that are our staples. Finding local interpretation of the FEWSNET dataset gives us control of our situation. We can help protect food insecure populations from hunger with this data that has been made open to us.

Agricultural productivity creates benefits for everyone in the community. Photo credit: USAID

With access to the FEWSNET market price data, our farmers are richer with more useful information on the market behavior. The more the data, the more sophisticated the analysis and the presentation tool.

Connecting farmers with the right information and at the right time levels the playing field for them, creates transparency and improves their livelihoods.

At M-Farm the FEWSNET database is not just data, it is critical information that is finding its way into the lives of the primary producers who feed the nation.

“American” Values, Global Service

Right now USAID helps outfit “The Flying Eye Hospital,” a world-class teaching hospital housed in a passenger airplane that delivers cutting edge training to doctors all over the world.

A half a world away, USAID support is helping renovate EARTH University in Costa Rica, which offers undergraduate education in the latest advances in sustainable agriculture to students from Latin America, the Caribbean and beyond.

USAID and community members take care of an EARTH biodigester. Photo credit: USAID

Both of these innovative projects are funded under a USAID office that has supported more than 100 other cutting-edge initiatives spread across 20 countries around the globe. What unites them is a common understanding and appreciation of American ideas and values.

Until I started working at USAID’s American Schools and Hospitals Abroad (ASHA) program myself just a few weeks ago, I had no idea. I joined the team to help manage our global portfolio, and as I’ve been getting up to speed, the diversity, innovation and ambition of our partners has continually surprised me.

From St. Aloysius Gonzaga Secondary School in Kenya, the first school in the world specifically for HIV/AIDS orphans, to the Tilganga Eye Center in Nepal, offering affordable eye-care to all segments of Nepalese society, we put the best in American values and innovation at the service of local communities in every corner of the globe.

This week, we will be bringing many of our partners together for our Annual Conference and Workshop, where together they’ll discuss their common challenges and triumphs. To help them get to know each other, we’ve asked our partners to send in brief video introductions to their work, which we’ll play at times throughout the conference. As a newcomer, these virtual “site visits” have opened my eyes to the breadth of what “American ideas and values” are helping to make possible globally. The impact of USAID funding at Zamorano Pan-American Agricultural School in Honduras has improved the quality of life for students, staff, and their families. Because of USAID’s support, Zamorano has been able to modernize their research facilities and construct new dorms that have increased enrollment by 50 percent.

I look forward to working with all our partners in the future and learning more about how this partnership between the American people and these global leaders comes to life in their communities.

Watch how USAID funding at Zamorano Pan-American Agricultural School in Honduras has improved lives.

Learn more about the USAID Office of American Schools and Hospitals Abroad.

USAID in the News

This week, the President’s proposed Food Aid Reform in his FY2014 Budget Proposal garnered significant attention both from members of Congress at Administrator Shahs’ hearings on Capitol Hill and in the media.

This week Administrator Shah appeared before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations. Delving into the testimony, Politico says “Rajiv Shah – the bright young star at the United States Agency for International Development” – promoted “a more modern and science-based way” to deliver food aid to those who need it most. Shah testified that “Behind all this is President Barack Obama’s plan to revamp international food aid to allow more flexible, cash purchases overseas – rather than commodity shipments from the US.”

In its “Democracy In America” blog, The Economist notes that “USAID’s head, Rajiv Shah, is optimistic that the reformers will win this argument, pointing to a fiscal environment in which every dollar must be made to count.” In the New York Times piece titled “When Food Isn’t the Answer to Hunger”, Tina Rosenberg recalls that “in many places, people go hungry because there is no food. But in a lot of places, food is available and the market is working – people are just too poor to buy it. In those places, giving individuals or charitable groups cash to buy food can make food aid cheaper, faster and fairer.” Roseenberg adds that “by strengthening and not undercutting local farmers, cash aid also helps countries to avoid hunger later.”

The Hill, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and PBS also picked up Administrator Shah’s testimony this week and USAID’s Food Aid Reform.

Watch the segment on PBS:

NEWEST Rice Marks Latest Milestone

This post originally appeared on the Feed the Future Blog

“Today, we have new tools and approaches that enable us to achieve progress that was simply unimaginable in the past: the eradication of extreme poverty and its most devastating corollaries, including widespread hunger and preventable child death.” – Administrator Shah in his 2013 Annual Letter

One such tool is genetic engineering.

To help leverage this and other advanced molecular tools for food security, Feed the Future partners from U.S. and international research communities and the private sector have teamed up to apply these tools to common challenges faced by millions of rice farmers throughout Africa.

Researchers in Uganda plant seeds in the first ever confined field trials of genetically engineered rice in Africa. Photo Credit: Jimmy Lamo, NACRRI

Their efforts are paying off. This month, for the first time in Africa, researchers in Ghana and Uganda planted confined field trials of genetically engineered rice.

The new variety includes a trait for increased nitrogen use efficiency, which helps the plant take better advantage of the scant nitrogen found in Africa’s often nutrient-poor soils. Soil nitrogen deficiencies limit yields on roughly 90 percent of the lands African farmers use for growing rice. The engineered variety could also promote responsible fertilizer use by improving the crop’s responsiveness to smaller doses of fertilizer.

The field trials are a major scientific milestone and mark the latest success in a vibrant partnership between USAID, international and national agricultural research institutions, private-sector biotechnology firms, and non-governmental organizations—a partnership that is not only generating improved rice varieties, but also enhancing African researchers’ capacity to regulate and execute advanced agricultural research.

The partnership coalesces around the NEWEST rice project, which aims to improve the productivity and sustainability of rice production across Sub-Saharan Africa by relieving key production constraints for African rice farmers. In addition to the soil nitrogen deficiencies that inspired the current field trials, saline soils also reduce rice productivity in Africa. Meanwhile, climate change is elevating drought risk across the continent.

Rice varieties that are nitrogen use efficient, water use efficient, and salt-tolerant (NEWEST) could therefore boost yields by up to 30 percent in many regions, increasing farmers’ climate resilience while also minimizing their use of fertilizer and water, reducing deforestation, and slowing expansion of cultivated lands.

As a complement to traditional breeding programs, biotechnology has developed powerful tools that could help meet these ambitious agricultural and environmental goals. To harness these tools and spur agricultural innovation, Feed the Future relies on an international, multi-sector approach:

    • As part of the NEWEST rice project, California-based Arcadia Biosciences donated the intellectual property to generate improved varieties and introduced the new traits into NERICA rice, an important African variety.
    • The biotechnology firm then transferred these initial lines to the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia, which worked with Arcadia to conduct preliminary field evaluations and generate seed stocks of the most promising varieties.
    • Arcadia and CIAT then shipped the seed to research partners in Ghana and Uganda’s Agricultural Research Systems, who planted their confined field trials over the past month.
    • Throughout this process, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation coordinated activities across the partnership, helping to navigate intellectual property and biosafety regulations in the two countries and ensuring that the confined field trials adhered to legal and environmental standards.

As the field trials progress, Ghanaian and Ugandan researchers will identify which of the new, nitrogen-use-efficient rice lines perform best under local conditions. Water-efficient, salt-tolerant, and triple-stack rice varieties (which combine all three traits) are still under evaluation in California and Colombia and will be tested in subsequent field trials in Africa. The researchers then plan to optimize the best-performing lines through conventional breeding and introduce the improved traits into locally adapted, farmer-preferred rice varieties.

As part of a broad portfolio of agricultural research investments, this partnership highlights Feed the Future’s strategy to harness agricultural innovation to reduce global hunger, poverty, and undernutrition, while meeting the global challenges of food security in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner.

Working to Preserve the Coral Triangle

During Earth Week, we’re exploring the connections between climate change and the environment we depend on to sustain us. 

Stretching across almost 6 million square kilometers of ocean and coastal waters in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific, the Coral Triangle is considered the global epicenter of marine biodiversity. It is nearly half the size of the United States and home to over 500 species of reef-building corals and 3,000 species of fish and threatened marine species such as sea turtles. It is also home to some 363 million people, a third of whom depend directly on coastal and marine resources for their livelihoods.

These rich natural resources support livelihoods in the six countries of the Coral Triangle area—Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. Yet they are increasingly under threat. Scientists warn that, by the year 2030, virtually all coral reefs in the Coral Triangle Region will be threatened by a combination of ocean warming and acidification as well as human activities. More than 80 percent of reefs will face high, very high, or critical threat levels, according to the Reefs at Risk Revisited report (PDF), by the World Resources Institute.

Communities in the Coral Triangle learn how to assess their vulnerability to sea level rise caused by climate change at a workshop organized by USAID’s US CTI Support Program. Photo credit: USAID

To grapple with this challenge, the six countries of the Coral Triangle area formed the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI). They committed to work together to stem the decline of the region’s marine resources and increase the social and economic resilience of coastal communities to climate change. With USAID support, they adopted the CTI Region-wide Early Action Plan for Climate Change Adaptation for Near-shore Marine and Coastal Environment and Small Island Ecosystems in 2011. Under this action plan, the six countries are developing tools for communities on the front lines.

Among these tools is the Local Early Action Plan for Climate Change Adaptation Toolkit, a comprehensive set of cutting-edge scientific and social instruments that local governments and communities can use to conduct climate outreach to their constituents. It can be used to develop qualitative climate change vulnerability assessments and site-specific adaptation plans.

The toolkit provides critical information in a practical format. And it is catching on. By the end of 2012, at least 137 participants from six communities and government and academic institutions in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, the Solomon Islands, and the Philippines were replicating the  Coral Triangle Initiative trainings and developing their own vulnerability assessments and climate change adaptation plans.

Many come from areas that are key marine biodiversity sites like Kimbe Bay, Milne Bay and Manus in Papua New Guinea and similar spots in the Western and Choiseul Provinces of Solomon Islands.

In Manus, Jenny Songan has started a Women in Conservation group to cultivate and plant mangrove seedlings and take other steps to mitigate against climate change. Residents of Ndilou Island in Manus have built seawalls and planted mangroves to reclaim beaches lost to erosion caused by climate change.

In the meantime, the governments of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands (PDF), recognizing the critical need for these tools, agreed to create a national network of training teams to roll out the training—a critical need.

Local government officials believe the practical training is key to helping build resilient ecosystems and communities across the world’s epicenter of marine biodiversity. “We have learned valuable tools and lessons which I know will further our work in country,” said Agnetha Vave-Karamui, Chief Conservation Officer for the Solomon Islands Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, Disaster Management and Meteorology. “We look forward to putting into use what we have learned.”

Follow @USAIDEnviro on Twitter to learn more about our work in the environment and global climate change.

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