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Archives for Asia

Harnessing the Power of Regional Cooperation to Drive Progress in Southeast Asia

It occurs to me that it might be tough to explain why a USAID senior representative would travel to one of the richest countries per capita in the world to talk about development issues. I mull this over as I prepare to meet Deputy Assistant Administrator for Asia, Greg Beck, in the “Abode of Peace,” the small sultanate of Brunei Darussalam on the North Coast of Borneo.

The explanation – which will become clearer in a moment – is that transnational development challenges require multilateral solutions. On July 1, Beck, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, made the journey to tiny Brunei for high-level meetings between the United States and the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). USAID’s presence with Secretary Kerry highlights the strong development and diplomacy partnership driving U.S. foreign policy in Asia.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (center) and USAID Assistant Administrator for Asia Greg Beck (right) at the Lower Mekong Initiative Ministerial. Photo credit: William Ng, State Department

While in Brunei, Beck and Kerry participated in the sixth Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) Ministerial Meeting. The LMI is a partnership between the United States and the five countries of the Lower Mekong River basin (Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam), which share common challenges and opportunities stemming from the river that connects them.

“If people do the wrong things upstream with this river, it can destroy the livelihood of the people downstream,” Secretary Kerry said during the meeting. “It sustains the lives of over 70 million people. …In order to meet these challenges, it is essential that we redouble our efforts to balance the demand for resources with sustainability and to develop cooperative approaches.” [Complete transcript available here.]

“We currently support a number of activities that can assist LMI partner countries in addressing shared water challenges,” Beck said. “For instance, our Water Links program facilitates partnerships among water service providers to expand clean water and sanitation and strengthen climate resilience, as well as address the anticipated impacts of climate change from private power infrastructure development.”

Assistant Administrator for Asia Greg Beck (left) with ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh. Photo credit: Jennifer Collier Wilson, USAID

USAID engagement alongside State’s diplomatic presence in Southeast Asia is helping to support equitable growth in this dynamic region in the areas of agriculture and food security, connectivity, education, energy security, environment and water, and health. The way we’re doing this, as exemplified by Kerry and Beck’s participation in the Brunei meetings, is by helping to improve communication between countries and encourage regional solutions to the numerous development challenges that impact the entire region.

During the Brunei meetings, I was reminded of the power of regional forums to be catalysts for progress when the foreign minister of Burma – next year’s chair of ASEAN – formally invited the U.S., ASEAN and LMI delegates to next year’s meetings in the Burmese city of Nay Pyi Taw. A few years ago, no one expected that Burma would be in a position to host these annual meetings in 2014. Regional cooperation can be a powerful promoter of positive change.

Creating Opportunity in Nepal through Education for Income Generation Project

For eighteen-year-old Sitara Bano Bagban, living in the rural village of Karamohana, Banke District in Mid-Western Nepal, educational opportunities were very limited. Extreme poverty along with conservative cultural beliefs, that require male family members accompany females outside the home, as well as extreme poverty had prevented her from getting a formal education. This is not uncommon in rural Nepal where families often depend on their children to stay at home and work to augment income. Since married women are sent to live in their in-laws’ homes, parents traditionally give priority to educating boys who will stay in their parents’ house.

Those without an education in Nepal have few options. Without the ability to read and write they  are less likely to use government services or send their children to school. Also, their ability to find gainful employment or own and operate successful businesses is hampered by the fact that they are not able to do basic mathematics, leaving them vulnerable to being cheated in the market because they are unable to count money.

During EIG’s entrepreneurial literacy course, Sitara learned how to read and write, and how to use a calculator. She also learned about proper nutrition, peace-building, and how to access loans, credits, and other government services. Photo credit: Winrock International

Everything changed for Sitara when her parents allowed her to enroll in USAID’s Education for Income Generation (EIG) project, which provides income generation training as well as basic literacy training to underserved groups. Because her brother also began to attend EIG’s entrepreneurial literacy class and agricultural training, her parents agreed that she could participate because she would have someone to accompany her.

The EIG Project, which is implemented by Winrock International, has trained 74,000 disadvantaged youth (78% of whom are women) to increase their income through employment and agricultural production. EIG uses a market-driven approach consisting of four basic activities: a nine-month entrepreneurial literacy course; demand-driven vocational training tied to job placement; high-value agricultural training linked to markets; and scholarships for people from low castes (dalits) for professional certificates that lead to employment.

After attending EIG’s entrepreneurial literacy class and agriculture training, Sitara and her family increased their productivity and income by producing higher quality vegetables in their family farm. Photo credit: Winrock International

During the class, Sitara learned how to read and write and how to use a calculator. She learned proper health and nutrition practices, peacebuilding skills, and how to access loans and other government services. In addition to literacy, Sitara enrolled in EIG’s agriculture production training where she learned how to produce off-season, high-value vegetables including nursery development, integrated pest management (IPM), micro-irrigation technology (MIT), and post-harvest handling. As a result, Sitara convinced her parents that MIT could increase their farm’s productivity. Because she was able to attend this training her family decided to install a small well and pump and which have allowed them to grow fresh vegetables for their home and to sell in the market. Sitara’s income has increased significantly and Sitara has even been able to save  a little money at the local saving and credit cooperative.

Sitara’s story is just one example of the impact this type of training has had on thousands of disadvantaged youths. These programs prepare young people to be more involved in their governments in a positive way, to get jobs that improve their country’s economy, and to ensure a better and brighter for future youth.

The Power of Energy in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan, the world’s largest landlocked country and a former Soviet nation, is rich in natural resources and pursuing an ambitious agenda in response to global climate change. With a growing economy and booming oil and gas sectors, Kazakhstan is committed to improving its energy efficiency. Kazakhstan 2030, the country’s long-term strategy for development, aims to reduce its energy intensity 25 percent by 2020.

Kazakhstan’s most energy-intensive companies attend hands-on energy management workshops on energy efficiency. Photo credit: ICF International

President Obama’s Global Climate Change Initiative provides a unique opportunity for USAID to engage with Kazakhstan directly and assist its people in reaching their goals. Through the Central Asia Energy Efficiency Support Program, USAID is helping industries in Kazakhstan comply with energy laws and implement the ISO-50001 standard: a series of requirements created by the International Organization for Standardization for an energy management system. The ISO-50001 standard provides ways to increase energy efficiency, reduce costs and improve energy performance. USAID gathered Kazakhstan’s largest energy-intensive enterprises, government officials and educational institutions in Astana on June 20, 2013, to exchange ideas on best practices of energy audits and energy resources management.

Galina Markilova, the head of the Standards Department for KazPhosphate, a large phosphate mining and processing company, reflected on the event. “This was a very productive conference, based on the specific needs of our industries. We learned a lot and will be able to better implement our energy management system with what we learned today.” Program experts conducted an energy management audit of KazPhosphate in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy/Oak Ridge National Laboratory and identified more than $1 million in potential annual energy cost savings that could be achieved. Payback periods for all measures identified were less than three years.

Despite the grave and complex nature of climate change, it is inspiring to see global plans coming to life in practical ways across Kazakhstan. The city of Aksu, located in northern Kazakhstan and home to a coal power plant with some of the highest carbon dioxide emissions in the country, is in the initial phase of adopting a clean energy plan. USAID is working closely with the local government to provide training on energy management and auditing for municipal buildings, including schools and hospitals. In a consultation with the Energy and Communal Services in the Pavlodar region, Department Chief Mr. Nurlan Mashrapov shared how these green energy changes are going to impact local lives. “We want our kids to grow up in a city with clean air and green industry. We’re grateful for the help from USAID to teach us how to implement energy efficiency in our public buildings.”

In a further effort to support sustainable and innovative approaches to carbon reduction, Kazakhstan’s Vice Minister of Environmental Protection, Marlen Iskakov, and representatives of the U.S. Government, including Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones, U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Fairfax, and USAID Regional Mission Director Anne Aarnes, formalized a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on June 25, 2013. The MOU signified an agreement to work together on an Enhancing Capacity for Low Emission Development Strategy, a long-term development plan to slow the growth of greenhouse gas emissions across the country. This was a groundbreaking milestone in Kazakhstan’s commitment to climate resiliency and a significant event as our countries collaborate to ensure a sustainable response to climate change.

Photo of the Week: U.S. & India Announce Innovation, Science, and Technology Awards

 

Yesterday, USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah announced the Millennium Alliance (MA) winners in India. MA is a partnership between USAID, FICCI, and India’s Technology Development Board, Department of Science and Technology to support new innovations that strengthen early grade reading as well as increase access to clean and affordable energy, safe drinking water, quality health care, and a nutritious food supply to those most in need. Out of over 1,400 applications in the first round, nine awardees were announced on June 24 in New Delhi, India.

In this photo is one of the winners receiving the award certificate from Honorable Minister for Science and Technology and Earth Sciences Mr. S. Jaipal Reddy and USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah. Photo is from U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India.

Financing a Clean Energy Future for India

India is just a few years away from becoming the world’s most populous country, but it’s a far cry from the world’s largest energy producer. The government of India has set ambitious targets to meet this demand and its continued economic productivity will hinge on its ability to meet them. The challenge—as well as the opportunity—is significant.

The clean energy investment fund will benefit tens of thousands of Indian families. Photo credit: USAID

For this reason, USAID’s Development Credit Authority (DCA) has pursued an unprecedented new partnership to facilitate a groundbreaking investment in Indian clean energy. Through a DCA loan guarantee, announced by Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday at the start of the fourth annual U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, our partners Nereus Capital and Northern Lights Capital Group will make a $100 million investment in clean energy production. The partnership is expected to create hundreds of additional megawatts of sustainable energy capacity and will help to advance India’s nascent clean energy industry.

Here at the Development Credit Authority, this is the first time that we’ve partnered with a clean energy investment fund. We’re eagerly pushing the envelope to find new ways to stretch our investment even farther and for greater impact. While DCA averages an already incredibly high $28 leverage ratio for every dollar we invest—in this deal, we will secure a leverage rate that is exponentially higher. Through a comparatively tiny investment, we can catalyze four to five medium-scale clean energy projects directly and up to ten to twelve indirectly in sectors such as wind, water, solar, or biomass.

This investment could eventually create as much as 300 – 400 additional megawatts of sustainable energy capacity, which is equivalent to lighting the homes of tens of thousands of Indian families. These projects will serve a variety of customers, including both households that get by on just few dollars a day as well as larger or even multi-national companies.  Through reliable access to power, these companies will be better equipped to create jobs, make large-scale investments, and contribute to economic growth.

Incredibly, we can do all of this at virtually no cost to the American taxpayer.

By thinking creatively about how we partner with private sector actors, we’re continuing to use our resources and capacity more smartly and efficiently. We’re helping to ensure that U.S. financial institutions can securely invest in this market and build a clean energy future for India.

Increasing Economic Growth without Increasing Emissions

Growth requires energy, and the Philippines, one of Asia’s fastest rising economies, foresees an ever greater need for more energy to maintain the pace of development for its 94 million residents.

Yet increased energy use comes at a cost, in the form of increased greenhouse gas emissions, which puts the country in a conundrum: How can a country continue its economic growth yet make it both equitable and sustainable in the long term?

The Philippines is especially conscious of global warming and climate change. An archipelago of more than 7,107 islands, it is ranked the world’s 10th most vulnerable countries to climate change, with Manila the world’s second most at-risk city. Typhoons batter the country regularly, so the Philippines in particular is keen to avoid the prospect of more extreme weather and rising sea levels.

Eric Postel delivers remarks at a recent meeting with climate change and economy officials from the Philippines, EC-LEDS partners and the Department of State. Photo credit: Caryn Fisher, USAID Asia

Mitigating climate change provides the international community then a chance to at least reduce the risk of such disasters. As the Philippines Deputy Chief of Mission to the United States Minister Maria Andrelita S. Austria said, “The more we work on climate change, the less we’ll need to work on disaster assistance.”

Since 2010, USAID, through efforts such as the Enhancing Capacity for Low Emission Development Strategies (EC-LEDS) program, has been partnering with countries such as the Philippines to find alternative development pathways that lower greenhouse gas emissions trends and increase the resilience of communities and economies to climate change impacts. These programs are part of the U.S. Government’s continuing commitment to encourage developing economies to move towards a low carbon economic growth pathway, which is integral to long term, sustained development. Under EC-LEDS, the Philippines is partnering with the United States in strategizing on how to enable low emission economic growth.

“This program is an important diplomatic priority for the U.S. government. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern views this as an opportunity to enhance key diplomatic relationships with partner countries, furthering our global goal of limiting temperature increase to no more than two degrees Celsius,” said Assistant Administrator Eric Postel of USAID’s Bureau for Economic Growth, Education and Environment to a Government of Philippines delegation visiting the United States recently.

The climate change and economy officials from the Philippines met with EC-LEDS partners at USAID and the Department of State, who both lead the program, as well as experts from other U.S. Government interagency partners, think tanks, and industry organizations. 

Greg Beck, USAID’s Asia Bureau Deputy Assistant Administrator, said, “While we in the United States and the Philippines both work together to improve the Philippines’ international competitiveness, it is equally important that the Philippines pursues its economic targets through a low carbon pathway. The United States government is committed to providing the necessary technical assistance in enhancing capacity for low emission strategies.”

For the Philippines, EC-LEDS focuses on three areas: 1) supporting the development of the country’s greenhouse gas inventory, which will help determine where emissions are coming from and provide a baseline to measure any increase or decrease in emissions over time; 2) building the in-country capacity to use analytical tools to choose the most cost-effective actions to reduce emissions; and 3) helping Philippines take actions that address climate change, such as identifying promising sources of renewable energy, improving forest management, and supporting local Eco-Towns.

EC-LEDS builds upon a long history of partnership between the United States and the Philippines, which was solidified when the Philippines was chosen to join three other countries (El Salvador, Ghana and Tanzania) under President Obama’s flagship Partnership for Growth, or PFG. Under the PFG, both governments are working hand-in-hand to address the most serious constraints to economic growth and development in the Philippines.

The partnership theme carries over to EC-LEDS, as the partner countries themselves drive the process. “By design, a LEDS is a country-specific strategic plan to promote climate-resilient economic growth and reduce long-term greenhouse gas emissions trajectories. U.S. support and technical assistance is tailored to those development priorities identified by our partners,” Beck said.

The noteworthy Philippine commitment to this partnership is fueled in part by having seen the lasting devastation climate change can have after weather-related disasters move on. The country’s government created a Climate Change Commission in 2009 after discovering that typhoon-related costs that year amounted to 2.9% of the Philippines’ GDP, according to Mary Ann Lucille Sering, the Commission’s head.

“We believe that the twin goals of economic prosperity and environment protection are achievable and LEDS is the effective mechanism to reach those goals,” said Beck.

Pounds of Prevention – Focus on South Asia Monsoon Flooding

As South Asia approaches the start of monsoon season, let’s take a moment to learn more about these seasonal winds and the rains they bring. In this installment of USAID’s Pounds of Prevention series (PDF), we explore how monsoon rains are both a vital part of life and a potential source of floods. When the hazards a community faces and the underlying causes of disasters are understood and addressed, a community can better withstand negative events. To this end, USAID is supporting a range of activities in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka that help keep people safe and minimize damage from potential flooding.

Benjamin Franklin is famous for the adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Today, we are faced with great challenges brought about by increasing population and urbanization, a changing climate, and a demonstrated increase in the frequency and severity of natural disasters. To continue to tackle these challenges, what has become clear is this: We need more than an ounce of prevention; we need pounds of prevention!

Photo from Robert Friedman, USAID.

What I Saw and Learned in Southeast Asia and Why I Left Inspired

This originally appeared on the Clinton Foundation Blog

Over last week, I traveled across Southeast Asia, delivering clean water as part of Procter & Gamble’s Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) commitment in Myanmar, attending the Women Deliver conference in Kuala Lumpur and ending my trip in Cambodia, where I saw how the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) is working with the government to fight HIV/AIDS and improve health care delivery at the national level through better supply chain management and at the local level in different hospital and clinic settings.

Chelsea Clinton visits a Clinton Health Access Initiative project. Photo credit: Thu Van Dinh

In Myanmar, I helped Naw Phaw Si Hser and her family turn dirty, unsafe water into clean, drinkable water. Procter & Gamble (P&G) first came to the village a couple of months ago and the families, particularly the mothers, all said their children no longer get sick from the water – and that the water tastes better now too! The liter of water that Naw Phaw Si Hser and her family received marked the six billionth liter of clean water from P&G’s CGI commitment. Through their CGI commitment, P&G aims to save one life every hour, every day, every week, every year by delivering more than two billion liters of clean drinking water every year by 2020, preventing cholera, diarrhea and other water-borne illnesses that still too often bring disease and death around the world.

While I was in Myanmar, P&G announced a new partnership with USAID to improve maternal and child health in Myanmar and provide 200 million more liters of clean drinking water over the next two years, furthering its CGI commitment. It is these types of innovations and partnerships that will continue to save millions of lives and fundamentally change health care in developing countries.

Mission Director for USAID Burma, Chris Milligan, greets children in Burma. Photo credit: Thu Van Dinh

After Myanmar, and a trip to Kuala Lumpur for the Women Deliver conference, where I joined leaders and experts to discuss the health of women and girls, my last stop was in Cambodia – a remarkable country and a model in the fight against HIV/AIDS. CHAI began working in the country in 2005, at a time when only 6,000 patients – including 400 children – were receiving the treatment and care they needed. Today, there is close to universal access for antiretroviral (ARV) treatments for adults and children with HIV/AIDS and I am proud that CHAI has been part of drastically changing the treatment equation in Cambodia. CHAI works in part by helping countries like Cambodia access ARVs at affordable prices, because CHAI and its partners have worked with the pharmaceutical industry to increase supply, and with governments to guarantee demand, which has led to a more than 90 percent drop in ARV prices in the developing world since 2002 when CHAI began. Cambodia is one of the first countries in the world to achieve universal access to ARV treatment for both adults and children and one of the first to meet its Millennium Development Goal (MDGs) targets for maternal and child health – truly a leader.

Now, Cambodia is uniquely placed to be one of the first countries to eliminate new pediatric HIV infections, and through collaborative partnerships, I have no doubt Cambodia will be able to reach its goal. Last Thursday, I joined the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STDs (NCHADS) where they announced, in partnership with CHAI and the government of Cambodia, the Cambodia Strategy 3.0, which aims to reduce HIV transmission between mothers and children to less than five percent by 2015 and less than two percent by 2020, while simultaneously reducing HIV-related mortality among children. The three ultimate goals of Cambodia Strategy 3.0 are no HIV/AIDS deaths, no new infections, and no stigma. Goals we all can and should get behind.

In Phnom Penh, I met with women and children who have benefited from the country’s Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) programs, and saw first-hand how their country’s health system has transformed their lives. I saw the technologies, treatment, and direct impact that CHAI is having in this community and communities across the country. Outside Phnom Penh, I met Basil, a little boy my father first met in 2006 when he was a baby and his body was ravaged by AIDS and tuberculosis. Today, he is healthy, in school and as rambunctious as any child should be. I am grateful and proud that CHAI can play a part in the Cambodian government’s efforts to ensure there will be more children with stories like Basil’s in Cambodia’s future.

From reducing the prevalence of HIV/AIDS to providing clean drinking water to rural communities, these programs are examples of how, when corporations, NGOs, governments, and people work together, incredible strides can be made to challenges that were once thought intractable. These achievements give me hope that other countries will be able to replicate these models and provide similar health care access to individuals – and that, in my lifetime, we’ll achieve an AIDS-free generation and eliminate mortality caused by unclean water.

U.S. AID Supports Disaster Risk Reduction, Resiliency and Climate Adapation Engagement in Asia Pacific

Originally featured on The Center for A New American Security‘s blog

The Center for A New American Security is currently hosting a working group series ‘Climate and Security in Asia’ the purpose of which is to explore opportunities to advance U.S. security and foreign policy in the Asia Pacific through climate engagement, particularly projects that seek to reduce risks of natural disasters, improve disaster planning and response, and enhance infrastructure resiliency.

USAID is funding the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Center’s Disaster Monitoring and Response System (DMRS) through the Pacific Disaster Center to develop a multi-hazard early warning and decision support system. Photo Credit: CNAS

Last month, we were honored to have Greg Beck, deputy assistant administrator for Asia at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), visit the group to share details about USAID ‘s on-going  disaster risk reduction  (DRR), resilience, and climate adaptation related-engagement in the Asia Pacific and the related State-USAI Joint Regional Strategy for East Asia and the Pacific.

As Beck shared, USAID recognizes that environmental degradation and resource scarcity can undermine a country’s efforts to achieve economic security and political stability. Like those in the security community, decision makers at USAID acknowledge that climate change is a ‘threat multiplier.’ Beck noted that these emerging conditions and threats are recognized within the State-USAID Joint Regional Strategy for East Asia and the Pacific, which is a part of the U.S. Government’s efforts to rebalance our foreign policy focus to reflect the growing prominence of Asia in the world. The State Department and USAID recognize that addressing climate change is critical to mitigating non-military threats to the U.S. and to reducing regional instability which can undermine democracy and economic stability.

Interestingly, just a week prior to Beck’s visit to CNAS, the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) and the Australian Department of Defence (A DoD) gathered 85 delegates representing 18 countries at the 2013 Pacific Environmental Security Forum, the goal of which was to build military readiness in response to impacts of extreme weather events on regional peace, security and prosperity. The takeaways from the conference were the need to improve information sharing across countries and to build partner capacity (BPC).

Based on Beck’s summary of what USAID is doing in the region, it is clear that USAID is making great strides in the Asia Pacific Region doing just that –building local capacity to reduce risk to natural disasters and improve disaster planning and response, and promoting collaboration and information sharing among partner nations. In FY2012, USAID provided $481 million for Global Climate Change of which of which $96 million was for the Asia Pacific region.  Below, we highlight some of USAID’s ongoing efforts in the region.

Building Capacity around Disaster Risk Reduction and Resiliency (DRR)

Currently, USAID is funding the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Center’s Disaster Monitoring and Response System (DMRS) through the Pacific Disaster Center to develop a multi-hazard early warning and decision support system. The DMRS will compile and transform information from national and international hazard monitoring and disaster warning agencies on events such as earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, and other natural disasters into a regional, event-tracking and decision-support tool that utilizes maps and modeling applications. The Centre is critical because it seeks to coordinate activities with the national disaster management offices of all ASEAN Member States.

USAID provides assistance to 12 Pacific Island nations (Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu), which are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts including more frequent and extreme weather events and sea level rise. To build capacity around disaster risk reduction and resiliency, the USAID is collaborating with two of the South Pacific’s regional organizations: the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP). USAID works with the SPC to strengthen food security among farming communities in Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu. Specifically, USAID support enabled Fiji, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and Tonga to develop GIS data and land-use/vegetation cover maps for to identify food security hot spots, inform stakeholder engagement, and assist in identifying adaptation measures. USAID also supports the SPREP to improve the resilience of water resources in Kiribati’s outer island communities and promote healthy ecosystems in the Solomon Islands.

More generally, USAID supports the Coastal Community Adaptation Project which aims to build the resiliency of vulnerable coastal communities in the region to adapt to climate change impacts. The program supports rehabilitating or constructing new, small-scale community infrastructure; building capacity for community engagement for disaster prevention and preparedness; and integrating climate resilient policies and practices into long-term land use plans and building standards.

USAID has played an instrumental role helping the six Coral Triangle (CT) countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste) develop a powerful new platform and model of partnership to address the CT’s transboundary environmental resource management and economic security concerns. In 2009, the six nations formed the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI-CFF) and launched a ten year regional plan of action.  Viewed as one of the most innovative ocean governance initiatives, these nations are working collaboratively to prepare for and respond to the impacts of climate change and natural disasters.
More recently, in the wake of Burma’s political opening, USAID’S Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) is working closely with the country’s coastal communities on issues of disaster risk reduction. In FY2012, USAID/OFDA initiated a program that is supporting the creation of village disaster and contingency plans, establishment of village disaster preparedness committees and associated training, and rehabilitation of mangroves, which can serve to mitigate natural disasters by greatly reducing the strength of tsunamis or cyclone waves.

Finally, as part of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), which was created in response to the July 23, 2009 meeting between then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Foreign Ministers of the Lower Mekong Countries (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam), USAID supports several disaster risk reduction and infrastructure resiliency projects. In particular, USAID’s is collaborating with LMI partner countries to advance innovations and international standards in infrastructure development to mitigate environmental and social impacts of major investments in hydropower, oil and gas sectors, and transportation systems.  Central to all of these projects is the emphasis on facilitating knowledge sharing among countries and improving the management of national and transboundary natural resources.

USAID’s focus on disaster risk reduction and preparedness programs makes good business sense. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) released its Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction report last week, which reported that “direct losses from disasters are in the range of $2.5 trillion” in this century alone. The total average loss from earthquakes and wind damage from tropical cyclones is estimated to be more than $180 billion per year. Clearly, investing up front to help countries prevent and prepare for disasters
and inject more resiliency into their infrastructure systems is a good business decision.  However, as a recent Overseas Development Institute (ODI) report notes, historically, only a small percentage of total foreign assistance has been directed to disaster prevention and preparedness. According to ODI, over the past two decades, the international community has pledged more than $3 trillion in aid; of that, $93.2 billion was spent on disaster relief and reconstruction while $13.5
billion was devoted to prevention and preparedness.

Climate related projects can advance U.S. security interests, particularly when the investments and technical assistance help countries reduce risks of natural disasters, improve disaster planning and response, and enhance infrastructure resiliency. The projects that Greg Beck and others at USAID are shepherding serve those ends and will be instrumental in helping U.S. successfully meet the ambitious goals of its Joint Regional Strategy for East Asia and the Pacific.

Connecting Parliament to the People in Timor-Leste

It was a bright morning on April 19 in Maliana town as participants gathered for an unusual meeting. The meeting brought members of Timor-Leste‘s Parliament to the capital of Bobonaro District, southwest of the capital Dili, to hear from members of the public. The public forum was part of USAID’s Fostering Meaningful and Responsive Representation project, implemented by the International Republican Institute (IRI). The project’s activities include support to political parties as they find effective ways to interact with constituents.

Timor-Leste is one of the world’s newest democracies, gaining its independence in 2002. Over the past 11 years, voters have participated in seven free and fair elections, most recently in 2012, when they elected a new president and new Parliament.

Citizens from Bobonaro District, southeast of the capital Dili, voice their opinions and concerns to members of the Timor-Leste Parliament at a USAID-supported public forum in April 2013. Photo credit: Paul Randolph, USAID

Seats in Timor-Leste’s Parliament are party-based, and on election day voters choose a party rather than an individual candidate. Members of Parliament are drawn from the party lists based on what percentage of the popular vote each party received. This means that parliamentarians don’t have specific geographic constituencies.

In every democracy, it’s crucial that parliamentarians meet their constituents regularly to explain how they are serving communities as their elected representatives and listen to the views of citizens to incorporate them into legislation and public policies.

That kind of interaction is often difficult in Timor-Leste, where the population of just over 1 million people is spread across the island in a dozen district capitals, many small towns and scattered rural communities. Roads to the capital are in bad condition and transportation costs are high. It’s often impossible for citizens to make their way to Dili to gain attention for their views and concerns.

With significant transportation challenges and a nationwide constituency, it’s not easy to reach out to citizens to get their input. So the USAID responsive representation project is finding effective ways to increase parliamentarians’ interaction with the public.

One way of facilitating more interaction between parliamentarians and citizens is through a public forum, like the Bobonaro meeting. This was the second in the project’s series of constituency outreach activities focused on “Listening to the People’s Voice.” The series itself is a first for this Parliament.

Parliamentarian Mateus de Jesus (CNRT) shows notes received from constituents during the “Listen to the People’s Voice” forum in Maliana, Timor-Leste, in April 2013. Photo credit: Paul Randolph, USAID

This forum enables members of parliament to meet and interact with citizens outside Dili. They can explain their party’s stance on major issues of public interest and, more importantly, listen to constituents’ viewpoints.  In particular, parliamentarians said that they are eager to hear feedback and local concerns because they were just elected in July 2012.

Four parties won seats in Parliament in the 2012 election. Three form the governing coalition: the National Congress of Timor-Leste Reconstruction (CNRT), the Democratic Party (PD), and the National Reconstruction Front of Timor-Leste (Frenti-Mudanca). The Revolutionary Front of Independent Timor-Leste (FRETILIN) is now the opposition party, having governed Timor-Leste from 2002 to 2007. Three of the four parties sent parliamentarians to the public forum.

The 100 participants in Maliana represented a typical cross section of Timorese society – students, teachers, community leaders, representatives from NGOs, women and youth organizations, local offices of political parties, and district offices of government ministries. Participants raised many concerns, including poor rural road conditions, poor quality of small infrastructure projects, a lack of medical supplies at the district hospital, and the need for ambulances. Students highlighted a lack of books in their schools and limited access to scholarships for rural students. Others talked about their concerns related to government social programs, such as pension payments for veterans and the elderly people that do not always reach their recipients. Many voiced their concerns about the government’s plan to adopt and implement a new decentralization policy.

Parliamentarians said that they shared most of the participants’ concerns, and promised to channel those concerns to the relevant government ministries. They also said they would urge the government to address those concerns appropriately.

At the end of the forum, both parliamentarians and participants expressed appreciation for the opportunity to better communicate with each other. After the forum, Mateus de Jesus said this USAID-supported outreach activity was the first such opportunity for the current legislature, helping parliamentarians improve their outreach activities and connecting parliamentarian with their constituents. ” This forum was very important so that we can hear directly from the people living in the districts,” de Jesus said.  ”As parliamentarians, we’re aware that most of the issues raised during the forum relate to government capacity.  However, as representatives of the people, we can channel these concerns to the relevant ministries or departments and demand accountability.”

Timor-Leste’s parliamentarians are demonstrating their commitment to reach out to constituents, helping to fulfill their role of overseeing the executive branch. As one of the participants said, “It’s good that today we have the chance to meet the parliamentarians in the district and convey our concern directly to them, but we hope that parliamentarians will conduct such forums regularly in the future as part of their own agendas, and that they must will their authority to ensure that our concerns are addressed.”

Based on this success, USAID’s representation project will help expand these opportunities to other districts in the next few months.

I hope that Timor-Leste’s parliamentarians and party benches will continue to schedule more frequent outreach forums themselves and develop their own best strategies for meeting constituents, listening to their feedback, and ensuring that their concerns are addressed appropriately.

As parliamentarians begin to strengthen these kinds of mechanisms, and development partners like USAID continue to assist, I think that it would not be a far-fetched hope that in the future the relationship between Timor-Leste’s parliamentarians and citizens will be as bright as the morning sun that day in Maliana.

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