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Archives for Democracy and Governance

Election Access for Voters with Disabilities: The Good, the Bad and the Totally Bizarre

A voter casts her ballot in Aceh during the 2009 Indonesian legislative elections. / Suparta, IFES

A voter casts her ballot in Aceh during the 2009 Indonesian legislative elections. / Suparta, IFES

It should be self-evident that election access for voters with disabilities cannot be reduced to the installation of a ramp or the addition of a Braille ballot. Nor can effective participation in the political life of one’s country be reduced to election-day ballot casting. Persons with disabilities must be accommodated in all facets of political and public life. This requires attention to the entire election cycle and the multiple elements within that cycle that hinder or enhance accessibility.

Assessing gaps between international legal standards, and domestic law and practice is critical and affects developed and developing democracies alike. Across the world, constitutions mandate universal suffrage and some prohibit disability discrimination. And yet, in countless countries, electoral codes exclude certain categories of persons with disabilities from voting or holding office. Or, they institute unorthodox procedures at the ballot box. Here are just three recent—and bizarre—examples:

  • In the United States during the 2000 elections, voters with disabilities who required an accessible voting machine were able to position their wheelchairs comfortably under the machine and easily reach it. The problem? The ballot provided in the machine in one polling location was a sample—proffering George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as candidates.
  • In Armenia during 2007 elections, the head of a leading non-governmental election observer group welcomed the proposal to include observers with disabilities on observer teams. The problem? He advised that they could participate in morning observation only, suggesting they would be too tired to work into the evening.
  • In Jordan, voters with disabilities requiring assistance of any kind had to declare their need for assistance at the polling center. The problem? In order to receive any kind of assistance, they had to declare themselves illiterate and sign a declaration to that effect prior to receiving disability accommodations. And then, they could “whisper” their candidate choice into the ear of an election official who would mark their ballot.

In each of these examples, disability rights organizations engaged in legal advocacy to effect changes in law, policy and practice. U.S. Government support played an important role in these efforts, as did, of course, the expertise of persons with disabilities.

Election Day in Libya July 2012. / IFES

Election Day in Libya July 2012. / IFES

The legal landscape is complex, and the expertise of disability rights organizations to engage in law and policy advocacy in the sphere of electoral law, policy and procedure is limited. To address this knowledge gap, USAID is supporting development of a new module, entitled “Elections and Disability Rights” designed to train election stakeholders. This program—“Building Resources in Democracy, Governance and Elections” (BRIDGE)—is a global curriculum developed by the Australian Electoral Commission, International IDEA, International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division.

Earlier this fall in Cairo a customized pilot of the module was tested in a three-day workshopsponsored by USAID and implemented by IFES Egypt, Helwan University and NAS, a disabled people’s organization in Cairo. IFES Egypt organized this workshop as the culminating activity of its development of the new generic BRIDGE module “Elections and Disability Rights.”

Practices from around the world show that it is possible to break down barriers and include persons with disabilities in all stages of the electoral cycle. Beyond voting, persons with disabilities can be positioned as voter educators, election commissioners, poll workers, observers, monitors and candidates. The USAID-funded Equal Access: How to Include Persons with Disabilities in Elections and Political Processes manual aims to provide local and national governments, international organizations, civil society groups, development professionals and donors with the tools and knowledge to strengthen the political participation of persons with disabilities in elections and political process programs so they have a greater voice in decisions that impact their welfare and communities.


Janet Lord, Burton Blatt Institute, Syracuse University

Announcing USAID’s Open Data Policy

I am pleased today to announce the release of USAID’s policy on Development Data, known as Automated Directives System 579 (ADS 579).  In an era of unprecedented openness in government, ADS 579 is USAID’s first ever open data policy, providing a framework for systematically collecting Agency-funded data in a central repository, structuring the data to ensure usability and making the data public, while ensuring rigorous protections for privacy and security.

USAID has long been a data-driven and evidence-based Agency, but never has the need been greater to share our data with a diverse set of partners—including the general public—to improve development outcomes. For the first time in history, we have the tools, technologies and approaches to end extreme poverty within two decades. And while many of these new innovations were featured at our recent Frontiers in Development Forum, we also recognize that they largely rely on an ongoing stream of data (and new insights generated by that data) to ensure their appropriate application.

Pakistani stockbrokers are reflected in a share prices board during a trading session at the Karachi Stock Exchange (KSE) in Karachi on April 24, 2009.  AFP/Rizwan Tabassum

Pakistani stockbrokers are reflected in a share prices board during a trading session at the Karachi Stock Exchange (KSE) in Karachi on April 24, 2009. / AFP/Rizwan Tabassum

One of the reasons this policy is so important is that it paves the way for USAID and its partners to draw from an increasingly robust, data-rich environment to create these breakthrough insights and solutions in support of our mission well into the future. Specifically, the policy:

  • Establishes the Development Data Library (DDL) as the Agency’s repository of USAID-funded, machine readable data created or collected by the Agency and its implementing partners;
  • Requires USAID staff and implementing partners (via associated changes to procurement instruments) to submit datasets generated with USAID funding to the DDL in machine-readable, non-proprietary formats;
  • Implements a data tagging protocol in keeping with the President’s Executive Order and Office of Management and Budget policy on Open Data; and
  • Defines a data clearance process to ensure that USAID makes as much data publicly available as possible, while still affording all protections for individual privacy, operational and national security, and other considerations allowable by law.

USAID is committed to treating its data not simply as an output of Agency efforts, but as precious “development capital” that can best serve the global good when widely shared.

Afghan nurses and midwives walk past a board showing statistics of the maternity ward at the Mailala Maternity hospital in Kabul on September 20, 2011.  / AFP/Adek Berry

Afghan nurses and midwives walk past a board showing statistics of the maternity ward at the Mailala Maternity hospital in Kabul on September 20, 2011. / AFP/Adek Berry

In fact, based on the results of our recent survey, we know that stakeholders from around the globe are already using USAID’s open data to improve development outcomes. One organization in Kenya is using this data to target needy areas for enhanced agricultural training; an international organization is creating visualizations of aid flows to specific countries—down to the street corner level—to better understand the scope of our efforts; another is promoting additional research by linking health and livelihood outcome data to environmental variables.

As President Barack Obama noted in his remarks at the third anniversary of the Open Government Partnership, the United States is accelerating efforts to enhance transparency, including the development of digital services in the open. USAID is committed to remaining at the forefront of these efforts, and we look forward to engaging you in the process.

Have questions about the policy?  Please post your question on StackExchange where we can provide a response for public benefit.  Also please feel free to download our fact sheet [PDF, 139kB] or to contact us at


Angelique M. Crumbly is the Assistant Administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Management. Brandon Pustejovsky is Chief Data Officer at USAID. Follow him @bpushed.

Standing with Civil Society

In an effort to advance the Stand for Civil Society call to action, launched in September 2013, the President reminded us at this year’s United Nations General Assembly that “it is our obligation as free peoples, as free nations, to stand with the courageous citizens and brave civil society groups who are working for equality and opportunity and justice and human dignity all over the world.”

He referenced a newly issued Presidential Memorandum that directs U.S. agencies abroad to support civil society in several ways and announced a groundbreaking USAID initiative, in collaboration with the Sweden International Development Agency (SIDA) and the Aga Khan Foundation, to establish Regional Civil Society Innovation Centers that build connections among civil society organizations by providing resources, tools, and knowledge.

Civil society plays an important role in building stable, robust democracies and in protecting the rights of marginalized populations. At the same time, it remains an easy target for governments resistant to change. USAID has become increasingly concerned in recent years as governments adopt more laws that restrict activities of civil society and continue to harass, detain and imprison civil society activists. Tom Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment describes this closing space phenomenon as the “new normal,” which is why the President’s call to action is both timely and necessary.

Photo of woman with ink on finger

By engaging youth in the process of governance, we build a solid foundation for future leaders and contribute to establishing a stable and prosperous future for their countries. / Global Communities

Last month in Jakarta, Indonesia, I attended the Asia Civil Society Experience Summit (CSES), co-hosted by USAID, where the role of civil society and the backlash from numerous governments was the subject of much discussion. At the end of the Asia CSES, the participating activists issued a statement, which called upon Asian civil society, Asian governments and the international community to:

  • Build an enabling environment for civil society;
  • Promote innovative partnerships with diverse actors and change agents:
  • Leverage information and communication technologies to build and strengthen local and regional networks;
  • Explore innovative means to provide technical, institutional and financial support to civil society; and
  • Build and strengthen civil society transparency, accountability and effective governance.

The statement closed with a plea for “donors, governments, and international community to ensure continued financial and political commitment to civil society, particularly in closing and closed environments.”

Having travelled to Jakarta from Sri Lanka, I understood well the tensions and challenges that USAID faces in these environments. Sri Lanka was once a robust democracy but then suffered 25 years of brutal civil war. In the aftermath of the conflict, the government has sought to restrict NGOs they view as “political” by intimidating activists and imposing arduous legal regulations.

USAID’s response applies our three-pronged “prevention, adaptation, and support” approach in closing spaces: prevent the introduction of restrictive legislation; adapt to government efforts that make our existing operations difficult; and commit to continued support, financial or otherwise, for organizations that work in development, reconciliation and human rights.

In Sri Lanka today, many of the organizations that USAID supports are leading the effort to counter government plans to adopt a restrictive NGO law and to highlight concerns about security force intimidation that is affecting their operations. We are also funding programs that work with CSOs to ensure that they can continue serving their communities and advocating for human rights, even as government intimidation increases. And, we intend on continuing to support civil society, even after we transition in 2017 from a full mission to a limited presence country status program.

In Cambodia, USAID’s Development Innovations lab is connecting civil society, technology and social enterprises to provide physical space, expertise and catalytic programming to a number of groups and initiatives. The lab is involved in several activities, including teaching girls to utilize computer code in preparation for an international competition and assisting agriculture organizations to develop better monitoring apps. Via another project in Cambodia, USAID is funding the creation of mobile phone apps that allow Cambodians to read, text and chat in Khmer, their national language, as well as in Cham, the minority language.

The U.S. is the largest supporter of civil society in the world, having invested more than $2.7 billion to strengthen civil society since 2010.

As we continue to face grave challenges around the world, USAID will ensure that, when it comes to civil society, our financial investments are matched by our political commitments, and that we utilize both our presence in the field and technological innovations to support inclusive and accountable democracies that advance freedom, dignity and development.


Larry Garber is a Senior Advisor in the Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning

International Day of Democracy: Engaging Young People on Democracy

The theme of this year’s International Day of Democracy – Engaging Young People on Democracy – is an opportunity to reflect on our Agency’s efforts to protect, support and empower young people across the globe, especially as they engage in democratic processes. Youth play a critical role in humanitarian assistance and reconstruction efforts, and are often at the forefront of people’s movements, such as the “Arab Spring.”

Despite being the majority of the population of many of the countries in which USAID operates, youth are frequently excluded from the political process, due to members of older generations who expect subservience and offer no respect to youth voices. Studies have shown that not effectively engaging disaffected youth can result in instability in communities and nations in the long term, and foment unrest that may ultimately hinder – not assist – the advancement of peace and democracy. If not engaged in efforts to advance positive change, youth can easily lose faith in the democratic process, become disillusioned or apathetic, vulnerable to extremist groups or gangs, and, in the worst case,  become perpetrators of violence.

Alumni of the 4th edition of the Certificate in Leadership and Political Management course, Matagalpa, Nicaragua. / Corina Fuentes

Alumni of the 4th edition of the Certificate in Leadership and Political Management course, Matagalpa, Nicaragua. / Corina Fuentes

However, strengthening youth capacity will enhance their resilience and their communities. Investing in young people will also pay sustainable returns; youth may indeed be the primary hope for a reform-minded leadership. This was noted by President Barack Obama, who launched the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) in 2010 to support young African leaders as they work to spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across the continent.

USAID is working to incorporate youth through strengthening youth programming, participation and partnership in support of Agency development objectives, as well as integrating youth issues and engaging young people across Agency initiatives and operations.

 Opening ceremony of the District youth Forum in Oecusse in Timor Leste on April 23, 2013. A total of 40 youth representatives from across the country participated.  / SFCG Timor Leste

Opening ceremony of the District youth Forum in Oecusse in Timor Leste on April 23, 2013. A total of 40 youth representatives from across the country participated.  / SFCG Timor Leste

In Nicaragua, USAID’s Young Civic and Political Leaders Initiative, implemented by National Democracy Institute (NDI), supports a Certificate on Leadership and Political Management program which equips young Nicaraguans with skills and knowledge to govern effectively and become community leaders.  The program specifically aims to create a space where youth representing different political ideologies and from different backgrounds can come together to learn about democratic leadership.

In East Timor, USAID’s Youth Radio for Peace Building (YR4PB) project, implemented by Search for Common Ground, is aiming to transform the way in which youth engage with government and community leaders  to promote peace and reconciliation, and prevent election-related violence through civic education, leadership training and media programming.

In Kenya, USAID’s Inter-Party Youth Forum, implemented by NDI, is promoting inter-party youth leadership and engagement through working with political parties, and nominated party youth to establish the Inter-Party Youth Forum (IPYF).  The Youth Forum focuses on clean elections, implementation of youth provisions in the constitution, and campaigning against negative ethnicity.

To date, the IPYF has expanded to the country level, engaged more than 1,500 youth through outreach sessions, held a national youth peace conference attended by 950 young people, and conducted a peace campaign around the 2013 election.

In Egypt, USAID’s LEAD-Women and Youth Program, implemented by Creative Associates, is a $1.3 million project with the objective to encourage and support the active participation of women and youth in political dialogue and debate. This includes during key transitional democratic processes through voter education, civic outreach and the establishment and expansion of civil society advocacy networks.

As USAID continues to adapt our democracy, human rights and governance programs to the changing global context, we remain committed to continuing to empower and support young people to become active, engaged and passionate leaders and democracy supporters.


Jessica Benton Cooney is the Communications Specialist for the USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance in the Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance.

An Everyday Movement

Every four years, the world celebrates one of the most monumental sporting events in history – the FIFA World Cup. In so many ways, it is a sporting event like no other given its mobilization and marketing power and its ability to tap into core emotions of all people – irrespective of ethnicity, disability, economy or history.

As has been seen over the last few weeks, the World Cup also draws up within us the firm recognition of the power of sport, our global common denominator. For millions of people across the world, sport is the ultimate form of expression, a classroom of teaching and learning, and the most potent dissemination tool for key messages on behalf of communities and governments alike every day of the year.

Special Olympics Malawi athlete practices football drill during government sponsored demonstration event in Salima, Malawi May 2013. Photo Credit: Special Olympics

Special Olympics Malawi athlete practices football drill during government sponsored demonstration event in Salima, Malawi May 2013. / Special Olympics

From the football pitch in rural Malawi to the recreational cricket game in the parks of India, sport brings people together in a way that few other social mechanisms can. It unites a sense of connectivity in all of us, and it speaks a universal language that brings out excitement, togetherness and anticipation.

Harnessing this convening power of sport, Special Olympics serves as a global, grassroots movement dedicated to empowering the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. Serving as an important Development-through-Sport movement, Special Olympics works to create global communities of support, holding over 70,000 competitions a year – about 190 each day.

Team Haiti and Team Italia battle it out at the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece. Photo Credit: Special Olympics

Team Haiti and Team Italia battle it out at the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece. / Special Olympics

Special Olympics also brings critical services to one of the most marginalized populations on the planet through a wide range of trainings, health screenings, youth programs and public awareness campaigns. We create opportunities for families, community members, local leaders, businesses, law enforcement, celebrities, dignitaries and others to band together to change attitudes and support athletes.

Our goal is to reach the 200 million people with intellectual disabilities around the world as well as their families. Football (or soccer in the United States) is the world’s most popular sport. We know football transforms athletes, and we believe it has the popularity and power to help transform attitudes about intellectual disability as well. One of our most important sports programs is the Special Olympics Global Football Initiative, where thousands of Special Olympics athletes are able to train and compete with the support of the professional football clubs Inter-Milan, Italy; Manchester United, Glasgow Celtic and Tottenham Hotspur, United Kingdom; Sports Club Corinthians Paulista, Brazil; Monarcas de Morelia, Mexico; and Sounders FC, USA.

Working with FIFA and Soccerex, the leading provider of business events for the global football community, the World Cup has provided an opportunity for Special Olympics to highlight this initiative, giving it greater visibility to a large global football audience and raising awareness of the impact that sports like football can have on the lives of those with intellectual disabilities both on and off the field.

So as the World Cup comes to an end, sport for development programs will continue to create a lasting impact around the world. For Special Olympics, the love of the game isn’t a once-every-four-year event but an everyday movement – inching the world ever closer to full inclusion and the realization of human potential, unity and dignity.


David Evangelista is Vice President, Global Development and Government Relations for Special Olympics. Follow Special Olympics @SpecialOlympics.

For Jordan, U.S. Support ‘Guaranteed’

As I have traveled to Jordan over the past few years, I have witnessed up close the impact of regional instability and the influx of refugees from the Syrian crisis. At the community level, resources and services are stretched thin. At the national level, the impact is being felt on budget priorities. A recent USAID study estimates the fiscal cost for Jordan of hosting Syrian refugees is staggering—equivalent to 2.4 percent of Jordan’s GDP.

In a neighborhood of growing instability, time and time again Jordan has been a steadfast partner in the years. It is vitally important the United States assist Jordan to stand firm and maintain a strong economy in the face of regional uncertainty.

Thats why yesterday, the bond sale for a second United States-backed loan guarantee for Jordan, is especially relevant.

This second loan guarantee — for $1 billion - will help Jordan shoulder some of the enormous burden it is currently managing. It fulfills the commitment made by President Obama during his meeting in California this year with Jordan’s King Abdullah. President Obama noted at that meeting that, “we have very few friends, partners and allies around the world that have been as steadfast and reliable as His Majesty King Abdullah, as well as the people of Jordan.”

The loan guarantee will allow Jordan to access affordable financing from international capital markets—ensuring that it can continue to provide critical services to its citizens, even as it hosts over 600,000 Syrian refugees in this small country of 6 million people.

The future of Jordan

The future of Jordan / USAID

USAID is supporting the Government and host communities of Jordan as they cope with the Syrian crisis. We have re-oriented existing programs to account for the flow of refugees and added funds to focus directly on stresses caused by the crisis. With 85 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan living outside of refugee camps in local communities, the United States is helping expand school room and hospital capacity and increase trash collection.

Just last week, as part of Let Girls Learn, we announced a $12 million grant to help Jordanian schools provide education to Syrian refugees, including 180,000 children.

Our partnership did not start with the current crisis. For over 60 years, USAID and Jordan have worked together as partners in development. Together we are creating modern learning environments for Jordan’s young population, providing them with the education and skills to compete in a global market. To spur Jordan’s economic growth, USAID programs are promoting workforce development, job creation, and supporting regulatory and fiscal policy reforms.

Building on the success of last year’s loan guarantee agreement with Jordan, the current loan guarantee will enable the United States to continue to work alongside other donors—including the IMF—to support Jordan’s ongoing economic reforms. It will spur broad-based growth—helping Jordan to develop a more competitive workforce, reduce the strain on public services, and create good jobs.

Finally, Jordan is one of the driest countries on earth and has one of the highest population growth rates in the region. Demand for water far exceeds Jordan’s renewable freshwater sources, particularly with the continuing influx of refugees. Here, too, USAID is helping communities improve water resource management and rebuild aging water and wastewater infrastructure. USAID is also helping Jordanian families obtain low cost cisterns to collect water for households and gardens especially as families and communities expand with new arrivals from Syria.

USAID is helping families in Jordan, such as this one, improve water resource management. / Alyssa Mueller

USAID is helping families in Jordan, such as this one, improve water resource management. / Alyssa Mueller

Rapid population growth has reduced the amount of fresh water available to the average Jordanian to less than 158 cubic meters per year—10 times less than the average U.S. citizen consumes. The renewable water supply, replenished each year by rainfall, only meets about half of total water consumption.

Helping Jordan’s government continue to provide essential services, like access to potable water, is critical as the country manages its own development with an increased burden of hundreds of thousands of refugees in an unstable neighborhood. The loan guarantee is an important demonstration that today and tomorrow we stand by our strong partnership with the people of Jordan.


Alina Romanowski is Deputy Assistant Administrator for USAID’s Middle East Bureau

Why Free Media Matters

A minicab driver listens to a radio broadcast in a market in Abeche, Chad (2009). / Internews

A minicab driver listens to a radio broadcast in a market in Abeche, Chad (2009). / Internews

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” (Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. It reaffirms a sustained global commitment to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the U.N.General Assembly in 1948.

What’s more, press freedom is crucial for development.

A growing body of scholarly research, such as work by Nobel Laureate economists Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, suggest that independent media can contribute to better governance and stronger development results. The data show strong correlations between media independence and basic social stability, improved governance and reduced corruption, better health outcomes, faster economic growth and fewer famines.

I see this in my work everyday – well beyond the single yearly date of praise for the important work of journalists (which, is nice, too). During my travels for USAID over the years, to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Haiti, Kyrgyzstan, Mali, Namibia, South Africa, South Sudan, Tajikistan and others, I marvel at the amazing diversity of grassroots reporting at, for example, the local radio stations in these countries.

In the developing world, radio is often the primary way that communities stay informed both on current events, and on important development issues. USAID has supported community radios to strengthen their capacities in reporting, financial management, and equipment support. In turn, these radio stations help empower local journalists and citizen reporters to educate their fellow citizens about such topics as: preventing HIV-AIDS, malaria, polio and other diseases; managing scarce water resources; improving farming and animal husbandry techniques; business and economic reporting; strengthening local governance; gender equality and women’s empowerment, mitigating conflict and much more. Local radio and media cross-sector effects on local development are wide-ranging and impressive.

In Burma, USAID supports a wide range of media development programs, including in radio. /  Kim Nguyen van Zoen, Internews

In Burma, USAID supports a wide range of media development programs, including in radio. /  Kim Nguyen van Zoen, Internews

Afghanistan offers one inspiring example of rapidly emerging local media capacities. USAID has helped forge freer, more professional media since 2002. Once isolated, the Afghan people now enjoy unprecedented access to quality independent, local broadcasting, including the popular Tolo Television. Tolo was launched a decade ago by Afghan entrepreneurs with seed capital support from USAID. Today this network has grown to provide independent television service to two-thirds of the population.

On the Road host Mujeeb Arez works on location in Paktya province, Afghanistan.

On the Road host Mujeeb Arez works on location in Paktya province, Afghanistan. / USAID

Also with USAID support, a national network of over 50 Afghan-owned and operated radio stations emerged, reaching virtually all corners of the country. Millions of Afghan radio listeners tune in daily to the national radio news program, Salam Watandar, and enjoy other public affairs and educational programs. Afghan journalists receive training opportunities from non-governmental organizations such as the Nai Media Institute, while its sister organization, Nai Media Watch, monitors adherence to (and violations of) media legal protections for journalists.

As a result of diverse domestic media services, Afghan citizens have enjoyed wide access to professional reporting about all candidates during the current cycle of presidential elections. Lively media coverage helped inspire animated election discussions and high voter turnout in the first round of this important election to select a new president.

In Kenya and Afghanistan, USAID-supported data journalism projects have raised public knowledge – and public responses – to complex health and nutrition issues. These programs, which raise media capacities to cover these issues, often have resounding collateral benefits. One Kenyan data journalism fellow produced a lead television news story about malnutrition in northern Kenya that so captivated public attention that it resulted in swift reforms and increases in Kenya’s famine-relief programs — and also provoked reporting by many other Kenyan media outlets about food-related issues.

Catherine “Chiku” Wanjiku, a news editor and on-air journalist for the community radio station Loch FM in Korogocho, Nairobi, was trained through a USAID program. / Christian Viseux, Internews

Catherine “Chiku” Wanjiku, a news editor and on-air journalist for the community radio station Loch FM in Korogocho, Nairobi, was trained through a USAID program. / Christian Viseux, Internews

On May 3, we can reflect on the vital roles of freer media and more open information environments for enabling citizens as well as public officials to make better informed decisions. Spurred on by a digital revolution in media technologies, increasingly versatile mass communications outlets (blending broadcast, print, internet, wireless, and interlinked multi-media platforms) can facilitate the timely and inclusive sharing of information among all actors in a society, ranging from ordinary citizens to leading elites from all walks of life.

USAID joins a larger global community of several dozen public and private donor organizations in promoting freer media and more open communications environments. We currently support independent media strengthening programs in over 31 countries with an approximate annual budget of $40 million.

As we reflect on the past year, USAID welcomes the report by the United Nations General-Secretary’s High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, including its renewed calls for freer information access and more independent media. Goal 10 of the panel’s report observes that “people around the world are calling for better governance,” including more “transparent, responsive, capable, and accountable” institutions. Achieving these goals will depend on “ensuring people’s right to freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest, and access to independent media and information.”


Mark Koenig is Senior Advisor for Independent Media Development for USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (DCHA/DRG).

Eight Facts About ZunZuneo

On Thursday, April 3, the Associated Press published an article on a social media program in Cuba funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The article contained significant inaccuracies and false conclusions about ZunZuneo, which was part of a broader effort that began in 2009 to facilitate “twitter like” communication among Cubans so they could connect with each other on topics of their choice. Many of the inaccuracies have been re-reported by other news outlets, perpetuating the original narrative, or worse.

Photo credit: Manpreet Romana/AFP

Photo credit: Manpreet Romana/AFP

The article suggested that USAID spent years on a “covert” program to gather personal information to be used for political purposes to “foment” “smart mobs” and start a “Cuban spring” to overthrow the Cuban government.  It makes for an interesting read, but it’s not true.

USAID’s work in Cuba is not unlike what we and other donors do around the world to connect people who have been cut off from the outside world by repressive or authoritarian governments. USAID’s democracy and governance work focuses on strengthening civil society, governance, and promoting human rights.

Here are eight claims made by article, followed by the facts:

1) The story says the “program’s legality is unclear” and implies the program was “covert.”

FACT:  USAID works in places where we are not always welcome. To minimize the risk to our staff and partners and ensure our work can proceed safely, we must take certain precautions and maintain a discreet profile. But discreet does not equal covert.

The programs have long been the subject of Congressional notifications, unclassified briefings, public budget requests, and public hearings. All of the Congressional Budget Justifications published from 2008 through 2013, which are public and online, explicitly state that a key goal of USAID’s Cuba program is to break the “information blockade” or promote “information sharing” amongst Cubans and that assistance will include the use or promotion of new “technologies” and/or “new media” to achieve its goals.

In 2012, the Government Accountability Office—the U.S. government’s investigative arm—spent months looking at every aspect of USAID’s Cuba programs. GAO’s team of analysts had unrestricted access to project documents, extended telephone conversations with Mobile Accord (ZunZuneo) and even traveled to Cuba. The GAO identified no concerns in the report about the legality of USAID’s programs, including ZunZuneo, and offered USAID zero recommendations for improvements.

2) The article implies that the purpose of the program was to foment “Smart Mobs,” funnel political content and thereby trigger unrest in Cuba.

FACT:  The “USAID documents” cited in the article appear to be case study research and brainstorming notes between the grantee and the contractor.  The specific reference to “Smart Mobs” had nothing to do with Cuba nor ZunZuneo. The documents do not represent the U.S. government’s position or reflect the spirit or actions taken as part of the program in Cuba.  The project initially sent news, sports scores, weather, and trivia.  After which, the grantee did not direct content because users were generating it on their own.

3) The story states there was a “shell company” in Spain formed to run the program.

FACT:  No one affiliated with the ZunZuneo program established a private company in Spain as part of this program.  The project sought to do so if it was able to attract private investors to support the effort after USAID funding ended.  Private investment was never identified and thus no company was ever formed.

4) The story implies that the USG tried to recruit executives to run ZunZuneo without telling them about USG involvement.

FACT:  A USAID staff member was present during several of the interviews for candidates to lead ZunZuneo.  The staff member’s affiliation with USAID was disclosed and it was conveyed that the funding for the program was from the U.S. Government.

5) The article states that private data was collected with the hope it would be used for political purposes.

FACT: The ZunZuneo project included a website, as is typical for a social network.  Users could voluntarily submit personal information. Few did, and the program did not use this information for anything.

6) The article says that the funding was “publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan,” implying that funds were misappropriated.

FACT: All funds for this project were Congressionally appropriated for democracy programs in Cuba, and that information is publicly available.

7) The story stated, “At its peak, the project drew in more than 40,000 Cubans to share news and exchange opinions.”

FACT: At its peak, the platform had around 68,000 users.

8) The article suggests there was an inappropriate base of operations established in Costa Rica outside of normal U.S. government procedures.

FACT: The Government of Costa Rica was informed of the program on more than one occasion.  The USAID employee overseeing the program served under Chief of Mission Authority with the U.S. Embassy, as is standard practice.

We welcome tough journalism – and we embrace it.  It makes our programs better.  But we also believe it’s important that the good work of USAID not be falsely characterized.

The Cost of Corruption

Many consider corruption to be an unavoidable cost of doing business around the Middle East and North Africa. The costs of corruption are obvious, and widely acknowledged. It is commonly accepted that corruption limits development, siphons off critical development resources, causes citizens to lose confidence in their governments, and undermines the region’s progress toward democratic reform. In spite of this, many just assume that corruption is here to stay, and that there’s little ordinary citizens can do to push back.

USAID-supported youth CSO coalitions share perspectives on constitutional reform, youth representation in parliament, and other government initiatives affecting youth.

Credit: USAID/K. Rhanem

In recent years, USAID has played a key role in supporting regional anti-corruption efforts. In partnership with Transparency International, we launched the ACTION program – Addressing Corruption Through Information and Organized Networking – in order to study corruption in the region and develop a roadmap for addressing it. The project examined corruption in Yemen, Morocco, Egypt and West Bank/Gaza. Last fall, activists from around the region gathered to present a series of case studies detailing examples of corruption, the costs corruption imposes, and potential solutions.

A critical first step in addressing corruption is ensuring that regional legislation protects citizen access to information. As Palestinian journalist Ahed Abu Teima observed, “access to information, and the provision of information to journalists, reporters and the media, is one of the most important factors in the success of anti-corruption efforts.”

The project documented how existing legislation in all four countries limits access to information critical to identifying corruption, for example through secrecy laws in Egypt and Morocco. As a result, citizens and citizen groups are unequal partners in their relationship with government institutions, undermining a country’s democratic development. Adequate legislation is a necessary first step in the battle against corruption. “The only way, the best way, to end corruption is to establish transparency on a broad scale. That isn’t going to happen without the passing of a law,” said Egyptian professor Khaled Fahmy.

ACTION launched an anti-corruption portal that for the first time provides Middle East and North Africa-region activists, academics and media professionals with research and action-oriented tools and resources. The project also developed a series of video case studies profiling anti-corruption activists in each of the four countries.

Initiatives such as ACTION are making a difference. In 2011 Morocco included language ensuring access to information in its constitution, and in 2013 drafted a corresponding law. In 2012 Yemen enacted an access to information law and may include it as a constitutional right. Prior to the change in Egypt’s government in July 2013, the government had drafted an access to information law and included the right in the 2012 constitution. Egyptians are now waiting to see how these commitments are carried forward by the transitional administration.

Disclosure of governmental activities and access to information are core principles of open government and democratic reform. They are essential tools in battling corruption, and promoting accountability, transparency and integrity. Through efforts such as our partnership with Transparency International, we are helping to lay the long-term foundations for a successful transition to democracy around the Middle East.

Registering for Democracy in Yemen

Yemen is poised to launch a high-tech Biometric Voter Registry (BVR) system representing a significant step forward in the development of a credible voter registry in that country. During my recent visit to Yemen, I met with the chairman of Yemen’s Supreme Commission of Elections and the Referendums (SCER) Judge Mohammed Hussein Al-Hakimi to learn first-hand about the opportunities and challenges that exist for Yemen’s upcoming electoral processes.

During her recent visit, USAID DAA Elisabeth Kvitashvili practices registering with Yemen's new biometric voter registration system.   Photo credit: USAID

During her recent visit, USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator Elisabeth Kvitashvili practices registering with Yemen’s new biometric voter registration system.
Photo credit: USAID

For a country with previous voter registries acknowledged to contain duplicate and under-age voters, as well as “ghost” voters, the use of the new registry will generate a list of voters that is far more rigorous and less susceptible to fraud. Past voter registries were compiled manually and took upwards of two years to complete.

Funded by international donors, including USAID, the registry is a public sector IT project with software procured in Yemen and ranks among the most sophisticated in the world.  I was eager to try it out and so I was fingerprinted–both hands–on a screen that “captured” my fingerprints and then photographed with special eye recognition technology.

The new biometric registration process will generate a far more accurate voters list. It will also provide the government, in particular the Civil Status and Registration Authority, with the basis to complete their civil register and assist in the issuance of a national identity card.  To our knowledge, this is the first biometric voter registration project undertaken in the Middle East and North Africa region and is on par with recent, high-quality projects, such as one developed in Kenya last year.

The registry is housed with the SCER which is charged with carrying out the registry in advance of national elections scheduled in the next year. The elections will follow a constitutional drafting process and referendum, both of which will receive major technical support from USAID.

As an essential foundation for a modern civil Yemeni state, the country’s upcoming constitutional referendum is an important process of giving citizens an opportunity to register their opinion on the outcomes of the recently completed National Dialogue Conference.

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