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On the Road to Innovation in the West Bank

Recently I spent two action-packed days visiting the West Bank where I saw the tremendous impact that the USAID West Bank and Gaza Mission’s work has in many sectors and witnessed several innovative projects.

Students at the Al Haffasi Coeducational Elementary School in Kafr Al Labad. USAID recently renovated the school adding three floors and six new classrooms.

Students at the Al Haffasi Coeducational Elementary School in Kafr Al Labad. USAID recently renovated the school adding three floors and six new classrooms.

The work we are doing in the education sector and with youth is among the most exciting. USAID is currently partnering with the Ministry of Education and Higher Education on a national reading campaign to raise the public’s awareness of the importance of reading and to encourage everyone to read. I told students at the Al Haffasi coeducational elementary school in Kafr Al Labad, in the Tulkarem Governorate what a gift reading is. The slogan for our campaign “Today’s Readers Tomorrow’s Leaders,” rings true and I encouraged all of the students to grab a book and spend time reading, dreaming and learning. At the school we distributed dozens of books to the students, including popular works of American fiction and non-fiction like “Colors in the Desert” and “Mystery at the Museum” translated into Arabic that I am certain the students will enjoy.

A Palestinian entrepreneur taking part in a mini-MBA program offered by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Tel Aviv University’s Recanati School of Management with support from USAID.

A Palestinian entrepreneur taking part in a mini-MBA program offered by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Tel Aviv University’s Recanati School of Management with support from USAID.

The ingenuity and creativity of young Palestinian entrepreneurs I met was very impressive. While these youth face many challenges, ranging from finding jobs to starting businesses, I am certain that they will find and seize opportunities for success. I told them about a USAID initiative that will provide support to early stage businesses to create and sustain jobs, encourage increased equity investment in early stage businesses, and advance and develop the investment environment. The young entrepreneurs I met specialize in fields ranging from software to agribusiness to energy, and so many things in between. They were passionate about their ideas and I am certain that they will help lead the Palestinian economy forward.

During my two-day stay, the USAID West Bank and Gaza Mission reached 100,000 likes on Facebook, an impressive milestone and a testament to the open channel of communication that the Mission has cultivated with its fans, most of whom are based in the West Bank and Gaza.  Check out the site – USAID West Bank/Gaza.  The Mission posts fantastic photos of its highly important activities and loves to hear from its fans.

While in the West Bank I also visited an innovative pilot project where wastewater is treated and then reused to irrigate crops. This initiative is extremely resourceful and I look forward to seeing the data on crop yields and freshwater resources saved. I hope that the success of this pilot program can be emulated at other locations in the West Bank. I also got a glimpse of the challenges that the mission faces, particularly with environmental issues. Visiting a polluted stream, a tannery, and a landfill, I saw the complexities of the proper disposal of waste and sewage.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Romanowski briefed at Beit Fajjar in the West Bank on environmental issues and proper disposal of waste and sewage.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Romanowski briefed at Beit Fajjar in the West Bank on environmental issues and proper disposal of waste and sewage.


I was pleased to see that the mission’s implementation of the High Impact Micro Infrastructure Initiative, a $100 million initiative announced by Secretary of State John Kerry in November 2013, is advancing according to schedule, with more than 40 infrastructure activities underway, and more scheduled to begin in the near future. These infrastructure projects are coordinated with the Palestinian Authority and municipal authorities to support Palestinian national priorities and include construction or renovation of health clinics, road repairs, construction of community centers and school, and other similar projects.  This initiative aims to provide Palestinians with quick, tangible infrastructure improvements in dozens of communities throughout the West Bank.

The range of people and projects that I saw over the course of two days was impressive.  While the challenges that numerous people and communities face are serious, their innovation and ingenuity are incredible and inspiring.

Partnering to Make Merit-Based College Admissions the Norm in Ukraine

Prior to 2008, if you were to have asked typical Ukrainian high school students,  university applicants or their parents to honestly explain the surest way to gain entrance to university, most would have responded that informal payments and influence-seeking provided the golden keys to admission.  This type of process benefited not the brightest and most deserving but the affluent and best connected. High school graduates from low-income households or rural areas had virtually no access to the more prestigious universities and faculties of Ukraine. This uneven playing field for university admissions has already had its unintended consequence; since the best students were not always accepted at the best universities, employers too often settled for underqualified graduates, resulting in a workforce less professional than it should be.

Testing Procedures

A student watches as a test proctor registers her examination materials.
Photo: USAID/USETI

The picture is beginning to change. Since 2007, USAID has assisted Ukraine in building and rolling out national university admissions testing. USAID’s Ukrainian Standardized External Testing Initiative (USETI) and its follow-on, the USETI Alliance, have partnered with Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science, the academic community and civil society to launch national standardized external testing for university admissions, helping Ukrainians build the infrastructure and intellectual tools for a fair and merit-based admissions process. Equal access to higher education and by extension better prepared graduates are critical ingredients for a more competitive Ukrainian professional workforce to drive the economy.

USETI is a partnership of 16 Ukrainian and international governmental institutions, NGOs, universities and businesses,  established to make Ukraine’s higher education system more transparent in its admissions processes.

USAID’s key innovation was to build a coalition of support for standardized external testing as a transparent tool for admissions to higher educational institutions, bringing together parents, educators and NGOs who are convinced of the benefits of this merit-based approach. Parents asserted the rights of their children to merit-based access to higher education. NGOs responded by becoming the voice of the parents, putting pressure on politicians to change national policy. Higher educational institutions saw the benefit of supporting a merit-based admissions policy in attracting high quality students.

USETI and the USETI Alliance provided critical support to Ukraine’s national testing center, the Ukrainian Center for Education Quality Assessment, to make it a strong and sustainable institution capable of independently and transparently developing and implementing secure tests that meet international standards.

The USETI Alliance also helped develop the KONKURS online reporting system, which publishes the results of each university applicant by name, assuring the real-time internal transparency of admissions to higher educational institutions.

The USETI Alliance continues to build public support for the process through one of Ukraine’s most influential civil society organizations, the OPORA Civic Network, a partner organization that has instilled public confidence and approval of the standard external testing process through intensive university admission monitoring

According to national polls, popular support for standardized external testing continues to increase. Whereas 42 percent of Ukrainian supported such a system in 2008, by 2012 the number had increased to 62 percent.

Most importantly, by the end of 2015 about 1.8 million students will be accepted to university programs based on their performance on standard external tests rather than family contacts or their ability to pay.

Much more has to be done to make an admissions system based on standardized external testing sustainable, and a continuing commitment by all stakeholders is essential. Nonetheless, the paradigm has shifted, and Ukraine will be better for it.

250 Million Children In The World Cannot Read And USAID Is Doing Something About It

Two hundred and fifty million children in the world cannot read according to the recently released Education for All Global Monitoring Report, Teaching and Learning: Achieving Quality for All; 130 million of them are in primary school. That’s equal to more than a third of the population of the United States. If these children do not learn to read they will have fewer opportunities and struggle with learning for the rest of their lives. Learning to read in the early grades is critical and hard work. It is not a skill that can be “picked up.” With the help of teachers trained specifically to teach reading, children learn to read over time by practicing and honing their skills. Strong readers perform better in all subjects, so children who learn to read in the early grades have a better chance of graduating from high school and getting a job or pursuing a college education.

At the State of the Union the other night, I was sitting in the gallery listening to President Obama say, “One of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is a world class education.” I was on my feet applauding. His words ring true here at home and in developing countries around the world.

I’m visiting Zambia and Malawi over the next two weeks where USAID is working hard with our partners to end extreme poverty and to promote resilient, democratic societies by investing in new, results-based reading programs that start with building capacity in the existing teacher corps and in training new teachers in the best practices of teaching reading.

Children in class in Kenya

Children in class in Kenya
Photo By: Derek Brown

In Malawi, USAID partners developed a phonics-based reading program in the Chichewa language, and provided Chichewa readers to students and accompanying scripted lesson plans to their teachers. Teachers received training on the use of the materials and extensive on-site coaching to help them use them every day in their classrooms. In 2012, after two years of the implementation of this program, the proportion of 2nd graders who could read at least one word in Chichewa had risen from 5.3 to 16.8 percent. The program is now in the process of being scaled up to all districts in the nation of Malawi.

Malawi and Zambia aren’t the only countries where we’re making an impact. In Kenya, USAID is sponsoring an initiative to improve reading outcomes in Kiswahili and English in 500 primary schools. The program has introduced innovative teaching methods, new, phonics-based reading materials for mother tongue instruction, and professional development to build the skills of educators and improve student literacy outcomes. In a recent study we found that children enrolled in schools using the USAID-funded program were up to 27 times more likely to read than students in schools outside the program. This program, too, is in the process of being scaled up to reach more schools in the future so that more children in Kenya will have access to a high quality education.

In the Philippines, USAID is supporting a program known as the Improved Collection and Use of Student Reading Performance Data. Each time a teacher participating in the program conducts a reading test (in either Tagalog or English), he/she submits the test results via SMS to a Department-of-Education administered database. Teacher supervisors from the department then use this information to provide timely feedback to the teachers on their reading instruction, based on the student results. This USAID program is heightening transparency about student outcomes and tightening the feedback between teachers and their coaches, leading to an increased likelihood that teachers will identify and assist children who are not meeting grade-level expectations in reading.

Through these programs children are learning to read and will have better lives thanks to the support of the American people, and USAID will continue to do more to get all children reading and access to quality education.

In Morocco, Perseverance and Good Luck Ensure Three Young Boys a Quality Education

By Dr. Helen Boyle, Associate Professor in Educational Leadership and Policy at Florida State University

In early December education leaders, donors and partners met to discuss and plan for the future of early grade education in the Middle East and North Africa at the All Children Learning Workshop in Rabat, Morocco.

Youssef, Moustafa and Redouan were lucky boys.  In the late 1970s, school was not a given for all children in Chefchaouen, Morocco. Their five older siblings never attended school. The advocacy of their mother and older siblings ensured that these younger boys would get a formal education. It was a privilege to go to school in this world, not a right, and they had to do very well indeed to maintain that privilege.

Every evening, when they came back from the kuttab (Quranic school) and later from elementary school, they would all sit down with their older sisters and review everything they did at school. They would review all the letters—the sounds, the letter shape and the letter name—with their sisters. They reviewed and read the verses of the Qur’an that they learned that day and would take their booklets and read aloud anything they wrote down.

Youssef reflected, “I remember we spent countless hours doing that. For example, we would open the book and look at the letters that we wrote that day and say ‘lam, l + a = la, l + o = lo,’ or, we would explain the vowel markings to them—‘the line on top of the letter makes an “a” sound and the one below makes an “e” sound and the one above with the curl makes a “u” sound.’ “  In turn and as the boys grew older, the girls would quiz them, asking them questions after they read a passage aloud.  Redouan said, “The thought was that they were doing this to help us succeed, but we were also teaching them indirectly.” Indeed, the sisters are literate and “read better than some who have been to school,” said Moustafa.

This story is inspiring for many reasons as it demonstrates family love and loyalty and the power of perseverance.  However, one of its most critical messages is less obvious and needs to be brought to light. These were indeed lucky boys as they had a teacher in primary school, Umm Kalthoum, who knew how to teach reading.  It is almost certain, in those days, that she received minimal training, but she understood the importance of teaching reading skills.  Under her guidance, the boys—and their sisters—developed phonological awareness, knew the name of each letter, understood that each letter made a sound; understood what the vowel markings (diacritics) were for and did segmenting and blending activities in class and at home. They developed vocabulary in Modern Standard Arabic and then listening and eventually reading comprehension skills in a language which was in many ways different from the dialect they spoke in their home and in everyday life.

Thanks to Umm Kalthoum, with whom they all studied in the early grades, these boys learned the foundational skills of reading and were able to pass them on to their sisters; these boys all went on to professional careers and great success.

USAID is working with Morocco’s Ministry of Education to leave behind a teacher training program that will support the continuous professional development of teachers.

USAID is working with Morocco’s Ministry of Education to leave behind a teacher training program that will support the continuous professional development of teachers.

Today, despite higher rates of school enrollment than ever, many Moroccan children are not as lucky as these three boys were over 30 years ago. Educational quality has not kept pace with the growing number of children seeking an education in Morocco. Indeed, Morocco’s PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) and EGRA (Early Grade Reading Assessment) scores indicate that there is significant room to improve reading instruction and reading levels in Morocco.

In early December USAID co-funded a workshop in Rabat, Morocco to mobilize education leaders and advocates to improve early grade learning in the Middle East and North Africa. Other donors included the Global Partnership for Education, German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), the Islamic Development Bank, and the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO). Country teams, including representatives from Ministries of Education, civil society and local donor organizations, gathered to discuss innovative solutions to give all children a chance to learn. At the All Children Reading workshop, delegations created action plans that will provide clear and concise goals for initiating or scaling up existing early grade learning programs at the country level. Opportunities were provided for country teams to network and to build mechanisms for support and accountability to push planning into practice. Global literacy leaders’ and advocates’ discussions during this workshop focused on key thematic areas in early grade learning, including large scale learning assessments, teacher training and supervision, curriculum and lesson plans, assessment tools  and impact evaluations, and reading materials.

On the PIRLS test, a score of 500 corresponds to the mean of the overall reading achievement distribution across the 45 countries. Morocco scored a 310, which was the lowest score of the 45 countries that took the PIRLS in 2011.Indeed, in 2011, all of the Arabic-speaking countries that took the test were below the 500 average with scores ranging from 439 to 310 for 4th graders (Mullis, Martin, Foy, & Drucker 2012). This points to an issue with how reading is taught in a rich and complex language like Arabic, a language with many spoken variations, not just in Morocco but across Arabic-speaking countries.

Good teaching focused on the foundational skills of reading can make an enormous difference, as we see in the example of the three boys and their sisters. Supporting teachers to develop skills and strategies to teach reading will ensure that the success that these children experienced in learning to read can be replicated in every early-grade classroom in Morocco.

Building the Foundation for a Two-State Solution

Last month I visited USAID’s West Bank and Gaza Mission and witnessed how our diverse programs bring tangible benefits to the lives of Palestinians. I came away from another whirlwind visit certain that USAID’s work helps build the foundation for peace.

The Palestinian hi-tech industry, for example, now consists of more than 250 mostly small-sized companies, where few existed only a couple of years ago. USAID helped spur this growth by holding competitions, seeking prototype solutions, and awarding subcontracts to help innovative entrepreneurs develop their startups and products. The “Hi-Tech Hub” event I attended in Ramallah showcased newly developed gaming and tourism apps under a USAID competition. The innovative spirit on display during that event was electrifying, and I look forward to seeing which final products will go forward to be developed. I also met with Palestinian students enrolled in a mini-MBA program offered jointly by Northwestern and Tel Aviv Universities. Not only does the program impart the exceptionally bright students with tools that will help them build their businesses and the Palestinian economy, it also builds bridges between Israeli and Palestinian academics and future entrepreneurs.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Romanowski and Administrator Rajiv Shah play soccer with a student at the Az Zeer school in Harmala.  Click to view more photos from their visit to the Middle East

Deputy Assistant Administrator Romanowski and Administrator Rajiv Shah play soccer with a student at the Az Zeer school in Harmala.

During my visit, I also met with a range of businesspeople, including Palestinian business leaders. We discussed the Palestinian economy, focusing on which sectors are ready for expansion and investment. They stressed the need for a business enabling environment with proper regulations. I also met with representatives from global hi-tech companies, including Cisco, Qualcomm, iMesh and Amital. I encouraged them to develop and expand partnerships with Palestinian tech firms to take advantage of the untapped potential within that sector, thus increasing employment, exports and revenues.

One of the highlights of my trip was accompanying Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Bethlehem, which reminded everyone that the city has tremendous potential as a tourism center. We toured a USAID road renovation project that will not only enhance driver and pedestrian safety, but will also link Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity to the city of Bethlehem itself. It was during our visit to Manger Square that Secretary Kerry announced an additional $75 million in support to the Palestinian Authority’s High Impact Micro-Infrastructure Initiative (HIMII), bringing the total U.S. Government commitment to $100 million. USAID’s role in implementing HIMII will be critical, as we continue to create jobs, upgrade basic infrastructure, and deliver tangible improvements in the lives of Palestinians.

While at Manger Square, I also saw the positive outcomes of USAID’s engagement with youth. I spoke with representatives from USAID-sponsored Youth Shadow Local Councils and learned about their experiences working in their local communities on projects ranging from job fairs to providing food assistance and beautifying parks and roads. I also visited students at the Az Zeer Elementary School in Harmala, near Bethlehem. There, I saw how hundreds of students are benefiting from a USAID school renovation project that provided students with access to more facilities and classrooms.

My visit also reconfirmed the importance of agriculture to Palestinian society. During a meeting with Palestinian agribusiness representatives, I learned about the challenges they face and the ways in which USAID is helping them overcome obstacles to export their products. If the olive oil, dates and vegetables I sampled were an indication of excellent food products, we would all stand to benefit from greater access to these products in our own grocery stores and markets.

My interactions highlighted the importance of our activities in building the future for the Palestinian people. With all our partners and government counterparts working together, we continue to move forward to implement sustainable development projects that benefit the Palestinian people and promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

View photos from Deputy Assistant Administrator Alina Romanowski’s recent visit to the Middle East on USAID’s Flickr site

Helping Bright Ideas Shine Through Spotlight: Brian Gitta, Makerere University, Uganda, ResilientAfrica Network

USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) – a multidisciplinary research and development effort led by seven universities working to evaluate and strengthen real-world innovations in development – recently spotlighted young academics and their creative approaches to development challenges during TechCon 2013, the first annual HESN meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia. As part of a contest, more than 40 students and researchers presented innovations designed to help communities in developing countries.  

Winner Brian Gitta, from Makarere University in Uganda, invented  a tool that can diagnose malaria without the need for blood samples and a laboratory. This is the story of that innovation.

Brian Gitta wasn’t in the mood to get stuck by another needle – he was already getting injections three times a day to fight off a foodborne illness. But as his fever spiked and the pain in his joints worsened, he suspected he was suffering yet another occurrence of malaria, the disease he’d contracted as a child and currently kills one child every minute in the developing world.

A nurse at a local clinic confirmed his suspicion by drawing blood using a needle and syringe. “I hated the needles and kept thinking of ways people could be diagnosed without pain,” Gitta recalled.

Brian Gitta, from Makerere University in Uganda pitches his winning idea that uses cell phones and light – not needles and blood samples to test for malaria. Photo Credit: Cynthia Kao-Johnson/USAID

Brian Gitta, from Makerere University in Uganda pitches his winning idea that uses cell phones and light – not needles and blood samples to test for malaria. Photo Credit: Cynthia Kao-Johnson/USAID

That puzzle was still on Gitta’s mind weeks later as he began his studies in Computer Science at Makerere University and started thinking about ways technology could be used to improve malaria detection. The standard method of determining whether someone has malaria is drawing blood and viewing it under a microscope, which requires health workers and facilities that are scarce in many low-income communities.  For Brian, the goal wasn’t just to alleviate momentary pain; eliminating needles and the need for a lab would not only limit the risk of infection but allow for diagnosis in communities that had no medical centers.

Gitta shared the idea with his friend Joshua Businge and they began researching new ways to detect malaria.  They learned that for years, light sensors have been used to read the blood’s oxygen content through the skin. This seemed like a promising avenue to explore, so the pair recruited Josiah Kavuma and Simon Lubambo, students skilled in engineering hardware.  Together, the team designed a prototype that plugs into a smartphone and can detect malaria using only light. Results are available in seconds and the smartphone can email them and map them for epidemiological purposes.  They named the device Matibabu, Swahili for medical center.

By coincidence, Makerere University was launching an initiative called the ResilientAfrica Network (RAN) as part of HESN and an upcoming launch event in Uganda would give local innovators an opportunity to demonstrate concepts for solving public problems.  The team demonstrated their prototype to Alex Dehgan, director of USAID’s Office of Science and Technology, RAN director William Bazeyo, and Deborah Elzie from RAN partner Tulane University.  “I was very impressed,” Elzie said. “When we talk about innovation, people are often just improving on something that’s already out there…These guys really found a whole new way of looking at how to determine if someone has malaria.”

RAN searches for creative minds like Gitta’s and helps them overcome obstacles that often keep bright ideas from making it to the marketplace.  RAN gave Gitta’s team a workspace, training on writing business proposals, mentoring, and the resources needed to make a better prototype.

They teams hopes to a commercially viable product and plans to partner with an established organization working against malaria.

Reflecting on his innovation, Gitta noted, “as long as you put your mind and hard work to it, you can accomplish anything at any age.”

Testing Readers in the Early Grades in Pakistan

I wish you could have been there. The little girl, a third grader, in a sky blue uniform with a white sash sat across from the evaluator. Her manner was shy, her voice barely audible but her dark eyes were determined. She was going to do her best, no doubt about it, despite a bunch of strangers standing around to watch.

A young girl in Pakistan attempts to read the story of Rani, testing her reading and comprehension skills as part of an Early Grade Reading Assessment being carried out in Pakistan.

A young girl in Pakistan attempts to read the story of Rani, testing her reading and comprehension skills as part of an Early Grade Reading Assessment being carried out in Pakistan. Credit: Christie Vilsack

The evaluator explained that she could help us understand how children read by participating in some word games. He told her about himself and asked her to do the same. He asked about the language she uses at home with her family.

Each page required a certain task. The first determined whether she knew where to begin reading on the page and in what direction. She used her pointer finger to show that she did.

Next he asked her to say the name of some letters, and then to name some simple words. She could do this also.

Then he asked her to say the sounds produced by letters (b is the sound made by the letter “b”). And then he gave her some made up words to sound out like pum and tep. Most of us remember this as phonics, which we learned in kindergarten and first grade. This task was more difficult for her.

When he asked her to read a short paragraph she stumbled through the words and the timer went off long before she finished. Anyone watching could tell it was the letter sounds that were tripping her up.

She was so busy trying to decipher the words that the meaning behind the story escaped her. She couldn’t tell the evaluator why the character, Rani, was scared of what was behind the door, or why she smiled when she saw it was just a mouse.

By now 33,000 children in Pakistan have been tested, a random sampling in each of Pakistan’s seven administrative units. The test that was used in Pakistan is called EGRA, the Early Grade Reading Assessment, and it was developed with World Bank and USAID support to RTI International here in the United States, starting in 2005.

EGRA is an essential tool in our educational toolbox as USAID invests in teaching 100 million children to read in 39 countries around the world. The EGRA instrument is translated into the local language and tests the foundational skills of reading as well as reading fluency and comprehension. It can help teachers know which skills need more attention and can help policy makers know which aspects of instruction need more attention and funding.

If you’ve had a child in a U.S. school then he or she has probably taken DIBELS© or another oral assessment in the early grades to test her or his understanding of the key building blocks of reading.

EGRA was inspired by DIBELS and other early grade assessments and experts at RTI, USAID and the World Bank, other institutions picked the key skills and subtests that predict reading competency and can be tested in the context of developing countries. EGRA is so easy to administer that any of us could do it with our own children and get a sense of their strengths and weaknesses.

We can use the data we gather from the test to help ministries of education determine how best to proceed to meet the reading needs of their students and where to invest their scarce resources.  EGRA is also a diagnostic tool that can provide teachers and principals a roadmap for improving teaching and learning. USAID works to build capacity at the ministry level, train teachers and develop textbooks in a languages that children speak and understand, and produce supplemental reading materials so that government officials, communities, and parents develop sustainable programs that improve students’ reading skills.

In developing countries, the solutions are not difficult to understand. They mirror the solutions here at home. Those who work on these issues say it’s carrying out the solutions under difficult circumstances that is a bigger problem.

How do you administer tests if no one in the country knows how to assess early grade students? If schools are far from cities and towns and transportation is difficult? If schools have been closed by insurgents? How do you administer the test if an earthquake has suspended classes? How do you get to villages high in the mountains to administer the test? And if you get there and there aren’t the necessary number of students in the classroom to make the test statistically correct because they’re farming with their parents in the fields, what do you do?

It’s essential to find ways around such barriers because the most important person in the room is the child who wants to learn, who wants to know about the girl, Rani, in the story and why she smiles at the end.

The evaluator in a primary school in Pakistan talks with the young girl about the reading assessment, explaining how it works and what she will be doing.

The evaluator in a primary school in Pakistan talks with the young girl about the reading assessment, explaining how it works and what she will be doing. Credit: Christie Vilsack

The little girl before me smiles at the evaluator as the assessment ends, smiles shyly at all of us because she has done her best. We leave with a sense of purpose. It’s hard to teach 100 million children to read, but it’s not impossible. And, when we succeed, this little girl and many like her will be able to raise her own children, including her daughters, in a culture that values education and the economic and global security it ensures.

Working Together, Faster and Closer to Solve Development Challenges

In November 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and its Office of Science and Technology launched an initiative under which seven universities would act not just as colleagues in studying global challenges, but as USAID’s laboratories, testing real-time solutions.  This Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) is a network of eight Development Labs on seven university campuses and over 100 additional partners institutions in 38 countries that harness the ingenuity and passion of university students, researchers, and faculty to find, develop, and apply new science and tech-based solutions to the world’s most challenging development problems. HESN is powered by a conviction that advances in science and technology can bring the brightest minds in higher education closer to practitioners in developing countries who are trying out innovative approaches, as well as accelerating the expansion process for innovations that prove successful.

A year later, “TechCon 2013” in Williamsburg, Virginia brought together more than 200 representatives from the seven lead universities and their partners: The College of William & Mary; University of California, Berkeley; Duke University; Makerere University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Michigan State University; and Texas A&M University. The eight Development Labs demonstrated their individual progress, but equally exciting were the unexpected insights gained from the uncommon collaboration between members of the network. Epidemiologists learned from marketing experts, agricultural economists from software executives, and professors of mechanical engineering from post-conflict project managers.

That sort of collaboration — involving experts from disparate academic disciplines who might otherwise not run into each other on campus — was part of the vision of HESN. “The solutions that will truly be transformative, that will get us to scale, that will make us successful, that will save lives, are those that capture all of the university,” Alex Dehgan, Science and Technology Adviser to the USAID Administrator, said in his remarks to the conference. “We’re not looking for business as usual. We’re asking, are the things that you are working on going to result in innovations that are truly disruptive? Will you change the landscape as a result?”

“We’re not just trying to create grant relations with each of you,” USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah told the conference by video link. “We are really hoping that you will be the extramural R&D hub for the agency that has significant global capabilities and sits at the center of the American government to achieve the goals that the President laid out for us.”

In the “Innovation Marketplace” exhibition area, Chris Bielecki, who is working toward a Ph.D. in agricultural engineering, was exhibiting his project that helps farming families in food-insecure Guatemala keep a photographic journal of their meals. “Interesting to see how HESN centers’ work are integrating with each other,” Bielecki observed on Twitter. ” Who says academia can’t break out of their silos!”

More than 40 students and researchers competed for conference attendees’ votes and a chance at $4,000 in expansion funding from IBM in the conference “pitch competition”.  Environmental engineering student Caroline Delaire delivered a sales pitch for an affordable way to rid drinking water of arsenic in rural Bangladesh — just add rust. Urban planning student Elizabeth Hoffecker Moreno pitched a project in rural Zambia that helps women protect their health by making menstrual pads with locally grown cotton.  The sales pitch that won the top prize, was by Brian Gitta, a sophomore at Makerere University in Uganda. When Gitta was sick with malaria he wondered whether it would be possible to diagnose the disease without piercing the skin. He and his classmates subsequently invented a device that shines light through the skin and sends the data to a cell phone, where the results can be quickly read and interpreted, even by non-medical personnel  far from a clinic.  Beyond the pitch competition, Esri sponsored a mapping competition that brought students together to map their activities and tell the story of the network.

In the first year of HESN, Development Labs developed 27 transformative innovations and conducted pilot tests for 20 of those; 4 of them have already been adopted by the targeted communities. Labs have shared their research in 25 publications and reports as well as via websites that have attracted more than 10,000 visitors. The labs have contributed instructional material for 11 new university courses on international development.  Almost 200 students have received field experience including more than 50 who completed overseas fellowships of more than a month.

At the end of the conference, USAID’s Dehgan said the gathering marked an important step in the evolution of the foreign aid establishment’s embracing of innovation. “I think it is the tipping point where we really went from vision and idea to the actual production of starting to get results — the creation of the ecosystems and the creation of the pipelines of services that we’re trying to do in development,” he said. “We’re starting to see a community of practice around development engineering, around the use of data, around the question of how we really harness innovation.”

To learn more about HESN, visit www.usaid.gov/hesn.

From the Field in Pakistan: Catch of a Lifetime

When the video team and I started out from Islamabad, Pakistan, early one morning, I didn’t know what, or whose, story awaited us. We were traveling to the remote outskirts of Jamshoro, a city on the banks of the Indus River (about 90 miles northeast of Karachi for a video shoot. It was during our interviews with community members that we met Imran Ali Mallah.

A world away from education, Imran once worked diligently as a fisherman, hauling up nets seven days a week to make ends meet. When we spoke with him, however, he was living a different kind of life.

After learning about a USAID-funded teachers’ education program, former fisherman Imran Ali Mallah decided to study to become a teacher. Photo credit:  USAID Teacher Education Project/EDC

After learning about a USAID-funded teachers’ education program, former fisherman Imran Ali Mallah decided to study to become a teacher. Photo credit: USAID Teacher Education Project/EDC

Weary of the unpredictability of the fishing trade and inspired by an advertisement in the local paper for a USAID initiative offering training, he decided to become a teacher.

“I grew up in poverty,” Imran told me. “I know the pain and suffering that comes along with it.”

Imran enrolled in the two-year ADE teacher training program and committed himself to his new endeavor. He now travels four hours every day from his home in Jamshoro to the Provincial Institute of Teacher Education in Nawabshah. Despite the hardship, he has maintained excellent grades, and will receive his associate’s degree in 2014.

Imran is optimistic about his future, passionate about teaching and financially more secure.  Instead of toiling each day on his boat, he is able to support himself and his studies by teaching children two hours a day. He hopes to help give his students the opportunity for a better future. “Changing children’s mindsets toward learning and success is very important for the citizens of our country,” said Imran. “It enables personal growth. I hope to pass on this beacon of knowledge.”

Thanks to the USAID-funded Associate’s Degree in Education (ADE) program, Imran Ali Mallah is changing his life—and the lives of his students—as he pursues his ambition of becoming a teacher. Photo credit: USAID Teacher Education Project/ EDC

Thanks to the USAID-funded Associate’s Degree in Education (ADE) program, Imran Ali Mallah is changing his life—and the lives of his students—as he pursues his ambition of becoming a teacher. Photo credit: USAID Teacher Education Project/ EDC

Imran credits the USAID education program with his success, “The ADE program has been a source of inspiration. It enabled me to switch my profession from fishing to teaching. With its advanced teaching methods, it has brought classrooms to life, which has made both teachers and students open to change.”

More than 2,600 teacher trainees like Imran are enrolled in the USAID-funded, Government of Pakistan-accredited, two-year ADE program and four-year Bachelors of Education. ADE is one of several USAID projects helping millions of Pakistanis unlock their full potential. In addition to ADE, USAID has launched degree programs in education at 90 teacher colleges and universities, and is building new applied research centers at Pakistani universities that focus on energy, water and agriculture. More than 10,600 low-income students attend college in Pakistan with USAID-funded scholarships.

Learn more about USAID’s work in Pakistan.

Haiti Holds First National Reading Championship

The finalists with the Director General and Deputy Director General of MENFP and well-known author Frankétienne. Photo credit: MENFP

The finalists with the Director General and Deputy Director General of MENFP and well-known author Frankétienne. Photo credit: MENFP

Out of 11,000 students from 172 schools, the Government of Haiti recently chose 72 finalists to attend the first National Reading Championship. From this talented bunch, six were national finalists. The two shining stars who came out on top in the final round were Bruna Samika Délomme, a fourth grader from the Northwest, and Loveda Movin, a third grader from Nippes. After participating in community reading activities during their summer, they proudly walked away as the top readers in their country.

At the event, Minister of National Education Vanneur Pierre stated that the National Reading Championship was a stepping stone in efforts toward improving the education system in Haiti. “The country is at a difficult crossroads today where education is the only tool to get the nation out of this impasse. Fortunately, the government has chosen to put the emphasis on education,” he said.

Samika Bruna Delhomme (L) of Northwest and Loveda Movin of Nippes were named finalists. Photo credit: MENFP

Samika Bruna Delhomme (L) of Northwest and Loveda Movin of Nippes were named finalists. Photo credit: MENFP

The competition has set a precedent for the nation and for the students. By acknowledging and supporting the endeavors of its brightest students, the Government of Haiti is helping to instill a culture of reading in this country and to secure a better future for its students. Ensuring that children can read in early grades often determines their future educational success, thus opening the door to greater economic opportunities in adulthood.

The National Reading Championship was hosted by USAID and the Ministry of Education, helping students like Bruna and Loveda maintain their reading competencies and comprehension during the summer vacation.  In addition, it inspired Minister Pierre to initiate Reading Fridays, which will be implemented in public schools to promote and encourage reading fluency and comprehension.

Read more about USAID’s education efforts in Haiti.

Like USAID Haiti on Facebook and follow @USAID_Haiti on Twitter for ongoing updates in the region. 

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