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Digitizing Education

This year’s Women’s History Month theme is “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics”. In observance, USAID is spotlighting innovative women working in these fields. Below is an interview with Catherine Oliver Smith, COO and Co-Founder of Urban Planet Mobile.

How would you describe the work of Urban Planet?

Urban Planet Mobile develops and distributes digital education worldwide, primarily through basic mobile phones that provide English language education. The Urban English™ program design – simple SMS with an embedded audio file – creates the potential of reaching 95% of mobile phones worldwide with life-changing educational content. An English-speaking taxi driver in a tourism-based economy, for example, has the opportunity to earn a greater income than one who can’t speak English.

Students play a mobile game in Kenya. Photo credit: Ed Owles, Worldview

We believe access to quality education is a human right so our focus is to make education readily available to people, with little or no other access, on a device they already own and use. We also ensure affordability by charging micro-payments. Free programs are hard to scale and sustain because there is always a cost to developing and deploying the content. By providing quality, in demand content, people are more inclined to make the small investment for the tangible results education brings.

Urban Planet started with the goal of reaching the most basic phones and helping bring mobile education to the world. Today we are successfully reaching hundreds of thousands of people with our scalable and affordable technology. And this is only the beginning. Through the support of USAID, Urban Planet is testing and evaluating the effectiveness of MobiLiteracy, our 90-day mobile literacy program in Uganda. The intervention is an out of school supplemental program for pre-literate children. It introduces letters, sounds, and common words, and works on developing both listening comprehension and encouraging storytelling and sharing.

Why is language learning critical for development? Is there something about this modality of education that disproportionately benefits women?

Literacy is the basis for learning, but it’s more than that. According to the UNESCO (PDF), in the developing world, the children of literate mothers have a 50% greater chance of surviving past the age of five. Literate communities are generally healthier, less violent, more civically engaged, and more economically strong.

Mobile phones are very personal devices, more so than any other technology device. MobiLiteracy lessons are sent as a basic SMS daily lesson with an audio link. Mothers can open the audio lesson at a convenient time, which could also mean a safe and private time. The lesson can be deleted from the phone, saved, and also shared privately.

While the lessons are generally meant for children, mothers with limited or no literacy can certainly benefit. Parental involvement in education is a proven precursor to success but parents with limited education feel inadequate and ashamed. This program empowers mothers to take an active role.

Where do you see this technology ultimately going over the next several decades? 

The cost for tablets and smartphones will continue to decrease as the competition increases and the capacity of the technology expands. Also, areas with limited or no connection will get connected.

Right now, simple programs that provide for supplemental education make a tremendous impact, but the future is more robust educational programs, widely accessible and available to people currently limited from such programs due to lack of technology and the requisite infrastructure. More and more formal curricula will be created for this digital world.

While censorship and repression inhibit the spread of certain ideas, information, and education, through the use of mobile technologies, marginalized members of society will have unprecedented access to education. It is through education that a more peaceful, healthier, and better world will emerge.

USAID Helps Timor-Leste Communities Keep Kids in School

My country, Timor-Leste, is extremely young—only 10 years old. Our Timorese population is young, too. Almost 40 percent of our one million people are school-age—that is, between 5 and 19 years old. But school attendance rates are still low and many kids drop out of school.

One of the worst times for students to drop out is between 6th and 7th grades: about 20 percent of 6th grade students do not go on to start 7th grade, the first year of secondary school. USAID is focusing on this particular problem through the School Dropout Prevention Pilot (SDPP) project, which works with more than 10,000 kids in the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades—the final grades in elementary school—along with their teachers, parents and the communities in which they live. The goals are to discover which kids might be in danger of dropping out and then to keep them in school with a range of fun activities that boost their skills and confidence.

Students in Timor-Leste play a learning game with the SDPP team at Ramahana Elementary School. Photo credit: Milca Baptista, USAID

A few weeks after the launch of the project’s in-school activities in October, I had the opportunity to visit three SDPP schools in remote areas of Timor-Leste, along with colleagues from our Mission in Dili and USAID headquarters in Washington. The schools we visited were in Viqueque District, far from where I live in the capital, Dili, so the trip also gave me an opportunity to understand people’s lives in parts of the country I had never visited before as well as to see the project teams in action.

The first school we visited was Bubulita Elementary School, near Timor-Leste’s south coast, about eight hours’ drive from Dili. We had to walk for two and a half hours from the nearest road to reach the school. In Bubulita, SDPP has had substantial success with an early warning system to identify kids at risk of dropping out—a system that means, for the first time in Timor-Leste, school administrators and teachers can track attendance, performance, and behavior to identify at-risk students. A key component of this system involves having a trained volunteer community team visit the parents of at-risk kids to convince them to keep their children in school.

“I appreciate the fact that this project is involving local community members, so they feel that they are also responsible, not just teachers and parents,” said Bubulita principal Mario da Cruz.

Since SDPP facilitators arrived at Bubulita, there has been perfect attendance. Before the activities started, three students were considered at-risk. One was older than the maximum school age, so had to quit. But the other two have come back to school. And now, local community volunteers visit the school twice a week to find out if any students are missing or late for class.

The introduction of SDPP’s extra-curricular activities has brought perfect attendance to Bubulita Elementary School in Viqueque. Photo credit: Milca Baptista, USAID

Not far from the district capital we visited the Kraras Elementary School. Because it is near the town, the school is in far better condition than others we saw. I talked with the principal and deputy principal who told me that the project is well-supported by the teachers, the students and the local community, who are all excited about the extracurricular activities that are run by SDPP project facilitators. These activities aim to keep at-risk students interested in school by boosting their confidence and their ability to participate with their peers. Activities include cooperative learning exercises and games to build basic literacy and numeracy skills. In most schools, SDPP extracurricular activities are the first they have ever had.

“This is the first time we have had extracurricular activities at our school. Although some of the children have to walk two hours to and from school, they stay to take part until the end of the activities,” said Kraras principal Claudino Ruas. He added that no students have missed class more than once since the project started.

On my trip to these remote areas of my own country, I found that even though the lives of people are extremely difficult, they all want their kids to receive a good education. In one remote village I learned that the people of the community had even built a school themselves to ensure that their children would have access to a school near their homes. As a Timorese, I admire their courage and determination to move my country forward even in that isolated place, and I am happy that USAID is helping these communities ensure that all kids receive the support they need to stay in school and build a better future for our young country.

Photos of the Week: International Mother Language Day

A teacher in Kati, Mali instructs her class. Photo credit: Dana Schmidt

February 21, 2013 marks International Mother Language Day! To celebrate its 14th anniversary, USAID recognizes education and literacy programs operated by our missions around the globe. There are more than 6,000 languages in the world and 50 percent of them are dying. International Mother Language Day not only promotes linguistic and cultural diversity, it brings attention a need to preserve it.

Learning in a mother language (first language) is incredibly important to children’s development and education. It improves school outcomes, reduces repetition and reduces dropout. Children who are educated in their mother tongue are significantly more likely to be enrolled and attend school. Additionally, children learn to read faster if they speak the language of instruction, because they already have vocabulary, knowledge of the construction of the language and  the ability to pronounce the sounds of the language.

Join the conversation on Twitter (@USAIDEducation) and use hashtag #MotherLanguage Day!

In Uganda, a teacher helps a student in front of the class. Photo credit: Dana Schmidt

 

A Record-Breaking Year for Mobilizing Private Capital for Development

Credit guarantees are a cost-effective way to get local, private financing into the hands of creditworthy borrowers. From low-income Haitians seeking to rebuild in Port-au-Prince, to women-owned small businesses in Kabul, to solar companies in Uganda, USAID is enabling private markets in the developing world to provide financing to the people who need it most.

USAID’s Development Credit Authority (DCA) worked with 45 financial institutions in 23 countries in 2012 to unlock up to $525 million in private capital for underserved entrepreneurs in developing countries. The financing, made available through 34 partial credit guarantees, is the most USAID has mobilized in a single year.

Putting Local Wealth to Work: Development Credit Authority 2012 Portfolio. Photo Credit: USAID.

An additional 39,000 small businesses will soon be able to access local financing because of the new USAID credit guarantees, reflecting the Agency’s drive to leverage private sector resources for international development. Thanks to increased employment and other benefits for the families of these small business owners and their workers, these loans will translate into more than a million people whose lives have been improved by increased access to finance.

Learn more about DCA on our website.

 

Interagency Panel on Economic Statecraft to Create Competitive Foreign Markets

Eric Postel is assistant administrator for the Bureau of Economic Growth, Education and Environment.

Last Monday, December 10, I had the opportunity to speak at an interagency panel on the topic of Economic Statecraft and Developing Partnerships with the Private Sector.

Spearheaded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Economic Statecraft is a positioning of economics and market forces at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. The Secretary has stressed that emerging nations are increasingly dealing in economic power rather than military might as their primary means of exercising influence, and the U.S. must be at the forefront, or risk being left behind.

Our USAID Administrator, Dr. Rajiv Shah, opened the event at the Woodrow Wilson Center, with remarks emphasizing the innovative work of USAID in this area – work which may not be as well-known as those in the areas of Global Health, Education and Food Security.

The panelists speak at the Economic Statecraft event. Photo Credit: Pat Adams, USAID.

USAID plays a central role in helping to create foreign markets that are competitive, transparent and integrated into the rules-based global trading system. The Agency has been successful in spearheading pro-business reforms in the last decade in six of the top 10 performers in the World Bank’s Doing Business Index. Technical assistance and support has been provided to numerous countries including Georgia, Columbia and Vietnam with reforming their laws and regulations. While a direct correlation is perhaps not possible to make, imports increased four-fold in Vietnam following the course of six years of U.S. assistance with business climate reforms.

In the last 10 years, USAID has formed more than 1,600 partnerships with over 3,000 private sector players, leveraging approximately $19 billion in public and private resources, expertise and technologies. In 2012, USAID’s Development Credit Authority was designed to use loan guarantees to unlock large sources of local capital, and approved 38 new partial credit guarantees to mobilize a record $700 million in commercial capital in 23 countries. In practice, this means that 140,000 small scale businesses will be able to access local finance – impacting more than a million people.

One of USAID’s goals is to create opportunities and economic expansion in developing countries. This approach is increasingly becoming a new model for the Obama Administration, and is one that engages far more broadly with the private sector, delivers more dividends after foreign aid is removed, and demands more transparency and good practices overall.

Our work in this area demonstrates the need to work closer than ever with our interagency partners, several of whom were also my co-panelists at the Economic Statecraft event: the Department of State, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the United States Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). As one example of our interagency coordination, this past Fall, USAID entered into a new global agreement with USTDA. The agreement will enable our missions around the world to perform feasibility studies of energy, transportation, and information and technology projects. Mission Columbia is the first buy-in under the agreement, supporting a feasibility study focusing on smart-grid technologies for large power systems. I anticipate many more partnerships between both the private sector and government, as well as within the government itself in moving forward in this undertaking.

More information can be found on the Wilson Center’s website.

 

Development Labs Launch at Seven Universities

View photos from the Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) Launch at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC on November 9, 2012, and from the HESN meeting with Secretary Clinton.

This post originally appeared on The White House Blog.

Last week, OSTP Director John P. Holdren joined USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah in launching the Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN)  – a groundbreaking partnership between USAID and seven top universities that is designed to harness the ingenuity and passion of university faculty and students  to develop innovative solutions to global development challenges.

USAID’s HESN was first announced at the White House in February 2012 and its formal launch marks the latest milestone in the Administration’s work to leverage US comparative advantages in science, technology, and innovation to accelerate progress toward global development goals. The effort is a direct response to the President’s Policy Directive on Global Development, which calls for investments in game-changing innovations with the potential to solve long-standing development challenges—such as vaccines for neglected diseases; drought-resistant seed varieties; and clean energy technologies.

Fully achieving this vision will require what the President has called an “all-hands-on-deck” approach. That is why we are so enthusiastic about HESN: it embodies a new way of doing business—one that empowers innovators around the world to tackle big development challenges (a model that Administrator Shah has dubbed “Open Source Development“).  We are also pleased that the HESN will leverage the stores of untapped energy and expertise that reside on university campuses. The seven HESN universities were selected from nearly 500 applications from 49 states and 33 countries.  And, the pulse of student interest on campuses across the country is nearly palpable.

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah speaks at Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) Launch on November 9, 2012. Photo Credit: Rodney Choice

With financial support from USAID matched by private sector partners, each of the seven universities will establish a Development Lab with a unique focus. For example, the Development Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will publish a Consumer Reports-style series of evaluations that will help donors and policymakers invest in the best existing technological solutions; the University of California Berkeley will establish a new field of Development Engineering and shepherd a portfolio of specific development solutions – such as low-cost, solar-powered vaccine refrigerators – through the pipeline of research, field evaluation, translation, and scale-up; and the College of William and Mary will build a world-class research consortium of geographers, economists, epidemiologists, political scientists, computer scientists, and statisticians to collect, geo-code, and analyze data to enable USAID and developing country governments to make hard-nosed, evidenced-based decisions.  All seven of the Development Labs – including Labs at DukeMichigan StateTexas A&M, and Makerere University in Uganda – will work closely with USAID’s field mission experts and Washington staff at every step along the way.

Congratulations to USAID and to the university leaders, faculty, students, and staff that will be key to the success of the Higher Education Solutions Network.  By ensuring that faculty tenure- and promotion-policies encourage and reward social impact, interdisciplinary work, and international engagement; by pursuing Grand Challenges for global development; and by adopting humanitarian licensing strategies that increase global access to university-developed technologies– we hope all universities will embrace the critical role they can play in global development.

To learn more about the HESN, please visit: http://www.usaid.gov/hesn

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Policy at OSTP

Robynn Sturm Steffen is Senior Advisor to the Deputy Director for Policy at OSTP

From the Field: Gender Equity through Education in South Sudan

Regina Anek, a deputy director for gender at South Sudan’s Ministry of Education in Eastern Equatoria, just saved a 14-year old girl from an early, forced marriage. She says she was empowered to intervene as the result of her participation in a USAID-supported mentor-training program for teachers and education officials aimed at encouraging girls not just to enroll, but also to complete, secondary school.

Mentoring is just one of the ways USAID is addressing financial, social and institutional barriers to gender parity in education through the Gender Equity through Education (GEE) Program.

School completion rates for girls in South Sudan are extremely low. Survey data indicates that the rate of completing the eight-year primary cycle is currently 30 percent for boys, while the girls’ completion rate lags far behind at 17 percent. Secondary school completion rates are even worse.  This cannot only be attributed to the long conflict in this country, which prevented many girls from attending school, but also to other unique cultural and financial barriers.

One rampant cultural barrier is early marriage. Persistent poverty has been cited as a major reason for parents marrying off their daughters in exchange for money. Moreover, cultural norms in some places dictate marriage readiness for girls as young as 13. Communities often stigmatize older girls in schools, causing them to give up their education.

With USAID’s mentoring support and some tuition stipend, many girls now stay in school, and some who were married at an early age are now able to return and complete their secondary schooling.

These rural schoolchildren participate in the USAID-funded Southern Sudan Interactive Radio Instruction project, which uses radio to broadcast interactive student lessons. / Karl Grobl, Education Development Center Inc.

These rural schoolchildren participate in the USAID-funded Southern Sudan Interactive Radio Instruction project, which uses radio to broadcast interactive student lessons. / Karl Grobl, Education Development Center Inc.

The GEE program’s three components include:

  • a scholarship program;
  • an advocacy, community mobilization, and mentoring program;
  • and an institutional support program.

Regina Anek was trained as a mentor, enhancing her skills to intervene in communities where girls face social pressure to leave school to get married.

“I was informed that a student from one of the schools in my state was about to be married off, and I hurried to convene a meeting with the family and community. Meanwhile, I asked the parents to allow me [to] accommodate the girl at my house so that she could continue attending school as we resolved her marriage case,” Anek said.

After weeks of negotiating and educating the community leaders and the girl’s parents on the importance of an educated girl to the family and society, the girl was allowed to return home and continue with school.

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to learn more about our programs in South Sudan.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jane Namadi is an Education Management Specialist at USAID