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USAID Book Club: A Farewell to Alms

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As part of USAID’s Fall Semester, we will host an online book club for our readers this fall. The Impact Blog will post suggestions from our senior experts at USAID to suggest a book on important issues in international development.  We’ll provide you and your book club with the reading suggestions and discussion questions, and you tell us what you think! Our fall reading list will  explore solutions to the most pressing global challenges in international development—mobile solutions, poverty, hunger, health, economic growth, and agriculture.

This week’s choice comes from: USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah

Dr. Rajiv Shah serves as the 16th Administrator of USAID and leads the efforts of more than 8,000 professionals in 80 missions around the world.

Dr. Rajiv Shah serves as the 16th Administrator of USAID and leads the efforts of more than 8,000 professionals in 80 missions around the world.

Book: A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, by Gregory Clark

Synopsis: The source of human progress has long been a subject of debate. What makes rich countries rich, and poor countries poor? In the this book,  University of California, Davis, Economist Gregory Clark offers a provocative take on the age-old question, arguing that it was culture—rather than geography, natural resources or centuries of exploitation—that left some parts of the globe behind.

According to Clark, relative stability and effective workforces enabled certain societies to take better advantage of the Industrial Revolution’s new technologies and opportunities. Those countries with lax systems or undisciplined workers lost ground, and stayed there.

Clark’s book is skeptical of whether the poorest parts of the world will ever achieve real progress. For development professionals, it offers up a challenge to the belief that outside intervention can help bridge the vast economic divide between rich and poor.

Review:  This book impacted me because it shows how for hundreds, or even thousands, of years basic economic progress was largely stagnant. You didn’t have rapid compound increases in living standards until the Industrial Revolution when some countries and some societies got on a pathway towards growth – towards better health, longer life expectancy, higher income per person and more investment in education. Others remained on a slower-moving pathway.

That great divergence, and the study of it, is at the core of development. It is that divergence that we try to learn from and correct for. We define success in development as helping communities and countries get on that pathway towards improved health and education, and greater wealth creation.

I didn’t choose this book because I think it is the definitive story on development, but rather because I share its focus on core economic growth as the driver of divergence.

I disagree where Clark concludes that some societies failed to take advantage of the availability of modern technology because their cultures were antagonistic to development. With the right conditions in place, you can unlock a formidable work ethic from a range of different cultures and communities. The last 50 years have shown us that. By investing in local capacity and local institutions, we can leave a legacy of economic infrastructure, strong and capable leadership, and transparent, effective public and private sector institutions.

USAID’s partnerships in Latin America helped country after country develop strong institutions. The same can be said for South Korea. Unfortunately, there have been examples where aid and assistance have been provided in a manner that was not as sensitive to building lasting local capacity and institutions. This is true for all partners, not just our Agency. That’s why we’ve launched a program called USAID Forward, to refocus on working in a way that will create durable and sustained progress.

Administrator Shah is on Twitter at @rajshah. You  can also “Ask the Administrator” your questions on Crowdhall

Discussion Questions

1. Do you agree with Clark that some societies failed to take advantage of the availability of modern technology because their cultures were antagonistic to development?

2. The Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Solow has said Clark does not take into account how institutional factors, such as cronyism, inequitable taxation and ineffectual government cripple development. What role do you think these institutional factors play?

3. Clark challenges how effective outside intervention can be in helping poor nations progress. Do you agree?

4. Regardless of why some nations have fallen behind, how do you think they can bridge that gap today?

5. Has your world view changed after reading this book and how?

Get Involved: Use the comments section of this blog post to share your answers, or tweet them to us at #fallsemester

Powering Energy to Face the Challenges of World Hunger

Feeding the world’s hungry and access to energy are typically viewed as separate development goals. But it is becoming abundantly clear to those of us here in Rio de Janiero at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (RIO+20) that they are intertwined. The facts speak for themselves:

  • An estimated 850 million people go to bed each night hungry;
  • The world population grows by 77 million people each year, and by 2050 the population will be an estimated nine billion;
  • To meet this demand, global food production must increase by 70 percent by 2050.

PoweringAg, USAID’s new Grand Challenge, invites ideas and innovation on powering up energy in developing countries. The effort is expected to help women with 43 percent of the world’s farmers estimated to be female.

To feed nine billion people, we will need to increase food production on the land already growing today’s food supply, and access to sustainable energy is key.

The magnitude of the challenge is illustrated in Sub-Sahara Africa (SSA) where only fourteen percent of people in rural areas have access to electricity.  Post-harvest losses have risen as high as fifty percent in SSA, but with the introduction of cold storage, refrigerated transport, and business models to store produce could dramatically reduce levels of hunger. 

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You’re invited to join Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge for Development, which is a multi-year initiative focused on promoting affordable, clean energy solutions for farmers and agribusinesses throughout the developing world. Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge for Development supports market-driven approaches that link modern energy service providers with farmers, processors, input suppliers, and traders. These approaches aim to further integrate clean energy technologies in the agricultural sector to increase production, employ new value-added processing techniques, and reduce post-harvest loss. This Energy Grand Challenge for Development was launched last week at the Frontiers in Development conference and includes an online ideation community that you’re encouraged to join through www.PoweringAg.org– find it by clicking on “Join the Community.”

Powering Agriculture: A Grand Challenge for Development is implemented under the Grand Challenge for Development program that invites innovators everywhere to apply science, technology, and creative business models to address obstacles in the path of human development. USAID and its partners – the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), Duke Energy, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) – seek to catalyze a movement of solvers to identify clean energy solutions to intensify the agriculture sector, enhance food security, and decouple food production from the use of fossil fuels. For more information on how to join the community now, share ideas, review the pre-solicitation notice, and apply for a grant starting July 12th, please visit: www.PoweringAg.org.

Launch of New Grand Challenge – The Agriculture/Energy Nexus

Today 1.4 billion people lack access to clean energy.  The impact of this limited energy access is particularly pronounced in the agricultural sectors of developing countries, where three out of four people living in poverty have livelihoods connected to agriculture.  The lack of modern energy services impacts every aspect from farm to market – from irrigation and harvesting to processing and storage.

On June 12, 2012, USAID and its partners will launch ‘Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge‘.  This global effort will increase clean energy access and support economic growth in the developing world through finding and scaling effective, clean energy solutions for farmers and agri-businesses.  Success will result in enhanced food security and increased economic resiliency in the host communities.

Visit PoweringAg.org to learn more, join the forum, watch the launch event and ultimately, to submit proposals.

USAID and Partners Kick Off LAUNCH: Energy

There is something incredibly powerful about working alongside innovators and entrepreneurs who are on the brink of deploying products and technologies with the potential to solve longstanding development problems.  As USAID and our partners prepare to kick off the LAUNCH: Energy Forum this Friday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, we are eagerly awaiting that exact opportunity.

The LAUNCH experience is challenging and affirming all at once.  For many of us, it is a singular reminder of why we chose to work in international development or on global environmental sustainability issues: to do our own small part in solving humanity’s most critical problems.  In joining together to form LAUNCH, USAID, NASA, the U.S. Department of State, and Nike, Inc. declared our intention to work together toward that very goal.

As anyone who travels or works regularly in the developing world knows, access to clean, sustainable, and affordable sources of energy is one of the 21st century’s largest development challenges.  Even basic levels of access to power can make a substantial impact on the challenges faced by off-grid communities.  With basic access to energy, school children can study at home at night, health clinics can refrigerate vaccines, and consumers can charge the household appliances and devices that make daily life more productive and convenient.  Through LAUNCH, we will showcase and support over the next six months some of the most promising technologies and programs that take on important parts of this energy access challenge.  LAUNCH has convened a truly impressive group of energy innovators.  They include, for example:

  • A micro/mini-grid solution for underserved communities that utilizes modular battery storage technology, energy management intelligence, and a pre-payment model (“Gram Power”);
  • An economical fuel cell for developing country markets that allows battery charging in cooking pits or fires, offering an affordable way for off-grid consumers to charge cell phones and power household lighting (“Point Source Power”);
  • A rural refrigeration system for commercial cold-storage applications in off-grid and partially electrified areas of developing countries (“Promethean Power Systems”).

You can see the full list of the LAUNCH: Energy innovators and descriptions of their innovations.

We are equally excited about the bright and diverse group of people who have joined the LAUNCH Council, which will advise the innovators.  During the Forum, the innovators will engage in three days of collaboration with the Council, a world-class group representing the business, investment, international development, policy, engineering, science, communications, and sustainability sectors.  We have assembled the Council to give individualized advice to the innovators and to form a network that can help accelerate their progress in the coming months. Check out profiles of the LAUNCH Council members.

We know this weekend will be an invigorating experience for our partners, the innovators, and the Council members alike.  We look forward to both the intensive collaboration this weekend and to the subsequent work through our “LAUNCH Accelerator” of helping advance some of the world’s most promising energy innovations.

Please follow the LAUNCH: Energy Forum this Friday and Saturday (November 11 and 12) and participate right along with us.  Portions of the Forum will be viewable live from www.launch.org, where you can also learn more about LAUNCH.

Calling All Energy Innovators! USAID and Partners Issue “LAUNCH: Energy” Challenge

USAID and its partners in the LAUNCH program (NASA, the State Department, and NIKE, Inc.) have issued our LAUNCH: Energy challenge statement, formally beginning the third module of the LAUNCH program.  While previous program modules in 2010 and early 2011 focused on water and health, in this module LAUNCH is searching for entrepreneurial efforts focused on the development of innovative products, services, and programs in the energy sector. We are specifically seeking transformative innovations to improve access to energy, energy efficiency, and/or energy technologies, for both the developed and developing worlds.  We believe that USAID’s engagement in LAUNCH: Energy is timely.  Expanding access to cleaner energy is one of the most pressing development challenges of the 21st century, and we know that disruptive thinking, programs, and businesses are required to tackle this challenge.

LAUNCH’s mission is to search for, showcase, and support innovators poised for potential large-scale impact on humanity’s most pressing sustainability challenges.  LAUNCH will select a group of approximately ten energy innovators from around the world to attend the LAUNCH: Energy Forum at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to be held November 10-13, 2011.  During the Forum, LAUNCH Innovators will present their solutions to the LAUNCH Council, which includes leading figures from the business, international development, policy, engineering, science, communications, and sustainability sectors.  The Forum sessions are designed to provide targeted advice to Innovators on their business and program challenges and to identify future opportunities.  LAUNCH Innovators will also receive about four months of individually tailored technical assistance from the LAUNCH team and its resource partners.

USAID and our partners would love to have your help in casting the net as widely as possible in our search for leading edge energy innovators.  We encourage you to circulate the challenge statement within your networks. The challenge statement, application instructions, and background information on LAUNCH are all available here (pdf 240kb).  The challenge statement is an open, public call for applications; individuals and organizations in the for-profit, not-for-profit, university/research, and social enterprise sectors are all eligible.  The application period is currently open and will close in mid-September; you can apply directly through the platform on the LAUNCH website.

The LAUNCH team and the Office of Science and Technology at USAID are very excited about our role in the program and about its potential to accelerate transformative innovations that will drive development progress.  We have been continually surprised and invigorated by what we have learned through our work in shaping and running LAUNCH, and this LAUNCH-derived body of knowledge influences much of our work on a day-to-day basis.  As a result, we cannot wait to see what surprises and opportunities LAUNCH: Energy will present for everyone involved!

Please watch this blog and www.launch.org in the weeks before the LAUNCH: Energy Forum (early November) for updates on the Innovators chosen for the Forum and on our exciting plans for LAUNCH: Energy.

USAID Brings Electricity to Key Towns in Western and Eastern Equatoria

USAID brought electricity to two key towns in southern Sudan in February— Maridi in Western Equatoria and Kapoeta in Eastern Equatoria—as part of USAID’s effort to provide basic infrastructure to the underdeveloped and war-affected region.

Electric power in the two towns will improve community security and the ability of local merchants to conduct business; will benefit government institutions, health care facilities, and students studying after dark; and will reduce reliance on polluting energy sources such as diesel for generators and kerosene.

More than 80 percent of southern Sudan’s rural population does not have access to electricity. “We know this project will have an immense impact on promoting economic activity, enhancing security through street lighting, improving reliability of electricity to schools and clinics, and providing convenience to households,” said U.S. Consul General in Juba Ambassador R. Barrie Walkley, at the inauguration of the Kapoeta power plant with Government of Southern Sudan officials on February 4. The Maridi plant was inaugurated February 23.

Each of the two new plants can serve approximately 900 customers, and were built so that future expansion could be added. In 2008, USAID brought electricity to Yei in Central Equatoria, and helped establish southern Sudan’s first electrical cooperative.

Read more about our projects in southern Sudan.

USAID Shows Youth the Benefits of Conserving Energy

Saving energy is key to any country’s solid economic future and to its future as an independent country.  Teaching this generation of youth to take ownership over energy-saving best practices proves paramount in ensuring Ukraine’s sustainable energy future. Ukraine’s dependence on imports from Russia for most of its energy supply makes energy conservation especially important. In the country, where 70 percent of heat from the apartment buildings escapes through windows, walls doors and bad heating systems, USAID believes that that every Ukrainian can contribute to saving heat by taking just small steps toward reducing their energy footprint.

USAID’s Municipal Heating Reform project, together with the Ministry of Housing and Communal Services and Ukrainian celebrities, announced the Energy Efficiency Season to make energy efficiency fashionable and inspire Ukrainian youth to demonstrate responsible attitudes toward energy consumption.

Throughout the course of the Energy Efficiency Season campaign, four gala-concerts and TV programs (all incorporating the word “teplo” or “heat” in Ukrainian): Teplo Fashion, Teplo Feng Shui, Teplo City and Teplo Ukraine will feature tips on how to get warm and keep warm with simple and low-cost energy saving measures. The events will promote heating efficiency through fashion events and give celebrities a platform from which they can share ideas on energy conservation drawing from their personal experience.

Ukrainian singer Alyosha, who represented Ukraine at the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest, explains why she decided to join USAID’s Energy Efficiency Season campaign. Photo Credit: USAID Municipal Heating Project

Sarah Wines, the USAID Acting Mission Director, observed, “If each of us begins to make small changes in our lives, we will all contribute to saving energy. And if each of us tells our friends, our parents, our brothers and sisters that they too can make a difference by just changing their habits, we will help this country achieve energy independence and make it a leader in the world and in Europe on how to live in a new era of lower energy consumption and clean energy.”]

According to Olga Romanyuk, the Deputy Minister of Housing and Communal Services, decreasing Ukraine’s dependency on imported fuel is a key task for the Ukrainian Government.  She said that this can only be achieved by implementing energy saving technologies and educating the youth on how to conserve energy.

When Lights Come Back on, New Asia Training Center Glows Green

Thirty-one floors up on the Bangkok skyline, on December 14, aid veteran Jim Bednar was in the middle of a touching reflection on his decades of Foreign Service when the lights went out. It was exactly 7:00pm, and Bednar had just been sworn in as Mission Director to Sri Lanka, his ceremony taking place at a USAID-veteran-studded side event during the Asia Region Mission Directors’ Conference.

But it was not a power outage that plunged the group into darkness, though rolling blackouts may be commonplace in many of the countries where USAID works.  It was, instead, the automatic “lights out” system kicking in at the new joint USAID-State Asia Regional Training Center, or ARTC, the state-of-the-art facility that was receiving its first outside guests for a soft introduction to the premises.

USAID Assistant Administrator for Asia Nisha Desai Biswal and RDMA Mission Director Olivier Carduner cut the ribbon at the introduction ceremony for the new joint USAID-State Asia Regional Training Center, or ARTC, in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo Credit: Nipattra Sanguannuan/USAID

The roughly 50 invitees, among them Assistant Administrator for Asia Nisha Desai Biswal, and Embassy/Bangkok Charge d’Affaires Judith Cefkin, had just received a presentation on the ARTC’s unique features and the painstaking design process the building went through in order to secure recognition as a minimal-carbon-footprint premises. Knowing the drill, they began waving their arms in delight to trip the sensors so the ceremony could continue.

It was, in a sense, the most apt anecdote for an evening dedicated to USAID’s effort in Asia to “walk the walk” as a green leader, not only as the Agency works to encourage fast growing and high-polluting countries such as China towards environmental awareness and eco-friendly policies, but also in how it approaches its own facilities and operations.

“Very importantly,” said Regional Development Mission for Asia (or RDMA’s) Supervisory Executive Officer Mike Trott, “we wanted to play our part, but also serve as an example in the hope of spurring more use of green technologies in the fast-growing Asia region.” Trott was critical in pushing for both the training center and RDMA’s main office installation– located a few floors down in the new Athenee Tower– to adhere to the strictest green standards.

In fact, just a few months earlier, RDMA’s offices became the Agency’s first overseas facility to be awarded the prestigious Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for its commercial interior. Trott, and others familiar with the design process, expect the new ARTC center to fare no worse when it its own intense certification process is completed in the coming months.

The strenuous requirements put on a contractor to receive LEED certification are reflected in the fact that only four buildings in Thailand can currently claim the accolade, with USAID being the only one to achieve certification for its interior design.

In the RDMA mission, which received its silver certification in October, and in the upstairs training center, sunlight floods nearly every corner of available space, reaching even the low cubicles in the interior; and energy-minimizing lights are hooked into sensors, which dim considerably during daytime hours. The urinals are waterless, the water fixtures are low-flow, combining to reducing water consumption by 20 percent.

Building use and construction, as it turns out, account for 30-to-40 percent of global energy use, and generate around the same percentage of greenhouse gases. Those towers where we work, shop and live have tremendous potential to achieve dramatic reductions in energy use and emissions.

But Trott and others are quick to point out that LEED is not just about energy savings, it’s also about environmental and human health. All the building’s furniture, fixtures and carpet are made mostly from local recycled materials and its wood products from harvested Forest Stewardship Council certified wood, “which is tracked from birth to final sale,” according to Trott.   Furniture as well as products used in the construction must use only environmentally safe compounds.  Additionally, in a region where air quality is a rising concern, the air circulation system brings in higher rates of fresh air than most offices, and even the construction process had to adhere to strict standards, resulting in far fewer sick days for construction workers.

Perhaps the most interesting feature is that LEED requires that 75 percent of construction waste, materials typically thrown into a landfill during most refurbishments, must be recycled.

At the ARTC event, RDMA Mission Director Olivier Carduner said that conceptually, the new training center embodied the Agency’s new reform agenda, USAID Forward, particularly regarding efforts to make better use of Agency talent.

The idea for the center, Carduner said, came when a brainstorming session with Washington identified the need to have a regional hub to train the growing numbers of DLIs, or new foreign services officers entering the Development Leadership Initiative program, as well as other USAID staff being hired en masse over the past few years, against a backdrop of falling training budgets that had limited training in the past.

“Washington asked RDMA for its ideas and participation in determining how best to meet the challenges of training up the USAID staff, recognizing that Bangkok had some unique advantages,” Carduner said. After studying the ARTC option, it was determined that training for the region could be conducted at nearly half the cost in Bangkok compared to Washington, a savings of some $21 million over four years.

Carduner also pointed out that the ARTC, a joint USAID-State project, was in line with the whole-of-government development approach championed by the Obama Administration. “The idea is not just to share the space [with the Embassy], but to coordinate training to the benefit of all concerned and at effective costs,” he said.

Soft operations are set to begin at the training center in January, with a more ambitious “Phase II” proposed to follow.  “This would involve on-site instructors (for example, USAID staff on Sabbatical) to teach the basic USAID courses […] for the many new staff in the same time zone, and a staff to assist with curriculum development,” said Carduner.

As fate would have it, both Carduner and Trott will miss out on seeing the facility in full swing; both AID veterans are departing post in the imminent future. But Bangkok has, in a sense, completed the circle for the old friends, who started their Foreign Service careers on the same day three decades ago in the predecessor to the DLI program and, after crisscrossing continents and posts, were reunited in the Thai capital.  Their legacy, among other things, will undoubtedly be this beautiful eco-friend building that will serve as a model both for USAID’s partner countries struggling under the weight of human pollution and its effects, and for the Agency, which is making real efforts to practice what it preaches– to really “walk the walk,” as folks around RDMA, with their sun-filled rooms, clean air and picturesque city views, are fond of saying.

 

From the Field

In Pakistan, we will hand over medical equipment to 1500 female health workers.  These practitioners will receive a set of equipment to create makeshift health units and provide health services in flood-affected areas of Pakistan.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, we will launch The President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI).  Under the 2008 Tom Lantos and Henry J. Hyde Global Leadership against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act (Lantos/Hyde Act) funding for PMI was expanded to two additional countries – DRC and Nigeria becoming the 16th and 17th focus-countries.

In the Philippines, we will hold a Clean Energy Business Plan Competition.  USAID will partner with the Private Financing Advisory Network (PFAN); a global public-private partnership that matches innovative clean energy projects with sources of financing.

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