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Archives for Europe and Eurasia

Stopping the Spread of Polio in Central Asia

When my daughter Caitlin cried getting her polio booster, I was able to staunch the flow of her tears by describing the amazing work USAID/Central Asian Republics did in Tajikistan last spring when USAID’s rapid response and advocacy with the host governments and other donors resulted in more than 7 million children getting vaccinated (that’s more than 95 percent of the under-five population).

Caitlin’s response to me was “I’d be happy to give my vaccine to the kids who need it. But what else can I do to help?”  Her innocent comments reflect the spirit of our team as we rolled up our sleeves and mobilized the Tajik Health Ministry and other donors to respond decisively with a series of national immunization campaigns that effectively stopped the spread of the outbreak in six months.

I was reminded of this victory last week when the European Regional Certification Commission for Poliomyelitis Eradication (RCC) announced that Europe will keep its polio-free status.  Last week, in Copenhagen, the RCC said that wild poliovirus transmission had been interrupted.  “No new cases of polio had been reported since September 2010 because countries took effective action.”  That statement is referencing Central Asian countries—for example, Tajikistan—which in 2010 saw its largest polio outbreak in decades.  There were 898 reported cases of acute flaccid paralysis in Central Asia in 2010.  Acute flaccid paralysis is the most common symptom of polio and is one indicator for polio surveillance during an outbreak.

A Tajik mother holds her son while he gets his polio vaccination. Photo Credit: USAID

The RCC acknowledged the contribution and technical support of the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative partners and the Russian Federation, India, and USAID.  Not only did our work halt this devastating disease, but it also built the foundations of new U.S.-Russia bilateral cooperation on joint efforts to assist with strengthening health systems and surveillance in the region.

Polio has no cure, and only vaccination can prevent it.  But additional funding, coupled with technical assistance and strong advocacy, increases the ability to mount high-quality campaigns and sustain a population’s immunity, which is the best we can do until global eradication is achieved.  The Central Asian Republics have eradicated polio successfully in the past, and serve as an important lesson to stay vigilant and maintain a strong immunization program.

This Week at USAID – September 6, 2011

After a hiatus, we will be continuing the “This Week at USAID” series on the first day of the work week.

Thursday, September 8th is International Literacy Day. The Center for Universal Education at Brookings, the Education for All-Fast Track Initiative, and USAID will mark the day by hosting a series of panel discussions on how a range of education stakeholders are addressing the challenge of improving literacy, particularly at lower primary levels, to help fulfill the promise of quality education for all.

Stephen Haykin will be sworn-in as USAID Mission Director to Georgia.

Raja Jandhyala, USAID’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Africa, will testify before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights on the long-term needs in East Africa.

Alex Their, USAID’s Assistant to the Administrator and Director of the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, will testify before U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on development programs in Afghanistan.

The Price of Sex: An Investigation of Sex Trafficking

It took me almost a decade to make this film. First I needed to find the women who had been trafficked. Then I needed to muster the nerve to ask them questions that made me hate myself for hours after each interview. Then, I had to tell them the real truth. I am here to take your picture.

Filmmaker Mimi Chakarova. Photo Credit: Bryan Shih

“Of my face?”

“Yes.”

“After everything I told you?”

“Yes.”

I would explain that if people don’t know, they live in darkness. “If they see your face, if you let me show them how I see you, they will understand. They will feel compassion. They won’t judge you,” I would say. Four years later, the photos and notebooks were no longer enough. “People need to hear your story. On camera. They need to see how you move, how you talk, how you breathe…” I would explain how I’m making a film about sex slavery – this combination of words that even as I write them make me cringe and remind me how we label pain, how we remove ourselves by using big words: “sex trafficking,” “sexual exploitation,” “gender-based violence,” “degradation of the family unit and societal values,” etc. But what do these words mean to an abused girl?

I can spend hours answering questions about the sex trade and corruption. I can spend weeks telling the stories of the young women who survived. But one thing I wasn’t prepared for as I worked on my film was the pain of others. I didn’t realize the channels it would open – the silence and shame so many of us live with. And the need to tell someone who won’t judge or blame.

Over the years, I have heard so many stories.  The main equation is always the same, but the components and circumstances are different.  When I was reporting in Athens last summer I was surprised to see young Iraqi boys being sold for sex. I was surprised to see how many are trafficked from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, hoping to make it to Western Europe, but then getting caught along the way. I was surprised to see the age of girls drop in places like Albania — traffickers are hungry for young flesh. I was surprised when I first learned how sex with pregnant women is more expensive, or when women in Dubai discussed the preference of their clients from England versus Saudi Arabia.

I don’t know if anything shocks me anymore. I’m very sad to say that because this is a sign of how this work has impacted my own understanding of humanity. There are many who administer horrendous acts for profit.  I can honestly tell you that I wish I could permanently erase some of this information. It’s not even the shock of it that troubles me. It’s the fact that I know about the awful and sadistic deviations that humans are capable of even in times of peace.

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From the Field

In Lebanon, USAID will inaugurate a new youth soccer facility created through its Municipal Capacity Building and Service Delivery Program.  The inauguration ceremony for the new youth mini-soccer court will be held in Jdeydet Al-Aytaa in Akkar, North Lebanon.  Funded by USAID, this initiative created several local jobs and is expected to generate over $9,500 profit for the municipality, which they will then use for additional development work in the village.  The municipality provided the land and built a retaining wall on the border of the plot as their contribution to the effort.

Also in Lebanon this week, USAID will hold workshops in Tripoli, Beirut, and Zahle on improving the regulatory environment in Lebanon by building private sector capacity for regulatory impact assessments (RIAs). These workshops, held under the program to support Lebanon’s accession to the World Trade Organization are part of an overall private sector capacity building effort to support Lebanon’s accession. The aim of an RIA is to assess the impact of newly developed laws in order to improve them and achieve better regulations.

In Georgia, we will open up a new Agriculture Mechanization Service Center.  As part of the U.S. Government’s pledge to assist the people of Georgia following their war, the Access to Mechanization Project is funding the development of up to 25 privately-owned machinery service centers throughout Georgia which will increase access to machinery services for small farmers, leading to  increased agricultural sector productivity, competitiveness, and profitability.  The service centers are expected to create up to 225 new jobs, provide services to 14,000 small farmers, and increase agricultural revenues by $10 million.

Armenian Women Set Priorities for Increasing Political Participation

As featured from the National Democratic Institute

More than 300 Armenian women from different political parties, civic organizations, government agencies and geographic regions came together for a two-day conference in Yerevan last month to discuss policy solutions to the challenges they all face. Together, they called for increasing women’s political and economic participation, better access to health care and a reduction in domestic violence.

Armenian women at a two-day conference in Yerevan last month to discuss policy solutions to the challenges they all face. Photo Credit: NDI

While women make up more than half of Armenia’s population, they won just 12 of 131 seats in the last parliamentary elections in 2012. Men’s average monthly salary is more than one-and-a-half times that of women. The 2010 report by the World Economic Forum ranked Armenia 106 out of 131 countries for political representation and empowerment of women.

The “Women in Politics” conference, hosted by NDI with support from the United States Agency for International Development, produced a draft policy platform that women’s groups and political parties can use as a blueprint for change. In the political and economic areas, for example, the women proposed creation of a quota to increase women’s representation in national and local elected bodies and the passage of a gender equity law to improve business opportunities and working conditions for women.

In addition, all but a few conference participants signed a letter to the president of Armenia requesting a 30 percent quota for women on political party electoral lists. They also asked that women be placed on the lists at regular intervals, such as every other spot. Currently, 15 percent of a party list must be women, but their names are often placed near the bottom, where they are less likely to get elected. Under a list system, voters choose a party rather than an individual candidate. The number of seats the party wins is determined by its percentage of the vote, and the people who fill the seats are determined in the order they appear on the list.

Regarding health care and domestic violence, the platform proposed that the government fund preventive testing and health services for all women over 18, and that it pass legislation establishing a legal definition of domestic violence consistent with international norms. It is hard to combat domestic abuse effectively in Armenia — both legally and with public education campaigns — because people’s ideas vary on what domestic abuse is.

The women leaders plan to use the document to encourage political parties to address the issues as they create campaign platforms for next year’s parliamentary elections. It also offers potential platform planks for women who are considering running for office. Civil society groups can advocate for and monitor progress in how the recommendations are carried out.

The recommendations will be refined over the next several months by working groups focusing on the individual issues. The groups will include conference representatives, including women from both the capital of Yerevan and the regions, and political party and civil society members. Experts from academia, international organizations and government bodies also will be invited to lend their expertise.

The momentum and publicity surrounding the event had an immediate effect. In a speech the day after the conference, Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan called for increasing the number of women in the executive and legislative branches to 30 percent. There is currently no quota for women serving in the executive branch and the few who do serve mostly as support staff.

A week after the conference, the National Assembly voted on a new election code, which included a requirement that women constitute 20 percent of party lists and, for the first time, that every fifth candidate after the second spot be a woman. These quotas would be some of the most progressive in the region. But there are two ways that parliamentarians are elected: by party list or by single member district. In the latter arrangement, a candidate runs to represent the district and its residents rather than the political party. The Armenian parliament is comprised of 56 single member district representatives and 75 members from party lists.

The draft election code also helps women seek single member seats by reducing the fee to run from 2.5 million to one million Armenian dram ($6,602 to $2,641). This provision will encourage less-established candidates with fewer resources, which women often are. In the last parliamentary elections, only five women competed for this type of seat and none was elected. The draft election code has passed the parliament and is awaiting the president’s signature.

How Free is Your Media? A USAID-Funded Tool Provides Insight

On May 3, the world celebrated World Press Freedom Day. Reflecting on the day’s events, a few important questions arise about what role the media plays in a community and in a democracy.

First, how does freedom of the press compare to freedom of speech? Not only do journalists need freedom to speak and write without fear of censorship, retribution, or violence, but also they need professional training and access to information in order to produce high-quality work. Furthermore, journalists need to work within an organization that is effectively managed, which preserves editorial independence. People need multiple news sources that offer reliable and objective news, and societies need legal and social norms that promote access to public information.

Second, why is the media important? We care about the media because it is a powerful and critical tool for ensuring that citizens understand the state of their community, country, and world. In this way, citizens are equipped to participate in the democratic process. Media gives a voice to the people and helps to hold governments and institutions accountable for their actions. Media is also the way to spread critical community messages, such as how to prevent HIV infection, where to vote in the next election, and how to address difficult issues with balanced, well-informed analysis so as to promote peace and tolerance.

Lastly, how do we measure how well (or poorly) the media sector is functioning, and how do we gauge progress? With great interest in this subject, USAID has supported comprehensive, multi-year assessments carried out by IREX, which are reported in the Media Sustainability Index (MSI). This tool analyzes challenges in the media sector by country and allows for tracking of progress from year-to-year.  In this way, it helps USAID to better identify media development gaps and possible areas for technical assistance. The 2009 edition of the MSI for Africa is now available, and editions are also available for the Europe & Eurasia and Middle East regions. With multiple years of surveys now completed, the tool spurs discussion and understanding of both the current status of the media in a given country and region as well as the trends over time.

The MSI is both a quantitative and qualitative tool. It draws on a set of panels composed of local media and civil society experts from each country, and the resulting index assesses five objectives important to a successful media system, which include the quality and professionalism of journalism as well as the management and independence of media businesses. The results also capture the rapidly changing new media landscape on the continent.

MSI’s data is used by a variety of advocacy and human rights groups, as well as USAID, other donors, and academics who are interested in tracking the role of the media in larger development processes. Findings from the MSI can inform how we channel our resources; for example, the latest edition of the MSI reveals that weak business management and professional journalism skills are some of the key factors challenging the media sector in African countries today.  In response, USAID programming in countries such as Liberia, Nigeria, and the DRC are better cultivating local skills and building the professional capacity of media.

Working to Meet the Challenges to Freedom of the Press in Eastern Europe and Eurasia

Several months ago at a reception for Vice President Biden in Moscow, I met a 30-year old journalist named Oleg Kashin. He is a special correspondent for the Russian newspaper Kommersant and runs a blog called Live Journal.  I noticed Oleg walked with a cane and his face was bruised and swollen. He was missing teeth.

In November, after reporting on the controversy and protests around a proposal to build a highway through the Khimki forest near Moscow, Oleg was attacked and severely beaten to the point that he had to be hospitalized. His editor told the BBC that he believed that Oleg was attacked as retribution for a series of articles he had written. Oleg’s case is still under investigation by Russian authorities. President Medvedev has said that those behind the attack must be brought to justice.

When I met him, almost four months after the attack, Oleg was still clearly suffering from the beating.  However, he was undeterred. Oleg was in the process of posting a live blog about Vice President Biden’s meeting with civil society organizations. I couldn’t help but recognize his brave spirit and to think that such voices are vital as Russia moves forward with plans for modernization. I also remembered hearing about Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. In 2006, Anna was shot and killed in the elevator to her apartment after writing a series of articles and books about human rights abuses in Chechnya.

Oleg and Anna’s fate represent the continuing danger to independent voices and freedom of the press in the countries of the former Soviet Union and in some countries in Eastern Europe such as the Balkans. Journalists who work to expose corruption and wrongdoing often end up the target of harassment, intimidation, or even violence.  From the recent brutal crackdown on Belarusian journalists to the incarnation of Azerbaijani youth activists using social networking to express dissent, there are clear and ongoing challenges for press freedom throughout the region.

As we commemorate 2011 World Press Freedom Day, the United States stands with journalists in Eastern Europe and Eurasia to defend and promote freedom of the press and freedom of expression as guaranteed by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. USAID will continue to support production of, access to and distribution of reliable information produced by professional journalists, as well as that shared between citizens.   Our support  represents our continued belief in one of the most basic human rights, freedom of information and expression, supporting those who dare to speak up and speak out.  Even in the 21st Century, these basic freedoms remain at risk.

Our Common Fight – TB in Eastern Europe and Eurasia

Several weeks ago, I visited the Central Tuberculosis Research Institute (CTRI) of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow. It plays a central role in Russia’s battle with tuberculosis (TB)  as the country’s top TB treatment hospital, research center, and medical training facility. Russians with the most difficult multi-drug resistant (MDR) – TB  and extensively drug-resistant  (XDR) -TB are treated there. I was struck by the determination of the Russian doctors in the face of the continued threat of MDR-TB and XDR-TB and I am glad that USAID counts them as partners in our common fight.

As we commemorate World Tuberculosis Day on March 24, it is important for all of us to recognize that Eastern Europe and Eurasia continue to have the highest rates of MDR-TB and XDR-TB infections in the world.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 12 countries have reported proportions of MDR-TB of 6% or more among new TB cases: all of these countries are in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Five countries report MDR-TB proportions of 50% or more among previously treated cases: all of these countries are also in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The WHO estimates that in Russia, 42.4% of previously treated TB cases are MDR-TB; in Azerbaijan, 55.8%; in Georgia, 27.4%; and in Ukraine, 44.3%.

A TB patient receives care at the Central Tuberculosis Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow, an institute dedicated to treating Russians with MDR and XDR-TB. Photo Credit: David Grout/ USAID

In our interconnected planet where people constantly cross borders and millions of people fly every day, not only are U.S. citizens travelling abroad vulnerable to MDR and XDR-TB, but Americans from Georgia to Maine could face this threat at home. Therefore, we have a national security interest in stopping TB around the world and we need the grit of those dogged Russian doctors I met in Moscow.

Tuberculosis is curable but potentially deadly. It is spread through the air and is second only to HIV among infectious killers worldwide. Tuberculosis exacts an enormous personal and economic toll, often striking people in their most economically productive years.  MDR-TB and XDR-TB are major risks to effective TB control. MDR-TB is resistant to the two most important first-line drugs used in the treatment of TB. XDR-TB is resistant to additional drugs. The usual six-month treatment with first-line TB drugs is not effective for MDR-TB and XDR-TB. The treatment for MDR-TB and XDR-TB is more expensive, less effective, with greater side effects, and it requires two years to complete—if that form of TB is treatable at all.

MDR-TB and XDR-TB arise due to a number of controllable factors, such as high patient treatment default rates, late diagnosis, irregular treatment, easy access to first and second line drugs in private sector pharmacies without prescription, and, in some cases, population displacement due to unrest. Therefore, it is possible to prevent and control MDR-TB and XDR-TB.

USAID missions through the Eastern Europe and Central Asian regions are working with host countries to combat MDR-TB and XDR-TB.  There is hope. For example, USAID in Georgia supported the National TB Program and provided technical assistance to create DOTS spots—special TB outpatient centers located inside of the general urban outpatient clinics. As a result, in the capital city of Tbilisi, the clinics reduced treatment defaults from 23% in 2003 to 9% in 2008. With lowered treatment default rates, the risk of MDR and XDR-TB are lessened.  With USAID-supported technical and financial assistance, MDR-TB reported cases decreased in the Balkans from 14.4% in 1996 to less than 9% in 2003. In Ukraine, USAID assisted implementation of laboratory quality control procedures in 8 regions, resulting in 92% of USAID-supported laboratories demonstrating high proficiency in laboratory-based TB diagnosis. These successes show that USAID support is yielding results and helping to control MDR and XDR-TB.

USAID is helping to save thousands of lives and showing the goodwill of the American people.  Together with the people of Europe and Eurasia, we must continue to fight MDR and XDR-TB for their sake and our own national interest. Let us not lose focus, take decisive action and curb the spread of MDR-TB and XDR-TB. It is the right thing to do morally, economically, and for our national security.

Children in Kosovo Learn About the Judicial System Through Coloring Books

Children with coloring books

Children were enthusiastic upon receiving the coloring books during the Court Open Day visit at the Skenderaj/Srbica Municipal Court. Photo credit: Mustafa Komoni, NCSC.

Submitted by Xheraldina Cernobregu, USAID/Kosovo

Children in Kosovo are now Learning About Justice thanks to over 17,000 coloring books that have been distributed to primary schools in rural and urban Kosovo since the project’s launch in June 2010. The coloring books, published with USAID support, have been in high demand throughout the country.

“Learning About Justice” coloring books are a new approach for teaching students about the judicial system, government institutions, judges, and citizens’ responsibilities. The coloring books include pictures of the people who work in the judicial system, including a judge and a policeman, each with a brief caption describing their jobs. Other illustrations describe individual rights and civic duties, such as helping to keep your neighborhood clean.

The coloring books are printed in Albanian, Serbian, and Turkish languages and were originally distributed in the municipalities where USAID is establishing Model Courts. In response to additional requests, “Learning about Justice” coloring books have been distributed throughout Kosovo, expanding the reach and impact of the program.

Individual Americans have become involved in this project as well. In addition to USAID providing support for the coloring books, more than 500 supporters in the United States have made private donations of nearly 7,500 boxes of crayons to accompany the books and to strengthen the partnership between the courts, schools, and USAID. Each crayon set is labeled with the American flag and the following message of support: “These crayons are a gift from friends in the U.S. who support your learning of the justice system and the law. Color your dreams, for as you dream, so you will become.”

The “call for crayons” was advertised online through social networks and the Kosovo Justice Support Program. The program is continuing the call for crayons to support the book activity as the Model Courts Program expands.

Rule of law is key to Kosovo’s further development and USAID is working to address the issues that are hindering that development.  Other projects include improving court administration, case backlog reduction,  and the establishment of ten Model Courts, which in the long term will serve as models for the rest of the judicial sector. All these efforts will help increase public awareness and public’s trust in the rule of law.

Putting Science in the Spotlight

by Jonathan Hale, Bureau for Europe and Eurasia

Dr. Holdren discussing science and innovation with students at Bauman State University, March 3, 2011 (photograph courtesy US Embassy, Moscow)

Last week I travelled to Moscow to take part in meetings on science cooperation with Dr. John Holdren, who is Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.  Dr. Holdren and Russian Minister of Education and Science Andrei Fursenko lead the Science and Technology Working Group of the U.S. – Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission.  I represented USAID at the Working Group meetings here in Russia.

During the Cold War, both the United States and Russia focused on science for defense purposes and to create weapons. In the 21st Century, why can’t we cooperate to find science-based solutions to global challenges like hunger, poverty, global infectious diseases, and climate change? The Obama administration believes we must and Dr. Holdren and I brought that message to Russia. We want to explore science cooperation to improve the human condition and to promote development. As President Obama has said, science must have its “rightful place” and as USAID Administrator Shah has made clear science and innovation must be at the center of development. We found an interested and receptive audience in Moscow.

In addition to meetings with Russian government officials, Dr. Holdren spoke at Bauman Moscow State Technical University, which is often described as Russia’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  Among its many programs, Bauman University trains scientists and engineers for Russia’s space program. Many Bauman students asked Dr. Holdren how science can be used to better protect the environment and to fight climate change.  He told them President Obama wants to invest in science to help create a clean energy future.

Russia is ready to contribute high-tech solutions to global challenges. (photograph courtesy US Embassy, Moscow)

During my trip, I explored how to promote new peer-to-peer collaborations among U.S. scientists and research universities focused on seeking science-based solutions to development challenges such as global climate change. We want to find new clean energy solutions that can benefit not only the United States and Russia, but also developing countries. We want to promote breakthroughs that can lead to wider deployment of affordable clean energy technology in rural and rapidly urbanizing areas and spur a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

One possible avenue could be to create an international prize aimed at inspiring progress toward a scientific or technological goal of importance to both countries. Prizes can drive innovation and creativity and leverage resources efficiently. They have a long record of success from the Orteig Prize that led to Charles Lindbergh’s non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean to the Ansari X Prize, which led to the first non-governmental launch of a reusable manned spacecraft into space and back.  It’s clear from my trip that the enormous shared scientific potential of the U.S. and Russia could easily bring our two nations closer together in the months and years ahead.

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