USAID Impact Photo Credit: USAID and Partners

Archives for Humanitarian Assistance

On the Front Lines in Africa

Nowhere is development such an important part of U.S. engagement as it is in Africa. In anticipation of the President’s trip next week, we thought we’d share some of our favorite FrontLines stories about our work in Africa. President Obama’s strategies on global development and Africa have laid the foundation for a new approach that focus on sustainable development and a new operational model for assistance. We look forward to the opportunities that this visit will bring.

Our Favorites include:

Food Security

Child Survival

Innovation

Women and Development

Conflict Mitigation and Prevention

  • Ethiopia: Peace Brokers: USAID-sponsored reconciliation efforts usher in historic truce accord in Ethiopia’s pastoral south.

Democracy, Human Rights, and Government

Humanitarian Assistance

Resilience

  • Niger: Niger’s Tree of Life: In the face of recurring food insecurity and acute malnutrition, USAID is promoting the cultivation of hardy, vitamin-packed moringa as one way to build resilience in communities in the drought-prone Sahel.

Follow @USAID and @rajshah on Twitter for updates on the trip and to learn more about our work in Africa. Join the conversation using #USAIDAfrica.

Having the Right Tools at the Right Time to Meet Food Assistance Needs

Imagine there is a major crisis unfolding. While one region in the affected country is in crisis, there are available food supplies and resources in another. In situations like this, USAID disaster response professionals have several key decisions to make — all with the goal of helping as many people as possible in the most rapid, efficient and effective way possible. Does it make sense to bring in food from the United States? Should we purchase food locally to distribute to those in need? Should we provide people the means to buy the food themselves? Using all the resources available under its Emergency Food Security Program, USAID strives to respond to crises with the most appropriate tools to best meet the needs of vulnerable populations. Here are some recent highlights:

Flour made from Turkish wheat purchased for the Syria response. Photo credit: State Department

In Syria, humanitarian needs grow more pressing every day, but the conflict means importing large quantities of food aid can be impractical and downright dangerous in certain areas. Without the flexible resources provided through the International Disaster Assistance account, USAID would not have been able to respond initially to the Syria conflict. The flexibility to use emergency food assistance tools like vouchers and local and regional purchase has provided much needed help to those fleeing the conflict. In Kilis refugee camp on the Turkey-Syria border, we’re supporting a program that gives debit cards to families so they can shop for their own meals at local stores. And wheat purchased regionally in Turkey is now being milled to stock bakeries in Aleppo with much needed bread.

Last year in Rwanda, USAID and the UN World Food Program fed more than 72,000 people, including 61,000 refugees fleeing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while supporting smallholder farmers within the country. By purchasing the food locally, USAID and WFP were able to save considerable time and money: saving $243 per metric ton on corn and $899 per metric ton on beans and getting food to refugees in just two months versus three to six months for U.S. food aid.

At the height of the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa, in the hardest hit areas of southern Somalia where militants ruled and blocked traditional in-kind food distribution, food aid couldn’t reach everyone in need. But through cash transfers and vouchers, we were able to help more than 90,000 families (PDF) in inaccessible and insecure areas buy readily available food from markets in their communities.

In Haiti, a pioneering food assistance program provided 20,000 earthquake-affected households with electronic vouchers to buy rice, corn flour, cooking oil and beans from participating local vendors. This not only helped Haitians in need, but also developed local private enterprise, by bolstering functioning markets and partnering with three Haitian companies – two banks and a cell phone company.

USAID was able to help those in need when providing U.S.-grown food assistance was either not possible or less appropriate due to market conditions or timeliness issues. We did so by drawing from the International Disaster Assistance account, which provides the Food for Peace program with resources to buy food locally or regionally, or provide support directly to beneficiaries to buy food in their local markets.  In FY 2013, much of these flexible funds will go towards the large-scale response for the Syria crisis, leaving too little in flexible resources left for emergencies in the rest of the world.

Through the President’s Food Aid Reform Proposal, USAID is seeking to expand the flexibility of these resources so we can meet the needs of hungry people around the world in as efficient and effective a way as possible. Recently, the Senate passed the Coons-Johanns Amendment to expand USDA’s flexibility for local and regional purchase in a non-Food for Peace food assistance program.

Senate approval of the amendment is a recognition of the program’s demonstrated success (PDF) and the value of LRP in providing food assistance around the world — and is consistent with the flexibilities sought in the President’s reform proposal for USAID to administer the Food for Peace program.

USDA and USAID’s proven track record with local and regional procurement food assistance programs demonstrate the efficiencies to be gained by using the most appropriate tools at our disposal.

Helping Others During Hurricane Season

Hurricane Preparedness Week is May 26 through June 1, following the release of the official forecast for the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season. This week, USAID is highlighting the work we do to help disaster-prone countries prepare for and recover from hurricanes.

The 2013 Atlantic Hurricane Season officially begins on June 1 and is expected to be very active. Preparing your family and home for hurricanes is important.  But what about preparing yourself to assist others–do you know how to effectively help those who are impacted by disasters? The best way to help is easier than you think and works 100% of the time.

The simplest disaster readiness activity is also the most cost-effective and the least time-consuming for donors–monetary donations to credible relief organizations working on-site. Each disaster is unique and affects people and infrastructure differently. Monetary donations enable relief workers to respond to evolving needs as those affected migrate to safety, resettle, and eventually rebuild their communities.

Unsolicited donations delivered to Samoa after the 2009 earthquake and tsunami took up space needed by relief organizations to sort and deliver vital emergency supplies. Photo credit: Richard Muffley, USAID CIDI

Most people react to disaster events overseas by collecting clothing, canned food and bottled water for survivors. While well-intended, many of these items actually remain in the U.S. because of the high fees and cost required to transport the donated goods to a foreign country.  Others items are turned away at their destination because they are not tied to a response organization or are deemed inappropriate. For example, thirty-four countries have banned the importation of used clothing and may decline collections that arrive. In reality, needs of disaster-affected people are carefully assessed by relief professionals on-site, who provide the right goods in sufficient quantities at the right time.

USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information recently rolled out a Greatest Good Donations Calculator, created by the Colleges of Engineering and Business Administration at the University of Rhode Island. This calculator illustrates the costs of sending unsolicited donations. For example, let’s say someone purchases a teddy bear for $19.99 in Washington, D.C., intending to send it to Apia, the capital city of Samoa. According to the calculator, the total cost to send this bear (including transportation and other fees) would be a whopping $273.43! By contrast, the same amount of money could be used by a relief organization to purchase 54,686 liters of clean water locally, helping more than 27,300 people.

Monetary contributions to established relief agencies in affected areas purchase exactly what survivors need when they need it. They support local merchants and local economies, and ensure that beneficiaries receive supplies that are fresh, familiar, and culturally, nutritionally and environmentally appropriate.

For more information on effective donations, visit USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information.

Using Science to Warn Countries About Deadly Flash Floods

Hurricane Preparedness Week is May 26 through June 1, following the release of the official forecast for the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season. This week, USAID is highlighting the work we do to help disaster-prone countries prepare for and recover from hurricanes.

Flash floods are the number one weather-related killer and the most fatal side effect of hurricanes. They kill thousands of people every year and cause millions of dollars in damage by destroying buildings and bridges, uprooting trees and overflowing rivers within mere minutes.

Flash floods occur when excess water caused by heavy and rapid rainfall from tropical storms or hurricanes cannot be quickly absorbed into the earth. This fast-moving water can be extremely powerful, reaching heights of more than 30 feet. But it takes only six inches of water to knock a person to the ground or 18 inches to float a moving car.

USAID responds to more floods than any other type of natural disaster, like this one in Trinidad, Bolivia in 2003. Photo credit: USAID

USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance recognizes that while flash floods are deadly in even the most developed countries, they can really wreak havoc in densely populated regions around the world that lack strong infrastructure. Hurricane-prone regions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean are especially vulnerable, which is why USAID works with host countries year-round to help them prepare.

Even though the onset of flash floods is almost immediate, it is possible to give up to a six hour window of advanced notice—just enough time to save lives.

The advanced warning is given through the Flash Flood Guidance System, a scientific method of accumulating rainfall data and analyzing the rate at which the ground absorbs it. USAID works closely with meteorological experts in hurricane-prone countries, training them on how this system works so that they can be on the lookout for potential flash floods. Using the system gives disaster-prone countries the opportunity to use those crucial six hours before a flash flood hits to implement emergency plans and move as many people out of harm’s way.

Six hours may seem like a lot of lead time, but it’s actually not when you’re rushing to alert remote and heavily populated villages—with limited communication—about an approaching disaster. Flash floods can’t be prevented, but USAID is committed to helping people better prepare for and recover from them. Because when it comes to saving lives and alleviating suffering, every minute counts.

Photo of the Week: 2013 Hurricane Preparedness Week

As America saw with Hurricane Sandy, it takes just one bad storm to wreak havoc, kill and injure hundreds and inflict billions of dollars of damages. If one hurricane can do so much damage in the U.S., imagine the impact of similar storms on less developed countries.

Forecasters are predicting an active 2013 Atlantic hurricane season. During this week, we will be highlighting USAID’s work—through its Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance—to prepare disaster-prone countries and communities in Latin America and the Caribbean for hurricanes.

The photo above is of children playing in the streets of a camp for internally displaced people in Port-au-Prince, Haiti after Hurricane Tomas made landfall in November 2010. Photo is from Kendra Helmer/USAID.

Wall of Wind’ Helps USAID Test Shelters for Hurricane Relief

Hurricane Preparedness Week is May 26 through June 1, following the release of the official forecast for the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season. This week, USAID is highlighting the work we do to help disaster-prone countries prepare for and recover from hurricanes.

There is a place in Miami, Florida, where deadly, hurricane force winds can be felt year-round without the threat of destruction.  In fact, it’s a place that’s being used to help save lives.

It’s called the Wall of Wind, a cutting-edge lab at Florida International University (FIU) that can simulate hurricane conditions using 12 giant fans, stacked two high, capable of generating winds with speeds exceeding 150 miles per hour, packing the punch of a Category Five storm.

 

USAID built temporary shelters in Chile, using a combination of durable plastic sheeting and wood boards, to meet humanitarian needs in 2010. Photo credit: USAID

USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance is working with FIU to harness these hurricane force winds to test the strength and design of transitional shelters. Transitional shelters are not tents, but they’re not quite houses, either. They are a mix of the two, constructed using new and salvaged building materials to safely house people who’ve been hit hard by disasters until they secure a permanent home.

Hurricanes can be catastrophic, uprooting communities, taking out entire coastlines, and killing thousands of people in the process. Flying debris—often from pieces of roofs and homes—contributes to being one of the most deadly and destructive side effects of these storms.

This is why it’s crucial that transitional shelters are strong enough to withstand nature’s worst, and that is where the Wall of Wind comes into play. Take a look at the video, and see for yourself if a transitional shelter constructed with USAID-identified best practices could really stand up to a hurricane.

See video clip here:

The transitional shelter was blasted by wind speeds of more than 100 miles per hour—well in excess of a Category One hurricane—and remained standing.  USAID’s work with the Wall of Wind not only helps improve the quality of emergency shelters, it can also have a real impact on the way future homes and businesses are built in hurricane-prone areas.

USAID Prepares for Hurricane Season in Latin America and the Caribbean

Hurricane Preparedness Week is May 26 through June 1, following the release of the official forecast for the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season. This week, USAID is highlighting the work we do to help disaster-prone countries prepare for and recover from hurricanes.

Top forecasters are saying it could be an extremely active 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, with the National Hurricane Center on May 23 predicting that up to 20 named storms will develop this year, with between seven to 11 of the systems expected to become hurricanes.

Plastic sheeting provided by USAID helps give much needed shelter to a family in Nicaragua following Hurricane Felix in 2007. Photo Credit: Alejandro Torres/USAID

No matter how accurate the forecast turns out to be, Hurricane Sandy taught us that it only takes one major storm to kill more than 70 people in this country, injure hundreds of others, and inflict billions of dollars in damages. If one hurricane could do so much damage in the U.S., imagine the impact of similar storms on less developed countries.

USAID is prepared to meet the demands of an active hurricane season. All year, experts with USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) have been working closely with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to make sure emergency and evacuation plans are in place. USAID has emergency stockpiles in Miami, including medical supplies, hygiene kits, shelter materials, and water purification equipment. We have the ability to charter planes in eight different countries to deliver these life-saving items quickly to countries hit hard by hurricanes. When we know a storm is coming, we can pre-position staff and relief supplies to provide immediate assistance.

But arguably, the most vital resource USAID has is its people. In addition to the 25 disaster experts USAID/OFDA has in the region, there are also about 350 consultants in 28 countries who can immediately jump into the action when a hurricane makes landfall. These consultants live in the region, so they know the country, culture and local officials and can quickly report the conditions on the ground and help USAID prioritize humanitarian needs.

USAID airlifted emergency relief supplies to the Bahamas when Hurricane Irene made landfall in 2011. Photo credit: USAID

“They are our eyes and ears, and they allow USAID to be fast, aggressive and robust in a disaster response,” said Tim Callaghan, USAID/OFDA’s Principal Regional Advisor in Latin America and the Caribbean.  “They work to save lives and alleviate suffering.”

All this week, we will be highlighting what USAID and its partners are doing in preparation for the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, from protecting people from deadly flash floods to teaching children in Jamaica to become the next generation of disaster experts.

The Road to a ‘Data Ecosystem’ for Modern Abolitionists

In March, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and its partners announced the winners of its Counter-Trafficking in Persons (C-TIP) Campus Challenge Tech Contest– a global call to college students to develop creative technology solutions to help prevent human trafficking. USAID invited some of the contest winners and participants to Washington, D.C., this April to participate in the White House Forum to Combat Human Trafficking and discuss their winning concepts with USAID staff and partner organizations – this is a blog about one of the student’s trip to Washington.

I consider it a tremendous privilege to contribute to the fight against modern day slavery. I remember a student conference in 2003, listening to the speaker’s impassioned plea to intervene on the behalf of those in chains, and yet, despite many attempts to get connected to the work of fighting human trafficking, it took the better part of the last decade for me to plug into the field.  Remembering this time of frustrated passion, I am so encouraged seeing initiatives like USAID’s Challenge Slavery invite people into the movement and engage new generations of abolitionists. There is a new spirit in the anti-trafficking movement – perhaps, the simple realization that we can now call it a “movement” captures this sense.

Traffickers have a market worth billions of dollars, and traffickers find it far too easy to collaborate online. We, on the other hand, have to work hard in order to collaborate – for example, the competition for grants in the non-profit world often dissuades organizations from working together. This creates an “anti-market” where information is scarce and people have a hard time finding places where they can help. But this is changing, as evidenced by the thousands of student groups raising awareness about human trafficking on campus and off and the success of consumer apps that target a consumer’s “slavery footprint“. Rather than spending their time trying to find some way to help, this next generation is able to spend their time actually helping.  I believe that technology can help us take this trend to the next level, by creating a “synthetic market” where information flows readily and people can easily get to the right places to plug in.

Toward this end, I believe a “Data Ecosystem” can provide the technical backbone organizations and activists need in order to collaborate – a place where all their systems can talk to each other, basically a common language for the movement. An emergency shelter should be able to send a file to law enforcement if a friend of one of their clients is in danger. A volunteer should be able to link to a website, describe their skill sets, and plug into an organization within the anti-trafficking movement. A local partnership of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should be able to link up their networks and analyze the local trafficking situation together.

Technology is really about relationships – it isn’t simply a program or a piece of hardware, but a means for people to interact with other people. The best way that the ecosystem works is by creating efficient collaboration spaces or “shared networks” for partnerships that already exist – like the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition– so that we can amplify and accelerate the good work and best ideas that are already happening. Then, we connect the networks, and from their conversation, we get a grassroots picture of what’s really going on and what we can all do to help. If we get all the really great tech people involved in the anti-trafficking movement in a room together, empowered by their leaders to build this shared space, I truly believe we can make all of this happen.

Virginia Tech Students Fight Human Trafficking, One App at a Time

In March, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and its partners announced the winners of its Counter-Trafficking in Persons (C-TIP) Campus Challenge Tech Contest– a global call to college students to develop creative technology solutions to help prevent human trafficking. USAID invited some of the contest winners and participants to Washington, D.C., this April to participate in the White House Forum to Combat Human Trafficking and discuss their winning concepts with USAID staff and partner organizations. This is a blog about their trip to Washington. 

Popular culture has pegged Washington, D.C., as the home of the bureaucrat, a city where red tape rules. Our time in the capital is a testament to the narrowness of this idea. While we don’t pretend that we got a full picture of the federal government during our brief stay, the experiences we shared speak to a government that still has compassionate members and is made up of individuals that see love as “central to this fight.” This was a phrase that Ambassador Luis CdeBaca used as he spoke during the presentation of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships report on “Building Partnerships to Eradicate Modern-Day Slavery.” This event was one of many meetings we attended during our two days, a time spent better understanding government intervention in human trafficking and developing further the ideas that were awarded first and second place prizes in the USAID C-TIP Campus Challenge.

C-TIP Campus Challenge Tech Contest participants meet with Sarah Mendelson, USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. Photo Credit: USAID

Our two winning concepts – AboliShop a web browser application that helps online shoppers make smart choices by alerting them to products that may have forced or exploited labor in their supply chains, and a Mxit trafficking hotline (PDF) that marries Africa’s largest social network with existing hotline technologies – were tuned and refined by a variety of trafficking experts while we were in Washington. This refinement process has seen us through to the other side, where we are now in a position to move toward making these products available for public use in the near future.

During our time in Washington, USAID connected us with a variety of groups, from religious leaders to large corporations to passionate activists, all aiming to end trafficking on a global scale. We saw much of the public sector’s commitment at the White House Forum to End Human Trafficking and the private sector’s commitment at the Google announcement of their Global Trafficking Hotline Network. Our discussions with these groups made a difference in the future of AboliShop and the Mxit trafficking hotline and also reshaped the way we will be involved in the fight on a personal level.

As for the future of our projects, we want to see AboliShop become a common, not a niche, experience for online consumers, which will only be possible with the energy and resources of groups willing to work alongside us. Africa is in desperate need of trafficking hotline resources, as the existing hotlines are both sparse and limited by a variety of factors. We hope that we can be part of the solution to this problem, joining the organizations already working on the ground to grow the African trafficking hotline network. Keep an eye out for news from AboliShop and Mxit in the days to come.

Food Voucher Program Gives Palestinian Families Choices and Supports the Local Economy

Recently, while visiting the West Bank, I had the pleasure to meet Palestinian shop owner Abu Shadi at his store in the community of Dura in the Hebron governorate. His Al Awawdeh Shop is one of 130 West Bank shops participating in an innovative USAID/World Food Programme (WFP) food assistance voucher program that channels aid through the local market.

Introduced in the West Bank in 2009, the voucher program now covers 86,000 West Bank beneficiaries, including 63,000 who are covered through USAID support.

As Abu Shadi explained, his customers, fellow shop owners and local farmers, all benefit from this relatively new way of delivering food assistance. The voucher program allows families to choose from a selection of staple foods, including bread, milk, yogurts, cheese, eggs, beans, lentils, vegetable oil and salt with an electronic card, similar to a debit card. They have more choice in what they can buy, the food is fresh, and they are injecting money directly into the Palestinian economy by supporting more local producers, farmers and shopkeepers.

Thanks to the USAID/WFP voucher card system, families can purchase the basic foods they need most. Photo credit: WFP/Quique Kierszenbaum

One voucher card user told our WFP colleagues that, “For a very long period we could not afford to buy eggs, milk and other dairy products. Thanks to the voucher program, my children now eat eggs and cheese regularly. They have become so much more active and full of energy now.”

To the extent possible, all of these goods come from local producers and are delivered through the normal private sector supply chain to the shops – giving the private sector a role in delivering the food assistance and also saving the donors the high costs of shipping and delivering the food commodities. Abu Shadi’s shop currently redeems vouchers for 113 households, or about 874 people. With the increased business he has seen thanks to this program, he has hired an additional worker for the store.

Abu Shadi proudly told us, “I am very happy being part of this project. I hope we can reach and include other stores in the community, so they can get the same benefits I have received. I doubled my income and now have a steady income for myself and my married son. It also gave me the opportunity to expand my store.”

Like all stores participating in the program, Abu Shadi’s store is registered with the Palestinian Authority (PA) tax authorities, which strengthens the PA’s ability to collect taxes. The stores also meet a set of standards required from all stores in the program. These stores must maintain refrigeration to keep the foods fresh and safe for consumers, maintaining Internet connectivity so that WFP can instantly track voucher redemptions, and guaranteeing a constant stock of all food products included in the program.

A voucher user explains to AAA Romanowski which products she buys using the USAID/WFP voucher system. Photo credit: WFP/Quique Kierszenbaum

“It was really fantastic to see how adjusting our way of delivering assistance has made such a difference for the local community,” one mother explained. “My daughter suffers from rickets and our doctor has been advising us for a long time to give her milk and yogurt daily. We couldn’t afford to do that. Thanks to the voucher program, we can now provide our daughter with the food she needs.”

Overall, USAID helps WFP and its implementing partner CHF to provide food and voucher assistance to vulnerable, non-refugee families in the West Bank and Gaza. Currently the USAID-funded caseload includes 203,000 individuals in the West Bank and Gaza. The United States also is the largest bilateral donor to UNRWA, which provides food assistance to nearly 750,000 Palestinian refugees and supplemental school feeding to more than 223,000 children in Gaza; aid to 52,000 food insecure persons in the West Bank; and food relief to 290,000 other vulnerable Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.

As President Obama noted in his recent proposal to reform U.S. food assistance, voucher programs are a cost effective way to provide many vulnerable families with the food assistance they most need while simultaneously creating much-needed employment opportunities for local economies.

 

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