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Archives for Humanitarian Assistance

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.

 

Harnessing the Commitment & Energy of Diaspora Communities to Transform Development

Rajiv Shah serves as Administrator at USAID

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to meet a Syrian-American trauma surgeon who told me about the multiple trips he had taken to Syria with other doctors to help remove shrapnel from the bodies of children.

As I listened to him share these devastating experiences, I knew that his story reflected the tremendous contributions of Syrian-Americans to the humanitarian response. Every day, at great risk to their own lives, they were caring for the injured, training doctors in triage and medicine, and helping deliver lifesaving medical supplies throughout Syria.

Whether we’re talking about the struggle for freedom in Syria or the fragile–but remarkable–transition happening in Burma, we know the diaspora community has a uniquely important role to play in addressing the challenges of today and shaping a brighter future for tomorrow.

Last year, global remittances topped $534 billion—more than 5 times U.S. official development assistance. So often the result of long hours and sacrifices, these contributions mean so much more than their monetary value. They mean the chance for a child to afford her school uniform. The chance for a young man to take out a loan and open a business. And sometimes, they make the difference between life and death – when they allow a family to buy food in tough times.

We are determined to work together to ensure the each dollar saved and each dollar transferred can make a lasting impact. Through our Development Innovations Fund, we’re partnering with a major Filipino bank, a Filipino education NGO, and a group of researchers from the University of Michigan to pilot a financial innovation called EduPay. The tool allows overseas individuals to pay school fees directly to educational institutions in the Philippines, instead of channeling the funds through an informal trustee. The tool also goes one step further by enabling you to monitor the student’s attendance and performance so you can be sure you’re supporting a quality education.

Whether saving money to send home, building a business from the ground up, or partnering with us in response to a crisis, the commitment and energy of diaspora communities holds the potential of transforming developing countries around the world. Through a partnership with Western Union, we’re helping support diaspora leaders who have a great idea to start a business, but need the resources to get it off the ground. Since 2009, the African Diaspora Marketplace has provided grants to 31 companies, totaling more than $2.2 million.

At USAID, we’re increasingly focusing on providing a platform to connect problem-solvers everywhere to the greatest challenges of our time. We call it “open-source development,” and it reflects our desire to harness the creativity and expertise of a much broader development community. Through our new model of development, we aren’t focused on our solutions. We’re focused on yours.

To learn more about the Global Diaspora Forum or to learn how to partner with USAID, the State Department, and the private sector, please visit: http://diasporaalliance.org/.

Join conversation on Twitter (@USAID) using #2013GDF.

U.S. Provides Wheat to Fill Urgent Food Gaps in Syria

An Arabic translation is available.

As part of our nearly $510 million in humanitarian aid to help those affected by the crisis in Syria, wheat recently provided by the United States will feed more than one million people in Syria for four months.

The 25,000 metric tons of wheat donated to the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) will be milled into flour and distributed to vulnerable families across Syria’s 14 Governorates through WFP as part of a monthly food ration. In addition to the 25 kilogram bag of flour that is being provided in these monthly food kits, families receive vegetable oil, pasta, bulgur, canned pulses and sugar.

An American ship arrives in Beirut, Lebanon with enough wheat to feed more than one million people affected by Syria’s ongoing crisis. Photo credit: WFP/Laure Chadraoui

The U.S. remains the largest donor of food assistance to Syria through WFP, contributing nearly $125.5 million in emergency food assistance since the conflict began more than two years ago. This most recent wheat contribution—worth more than $19 million—will provide much-needed bread for families in areas of Syria where access to humanitarian aid has been most constrained by the conflict and where there are severe shortages of bread.

“We are very grateful for this timely contribution from the United States which will allow us to supplement our food rations with wheat flour especially in the areas where families are struggling to get their hands on bread, a staple part of their diet,” said Muhannad Hadi, WFP’s Emergency Coordinator for the Syria crisis.

WFP, with support from the U.S., is working to reach 2.5 million people across Syria and approximately 300,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

Visit our website for more information about USAID efforts in Syria

USAID Finalist for Service to America Medal

Finalists for the 2013 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal were announced on May 6, 2013, and out of hundreds of nominees, USAID’s Cara Christie and the Horn Drought Humanitarian Response Team were selected for their outstanding work identifying and coordinating U.S. humanitarian relief efforts during the 2011 Somalia famine.

A displaced child feeds at a camp in Mogadishu—one of the more than 13 million people affected by the 2011 famine in Somalia. Photo credit: AFP PHOTO/ Mustafa Abdi

Also known as the Sammies, the award pays tribute to federal employees who have made significant contributions in activities related to national security and international affairs. Honorees are chosen based on commitment and innovation, as well as the impact of their work.

Christie, a Disaster Operations Specialist with the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance—along with the Horn Drought Humanitarian Response Team—recognized that a famine was imminent almost a year before it unfolded. Building on lessons learned from previous drought responses, the team analyzed rainfall data, crop patterns, market prices and malnutrition rates to identify the warning signs leading to the region’s worst drought in 60 years. For 225 days, the team worked to get aid to the region by pre-positioning commodities, awarding grants, and coordinating with other governments, international and non-governmental organizations.

“Because of her quick action and anticipation, hundreds of thousands were saved and their suffering was mitigated,” said Carol Chan, the acting director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.

Winners of the Service to America Medal will be announced on October 3 in Washington, D.C.  For more information on all the finalists, visit their website.

Administrator Testifies on FY 2014 Budget Request

With the completion of Administrator Shah’s final congressional hearing on the FY 2014 President’s Budget Request for USAID, I want to highlight that this budget reflects the development priorities of this Administration while making difficult tradeoffs due to the constrained budget realities.  USAID has prioritized resources to countries and programs where they are most needed, most cost-effective, and can lead to long-term, sustainable results.

"The 2014 Budget Proposal for Food Aid Reform allows us to reach 4 million additional children" - Administrator Rajiv Shah testifying before the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee. Photo Credit: USAID

A prime example of our commitment to maximize the effectiveness of USAID programs is the President’s Food Aid Reform Proposal.  This proposal, if enacted, would give the U.S. Government the ability to feed up to 4 million additional people with comparable resources, through more efficient food assistance.  Throughout the President’s budget, we’ve been similarly focused on maximizing results for every dollar spent. The FY 2014 Budget Request enables USAID and its partners around the world to:

  • Ensure food security and progress toward ending hunger
  • End preventable child death
  • Strengthen program effectiveness through USAID Forward
  • Build resilience to recurrent crisis and climate change
  • Support strategic priorities and promote democratic governance and economic growth
  • Provide live-saving responses to areas with the most vulnerable populations
  • Continue USAID’s commitment to be more focused and selective about the countries and areas in which we work.

The FY 2014 budget is the result of efforts that began more than a year ago. The budget process requires input from over a hundred State and USAID missions abroad, regional and functional bureaus in Washington, leadership within the Department of State and USAID, as well as the White House Office of Management and Budget.  This rigorous process aligns resource planning with strategic priorities including from the U.S. Global Development policy, the State/USAID Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, and 2011-2015 USAID Policy Framework.  We work closely with missions and bureaus to integrate rigorous mission-led strategic planning efforts and sectoral strategies including those for Basic Education, Water, and Gender.

This inclusive approach led to a resource request that reflects Administration and USAID priorities, modernizes our development activities, and provides the most cost-effective and sustainable development.  The countless hours of work that went into developing the FY 2014 President’s budget by USAID staff around the world demonstrate their commitment to ensuring that taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently and effectively.

For those of us who have been working on the FY 2014 budget for some time now, the end of the Administrator’s congressional hearings may feel like the culmination of this process, it is really just the beginning. Moving forward, we will continue to work closely with Congress to enact a budget that supports our national security, promotes our economic interests, and alleviates human suffering.

Light Above Darkness – The Global Struggle for Democracy & Human Rights

Sarah Mendelson serves as deputy assistant administrator for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance

Two years ago at the Community of Democracies (CD) in Vilnius, Aung San Suu Kyi appeared via video message, addressing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, foreign ministers, presidents, and human rights activists from under house arrest in Burma. While she wasn’t physically present, her grace and strength were felt even from thousands of miles away. I remember she said she was “full of hope and full of anticipation for what the not too distant future will bring us.”

Those were telling words. This week, in Ulaanbaatar, at the seventh ministerial of the CD, Aung San Suu Kyi once again addressed the audience – this time in person. Back straight, regal, and elegant with flowers adorning her hair, Dau Suu said she never lost faith that humans “desire light above darkness.” She walked among the other dignitaries and yet always stood apart. As one official noted, she seemed like “the next Mandela.” Her moral force reminded all of us that we have a duty to remember those who do not live free and to work tirelessly to ensure that one day they can.

Dau Suu’s remarks were followed by Tawakkol Karman, a brave young Yemeni woman who won the Nobel Prize for her non-violent struggle for the safety of women and women’s rights in peacebuilding work in Yemen. Her emotional appeal to “stop the killing in Syria and the killing of Muslims in Burma” was blunt, forceful, and a sharp contrast to the more diplomatic speeches that such gatherings inevitably generate.

Deputy Secretary Burns delivered a powerful message from President Obama about generating the “new technologies and tools for activism.” It is our hope that the information technology revolution means we will continue to open governments and transform the global struggle for democracy and human rights. For innovation not only makes hiding corruption even harder, it can help governments listen and respond to their citizens.

And we are already seeing results. One of the most interesting and informative presentations was from an Indonesian leader proudly showing how her government is using technology to empower citizens to hold governments accountable in ways that even the world’s oldest, most established, democracies would do well to replicate. Mongolian officials, our hosts, were talking of transparency, open societies, shared lessons on democratic transition and cooperation with emerging democracies.

At USAID, we are embracing this virtuous cycle through Making All Voices Count, the Open Government Partnership, and by supporting game-changing innovations from governments, partners, organizations, and change agents around the world. We believe these efforts will help new democracies deliver to their citizens, empower civil society activists, and challenge authoritarians everywhere. We have seen a lot of progress since the last CD in 2011 but we have also seen a backlash in many places. Governments attempt to rule by laws designed to close space around civil society and activists. While many of us have hope that such efforts do not have a bright future in the hyper-connected 21st century, we met many activists that live daily with security services trailing and jailing them. I must remind myself that change is possible and hope that when I see them at the next CD, their lives are transformed by freedom.

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