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A U.S.-African Union

Every year, heads of state and cabinet officials from across Africa gather in Addis Ababa to meet with political, civil society, and business leaders at the annual African Union Summit.  Last week, I was honored to lead the USAID delegation to my first AU Summit. The AU’s role is critical to the future of Africa.

Mark Feierstein, Associate Administrator, USAID

Mark Feierstein, Associate Administrator, USAID

Established in 2001, the African Union’s vision is to support “an integrated, prosperous, and peaceful Africa, driven by its own people and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.”  As President Obama’s Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa indicates, the United States is committed to achieving that same goal, which is why our decade of partnership with the African Union has been indispensable to USAID’s work.

The African Union named 2014 the Year of Agriculture and Food Security—a pillar of USAID’s strategy on the continent because of its enormous potential to lift communities out of extreme poverty. Through our Feed the Future initiative, we provide support to the AU’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program, an African-owned and -led initiative to boost agricultural productivity.  CAADP turns 10 this year, and so far more than 20 countries have developed collaborative investment plans.  While these plans are country-specific, they have been created through the African Union’s regional leadership, and their shared principles allow for the peer review, cooperation, and shared experiences that improve the quality of the individual plans—and their results.

But agriculture is the focus of just one of USAID’s collaborations with the African Union.  Together, we’ve strengthened democracy and governance by training electoral observers.  We’ve joined with the African Union Commission to reduce maternal mortality and increase youth employment and volunteerism.  We are also partners in supporting the UN Climate for Development in Africa program, providing data, adaptation planning, analysis, policy planning, and strategy development for climate change in Africa.

A highlight of my visit was sitting down at the AU headquarters with 50 young women from 15 African countries who were participating in the 2014 Young Women Forum.  These young leaders led a high-level discussion that included topics like how to create more agribusiness, land ownership and financing opportunities for women in their countries.  They also advocated for increased access to sexual and reproductive health and opportunities for higher education.  Talking with these young women, I was inspired by their deep knowledge and dedication to improving their communities, their countries and their continent.  Hearing about the gains we’ve made in our partnership with the AU and listening to the ideas of these young African leaders, I left the Summit with great optimism for the future of Africa.

Why support efforts to abandon Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting?

February 6th marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.

I am often asked why the Office of Population and Reproductive Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is engaged in programming that will eliminate female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). “What is the connection with family planning?” I’m asked.

“Nothing… and a lot,” is my answer.

FGM/C is a striking example of women’s lack of agency—a graphic illustration of powerlessness to make their own choices about their lives. If a girl cannot make a decision not to be cut, she also likely will not have the right to make her own informed decisions about her health, her education, or decide when and whom she marries, when to start a family, and what size that family will be. The Office of Population and Reproductive Health is engaged in FGM/C because we care about providing girls and women with the ability to decide for themselves how they will live and thrive.

When USAID first began working on the issue in the 1990s, individuals and groups in both the developing and the developed world were starting to look at the issue through the prism of women’s human and reproductive rights, as well as health. International consensus statements and treaties such as the International Commission on Population and Development (1994), the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995) and more recently, the United Nations General Assembly adoption of a resolution banning FGM/C worldwide in 2012, have made strong statements on the need to combat violence against women, including FGM/C, and have called on governments to adopt policies to prohibit the practice and to support community efforts to eliminate the practice.

While FGM/C is clearly a violation of a woman’s rights, it is a health issue as well. Studies conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) showed negative obstetric outcomes and a 2013 meta-analyses by the Norwegian Knowledge Center for the Health Services showed that prolonged labor, obstetric lacerations, instrumental delivery, obstetric hemorrhage, and difficult delivery are markedly associated with FGM/C. These results can make up the background documentation for health promotion and health care decisions that inform work to reduce the prevalence of FGM/C and improve the quality of services related to the consequences of FGM/C.

Since 1997, when WHO issued a joint statement with the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) against the practice, international attention and effort has gone into counteracting FGM/C. Of the 28 African countries where FGM/C is practiced, 22 have passed laws or provisions banning it, as have 12 industrialized countries with migrant populations from FGM/C-practicing countries. While prevalence of FGM/C has decreased, for example, from 99 percent to 97 percent in Somalia and 89 percent to 84 percent in Mali, UNICEF reports that the percentage of girls and women who reportedly want FGM/C to continue has remained constant in countries including Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal and the United Republic of Tanzania. An increasing number of women and men in practicing communities support ending the practice, yet every year millions of girls still undergo this painful and demeaning procedure.

The same elements that will transform a culture from performing FGM/C on its girl children – the values, and norms that inform the expected and accepted ways that people behave in a culture – will also bring increased acceptance for the use of contraception and information on family planning. Our work in FGM/C is as much about empowerment as it is abandonment of a practice. To quote former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spoke on Zero Tolerance Day in 2011, “All women and girls, no matter where they are born or what culture they are raised in, deserve the opportunity to realize their potential.”

Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting

February 6th marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.

While in Senegal, I had the opportunity to meet “village godmothers” who had endured Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) as young girls. Each described the raw pain of the excisor cutting her as the worst she’s ever experienced. Today, these women are standing in solidarity to prevent their daughters from being cut and advocating for reproductive health for girls in their village. With them are other activists and the government, who are working together to eliminate FGM/C in Senegal. Since the first Senegalese village publicly rejected FGM/C in 1998, more than 5,500 communities in Senegal have stopped cutting women’s genitals.

Every year, more than three million girls in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and among diaspora communities in the West are at risk of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. According to the World Health Organization, as many as 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide currently live with the consequences of this dangerous practice.

The procedure, which involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia, is largely performed on infants to girls as old as age 15. As the women I talked to in Senegal testified, it is extremely painful and generally carried out without anesthetics and  using implements ranging from kitchen knives and razor blades to cut glass and sharp rocks. The health risks are great: in the short term, death from blood loss is not uncommon, nor is serious infection that can cause long-term problems. FGM/C may result in infertility, incontinence, pregnancy complications and increased risk of obstetrical problems like fistula and infant death.

Genet, Tsiyon and their friends are the first generation in Kembata, Durame Woreda, Ethiopia, who do not have to undergo FGM/C at their young age. Their mothers are not willing to let them be cut because they have realized the consequences of that practice during their own lifetimes.

Genet, Tsiyon and their friends are the first generation in Kembata, Durame Woreda, Ethiopia, who do not have to undergo FGM/C at their young age. Their mothers are not willing to let them be cut because they have realized the consequences of that practice during their own lifetimes.

FGM/C has no basis in any religion, nor is it done for health benefits. Instead, the practice has been perpetuated for centuries through socio-cultural, psychosexual, chastity, religious and aesthetic or hygienic arguments. Almost all of these are linked to girls’ social status and marriageability and the practice is often seen as a necessary step towards womanhood. In many cultures, girls and women who are not cut are stigmatized and their families can be ostracized. The Sengalese, largely because of work done by the USAID funded non-governmental organization Tostan, created a community education program that has changed social norms. The program, the women tell me, has shown them that despite common perception that FGM/C is a good thing, it is in reality very harmful to their daughters.

USAID has supported FGM/C abandonment efforts since the 1990s, after being approached by many African women who asked why we were doing nothing about this issue. The Agency began programming and introduced an official policy that states the practice is not only a public health issue, but a violation of a woman’s right to bodily integrity. USAID assistance on this area has been a multi-faceted approach, focusing on surveillance, research, and program implementation.

The Agency has collected important information about the distribution and practice of FGM/C at the community level in 16 countries. This information is shared with all partner and donor organizations and used for decision making about program priorities and implementation approaches. A recent USAID-sponsored comparative analysis of data on FGM/C shows that although FGM/C prevalence is decreasing in many countries and among numerous communities, many girls are being cut at earlier ages and the service is increasingly performed in medical settings. To validate and improve interventions, USAID has supported important evaluations of existing programs.

When communities as a whole understand the physical and psychological trauma FGM/C causes, social transformation takes place – and this has proven to be the best way to ensure lasting support and an eventual end to the practice.

Creating an AIDS-Free Generation through Science and Technology

Last year, the United States government provided testing and counseling for more than 57 million people through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The program enrolled more than four million men in voluntary medical circumcision programs and supported more than five million orphans and vulnerable children in countries with some of the highest rates of HIV and AIDS. These are just a few of the remarkable achievements that PEPFAR has made over the past decade—a small testament to the hard work of so many who are committed to and work tirelessly every day to achieve an AIDS-free generation. These great achievements, however, would not be possible without inspiring advances in science and technology.

Women can use this ARV-based vaginal gel to protect themselves against HIV. International Partnership for Microbicides

Credit: International Partnership for Microbicides

For the first time, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) – through its Office of Science and Technology - has created an awards program that embodies the agency’s commitment to supporting innovation in science and technology applications. The Pioneers Prize pays tribute to technological advances that offer innovative solutions to critical issues facing global development. By utilizing science, technology and innovation, USAID is working toward its mission to end extreme poverty and promote resilient democratic societies.

As a key implementer of PEPFAR, USAID’s work in HIV and AIDS was well-recognized with this year’s Pioneer Prizes. Awarded three grand prizes, the Office of HIV/AIDS, along with its partners, has been able to share the transformative nature of its work with the rest of the global health and development community.

Among the grand prize winners is the Delivery Team Topping Up (DTTU) program, which uses vendor-managed inventory principles to “top up” supplies, such as condoms and HIV test kits, at public health facilities. To date, the program has serviced 1,800 clinics in Zimbabwe.

The PLACE Method, also a recipient, applies new technologies in HIV and STI testing, spatial mapping, epidemiologic theory and empiric evidence to address the problem of obtaining valid information that can prevent the spread of infections in sex workers and injecting drug users. It targets geographic areas with high rates of infection and the venues where people at high-risk meet. It then uses low-cost GPS receivers and Google Earth to identify gaps in prevention programs.

Finally, Tenofovir gel, a vaginally applied antiretroviral microbicide used to prevent HIV infection, gives women an alternative method to keep themselves safe during unprotected sex. Tested in the CAPRISA 004 trial, Tenofovir gel reduced HIV acquisition by an estimated 39 percent overall and by 54 percent in women with high gel adherence. While still awaiting the results of an ongoing confirmatory trial, regulatory approval, and scale-up, the CAPRISA 004 trial demonstrated for the first time that a microbicide has the potential to drastically reduce HIV infection for women.

With these awarded innovations, it is clear that USAID’s work toward HIV and AIDS prevention through PEPFAR remains essential to achieving our mission of ending extreme poverty. With the commitment, innovative spirit, creativity and hard work of our partners, USAID is continuously using science and technology in unprecedented ways to make great strides toward an AIDS-free generation.

USAID Welcomes the Crowd to Use Geo-Mapping Tools for Open Source Development

In 2014, USAID’s embrace of open source tools and crowdsourcing projects will continue to improve the effectiveness of U.S. development assistance while creating new opportunities for the communities where we work. USAID took the unprecedented step in June 2012 to improve government transparency by hosting a crowdsourcing event to open up access to the public to help map USAID’s loan guarantee data. Crowdsourcing leverages small amounts of volunteer time from a large group of people to finish tasks too large for a smaller group to complete. Open source development is often complementary with crowdsourcing and is helping to accelerate global innovation by promoting universal access to free software and hardware designs, which anyone can use and improve upon.

“These aren’t boxed tools that no one can fiddle with. These are evolving tools that can be improved in the future.”
Andrew Wiseman
Geographic Information Unit
Office of Transition Initiatives
USAID

USAID’s GeoCenter recently wrote about an Open Cities and Crisis Mapping initiative. The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team is an important USAID partner that applies the principles of open source mapping and open data sharing for humanitarian response and economic development. OpenStreetMap is like Wikipedia but with an intention to create a free and open map of the entire world, built entirely by volunteers.

Figure 1   – St. Marc, Haiti – OSM map with limited data

Figure 1 – St. Marc, Haiti – OSM map with limited data

In 2012, USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) partnered with OpenStreetMap to train 30 youth to map the city of Saint Marc, Haiti (compare before and after images of Figure 1 and 2). The activity produced the most complete data available anywhere for that part of the country with detailed maps of streets, houses, shops, restaurants, schools, hospitals, water points, and agricultural areas, as well as building the capacity of the youth. Some of the mappers have since worked on mapping projects for other donors, like ACTED and Mercy Corps in Haiti

The better data provided by these maps allowed for better planning and analysis, which eventually led to the generation of new project ideas. USAID’s Jessica Bryant who worked on the St. Marc and Limonade OpenStreetMap activities, said that the new technology is combined with “some basic, traditional development principles: projects work better when information and agency are in the hands of local community members, they are more successful when participants can see tangible results from their work, and ownership is key…[And] the areas where they have worked have become the best mapped cities in Haiti.” According to USAID’s Geographic Information Specialist, Andrew Wiseman, who was also involved with the OpenStreetMap activities, “OpenStreetMap often has better and more recent data than other available data sets and maps, especially in the developing world.”

Figure 2– St. Marc, Haiti – OSM map after volunteers added data

Figure 2– St. Marc, Haiti – OSM map after volunteers added data

USAID’s Learning Improvement Projects, which aims to catalyze Agency learning by sharing lessons from innovative projects, supported Wiseman’s proposal to better utilize open source mapping by beta testing FieldPapers.org within the OpenStreetMap platform. Although OpenStreetMap holds enormous potential to help development and humanitarian assistance, Wiseman saw a couple barriers to entry for non-GIS professionals and local communities that include:

  1. Challenges to downloading data from the system for research, analysis, and planning; and
  2. Difficulty taking the data into the field, using it to take notes, or document specific landmarks./li>

Wiseman envisions Fieldpapers.org as an important community mapping tool for humanitarian groups and development practitioners because Field Papers enables anyone to choose a location anywhere in the world and download an atlas from OpenStreetMap. Field Papers then allows the user to print out the atlas, take it into the field, and take notes. Field papers also allows users to take a scan or take a picture of their marked-up atlas and re-upload it onto the right location on OpenStreetMap, essentially empowering non-professional mappers to document their findings that can be shared with a global crowd for further analysis and planning.

Figure 3 - OSM map of Cite-Soleil, Haiti/Google Map of Cite-Soleil, Haiti

Figure 3 – OSM map of Cite-Soleil, Haiti/Google Map of Cite-Soleil, Haiti

OpenStreetMap and Field Papers is changing the way USAID does business by freely sharing open source mapping programs and bringing in the global community to help solve local problems. Wiseman emphasized that these “aren’t boxed tools that no one can fiddle with. These are evolving tools that can be improved in the future… Anyone can use this stuff.”

By embracing innovations in open source technology and crowd sourcing collaboration, USAID will continue to improve the effectiveness of U.S. development assistance by expanding opportunities for smarter development.

For more information on USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives, please visit: http://www.usaid.gov/political-transition-initiatives, follow us on Twitter https://twitter.com/USAIDOTI and like us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/USAIDOTI.

For more information on Open Street Map, please visit: http://www.openstreetmap.org.
For more information on Field Papers, please visit: http://www.fieldpapers.org.

Adventures in Wildlife Screening: Monitoring Wildlife Farms to Prevent Disease

Ever tried porcupine? How about wild boar? While such unusual fare may not be to everyone’s taste, there is a huge demand for wildlife meat in Vietnam, and farming of wildlife for human consumption is becoming more common. This brings wildlife into close proximity with humans and domestic livestock, resulting in a greater risk of disease crossover. Approximately 75 percent of the diseases which affect humans were sourced from animals, and of these, 72 percent originate from wild species. Recognizing the potential threat of new pandemics, USAID partners with Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to build capacity for monitoring diseases in wildlife farms.

A Predict project trainer advises how to properly collect samples at a wildlife farm in Vietnam’s Dong Nai province. Photo credit: USAID Vietnam/Laurel Fain

A Predict project trainer advises how to properly collect samples at a wildlife farm in Vietnam’s Dong Nai province.
Photo credit: USAID Vietnam/Laurel Fain

I recently participated in a surveillance training conducted by USAID’s Predict project in Dong Nai province, one of Vietnam’s top wildlife farming provinces with more than one thousand wildlife farms housing hundreds of individual wildlife species. Myself, wildlife farmers and participants from the Department of Forestry Protection (Vietnam’s park rangers) and the Department of Animal Health (farm inspectors), whose job it is to inspect farms and restaurants to make sure they’re not illegally farming or killing endangered species, gathered to learn about the most common and dangerous diseases affecting wild animals when they are enclosed, how to protect ourselves and the public from contamination when monitoring farms, and proper biosafety precautions that should be in place on livestock farms. We also learned how to collect and prepare samples for analysis by the regional laboratory. I was struck by the enthusiasm and commitment of the training participants, who all demonstrated a strong understanding of the importance of this work in protecting against infectious diseases.

As part of the training, we went out into the field to practice our new skills. My team visited one farm that produced non-endangered species of wildlife to be served in the family’s restaurant next door, including wild boar, turtles, porcupines, civets, snakes, and rats. Farm owner Mai Thi Thanh was very interested in hearing advice from the team on improving her systems, and expressed pride and concern about keeping her stock healthy. The trainees excitedly collected samples from every animal present, with some expert supervision from our trainers. The second farm we visited belonged to one of our own group of trainees, who was eager to show us his farm and to hear our suggestions for improving hygiene on his farm. He raised mouse deer, porcupine, and wild boar that had been interbred with domestic breeds.

Finally, back to classroom to compare notes: between both groups, we collected 162 samples from bears, several types of primates, rats, two species of porcupines, boars, deer, and civets. We learned from the regional laboratory specialists how these samples will be analyzed for a wide variety of infectious diseases, and brainstormed on future training needs and next steps.

I feel quite fortunate to have been able to observe this process up close, and could honestly congratulate the group on their dedication to keeping the rest of us safe from emerging pandemic threats. The participants from the Animal Health and Forestry Protection departments can now add this health feature to their normal surveillance for illegal wildlife trade. We’ll all be very interested to hear the results of the tests done on these samples and on the more than 5,400 samples previously collected by the USAID-supported project in Vietnam this year.

Read more about USAID Vietnam’s work to prevent infectious diseases.

Uncovering Success: A Holistic Approach to Taking Stock of Natural Resource Management Interventions

How do we know if development projects have impacted people’s lives? We can collect data on how many people participated in a project or how much their income increased. We can also measure the effect on the number of people with access to a service or we can count the amount of land that has been reforested. But when we know that complex development challenges take a long time to change, how do we clarify our impact beyond these specific measures and the very short project life cycle, which is usually three to five years?

Natural tree regeneration not only helps protect the environment and enhance livelihoods, but cuts down on women’s time collecting household fuel wood. Photo: Brent McCusker

Natural tree regeneration not only helps protect the environment and enhance livelihoods, but cuts down on women’s time collecting household fuel wood. Photo: Brent McCusker

This question was at the heart of a challenge recently taken up by the Agency’s Productive Landscapes Team in the Land Tenure and Resource Management Office.

Real landscape-level change takes a long time to detect and often eludes our most finely tuned impact indicators. Because environmental and landscape change happens over decades, and because human actions are often the result of many causes, E3 developed a holistic assessment methodology called “Stocktaking” and tested it in several rural Malawian landscapes.

In trying to understand both the unintended and long term impacts of our interventions, the team drew upon findings in the Sahel that show significant re-greening of the land over the last thirty years. That finding was identified only after interviewing local people and asking them about the reasons for their successes—not passing judgment on their actions, but by identifying the root causes of successful land transformations and the ways in which land users overcame barriers.

Stocktaking differs from traditional impact assessments or monitoring and evaluation methods. These latter techniques judge success or failure against a benchmark (indicator) to determine whether or not a project has met its specific goals over a bounded period of time. Stocktaking takes a different path. The focus is on long term, multi-sectoral changes, and in discovering hidden and/or unintended impacts. For instance, a Stocktaking approach might examine how an agricultural intervention led to increased food production and forest regrowth and an increase in the amount of credit in a village. This variety of different outcomes might not be captured in a traditional assessment technique.  Stocktaking can be used to identify unintended impacts long after a program or development investment has ended.

With Stocktaking in mind, the E3 team traveled to Malawi in June and again in August of this year to search for the root causes of landscape change. Malawi’s north is relatively land abundant and USAID’s interventions have built value-chains from the local environment. Practices such as beekeeping, fishing along Lake Malawi, and sustainable cash crop production are all livelihood enhancing activities that put money in the hands of farmers without damaging the natural resource base.

After using the Stocktaking methodology to interview several households and community groups, the team learned valuable lessons about the longer-term impact of USAID interventions, and many of the positive unintended consequences of natural resource management projects. For instance, respondents remarked that natural tree regeneration resulted in significant labor savings. Women were able to reduce the amount of time they spent collecting fuel wood and transfer that labor savings to other income generating activities. Natural tree regeneration also reduced the amount of conflict with park rangers of nearby conservation areas.  Beekeeping in the Nyika-Vwasa Forest Reserve generated sufficient capital for project beneficiaries to start a range of businesses.

The follow-up trip in southern Malawi in August 2013 discovered similar unintended consequences. The Stocktaking methodology was conducted on water projects in an irrigation and watershed management scheme. A key finding was that village savings and loans, a type of micro-lending institution, were critical in financing activities such as buying seeds for more diverse crops that will help farmers adapt to climate change.

Like the re-greening of the Sahel, these unintended consequences of natural resource management interventions may have fallen “under the radar” in normal monitoring and evaluation since they were not expressed goals of any single project. Additionally, natural regeneration is difficult to quantify with traditional assessment and is easy to miss with standard geospatial imagery. Stocktaking team members are in the process of examining advanced geospatial methods to determine when forested plots were either naturally regenerated or planted. By locating interventions on the map and using such images, a longer term time series analysis can be compiled to determine exactly when the landscape changed, so that Stocktaking teams can then probe deeper with stakeholders to discover why that change occurred.  A instructional guide on how to conduct a Stocktaking evaluation and a community discussion board are found at:  http://www.frameweb.org/CommunityBrowser.aspx?id=7050&lang=en-US

The Stocktaking approach is one way the USAID Forward principles of evidence-based decision making and local stakeholder participation are supporting improved development outcomes in the Malawi and beyond.

USAID Remains Focused on Typhoon Response in the Philippines

Excerpts from remarks made by Greg Beck on January 8, 2014, at a Center for Strategic and International Studies conference on the U.S. response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines

I’m always worried that after the first month or two, on a large emergency such as Typhoon Haiyan, that the attention fades because there are so many other pressing issues and disasters around the world. It’s really important to remain focused on our efforts going forward.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Greg Beck discussing continuous Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda relief operations with a DSWD representative. Photo credit: USAID.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Greg Beck discussing continuous Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda relief operations with a Philippines Department of Social Welfare and Development representative. Photo credit: USAID.


I was in Tacloban a few weeks ago, and I was able to see the immediate impacts of a long-term partnership with the Government of the Philippines. I was able to see the impact of our initial investments over the last five years in building up their capacity to mitigate the effects of these large natural disasters. I also was able to see how we’ve been working very strongly with diaspora groups, NGOs, local groups and the private sector to build the long-term relationships that we were able to put into action on day one.

USAID had been tracking the typhoon and saw that it was becoming incredibly powerful about a week before it hit land. We prepositioned a number of disaster assistance staff in Manila from our regional office in Bangkok. Within the first day, they were in Tacloban and immediately working with our colleagues from the Department of Defense (DOD), who deserve recognition for contributing to strong interagency coordination. Without the “air bridge” support DOD provided, we would not have been able to effectively deliver all the supplies that we brought in from our bases in Dubai and Miami. Over 2,000 metric tons of critical relief supplies were brought out to the secondary and tertiary distribution sites because of the air bridge — because of the C-130s, the Ospreys, the choppers, and the operational support that the Defense Department gave to the Government of the Philippines. It was incredibly critical.

Having worked in Asia for over a decade and responded to a number of natural disasters that have happened, I have to say this really was a textbook response. We had been working for a number of years to build up the network and partnerships to have the capacity to immediately respond, no matter the size of the scope of the emergency.

We are now beginning our pivot to the early recovery stage and we will continue to focus on some critical areas. Transitional shelter, livelihoods, health, cash-for-work, microfinance, temporary schools, and the rebuilding of rural health units will be very important focus areas for us over the next three to 12 months. When Secretary of State John Kerry was in Tacloban on December 18th, he announced a terrific USAID partnership with Coca Cola and Proctor & Gamble to rebuild 2,000 sari-saris — small convenience stores that provide access to important basic supplies for people who are living on less than a dollar a day. Reestablishing sari-sari stores creates income and livelihoods for families, and it is our priority to get those up and running very quickly.

It is a heavy lift going forward. We have some critical areas to address, especially in shelter, as we saw in the Washington Post article over the weekend. We’ll be working with Leyte Province and developing a Green Plan so that we’re building back not only better, but building back safer, building back healthier. The Government of the Philippines has been building their capacity and their ability to respond quickly and effectively over the last decade. We’ll continue to work very closely with the government to further strengthen that capacity, recognizing that this is not the last of the emergencies that we’re going to be seeing.

Haiti’s Recovery Won’t Happen Overnight

This blog post originally appeared on Devex.

Each morning, the bulky, unwieldy vehicle navigates an uneven, rocky path that in some areas of Haiti is a common road. Only my seatbelt keeps me from hitting the roof as I make my way to the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince.

A row of damaged houses and buildings in the Cité Soleil neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Four years after the disaster, almost 75 percent of earthquake rubble has been removed and 89 percent of the 1.5 million displaced population have left camps for alternative housing options.

A row of damaged houses and buildings in the Cité Soleil neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Four years after the disaster, almost 75 percent of earthquake rubble has been removed and 89 percent of the 1.5 million displaced population have left camps for alternative housing options. Photo by: Andre Mellagi / CC BY-NC-ND

A newcomer to the country, I see each day during my journey a small remaining camp for Haitians displaced by the catastrophic 2010 earthquake. Living in temporary tent shelters, they, children among them, are still waiting for a new place to call home. Then, recently, I noticed that the camp was emptying.

Almost four years after the earthquake, 89 percent of Haiti’s 1.5 million internally displaced persons have left the tent camps for alternative housing options. Almost 75 percent of earthquake rubble has been removed. Security throughout the country has improved and, recognizing the importance of employment, the government is committed to attracting foreign investment, with agriculture, tourism and the apparel industry the most promising growth areas. Health indicators are up, with improvements in infant and child mortality rates and more public access to health services.

International donors — among them the U.S. Agency for International Development — have learned lessons along the way in Haiti in terms of how we can do better.

As the country leaves behind the era of post-earthquake relief and focuses now on longer-term development, USAID is striving to build the capacity of local organizations to lead and manage development initiatives.

This necessarily involves building public and private institutions so Haitians can lead and manage their own development. On our part, we are enhancing the capacity of the Ministry of Health to manage a national healthcare system using its own human and financial resources, so it will no longer be dependent on donors. Similarly, efforts are underway to build the financial and programmatic capacity of local NGOs to provide services and advocacy that are too often provided by international organizations. The country must also advance the rule of law, a prerequisite to the creation of durable institutions and economic growth.

Every USAID mission director’s goal is to help the host country one day reach a point when it no longer needs foreign economic assistance. Indeed, all donors and development organizations should be devoted to that goal. In Haiti, this will not happen overnight. But four years after the earthquake, Haiti remains a U.S. government priority to continue and improve our efforts to help Haitians building the opportunity and prosperity they are capable of and that they are so deserving.

John Groarke is USAID Mission Director in Haiti since August 2013. An expert in international law and counter-insurgency, he previously served in hotspots like Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and Morocco, as well as senior legal advisor for West Africa and South Asia.

Empowering Moms Through mHealth

This blog post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

My heart smiled the moment the four women entered the meeting room where I had been waiting. I stood to greet them and the babies they carried, eager to hear their stories. The young mothers sat in the chairs across from us and soon the babies were all up on the table, their proud moms making certain that we could see their precious little ones. The youngest baby was 4½ months old, the oldest 14 months. They were all adorable.

USAID harnesses the power of mobile phones to achieve results.

Credit: USAID

The conversation was lively. One young mother, Letty, described her pregnancy. Living in Johannesburg, she was far from her home country, Zimbabwe, and far from her mother,aunts,grandmother or anyone she trusted to give her the advice and information she craved.The cost of phoning these trusted relatives was prohibitive, so Letty found support when she enrolled to receive text messages via her mobile phone from MAMA, the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action. “I’m here. I’m alone. The SMS messages helped me a lot. They helped me feel that someone is there,” Letty told me.

MAMA South Africa was launched with the support of global partners USAID, Johnson & Johnson, the United Nations Foundation, the mHealth Alliance, and BabyCenter. In addition, Vodacom joined the South Africa partnership, offering MAMA’s mobile website, askmama.mobi, free-of-charge to its 25 million customers. The goal of MAMA is to deliver health messages that moms need at specific milestones during pregnancy and during the first year of their baby’s development.

An existing South African mHealth partnership helped bring MAMA South Africa to life: Cell-Life, Praekelt Foundation and WRHI at the University of the Witwatersrand. Through MAMA, new and expectant mothers receive messages that address important topics such as nutrition during pregnancy, how to prepare for childbirth and recognizing signs of trouble which, if unheeded, can lead to difficulties in labor and delivery.

I sat across from these four women who had benefited from the MAMA partnership and listened carefully as they described their experiences. For these mothers, the SMS messages calmed their fears. One of the women, Faith, said that she had enrolled in the program when she was five months pregnant and had found reassurance in the MAMA texts. “The messages sometimes tell you, ‘This is normal’ and then you don’t worry,” she said. Letty added that when her baby was up all night, she received a message that said “Your baby may be teething” and this convinced her that nothing was wrong with her baby.

Another mom, Ntando was seven months pregnant and already had one child when she enrolled in the MAMA program. On the day of our meeting, her baby boy was already five months old. “The way we raised the first one is different from the way we raise this one.” She looked at her son and then added a comment about MAMA. “They’ll help me raise this one,” she said.

The third woman, Memory, signed up to receive MAMA messages when her baby was five months old. She said that she appreciated the help in “how to say ‘no’ to my son.” Memory also told us that she found the messages so helpful that she shares them with a friend who does not have a phone.

Faith visits the MAMA website with her husband and they learn together. Her praise for MAMA struck a particular chord for me – “I like them because they don’t just take care of the baby, they also take care of the moms.”

As our time together drew to a close, I thanked Letty, Memory, Faith and Ntando for taking the time to meet with us. Many of their comments have stayed with me, but none more than this one: “You feel like you are alone, and these SMS messages make you feel loved.”

The MAMA partnership is based on the power and promise of mobile phones in empowering mothers to make healthy decisions for themselves and their babies. What a wonderful added – and unexpected — benefit that MAMA also makes moms feel loved.

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