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The Power of the Classroom

In certain parts of the world, how many things have to go right in order to get a girl into a classroom?

And what type of life can that education can provide her?

As the senior gender coordinator for USAID, these questions fill my mind constantly as I seek to carry out my mandate – helping empower women and girls to participate fully and benefit from the development of their societies.

Last month, I traveled to Zambia, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo with Dr. Jill Biden, USAID administrator Raj Shah, and Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Cathy Russell where I was able to see them answered firsthand.

Girl students at Shalom Community School, Lusaka, Zambia

Girl students at Shalom Community School, Lusaka, Zambia / Susan Markham

The decision to allow a child to go to school is fraught with obstacles. Some are material: uniforms, socks, shoes, notebooks and pencils. Some reflect the economic and cultural realities of poverty-stricken families. But these concerns also often pale in comparison to the serious danger that many women and girls face every single time they step out of their homes to pursue an education.

In the eastern part of the DRC, I met a young woman who was kidnapped from her own home and taken into the jungle for six months by an armed militia. She had no idea where she was, who had taken her, or if she would ever see her family or home again.

In Sierra Leone, I met two younger girls from a rural area, around 10 years old, who were given to an “Auntie” in the city with the promise that they would attended school. Instead, they were held hostage in her home and made to do all of the household chores with little food and water. They suffered for months until they finally managed to escape.

But in Zambia, a young woman named Martha, orphaned by HIV/AIDS, was still trying to find a way to stay in school. Despite extreme poverty, little existing educational infrastructure, and the loss of her parents, she explained how her greatest goal was to finish her education.

In the DRC, Therese, an incredibly talented local entrepreneur who worked in restaurants for years, managed to save enough money for engineering school. With her degree, she created several surprisingly effective traffic robots that have become functional icons around Kinshasa. The robots are the centerpiece of her company, Women’s Technologies, that she runs alongside several other women. As if that weren’t enough, she also owns a successful chain of local restaurants.

Girl students at St. Joseph’s Secondary School in Freetown, Sierra Leone await the arrival of Dr. Biden

Girl students at St. Joseph’s Secondary School in Freetown, Sierra Leone await the arrival of Dr. Biden. / Susan Markham

Everywhere I went, people seemed to intuitively understand that educating their daughters was the most important thing they could do for their future.

They might not know the statistics:  That an educated girl has a “ripple effect” in many ways. That a girl with an extra year of education can earn 20 percent more as an adult, or that a girl who completes basic education will invest 90 percent of her earnings back into her family. These effects might be invisible for the time being, but women, children, and community members are still willing to take great risks and make incredible sacrifices to stay in school, or to help their friends, daughters, and wives do the same.  Whether or not we can see it now, these benefits amplify across families, towns, cities, countries and generations.

This is why, in line with our mission to end extreme poverty and promote resilient democratic societies, USAID invests $1 billion every year on education programs around the world – on programs like WASH, designed to improve clean water and sanitation facilities in schools, and EAGLE, to help girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo make the transition from primary to secondary school. And to help raise awareness on the importance of girls’ education, we launched Let Girls Learn earlier this year with the help of our friends from the arts and entertainment industry.

Ultimately, it is stories like the ones I heard throughout my trip that drove home the necessity of programs like these. We do this because around the world, from Afghanistan to Zambia, individuals and families understand that both the risks and the payoffs to women’s education are huge. Despite putting themselves in the line of fire, sometimes quite literally, mothers continue to send their daughters to school, and their daughters keep going. Teachers continue to show up everyday to pass on their hard-won knowledge and expertise to the next generation. Communities, on their own and with our help, continue to build the infrastructure, even though it risks destruction.

The resilience and bravery of the girls and women that I met is humbling and inspiring. They certainly keep me going, and I’m glad that we are here to help turn that determination and perseverance into a lasting reality.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Susan Markham is USAID’s Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. She tweets from @msmarkham

Mobile Agriculture: A Lifeline for Pakistan’s Farmers

A ‘connected’ farmer is sharing information with a ‘non-connected’ farmer in his community. / USAID/Pakistan

A ‘connected’ farmer is sharing information with a ‘non-connected’ farmer in his community. / USAID/Pakistan

Spend five minutes on any busy street in Pakistan and you will think that you are in one of the most connected countries in the world. Most people, regardless of economic class, have a mobile phone, and farmers are no exception. Most of these farmers live in isolated remote communities which can be prone to major natural disasters and violence from militants. These communities have extremely poor infrastructure, almost no public transportation, and little access to basic financial services. Mobile phone coverage, however, penetrates into some of the most remote areas of Pakistan, reaching otherwise isolated rural communities.

For these communities, mobile phones are a lifeline. Recognizing this, USAID Pakistan has partnered with the regional government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Telenor, an international mobile network operator in Pakistan, to create and deliver tailored mobile solutions to get information to peach and potato growers as well as fisheries in Swat Valley.

By delivering real-time information about market prices and new techniques, weather forecasting, and diversified financial services via mobile technology, the service helps Pakistani farmers and hatchery managers improve productivity and get better returns on their investments. As their incomes increase through more informed decision making, they are able to invest in better quality inputs and equipment.

Around 1,500 people are included in the pilot project, which is focused on testing and scaling up what works to ensure that the program’s digital development tools meet participant’s needs.

A farmer participating in the USAID pilot program is reading a text alert on best farming practice. / USAID/Pakistan

A farmer participating in the USAID pilot program is reading a text alert on best farming practice. / USAID/Pakistan

The project provides two basic services. First, it sends alerts to mobile phones to provide farmers with tips and advice in their local language, helping them to increase the quality and quantity of their production. Participants can also use their mobile phones to access recorded advisories from an interactive voice response (IVR). In a country where the literacy rate is low, voice-based services address the difficulties faced by those unable to read or write.

These text and voice services provide a wide range of information. Weather forecasts help them decide when to plant, irrigate and harvest. Information on market prices and consumer trends help them understand which products will yield the highest returns for their efforts. Farmers also receive technical advice on how to fight pests or diseases, improve farming practices for more sustainable agriculture, and apply processing techniques that reduce food wastage. They can learn about regulations, available subsidies and local fairs.

Fresh potatoes from the farms in Swat / USAID/Pakistan

Fresh potatoes from the farms in Swat / USAID/Pakistan

Initial feedback from the pilot is promising. More than 90 percent of the participants who received the messages said that they were well-timed and useful, and three quarters have adopted the service’s recommended practices. Subscribers also reported that they shared the information with non-subscribed farmers, underscoring the value of the information and quadrupling the project’s reach.

As a corollary to the project, mobile financial services, including remittances, mobile banking and value-added services like crop insurance are also being introduced. This will help boost food production, improve livelihoods and incomes and introduce technological solutions to improve efficiency in the agricultural supply chain.

By analyzing calls Pakistani farmers place to the IVR service, agricultural specialists and research organizations can build an accurate picture of the challenges rural farmers face and the evolving trends in Pakistani agriculture.

At its core, mobile agriculture is about putting information into farmers’ hands and empowering them through sustainable and scalable solutions. The hope is that the success of this partnership will encourage and enable other private sector players to enter the market, contributing to a well-informed and more prosperous farming community throughout the country. It is also expected that these innovations will create new economic opportunities in this politically sensitive region, where financial stability is an essential factor in the region’s overall resilience.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shehla Rizwan is Development Outreach and Communications Specialist for USAID/Pakistan

Haiti’s High-Tech Revolution: The ‘New Model’ in Action

Workers at Haiti’s Surtab factory carefully assembly tablets.

Workers at Haiti’s Surtab factory carefully assembly tablets. / A. Thier, USAID

Creating an environment that encourages inclusive growth amidst instability is both necessary and extremely challenging. Nevertheless, on a recent visit to Haiti, I saw some ways that USAID is helping to create local partnerships that provide a path out of poverty.

In a country where two thirds of the population live on less than $1.25 per day this is no small task.

The refurbished Sonapi Industrial Park, an unexpected beehive of activity just outside of Port-au-Prince, is a perfect example. We visited the site  to explore the Surtab tablet factory. Literally humming with activity, the plant is a case study in USAID’s “new model” of development: one that promotes local ownership, leverages private investment, spurs innovation, harnesses scientific and technological advances, and demand the results and accountability that enable us to meet today’s critical development challenges.

In September 2013, USAID awarded a $200,000 grant to Surtab through the Leveraging Effective Application of Direct Investments (LEAD) program. With an additional $250,000 of private investment, the company built an assembly plant and launched their very first tablet, SURTAB 7. These tablets compete with  Apple and Samsung products in quality and functionality, and they make several versions, with the cheapest designed to be affordable to a broad array of Haitians.

The company has been a huge boost to the technology sector in Haiti, creating a highly skilled local workforce of 56 Haitian employees. Their recruitment practices are interesting – paying no regard to gender, prior work experience, or levels of education. Instead, they select their employees based on how they perform in a series of tests and trainings.

In combination with extensive on-site instruction, this process has yielded three remarkable results. First, 95 percent of the production line employees are women. Second, many of them come from much poorer educational backgrounds than one would expect in Haiti’s highest-tech factory. Third, the pride of workmanship is so strong that their quality assurance testing rate is unusually high compared to the electronics industry standards.

This is also due to the fact that each tablet is assembled from start to finish by one employee. Surtab pays its employees at two to four times the minimum wage, giving them skills and income that provide a sustainable path out of poverty.

After having been in business for just a little over a year, Surtab manufactures 3,000  to 4,000 tablets each month and sells its products within the Caribbean and Africa. In the future, Surtab hopes to be able to double production and to export them to the United States, Canada and Europe. Their growth was recently featured in a story on NPR. This bold start is already spawning new efforts, like the upcoming launch of an app lab, and likely production of smart phones to meet the burgeoning local market.

Surtab is just one project. But it is a clear cut example of how USAID is focusing partnering with local organizations while also utilizing the private sector to transform the face of development. Haiti will require much more, on a grander scale, to provide the basic level of opportunity and human dignity its people deserve. However, the last decades, and success stories like Surtab, have taught us that such progress can happen even in the most challenging environments.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Thier is the Assistant to the Administrator in the Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning. He tweets from @Thieristan

Celebrating Eid and Reflecting on How Faith Works

School girls in Sana’a gather for their lesson. Since many girls in Yemen do not attend primary school or graduate from it, recent USAID-backed measures have ensured all girls a right to attend school and increase literacy.

School girls in Sana’a gather for their lesson. Since many girls in Yemen do not attend primary school or graduate from it, recent USAID-backed measures have ensured all girls a right to attend school and increase literacy. (Clinton Doggett / USAID)

Eid Mubarak. As Muslims around the world celebrate Eid al-Fitr, we share our warmest and joyous wishes with them and their families. Earlier this month, we hosted our Agency’s 12th annual Iftar dinner. It was—as always—a welcome pause from our daily responsibilities and a reminder of the mission we serve. As President Obama said, Ramadan is a time for spiritual renewal and devotion—a chance to honor a faith known for its diversity and commitment to the dignity of all human beings.

We came together in reflection at a time when our mission—and our values—are being tested. Across the globe, millions of children, especially girls, face daunting threats. Syrian children continue to endure relentless dangers, from barrel bombs to extremist militias. Girls in India risk their lives simply by fetching water or visiting latrines. Children in Nigeria attend schools that are targets for terrorists rather than a sanctuary for learning.

Girls at the newly refurbished Al-Jeel Al-Jadeed School in Sana'a, Lebanon, begin their exams on test day. Recent USAID improvements to the infrastructure and teaching practices have opened the doors for more girls to attend school and receive an education.

Girls at the newly refurbished Al-Jeel Al-Jadeed School in Sana’a, Lebanon, begin their exams on test day. Recent USAID improvements to the infrastructure and teaching practices have opened the doors for more girls to attend school and receive an education. (Malak Shaher / USAID/YMEP)

Our work together is more critical than ever. Several years ago, we announced a new policy to put innovation and partnerships at the center of our work with women and girls around the world. To uphold that commitment, we recently launched Let Girls Learn, a powerful movement to call attention to the importance of investing in girls—in their education, in their health, in their potential.

Every day, we work to put the power of science and innovation into the hands of those who live their faith and serve this common purpose—a message I shared when I spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this year. Today, in Nigeria, we’re helping get half-a-million children, including 250,000 girls, into school and actually learning. In Jordan, we’re providing emergency education to 150,000 child refugees—including 60,000 girls—who have been forced to flee violence in Syria. And in Afghanistan, 3 million girls and 5 million boys are enrolled in school—compared to just 900,000 when the Taliban ruled by terror.

Afghanistan - 2002

Afghanistan – 2002 (USAID)

As we broke bread together at our Iftar, we were honored to hear from Parniyan Nazari, who spoke poignantly about her experiences growing up in Afghanistan under the Taliban. When girls were forbidden from attending school, she cut her hair like a boy. While they wanted to let her learn, the teachers told her that it could put everyone at risk​. She used faded books from the International Rescue Committee to teach herself, and today, she is leading  Women for Afghan Women​ working to provide education for girls and women.

​Parniyan’​s story of courage and compassion inspires us to draw strength from her example as we work to end extreme poverty in our lifetime. This Friday, our Agency is proud to host the first official event of the African Leaders Summit—one that brings together a diverse community to highlight the importance of faith organizations in development. Called Faith Works, it serves as another meaningful opportunity to celebrate the values that unite humanity and inspire us to reach towards extraordinary goals.

Can Private Financing Answer Uganda’s Health Care Woes?

Early this year, the U.S. and Swedish ambassadors went on a joint site visit to Rhona Medical Center, a medium-sized health clinic in Kampala. Site visits by the U.S. ambassador are not uncommon in Uganda where the health sector makes up the lion’s share of the aid budget. But this joint visit was unusual because it was to a private health facility that a year ago had received a loan co-guaranteed by USAID and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA).

Uganda’s adoption of the Anti-Homosexuality Act in February this year and the Ugandan president’s dismissal of the value of the U.S. Government’s development assistance to the country has prompted a review of our 50-year-long efforts in Uganda. In his February 24 speech, after signing the anti-homosexuality bill into law, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni stressed, “Uganda is a rich country that does not need aid, because aid is in itself a problem…”

Indeed, Uganda has made much smaller gains in key health indicators than its neighbors despite receiving larger aid inflows per capita, amounting to three quarters of all public health spending. I have spent some of my last three years at post pondering how we might be effective in improving the health of Ugandans when, despite the critical support provided by USAID and our implementing partners, the government fails to adequately enforce accountability and performance in the public health system. Uganda has had nominally free health care since 2001, yet a recent World Bank survey found that 51 percent of public sector health workers were absent from their posts and drug stock-outs also remain a problem.

An obvious answer to me was to invest in the emerging private sector, rather than continuing to unsustainably prop-up the public system. While USAID continues to support the public sector to ensure that the poorest Ugandans continue to access vital health care services, we can also ensure that people have additional health service options outside of the public sector, even when those options require payment. By distributing our aid across the public and private sectors, we hoped to continue to reach the poorest Ugandans while also helping increase the quality of health services through private sector development.

A nurse works in southwest Uganda's Kabwohe Clinical Research Center, a facility that received a $35,000 loan guaranteed through USAID's Development Credit Authority, and was able to hire more staff and provide life saving AIDS treatment to 4600 patients as a result. / USAID, Morgana Wingard

A nurse works in southwest Uganda’s Kabwohe Clinical Research Center, a facility that received a $35,000 loan guaranteed through USAID’s Development Credit Authority, and was able to hire more staff and provide life saving AIDS treatment to 4600 patients as a result. / USAID, Morgana Wingard

Over the last three years, with invaluable support from USAID’s Development Credit Authority, USAID/Uganda has built a portfolio of risk-sharing guarantees with local banks to open $10 million in private lending for Uganda’s health sector, at a cost of only $315,000 to USAID. The financing was made available for everything in the health sector from small drug shops to hospitals in Kampala, with an emphasis on facilities that serve rural areas – a segment that banks previously considered too high-risk to qualify for commercial loans.

Thanks to the risk-mitigating guarantees, private clinics can now access commercial loans to purchase medical equipment and expand their facilities to serve more clients. The results so far are impressive – Centenary Bank has utilized 50 percent of a five-year guarantee in a little over a year, reflecting the pent-up demand for credit. One of its loans – of around $25,000 – went to Rhona Medical Center and was used to purchase a dental x-ray, a scanning machine, a clinical chemistry machine, a hematology analyzer and six desktop computers.

Accompanying the U.S. and Swedish ambassadors on this site visit, Rhona’s director, Dr. Edward Bemera, shared with us that the clinic was able to get much better terms on its loan thanks to the USAID guarantee facility.

Along with the new medical equipment, he used his loan to hire additional nurses and to make renovations to the facility. As a result, the Medical Center’s revenues more than doubled, and the number of clients receiving better services quadrupled.

Dr. Bemera explains Amb. DeLisi, Amb. Andersson and the rest of the team about how he used the loan to scale up activities at his clinic.

Dr. Bemera explains to Amb. DeLisi, Amb. Andersson and the rest of the team about how he used the USAID-backed loan to scale up activities at his clinic. / USAID, Roberta Rossi

The contribution of the private health sector will grow significantly in years to come as banks realize that this segment is credit-worthy. This is evidenced by the fact that there have been no defaults to date under the guarantee. Increased competition will gradually reduce prices for patients, making private health care more affordable and of better quality.

USAID/Uganda has embraced the value of this private partnerships approach in other areas of our work. For example, since girls’ secondary enrollment is a strong predictor of improved maternal and child health outcomes, we are about to launch a new loan guarantee for girls’ school fee loans, that will be managed as part of our Orphans and Vulnerable Children program.

For me, to be given the opportunity to champion innovative approaches to development, and to see those translated into tangible results is a dream come true.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Daryl Martyris is a Health Development Officer in USAID Uganda’s Office of Health, HIV/AIDS and Education.

If You ‘Let Girls Learn,’ You Save Lives Too

letgirlslearn_rev2

Oppression and prejudice toil in a cage of ignorance and cruelty.  Before the U.S. Civil Rights movement altered the course of history, Jim Crow laws and terror imposed segregation and licensed discrimination, casting a pall of shame over America.

Today, the inhumane degradation and culturally sanctioned abuse of girls in many parts of the world is a shockingly similar shame. Denied the most basic universal human rights, girls have limited access to health care, nutrition, education and job skills training, as well as productive resources, such as water, land and credit.

The kidnapping of 300 Nigerian girls by the extremist group Boko Haram focused global attention, issuing a clarion call that girls’ education and health are civil rights worth fighting for, leading to benefits, not only for girls, but for entire communities and nations. In low income countries, mothers who have completed primary school are more likely to seek appropriate health care for their children. A child born to a literate mother is 50 percent more likely to survive past the age of 5.

  • In low income countries, mothers who have completed primary school are more likely to seek appropriate health care for their children.
  • A child born to a literate mother is 50 percent more likely to survive past the age of 5.
  • Women with some formal education are more likely to seek medical care and ensure their children are immunized.
  • Women with some formal education are more likely to be better informed about their children’s nutritional requirements, and practice better sanitation.
  • An educated girl is three times less likely to contract HIV.

Segenet Wendawork was 5 years old when her mother died. After her father moved away, she bounced around, living with her grandmother for a while, then an aunt who kept her home from school to help with chores.  Thanks to a USAID scholarship program, Segenet was able to return to school in Ethiopia and complete her education. “Before the scholarship, I was unable to dream about the future,” she said.

Sixty-two million girls are not in school, and are also unable to dream about their future. And millions more are fighting to stay in school. The U.S. Government invests $1 billion each year through USAID in low-income countries to ensure equitable treatment of boys and girls, to create safe school environments, and to engage communities in support for girls’ education.

According to the Working Group on Girls (WGG), a coalition of over 80 national and international non-governmental organizations, schoolgirls of all ages report sexual harassment and assault, ranging from gender discrimination to rape, exploitation and physical and psychological intimidation in school.

Last week, a new effort was launched by the U.S. Government, and led by USAID, to provide the public with meaningful ways to help all girls get a quality education. Let Girls Learn aims to elevate a conversation about the need to support all girls in their pursuit of a quality education. In support of the effort, USAID also announced over $230 million for new programs to support education around the world.

Thomas Staal, a senior leader with USAID, said education is essential to fight poverty and all its corollaries: hunger, disease, resource degradation, exploitation and despair. “Women are the caretakers and economic catalysts in our communities. No country can afford to ignore their potential.”

Since education level has the greatest effect on the age at which a woman has her first birth, and adolescent mothers are more likely to die in childbirth, education both empowers young people directly and affects family planning choices and labor force participation.

 “Education is essential to fight poverty and all its corollaries.” In this photo, school children in Haiti. / Devon McLorg, USAID

“Education is essential to fight poverty and all its corollaries.” In this photo, school children in Haiti. / Devon McLorg, USAID

Conversely, a healthy start in life and good nutrition are essential for children to thrive, develop and spend more time in school. Last month, USAID launched a new global nutrition strategy  aimed at reducing the number of chronically malnourished or stunted children by at least 2 million over the next five years. Every year, under-nutrition contributes to 3.1 million child deaths—45 percent of the worldwide total.

In the strategy, USAID is prioritizing the prevention of malnutrition given the irreversible consequences of chronic under-nutrition early in life. Under-nutrition inhibits the body’s immune system from fighting disease and impedes cognitive, social-emotional and motor development.

In addition to focusing on good nutrition in the first 1,000 days for mother and child, USAID is also saving newborns from severe infections, protecting young children from the risks of diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria, and helping women space the births of their children to protect their health and that of their children.

This week, USAID, the governments of Ethiopia and India, in collaboration with UNICEF, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and others will hold a high level forum to take stock of recent efforts aimed at reducing child and maternal deaths and plot a new course that will ensure progress continues.

USAID will refocus the majority of our maternal and child health resources toward specific, life-saving tools in 24 countries where the need is greatest and empower our partner countries to lead with robust action plans and evidence-based report cards to save an unprecedented number of lives by 2020.

USAID Assistant Administrator Ariel Pablos-Mendez said by coupling family planning investments with policies supporting child survival, girls’ education and job creation – especially those targeting women – countries can be positioned to realize substantial economic growth that lifts everyone out of poverty.

Doing so will allow girls and boys to follow their wildest hopes and dreams and live productive lives.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Thomas is a communications advisor in the Bureau for Global Health. Read more from the author in the latest FrontLines, which features articles about the Agency’s work in maternal and child health: In Health Research Fueled by USAID Is Fielding Innovative Solutions, he writes about innovative, cost-effective and life-saving health care solutions whose research and development were aided by USAID; and in Your Voice: Frontline Health Workers are the Unsung Heroes of Global Health Progress, he describes just how essential community health workers are to rural and other underserved communities in developing nations.

In Zambia, a Refuge to Learn

If you want to see a community at work, check out the Lubuto Library on a Saturday morning in Lusaka, Zambia. Architect Eleni Coromvli has created traditional thatched structures to form the library garden compound. She explains that a Zambian home is not just one building but several with a covered outdoor space for family and friends to socialize.

The U.S. public libraries that I know, refer to clusters of computers as “the campfires of the 21st Century”, or the new places to tell our stories. In the Lubuto Library sturdy laptops line the circular walls. The children working there are often recruited off the streets by Kenny Hau, who was once a street child himself.

As outreach coordinator, he listens to the stories of traumatized children, counsels them and connects them to additional services as needed. The library stands next to a neighborhood school, so it’s difficult to tell whether the children working at the computers are homeless, out-of-school orphans or are children who attend school daily but hunger for more books and access to technology and the arts.

The Lubuto Library Project, a USAID All Children Reading Grand Challenge winner, is pioneering a program creating high-quality mother-tongue materials to teach children to read using an accessible, low-cost digital platform.  Here, a young boy tries out the program on a laptop. / Robert Kent, USAID

The Lubuto Library Project, a USAID All Children Reading Grand Challenge winner, is pioneering a program creating high-quality mother-tongue materials to teach children to read using an accessible, low-cost digital platform. Here, a young boy tries out the program on a laptop. / Robert Kent, USAID

On the Saturday morning I visited the library, a professional artist offered some pointers to older children bent over detailed pencil sketches. Two older boys explain to guests how they created the graphics to illustrate 100 lessons designed by librarians and teachers that are aligned with the national reading curriculum.

These reading lessons help those who know the basics practice; and help those who don’t start the process of learning to read. With help from a $300,000 USAID All Children Reading Grand Challenge  grant, the Lubuto Library has worked with experts like Dr. Joseph Mwansa from the University of Zambia to align these lessons with the new Zambian reading curriculum, entitled the Primary Literacy Program. Let’s Read, Zambia is the national media awareness and community outreach program in support of the new reading curriculum for Zambia.

In the main reading room, children sit elbow to elbow listening as two volunteers read aloud, “That’s Not My Hat” and “The Giving Tree.” I tried my hand at a participatory story that I’ve been telling since I was the same age as these volunteers and a volunteer myself at Saturday morning story hours in small town Iowa. In the picture you can see us ‘searching’ for elephants. The children slapped their legs and swished their hands as we went looking for an elephant to capture on film with our imaginary cameras.

At the Lubuto Library in Zambia, a boy works on an illustration for a lesson designed by librarians and teachers as a part of the country’s Primary Reading Program. / Robert Kent, USAID

At the Lubuto Library in Zambia, a boy works on an illustration for a lesson designed by librarians and teachers as a part of the country’s Primary Reading Program. / Robert Kent, USAID

Thomas Mukonde, the Library Services Advisor, took me on a tour of the stacks. He’s going to school to get his degree in library science. There are easy reading books in local languages like Bemba and Tonga as well as biographies of Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela. When they were told about the original texts of Zambian books in U.S. libraries, they arranged to download them into the Lubuto database so anyone can see and read them. They plan to connect to the Internet with the help of some private partners.

Outside the Library the children presented a play about a grandfather who tricks his grandchildren into digging his garden.The actors turned into tomato plants, then became the hawkers at the local market selling the tomatoes. A crowd of more than 50 children gathered to watch.

The director of the play is a local high school student and volunteer at the library. This is Lusaka’s second Lubuto Library. A third is operating in the south and they are looking for space in the northern province as well.  No matter what country, a free library is the soul of a community. It protects the past, preserves the present and assures the future. In order to teach a million Zambian children to read better, they need to practice. Lubuto gives them a place to do just that.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christie Vilsack is USAID’s Senior Advisor for International Education

Witness to an Historic Ukrainian Election

Ukranian woman places vote in ballot box

Ukrainians in Bila Tserkva cast their votes at the 2014 Presidential Election. / Julie Ota, USAID

Elections are generally the single largest civilian mobilization that any country undertakes. In a country the size of Ukraine this effort involves hundreds of millions of dollars of local resources and the deployment of nearly 300,000 poll workers, along with associated police and security.  Despite having only three months to prepare, ongoing violence in the eastern regions, and cyber-attacks on the election commission’s server, the Ukrainian elections on May 25th were conducted fairly and in accordance with Ukrainian legislation and international standards.

Millions of determined Ukrainians turned out to vote in the pre-term presidential elections and reaffirm their desire for a more democratic country. Nationwide, 60 percent of registered voters participated, despite security issues in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The high turnout reflected a belief in the importance of voting and in the fairness and credibility of the elections system.

Ukrainians in Bila Tserkva cast their votes at the 2014 Presidential Election. / Julie Ota, USAID

Ukrainians in Bila Tserkva cast their votes at the 2014 Presidential Election. / Julie Ota, USAID

Voters and poll workers seemed to take much pride in these elections. Many voters, understanding the historic nature of the elections, donned traditional national costumes and brought their children with them. An unprecedented number of young people participated in polling election commissions or as election observers.  Poll workers diligently administered ballots throughout the day and worked overnight to tabulate the votes.

I was honored to participate in this historic event as a volunteer observer with the U.S. Embassy and found it inspirational to witness firsthand the real impact of U.S. and USAID support for Ukraine’s democratic development.

The successful election reflects both the strength of the elections system in Ukraine and the impact of USAID activities and cooperation with the Ukrainian people, which contributed to these free, fair and credible elections in Ukraine.

Ukrainians in Bila Tserkva cast their votes at the 2014 Presidential Election. / Julie Ota, USAID

Ukrainians in Bila Tserkva cast their votes at the 2014 Presidential Election. / Julie Ota, USAID

For example, the Ukraine Electoral Law Reform Program has provided in-depth updates and analysis on the Ukrainian government’s ongoing process of election reform, encouraged local organizations and Ukrainian citizens to participate in public dialogue, and enhanced the Central Election Commission’s capacity to deliver credible, competent elections.

USAID has also successfully fostered the capacity of local election observation organizations, such as OPORA and CHESNO, to ensure the legitimacy and transparency of the election process. Both are successful models for how the U.S. Agency for International Development is empowering local civil society organizations.

USAID’s support for OPORA’s work has helped the local NGO become one of the most respected election monitoring organizations in the country. During the elections, OPORA presented the largest domestic election observation effort in Ukraine and successfully organized and implemented a parallel vote tabulation. CHESNO, meanwhile, has focused on developing mechanisms to maintain accountability of public officials and engage citizens to increase voter turnout.

Today CHESNO and another prominent NGO, IFES, are advocating for a new draft law on campaign finance, which is currently moving through Ukraine’s Parliament and is expected to provide impetus for more comprehensive campaign finance reforms later. Importantly, CHESNO’s efforts to promote public disclosure of candidate revenues this year resulted in some of the presidential candidates publicly disclosing the funding sources for their campaign expenses for the first time ever.

In the run up to the election, USAID activities strengthened independent media to report on the electoral process in a balanced, informed and independent manner, promoted election-related civic activism and voter education, and worked with political parties to become more inclusive and representative. USAID also supported televised candidate debates, which sparked much interest and discussion.

USAID has long been an important partner in Ukraine’s democratic development. In fact, over the past 20 years, we have invested close to $2 billion to help build a stronger more stable economy, develop and strengthen democratic structures, bolster civil society and provide better healthcare.

And yesterday, we announced an additional $10 million in U.S. support – largely for corruption fighting measures.

Now that the May 25th election is over and a winner identified, Ukraine has reached a hopeful milestone in its turbulent transition to democracy. On behalf of USAID, I want to congratulate the Ukrainian people on their successful election and reconfirm USAID’s commitment to supporting a fair, open, and participatory democratic process that truly reflects the will of the people.

Tomorrow’s Leaders Empowered Today

High unemployment. Crime. Environmental degradation. Social and political unrest.

These are real issues facing millions of young people across the world. But more often than not, youth are meeting these challenges head on.

Many of our USAID missions around the world, often in post-conflict arenas, are working diligently to empower youth so they can serve as leaders in their communities.

Young Palestinian Youth Local Shadow Councils install traffic signals, paint sidewalks and organize a local tourism bike tour.

Young Palestinian Youth Local Shadow Councils install traffic signals, paint sidewalks and organize a local tourism bike tour. / USAID

For example, our mission in West Bank/Gaza supports a project that aims to provide leadership opportunities to 19 youth councils through mirroring their municipalities’ local elected governments. Youth Shadow Local Councils are comprised of young people between the ages of 15 and 22. Each group is composed of about 15 young people, a number that mirrors the number of local elected municipal leaders in individual jurisdictions. This allows the youth councils to shadow their town counterparts one-on-one as the elected officials go about their official duties and to learn lessons in good governance.

The young people also get opportunities to take on leadership roles in their communities through this project, engaging with not only local officials but also heads of NGOs and religious leaders. The councils have, in fact, implemented hundreds of local initiatives and activities impacting local communities, including beautifying parks and roads, hosting career fairs, conducting safety and traffic campaigns, and fundraising for local organizations.

In Kenya, our Yes Youth Can! project also supports democratic youth groups, called bunges, a Swahili word for parliament. Youth elect their own leaders within their villages as well as individuals to represent them at county and national levels.

Bunge members contribute to their communities by providing income-generating activities such as garbage collection that also serve to revitalize their neighborhoods. In one community, bunge members started a small private school providing scholarships for orphaned kids.  School fees are funneled into paying the teacher and renting space. The school is tackling illiteracy head on and providing opportunities for a new generation.

Another bunge has lobbied regionally to use biogas and other biodegradable materials as sources of energy rather than charcoal and firewood. These communal activities are building a culture of peace and professionalism for youth and helping to dispel negative perceptions that associate them with drugs and illegal activities.

In Kosovo, youth are becoming active citizens through USAID’s Basic Education Program, a five-year initiative benefiting all Kosovo public primary and lower secondary schools. The program is empowering Kosovo youth to create a shift in mindset and become future leaders. Youth are raising environmental awareness through student-driven environment education activities that encourage understanding of sustainability concepts and strengthens their leadership skills. To mark Global Youth Service Day and Earth Day last month, students created artwork with recycled materials, led a community class on environmental issues, and promoted recycling as well as the use of lowering one’s carbon footprint by riding bikes. In the spirit of promoting voluntarism, a group of students sold cookies donated by a bakery to raise money for purchasing books on the environment that were to be donated to a school library.

USAID projects supporting youth are creating a new paradigm of community engagement, helping to rebuild post-conflict communities and creating hope in increasingly challenging situations.

These courageous youth are embodying the wisdom behind Gandhi’s words “Be the change you want to see in this world” through bringing their countries into a new era – ushering in service as a new way of life.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephanie Hilborn is a Democracy Officer in USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. Special contributions from Genora Reed (USAID/Washington), Micheline Sleibi (USAID/WBG), Antigona Mustafa (USAID/Kosovo) and Roger Steinkamp (USAID/Kenya)

5 Ways USAID is Preparing for Hurricane Season

As another Atlantic hurricane season approaches, we are reminded that it takes just one bad storm to wreak havoc, kill and injure thousands, and inflict billions of dollars in damage. That’s why USAID—through its Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance—prepares year-round with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to ensure emergency and evacuation plans are in place and hurricane-prone communities are ready. Here are five ways USAID is helping prepare our neighbors to meet the demands of hurricane season:

1.) The Wall of Wind: Did you know there is a place in Miami, Fla., where deadly, hurricane force winds can be felt without the threat of destruction? It’s called the Wall of Wind, a cutting-edge lab at Florida International University that simulates Category Five hurricane conditions using 12 giant fans, generating winds with speeds exceeding 150 miles per hour. It’s here that USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance tests the strength and design of the transitional shelters we use to help provide a temporary home to those who have been hit hard by disasters. Hurricanes can be catastrophic, taking out entire coastlines and killing thousands in the process. Flying debris, often from pieces of roofs and homes, is one of the most deadly and destructive side effects of these storms. That’s why it’s crucial that transitional shelters are strong enough to withstand nature’s worst.

 

2.) Scientific Advanced Warning Systems: Flash floods are the number one weather-related killer and the most fatal aspect of hurricanes. When they occur, excess water caused by heavy and rapid rainfall cannot be quickly absorbed into the earth—and this fast-moving water can be extremely powerful, reaching heights of more than 30 feet. It takes only six inches of flash flood water to knock a person to the ground and only 18 inches to float a moving car. 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. USAID works closely with meteorological experts in hurricane-prone countries, training them on the Flash Flood Guidance System, a scientific method of accumulating rainfall data and analyzing the rate at which the ground absorbs it. This system saves lives, giving disaster-prone countries crucial hours before a flash flood hits to implement emergency plans and move as many people as possible out of harm’s way.

Flash floods are the number one weather-related killer and the most fatal aspect of hurricanes

Flash floods are the number one weather-related killer and the most fatal aspect of hurricanes / Olga Palmer, US Embassy

 

3.) Emergency Stockpiles and Disaster Experts: USAID has strategically located warehouses in Miami; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Pisa, Italy, that are filled with essential relief items, such as emergency shelter materials, warm blankets, water treatment systems, and hygiene kits. We have the ability to charter aircraft to deliver these life-saving items quickly to those hit hard by hurricanes across Latin America and the Caribbean. But arguably, the most vital resource USAID has is its people. The Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance staffs a regional office in San Jose, Costa Rica, and a program office in Haiti with a total of five regional advisors and three program officers, and maintains a consultant network of 20 disaster risk management specialists dispersed throughout the region who are ready to jump into action when a hurricane makes landfall. When we know a storm is coming, we can pre-position staff to be on the ground to assess immediate needs. In addition, approximately 350 on-call local consultants are available for short-term activation in response to disasters, as needed. These consultants live in the region, so they know the culture and local officials, and can quickly report the conditions on the ground to help USAID prioritize humanitarian needs.

The Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance in San Jose, Costa Rica

The Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance in San Jose, Costa Rica / USAID

 

4.) Donating Smart: Preparing your family and home for hurricanes is important—but what about preparing yourself to assist others? We work closely with USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information to educate the public on the best and most effective ways to help others during a hurricane. When there is a disaster overseas, many people begin to collect clothing, canned food and bottled water for survivors. While well-intended, many of these items actually remain in the United States because of the high fees and cost required to transport the donated goods to a foreign country. Other items are turned away at their destination because they are not tied to a response organization that would be responsible for handling and delivering them or are deemed inappropriate according to the laws and customs of the region. Undoubtedly the least time-consuming and most cost-effective way to help others is through monetary donations to organizations that are established and operating in the affected countries. These donations enable relief workers to respond to the evolving needs of those affected by hurricanes, from immediate life-saving assistance to eventually helping them rebuild their communities. Still not convinced that donating money during a disaster is the best way to help?

 
5.) Rap Music and Dance: Yes, you read that right. USAID works in some of the most marginalized neighborhoods across the Caribbean to channel the energy and creativity from at-risk youth to transform them into disaster preparedness leaders. The Youth Emergency Action Committees program led by our partner, Catholic Relief Services, is one that teaches young people how to plan for and respond to hurricanes, administer first aid, map out evacuation routes and set up emergency shelters. Teens write music, create skits, and perform them to raise awareness in their communities about disaster preparedness while simultaneously learning life-saving skills. Rap music, in particular, has been a big hit! The program, which started in some of the most hazard-prone and marginalized neighborhoods of inner-city Kingston, Jamaica, has been so successful that it’s expanded to the Dominican Republic, St. Lucia and Grenada.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tim Callaghan is the Senior Regional Advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean, Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance

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