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8 Things Our Future Military Leaders Need to Know About Water Management

Last year the National Intelligence Council released its first-ever Global Water Security Intelligence Community Assessment (PDF). The report noted that during the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will risk instability and state failure. Additionally, between now and 2040, fresh water availability will not keep up with demand absent more effective management of water resources.

At USAID, we support a wide variety of water programs that foster economic development throughout the developing world. These programs help mitigate the prospect of conflict and play an important role in both meeting emergency relief needs and bringing long-term stability to people in areas afflicted by conflict.

One day, our future military leaders will be planning and implementing peace-keeping operations, and it is important for them to know how the range of water management approaches implemented by USAID can help foster stability, resilience and economic growth.

I was thus pleased to receive an invitation from Col. Wiley Thompson, the head of the United States Military Academy Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, to deliver a lecture in mid-December on water to about 140 West Point cadets. As these men and women will one day be leading our country, I was honored to impart lessons about how water management may help strengthen the cadets’ capacity to lead.

Chris Holmes with West Point cadets following the lecture on water management. Photo credit: USAID

While my core message to the cadets was this –Water management is key to stability, to improving health, to producing food and energy, to adapting to climate change – there are eight key lessons that I believe would help these cadets as they continue their educations.

1. USAID and the military can and must form effective partnerships.

The Army and USAID have partnered on wide range of water activities, such as: increasing the energy output of the Kajaki dam in Afghanistan, restoring carp fisheries in Iraq, and providing relief to flood and earthquake victims in Pakistan. Such partnering is supported by the USAID- DOD Civilian Military Cooperation policy (PDF). Both USAID and the military bring differing but complimentary technical expertise. In addition, the military provides the logistics support and security to support USAID efforts in the field. This collaboration is essential, especially in providing security in areas prone to conflict and in providing emergency humanitarian assistance requiring the transport of medical supplies and relief personnel.

2. Women leaders must play a vital role in leading water programs.

In Afghanistan, the USAID Sustainable Water Supply Sanitation and Hygiene program supports the development of women leaders, including Female Health Action groups. Women leaders play an essential role in leading community-based water organizations and in resolving disputes over water.

3. Policy Makers must take an integrated approach, linking sectors, programs and policies.

The objective of USAID’s recently initiated Rwanda Integrated Water Security Program is to improve the sustainable management of water quantity and quality to positively impact human health, food security, and resilience to climate change for vulnerable populations in targeted catchments. This integrated water resource management project is intended to serve as a model for USAID water projects.

4. Remote sensing and communications technologies change the game.

In East Africa, The USAID Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNET) is identifying where climate change is actually occurring, analyzing climate change data in patterns over the last 30 to 50 years. This enables USAID and its developing country partners to look in to the future and take steps to adapt to climate change.

The Indonesia WATER SMS project will apply new data-collection tools and sharing methodologies through Short Messaging Services (SMS) and web mapping to increase civic participation to improve water services. Residents, using hand phones and email, can rapidly report chronic and acute conditions.

5. Think across the border.

More than 300 water bodies are shared by two or more countries. Tanzania and Kenya border the Mara river. The USAID Transboundary Water for Biodiversity and Human Health project in the Mara River Basin (TWB-MRB) has helped local communities to develop new water services, refurbish nonfunctioning water systems, and improve sanitation services. There has also been support for setting up water user associations and village savings and loan groups, emphasizing the participation and empowerment of women and the long-term sustainability of the new organizations. Major conflicts can arise over water resources, grazing lands and territory; loss of assets, livestock, hundreds of people killed and  thousands displaced. This calls early focus on  a peace building process, e.g., strengthening Institutions for peace and development

6. It’s not just high tech.

Meeting complex economic development needs requires combining traditional low-tech approaches to water management, such as sand-dam water catchments, with sophisticated high-tech approaches. As part of the climate adaptation strategy in Mali, informed by data from the high-tech FEWSNET, USAID also supports programs that reintroduce traditional soil conservation and management programs to increase food production, a tried and true low-tech approach to enhanced productivity that is being practiced of millions of acres. Drilling rigs for bore holes can easily be counterproductive if not sited in close collaboration with all stakeholder groups in a wider landscape, and linked to local village management capacity.

7. We must provide sustainable solutions to enhance the resilience of communities.

USAID and other donors, through the Productive Safety Net Program, identified a population of 8 million people in Ethiopia particularly vulnerable to climate change. Building large-scale water irrigation and supply systems helped provide sustainable, lasting assistance to enable these communities to weather the 2010/2011 East African droughts.

8. We can’t do it alone.

In Ethiopia, the USAID-funded Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Transformation for Enhanced Resilience (WATER) program works closely with regional and community governments to develop access to clean, safe and sustainable water sources.

 

When I arrived at West Point, I was awed by the history and physical geography of the place, the Academy high on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, gray granitic slabs of stone emerging from the hills, blending into the school’s impressive stone architecture. The geology, the architecture, the teachers, the students all conveyed one word: strength. In reflecting on my interactions with West Point faculty and students, I came away encouraged and impressed by their understanding of the “strength” of effective water management, how it links both the respective resources and missions of  the military and USAID to foster stability and economic development.

Video of the Week: Crowdsourcing at USAID: An Example for Aid Transparency & Open Data

Shadrock Roberts from USAID’s GeoCenter describes how crowdsourced data was leveraged for the Development Credit Authority at the 4th International Conference of Crisis Mapping (ICCM), offering important lessons learned for government institutions who want to work with crowdsourced information.

FrontLines Year in Review: Apps for Afghanistan

This is part of our FrontLines Year in Review series. This originally appeared in FrontLines September/October 2012 issue.

With a recent explosion in mobile phones, USAID engages Afghanistan’s best and brightest to grow mobile money.

Just a decade ago, Afghans had to travel to Pakistan to make international calls. The landline phone infrastructure had completely fallen into disarray during the civil war, and there were no mobile phone operators. The first American diplomats and U.N. workers to return to Kabul after the fall of the Taliban carried backpacks full of costly satellite phones for the new Afghan emergency government.

But smart, early regulatory decisions by Afghan lawmakers, based on technical assistance from USAID and other donors, engendered the rapid growth of a profitable and competitive sector, pushing down airtime prices well within reach of normal Afghans. Today, Afghanistan is awash in mobile phones, with more than 18 million active subscriptions in a country of 28 million.

This explosion of mobile users has created a network that bridges the country’s formidable urban-rural divide while transcending gaps in physical infrastructure, low literacy rates and pervasive insecurity.

An Afghan youth uses his mobile phone to take pictures in Musa Qala. Photo credit: Dmitry Kostyukov, AFP

The near-ubiquity of mobile phone coverage has allowed Afghanistan to join the vanguard of countries experimenting with innovative new uses for the mobile channel, using the networks to extend services and information cheaply to populations lacking access through other means. Among the most promising is mobile money—the ability to safely store and transfer “e-money” via SMS, avoiding the expense and danger associated with moving cash, while extending the reach of basic financial services from the 5 percent of the population with accounts in brick-and-mortar banks to the 65 percent of Afghans who use mobile phones.

Already, m-money trials facilitated by the U.S. Government, such as paying government salaries by mobile instead of cash, are demonstrating startling benefits: In Wardak province, police deployed in unbanked communities report “raises” of 30 percent when paid via mobile; cash payments of salaries in Afghanistan are exceedingly vulnerable to corruption. Equally promising applications to extend and repay micro loans and pay household electricity bills are beginning to roll out, delivering dramatic increases in efficiency.

As the mobile network operators increasingly focus on scaling their mobile money products and agent networks, USAID is working in partnership with the private sector to aggregate demand and provide consumer education to Afghans, most of whom are unfamiliar with or mistrustful of the formal banking system. In one novel approach, the Agency is working with the Association of Mobile Money Operators of Afghanistan to harness the creativity and energy of Afghanistan’s best and brightest to develop mobile money applications to address pressing problems faced daily by Afghans.

An Afghan Avalanche of Ideas

The overwhelming response to an app design competition this year among Afghan university students illustrated just how compelling up-and-coming young Afghans find mobile money—more than 5,000 students across the country submitted ideas, many of which focused on how mobile money on how mobile money could improve the Afghan Government’s ability to provide basic services transparently and efficiently.

Others put forward ways in which mobile money could help empower individuals by giving them tools to manage their own finances, a particular boon for women, who often rely on male relatives to conduct financial transactions on their behalf.

Such competitions can trigger a network effect, drawing students into the design process and drawing in new mobile money users—and expanding the mobile technology sector.

Afghan officials say the enthusiasm generated by the contest and subsequent avalanche of ideas bodes well for future uptake of mobile money in Afghanistan given the country’s demographics. With two-thirds of Afghans age 25 years or younger, Afghanistan is truly a land of potential early adopters…[continued]

Read the rest of the article in FrontLines.

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Communication is Aid: Old and New Technologies Make Aid More Effective

Communication can and should be seen as aid. People rely on communication to find out what’s happening, where to go for assistance and who to call for help. Research and projects, such as infoasaid, give evidence that communication is crucial to survival and recovery. In fact, the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network positions two-way communication with affected people at the heart of resilience-building, preparedness and response.

If communication is aid, what does that mean in practice? And how do we get better at doing it? These are some of the questions that participants of the ‘Communication is Aid: Humanitarian, Media and Technology Collaboration’ event*, held in Nairobi on December 6, tried to answer.

In her opening remarks, Gabriella Waaijman, Officer in Charge of UNOCHA Eastern Africa, explained, “Gone are the days when humanitarian agencies can provide assistance without asking what the needs are in the communities where they are working.” There is no doubt in my mind that we need to listen to communities because they are the only ones who know what’s happening on the ground and can suggest what would improve their day-to-day lives. We need to empower them with the tools to communicate their needs to us, and we need to effectively respond. Modern development requires two-way communication and listening.

Are we there yet? That’s for debate, but we are certainly getting closer. Adeso is implementing a USAID project in northern Kenya, working with pastoral and transitional communities to reduce hunger and poverty, increase social stability, and build strong foundations for economic growth and environmental resilience, and we are looking at ways to use communication to enhance these objectivesUSAID also helped jumpstart SokoShambani, a free SMS platform that allows small-scale potato farmers in Kenya to connect directly with buyers. “It takes the farmer to the market, and the market to the farm,” as Stephen Kimiri of ZEVAN explains.

Shujaaz.FM main character DJ Boyie pirates airtime to talk about what’s important to Kenyan youth. Photo credit: Riccardo Gangale/USAID.

Other examples include the Praekelt Foundation’s development of the Young Africa Live mobile platform that provides young people in Africa with information about HIV/AIDS and other sexual health issues. Since 2009, the platform has been used by more than a million people in South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya. The Danish Refugee Council has for its part adapted the Ushahidi platform – a free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping that was first used following Kenya’s disputed 2007 elections to collect eyewitness reports of violence and place them on a Google Maps – to monitor humanitarian aid in Somalia. Through this system, DRC’s beneficiaries can use their mobile phone to provide feedback on the aid they received from DRC, and make complaints.

So, how do we use the right technologies in the right context? As Rob Burnet from Well Told Story underlined, “Push won’t work – it must be pull.” We need to understand our audience and really listen to what they want. For example, USAID invested in Well Told Story’s innovative Shujaaz.FM multi-media project aimed to engage Kenya’s youth in promoting peace for the March 2013 elections. The project includes fictional Kenyan youth who grapple with real social and political challenges in a monthly comic book and through daily radio spots. The project gained popularity and 20,000 Kenyan youth now interact with the characters on Facebook.

Humanitarian and development players can learn a lot from private sector entities who are developing new technological solutions to address some the challenges faced when delivering aid. At the same time, we must keep in mind that while technology is part of the solution, it is not the solution in and of itself. It needs to be used in the right context, by the right people and for the right audience. Improving how we communicate will therefore require resources, training and commitment. My hope is that we continue to seek modern communication methods to provide more opportunities for learning, exchange and future collaborations for all audiences around the globe.

*Adeso and UNOCHA Eastern Africa jointly organized this one-day event, in partnership with the CDAC Network and Internews, and with financial support from BBC Media Action and Microsoft. Presentations and video from the event will be available on the Adeso website in the coming weeks, and in the meantime, have a look at this Storify.

At Datajam, Innovators and Entrepreneurs Unleash Open Data for Global Development

Rajiv Shah (left) serves as administrator of USAID. Todd Park is U.S. Chief Technology Officer. Photo Credit: USAID, White House.

A remarkable new tool is becoming increasingly available to help end extreme poverty and ensure dignity and opportunity for people around the world—a tool that few people think about when they consider how to bolster international development efforts. That tool is data, and in particular “open data“—data freely available in formats that are easy to use in new and innovative ways, while rigorously protecting privacy.

The possibilities are truly endless—it could be regional epidemiological statistics being made available to community health workers; or real-time weather information being made available to small-holder farmers; or loan information being made accessible to first-time borrowers. In these and countless other arenas, open data has the potential to not only improve transparency and coordination, but also dramatically accelerate progress in development.

In order to explore new ways of leveragingopen data for development and to help strengthen our commitment to open data with others inside and outside of government, we joined with colleagues from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on December 10 for a DataJam at the White House.

Administrator Shah and CTO Park discuss open data's impact in development. Photo Credit: USAID.

This unprecedented event brought world-class innovators and entrepreneurs together with U.S. government leaders and decision-makers to discuss the impact that open development data has already had on strengthening entrepreneurship in the United States and in developing countries—and the additional impact that can be had going forward. We also brainstormed about new partnerships we could form to facilitate the opening of new pockets of data that many of us deal with in our work every day and that have potential added value across the development domain. For USAID, this effort reflects our increasing focus on throwing open the doors of development to problem-solvers everywhere.

The Datajam showcased some of the groundbreaking work that innovators and entrepreneurs have accomplished with open data in the development sphere—from tracking election transparency in Kenya with the non-profit Ushahidi; to the State Department’s Tech@State and TechCamp conference and workshop platforms that bring in-country technologists and entrepreneurs together to solve local—and global—problems; to the exciting announcement that FEWSnet, USAID’s Famine Early Warning System Network, is launching a competition to analyze USAID data to better inform and improve our own decision-making. As Presidential Innovation Fellow Dmitry Kachaev, explained, “Technology is not the hard part.  The hard part is getting the information.”

That’s where we all come in, and that’s why we are issuing a call to action for open data. There are data sets and information resources across the government that could serve a greater good and be effective tools for change if they were made more accessible and usable, while ensuring that privacy and confidentiality are always rigorously protected. We want to collect these data—these potential change agents—and present them in their most creative and effective forms. We want to engage students and volunteers to help us clean and organize the data to make this information accessible and useful, just as USAID’s Development Credit Authority did with its crowdsourcing project to clean up and map loan data records. We want these same data to be available to entrepreneurs and innovators who are building new organizations and creating local and lasting change.

Although we often talk about our business-like focus on data and the importance of delivering concrete results, the reality is that the open data movement has been inspired not only by analytical logic but also in large part by a shared passion to help change the world. When you apply your vision and expertise to this task—when you add to the growing stores of data for use in new and creative ways—you are helping an infant take its first easy breath and live to celebrate her fifth birthday. You are helping farmers grow more nutritious foods, fostering healthy families and prosperous communities. You are helping end the enduring outrage of human trafficking. This is the power of open data.

We’re excited and think you should be too.

Watch a video of the Datajam event.

Visit our website for more information about open data and learn more about the Presidential Innovation Fellows.

Rajiv Shah is the Administrator of USAID.

Todd Park is Assistant to the President and U.S. Chief Technology Officer.

FrontLines Feature: How to Get All Children Reading

This originally appeared in FrontLines, November/December 2012 issue.

Since literacy has been shown to lead to better health, higher incomes and more vibrant democracies, USAID and partners are seeking new solutions to an age-old problem.

Whether you’re digesting a work of literary genius, checking a text on your cellphone or scoping out the ingredients on the back of a cereal box, you’re reading. More times a day than you can even venture to count, you’re doing what 793 million adults worldwide cannot. These individuals aren’t missing out on a luxury. They’re being deprived of a necessity.

People who can read enjoy better health and make more money. By developing skills in literacy, they contribute to creating safer, more stable democracies, and are able to more effectively serve their families and communities.

If all students in low-income countries left primary school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty. That’s equivalent to a 12 percent drop in world poverty, a statistic too big to ignore.

USAID, World Vision, AusAID, and the U.S. Department of Education are leading the charge in finding early grade reading solutions. Photo Credit: Derek Brown.

That’s why USAID has partnered with AusAID, its Australia development counterpart, and the international NGO World Vision to launch a multi-year initiative designed to improve early-grade reading outcomes in low-resource settings.

All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development is leveraging the power of research, capitalizing on innovation, pursuing partnerships, and borrowing from cutting-edge science, technology and 21st century infrastructure to achieve substantial impact in increasing child literacy around the globe,” says Alexis Bonnell, chief of education engagement for USAID. One component of this initiative was the global competition to advance quality approaches to early-grade reading, whose winners were announced in September.

As the second of USAID’s multi-donor grant-making Grand Challenges, All Children Reading is engaging new actors to improve the design, production, distribution and accessibility of teaching and learning materials and education data. After putting out a call for proposals to improve early-grade literacy in poor countries, the competition received over 450 applications from foundations, corporations and individuals to work in over 75 countries.

“It was a huge early success, receiving so many proposals for the competition,” noted Anthony Bloome, campaign director of the All Children Reading Grand Challenge and senior education technology specialist at USAID. “This was a clear indication of how many motivated individuals and organizations are out there interested in doing extremely valuable work to advance early-grade reading around the world.”

Ultimately, 32 innovators were selected to help scale up or implement their projects. Over half of the submissions came from—and half of the awards were ultimately given to—local organizations in recipient countries, many of whom had never received funding from USAID.

“With all the Grand Challenges, and All Children Reading specifically, USAID is engaging new actors in the development world and supporting some of the most innovative solutions to a problem that has not been solved through traditional means,” explains Natasha de Marcken, director of USAID’s Office of Education.

On Sept. 7, as part of USAID’s International Literacy Day celebration, the innovators came together to share their approaches to improving early-grade reading outcomes. The DevelopmentXChange, held in Washington, D.C., showcased and traded ideas on cost-effective, scalable innovations grounded in science and technology that, with the support of USAID and its partners, will have a significant impact on the world.

Improving worldwide literacy rates won’t happen overnight, but with approaches like those of the Grand Challenge winners, PlanetRead, Drakkar Ltd. and Pratham, this latest international campaign appears to be headed in the right direction.

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Video of the Week: Reaching Farmers Where it is Needed Most

In social marketing, we know that visual learning is more likely to engender successful behavior change than many other types of learning. Traditional agricultural extension services are designed to link farmers person-to-person with new information about appropriate farming practices, when and what to plant, and how to use farm technologies. Traditionally, farming associations or other organizations will employ extension agents to visit communities and train others – thus, “showing” farmers new techniques instead of simply “telling.”

But there is a fundamental problem with this model: Too much ground to cover. Because more than 80 percent of the food produced in “developing” places is grown by smallholder farmers, extension services can be expensive, difficult to scale and to sustain.

It is critical to address these issues with whatever tools are at our disposal. One approach is the complementary use of video in a hybrid extension service. A study conducted by India-based NGO Digital Green (originally a Microsoft Research pilot) concluded that money spent on a video service can be up to ten times more effective than a traditional extension service, on a per adoption basis.*

So why does video work better? It’s the Swiss Army knife of communications tools. While modern extension services are highly dependent on the quality of the trainer, a video can be rehearsed until it tells its story effectively, and then used in perpetuity. That enables an organization to articulate and reinforce a message in a uniquely scalable way. Video can also provide tailored and actionable directions to illiterate farmers. Further, the savings and increased convenience for projects can be huge – in terms of human resources, training and travel time and other associated costs.

By the end of 2012, USAID’s FACET project team will have conducted low-cost video workshops for USAID implementing partners, mission staff, agribusinesses and farmer associations in seven countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Using a participatory workshop model the goal is to catalyze video usage to strengthen agricultural extension.

This photo slideshow is from FACET’s recent October workshop in Dakar, Senegal. Participants included project staff and partners from the USAID‘s Le Projet Croissance Economique, which focuses on Senegal’s agricultural growth, productivity and competitiveness.

Below is a one minute clip of a mock video put together by the FEPROMAS team, a Senegalese farming federation, during the workshop, focusing on best practices in packaging corn for the marketplace.

Read more about the workshop content.

View and download FACET’s Low-Cost Video Toolkit.

Follow @ICTforAg on Twitter and Facebook.

* Gandhi, R.; Veeraraghavan, R.; Toyama, K.; Ramprasad, V. (2009). Participant Video and Mediated Instruction for Agricultural Extension. Digital Green.

Boosting Women’s Entrepreneurship Via Mobile Money

This post originally appeared on Devex Impact.  It has also appeared in the Huffington Post and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.

This guest column was authored by Cherie Blair, founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, and Maura O’Neill, USAID’s chief innovation officer. It is published here as part of Devex Impact, a global initiative of USAID and Devex that focuses on the intersection of business and global development and connects companies, organizations and professionals to the practical information they need to make an impact.

For Marion, the challenge of starting her own business was not lack of initiative — she had plenty — but rather dearth of startup capital. At 20-years old, Marion dropped out of school because she didn’t have sufficient funds for school fees. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where she lives, this is a common trend for many women and girls, one that stretches across sub-Saharan Africa and far beyond. But Marion was undeterred.

Thanks to her friend’s suggestion, Marion latched onto an idea of selling prepaid mobile airtime to financially support her parents and four siblings with whom she lives. She started working at a small restaurant as a server, in order to save enough money to break into the business. Marion saved and saved, and began to sell airtime in bits and pieces. Yet by the time she turned 22 and made the decision to do it full-time, she was 70,000 Tanzanian shillings ($43) short of the 100,000 TZS ($62) required to finance the initial capital. Marion had nowhere to turn to make up the difference. And now this shortage of cash is keeping her from pursuing what should be a tangible dream — to become an entrepreneur and move into her own home.

A woman sells prepaid mobile phone airtime credits. Photo Credit: Devex.

Fortunately, new opportunities that will address Marion’s challenges are emerging.

Mobile technology continues to be an enormous growth industry in developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where approximately 3.5 million jobs can be attributed to the mobile industry, according to GSMA. With the surge in mobile connections around the world, there is rightly a great deal of interest in using the technology to maximize development outcomes. This includes the delivery of key information and health services, the use of mobile money for those who are unbanked, and the ability to establish social and business networks without having to travel great distances. For women like Marion, this is an enticing pairing of potential long-term employment and enhanced livelihood.

Despite the gains the mobile telecommunications industry has had nationally, there continues to be significant gaps in how much individuals benefit economically from mobile services and applications. This includes the extent to which women have been able to participate in the retail channels of mobile network operators, beyond the sale of top-up cards and accessories that fetch little profit. These retail chains are not only where basic mobile necessities such as airtime and SIM cards are sold and marketed, but they also serve as the frontlines of the rapidly growing mobile financial services industry. This ballooning sector includes mobile payments and savings, insurance purchases and conditional cash transfers, services that are traditionally unavailable for the unbanked — particularly women. The business of selling mobile products and services can be an important income stream but, in most markets, women are not participating on par with their male counterparts.

This leaves Marion and women like her at a distinct and, frankly, unnecessary disadvantage.

The U.S. Agency for International Development and Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, in partnership with leading mobile operator Millicom, or Tigo, have joined forces for an innovative project to correct this trend and maximize mobile financial service opportunities for women entrepreneurs and their communities throughout Tanzania, Rwanda and Ghana. This public-private partnership will showcase a sustainable and scalable approach to increasing the number of women entrepreneurs working as mobile money agents in the retail networks of mobile operators…(continued)

Read the rest of this post on Devex Impact.

Follow Cherie Blair and Maura O’Neill on Twitter.

Coding for Hunger: Not Development as Usual

Dr. Maura O'Neill is the chief innovation officer and senior counselor to the administrator at USAID. Photo Credit: USAID

This post originally appeared on Global Food for Thought.

Barbara’s mother was desperate – there was nothing in the house to feed her children or herself.  All that remained was a bag of seed that she’d been planning to sow on her small plot of land.  Could the seeds be eaten as food?  She could no longer look at her children whose bodies were aching from hunger.

There was one huge risk: the seeds contained potentially lethal pesticides intended to encourage higher yields. As countless mothers have done, she tested the seeds on herself.  Barbara and her siblings watched fearfully as their mother ate a handful.  Would she die, become ill, or just be fine?

Even if eating the seeds led to survival, there would be no crops to harvest in six months.  Would they starve later?  Years after this harrowing experience, Barbara palpably captured this moment in her book, Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter.

In Alabama that night, nobody got sick.  But we must do better by our neighbors in the U.S. and globally.

One billion people suffer from chronic hunger and face terrible choices daily.  A billion is a hard word to grasp, but imagine if every man, woman, and child in the largest cities in the U.S. – including Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Seattle, Atlanta – would never get enough to eat or had a chance to thrive.

Technology and business have recently brought dramatic global improvements in areas like health, agricultural productivity.  Through social media, we can harness crowd-sourced wisdom and rapid diffusion networks to imagine a day in our lifetime where families everywhere can take pride in the accomplishments of their healthy children.

What are we seeing in this tech cauldron that’s knocking our socks off?  Kat Townsend, a Special Assistant for Engagement at USAID, worked with The Chicago Council to choose six examples using big data, videos, and randomized control trials to reduce hunger.  USAID showcased these examples at a Council event on food security at the G8 to demonstrate how low-cost technologies can accelerate and scale food security.

I’m especially excited about Digital Green, founded by young Indian entrepreneur Rikin Gandhi.  Digital Green enables local farmers make short videos giving specific advice on many topics, with viewers rating videos just as we push ‘Like’ on Facebook. Farmers now watch nearly 2,500 relevant videos- which average 11,000 viewers per video- on their cellphones. Talk about a social diffusion network!

In September, USAID together with Nathaniel Manning – a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow from technology superstar Ushahidi - ran a weekend Hackathon for Hunger. Global teams of brilliant data geeks pounded out code on big data sets to solve hunger challenges.  Palantir used data compiled by the Grameen Foundation on crop blights, soil, and farmer feedback to generate a real-time heat map that helps farmers identify where crop infestations are happening.  Farmers also receive warning messages about looming crop diseases and where they may strike, giving farmers the chance to harvest early. PinApple’s website helps farmers can input their location for suggestions on the best crops to plant based on elevation, soil PH and annual rainfall.

We can’t solve food security by the mere push of a button from a programmer in Maputo or a policymaker in Bangladesh. What technology can do is bring information and tools to farmers, processors, and consumers in remote corners of the world. Data point by data point, we’re reaching those who need it most…one video and SMS at a time.

Tell us what other technologies or social media techniques you’re seeing that could defeat hunger. Disagree if you have your reasons.  We all have much to learn from one another.

Leave your thoughts here or continue the conversation on Twitter. Join me @MauraAtUSAID and follow Bertini and Glickman @GlobalAgDev; USAID @usaid; USAID’s Feed the Future Initiative @FeedtheFuture; Ushahidi @Ushahidi; Project Open Data @ProjectOpenData; Palantir Technologies @palantirTech; PinApple @PinApple, Kat Townsend @DiploKat; and Nat Manning @NatPManning.

Maura O’Neill is the chief innovation officer and senior counselor to the administrator at USAID. In the public, private and academic sectors, she has created entrepreneurial and public policy solutions for some of the toughest problems in the fields of energy, education, infrastructure financing and business development. She earned her PhD at the University of Washington, where her research focused on narrowmindedness and the errors it leads to in science, medicine, business and political decision making.

 

Toward a 21st Century Social Contract: Making All Voices Count

In a small office on East 20th Street in New York City, Reboot is working toward a social contract for the 21st century because the rules of the game are changing. An emboldened global citizenry, empowered by increased connectivity, is demanding more from its leadership: justice, accountability, a shot at a decent life and a livelihood with dignity. It’s demanding that all voices count.

And, frankly, because we can do better.

Too many of the world’s people live in difficult, debilitating circumstances. Some factors are beyond our control. We cannot prevent the occurrence of droughts, floods and earthquakes. Luck of the draw dictates whether we are born into a rich country or a poor one, with fertile soil or famine, with clean drinking water or waterborne diseases.

But many disasters are not random acts of fate. They are man-made, the products of bad decisions and ineffective systems that compound the negative effects of unpredictable events. Hurricane Katrina was unavoidable. The socio-economic breakdown in New Orleans that ensued from an inadequate, poorly planned government response was not. As development practitioners, we share a responsibility to mitigate what factors we can, and not just out of a desire “to do good” but to actively minimize harm.

The good news is that we already have the tools to do so. Technological innovation has made contributions to governance processes, and they are now a more easily understood and accessible affair. New channels for constructive engagement are redefining the relationships between service providers and their users, opening myriad opportunities to deliver better outcomes. This is the promise of open governance and the foundation of a 21st century social contract – where all voices count.

A woman uses her mobile phone during a community meeting in northern Bangladesh. Photo Credit: Joshua Haynes

The Making All Voices Count Grand Challenge for Development, cofounded by SIDA, DFID, USAID and Omidyar Network, takes advantage of this good news to challenge the communities of solvers, technologists, academics, development specialists and others to think different about accountability, transparency, and transitioning the way government and citizens interact.

Reboot is working on the frontlines of these transitions – we believe the most concrete means of improving livelihoods is to provide “good services” that allow people to lift themselves out of poverty, to make their voices heard, to live better lives.

Technology is an important enabler of good services. A recent United Nations report estimated that 86 percent of the world’s population—some six billion people—now uses a mobile phone. These are exciting statistics when considering the deployment of mobile-based systems for political participation, social accountability, financial inclusion, education, health care, justice and more.

Still, the key word here is “enabler.” The provision of better technology is not an end in itself. The most state-of-the-art systems, fastest computing, and best mobile apps offer no guarantee for a better tomorrow, nor do they resolve a more fundamental chasm between institutions and the individuals whose lives they hope to improve. Service providers and their users often inhabit two very different worlds.

Reconciling this disconnect requires innovation of a different sort: empathy.

Reboot believes that good services are rooted in ground realities and driven by human needs and aspirations. Discovering these qualities is a process that foremost begins with humility—toward both users and service providers—to understand people and the environments they inhabit. In the age of Big Data, we advocate face-to-face interaction to surface actionable insights on human behavior that the bias of statistical certainty might otherwise overlook.

A group of women composes a text message in rural Niger. Photo Credit: Joshua Haynes

Ours is a time-consuming, difficult process. But a “people first” approach ensures that the services we deliver are well calibrated to the organizations that aim to implement them and the communities that hope to use them. Nowhere is this more apparent than our current efforts in Nigeria. Working with the Government of Nigeria and the World Bank, we have engaged individuals at all levels of civil society—from farmers’ community groups to traditional village leadership—to design a social accountability program that is both innovative and realistic. The program allows citizens to input on the quality of public service delivery via basic mobile phones, and creates incentives for government to provide timely, tangible responses.

This is one example of the work we do globally and among our contributions toward a more open, inclusive and participatory tomorrow.

The challenges plaguing our world are many, and the search for solutions is difficult. But a 21st century social contract offers the promise of a collective group of individuals and institutions engaging together to produce better outcomes. This is a vision of the future where we all have a fighting chance, because our voices have been taken into account. This is a future where we are stewards of our circumstances and not prisoners of fate. And this is a future that should be available to all of us, irrespective of whether we are born into a rich country or a poor one, with fertile soil or famine, with clean drinking water or not.

Join our Grand Challenge on Facebook and let your voice be heard on Twitter.

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