USAID Impact Photo Credit: USAID and Partners

Archives for Innovation

Designing for Women: The Mobile Challenge

Imagine if you picked up a smartphone and didn’t know how to use it. What must it be like to have such a powerful device in the palm of your hand and not be able to utilize it? For many technically illiterate women in the developing world, navigating a smartphone or even a more basic feature phone is a real challenge.

Based on research performed in Egypt, India, Papua New Guinea and Uganda, as part of the GSMA mWomen Program, we know that on average, resource-poor women are 22% less likely to want a mobile phone because they would not know how to use it.  Yet we also know from other GSMA research that mobile phones afford women critical entrepreneurial opportunities, security, and a greater sense of family connection.

Mobile phone use in the developing world is exploding, yet women are at risk of being left behind, missing out on opportunities and services from education to healthcare.  Making the user experience easier would open up a multitude of possibilities. So what if there was a more intuitive way of navigating your phone?

The GSMA mWomen Program, as part of USAID’s mWomen Global Development Alliance, has set out to do just that by launching the GSMA mWomen Design Challenge: Redefining the User Experience at the third annual Social Good Summit in New York. Through submissions from the global design and developer community, the Design Challenge seeks to increase access to life enhancing mobile services so that regardless of someone’s skill level, they can pick up a phone and maximize its potential.

At the Social Good Summit, USAID, GSMA, AusAID, Qtel Group and the design firm Huge, shared possible approaches to solving this issue, by making the mobile user interface and experience more intuitive.  Mobile phones are a real game changer when it comes to tackling global challenges around the world but if the design does not change, hundreds of millions of women risk being left out in this next mobile revolution.  That is a risk we cannot afford to take.

What’s Better than Cash?

“We are excited to be joining our partners in announcing the Better than Cash Alliance today. Committed to moving the global community onto electronic payments in place of physical cash, the Alliance will help the world’s poorest families join the modern economy and realize the benefits of a more transparent, inclusive, cash-light world. I’m optimistic that this Alliance will help usher in a new era of opportunity for some of the most vulnerable people on earth.”

– USAID Administrator Raj Shah, September 19, 2012

As surprising as it may sound, physical cash can undercut many development objectives. From improving aid effectiveness to promoting transparency, cash gets in the way. That is why I am excited about the launch of the Better than Cash Alliance, a global public-private partnership dedicated to accelerating the use of electronic payments in place of physical cash. I am proud to have USAID stand alongside forward-thinking partners like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Citi, the Ford Foundation, Omidyar Network, Visa Inc., and the U.N Capital Development Fund to move the world toward a more transparent, efficient, inclusive, cash-light society.

This Alliance wouldn’t have been possible five or ten years ago.  But with the rapid rise of new technologies in the developing world, we can now leverage growing payment systems powered by electronic cards and mobile phones to reduce the presence of cash.

With electronic payments, people can store money safely and securely, a game-changer for the 2.5 billion people around the world without access to basic financial services.  With electronic payments, companies and governments alike can improve transparency in their operations.  You cannot track cash or see the hands it moves through, but it is possible to track how money flows when it is transferred electronically.

With electronic payments, organizations making payments or collecting fees can save money. Paying teachers their salaries or issuing social transfers is expensive. In some of the most distant areas of the world it requires couriers to lug big bags of cash around, and leakages are inevitable.  For example, a World Economic Forum says that developing country governments can realize more than a US$ 100 billion in economic benefits by 2015 by making major payment streams digital.

The benefits of electronic payments are widespread and underpin so many of our development objectives.  I’m not suggesting that it will be easy to realize a cash-light world. It won’t. Over the last year, USAID has worked tirelessly to use our payments and presence as a force for good by promoting the use of safe, accessible, affordable electronic payments systems in place of physical cash.

But we know that we cannot do it by ourselves.  This is a movement that should matter to all of us.  It should matter to any company or NGO trying to save money or protect their employees.  It should matter to any donor organization or government trying to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of development programs.  It should matter to anyone who cares about the plight of the poor.

This vision will take time.  But I’m excited about the steps we’ve taken and I wholeheartedly believe that we must do better than cash. We coined the term “Better Than Cash” because that’s actually what we believe – electronic payments, when introduced in a secure, equitable way, can offer enormous benefits for hundreds of millions of poor families trapped in a cash world.

To learn more about Better Than Cash Alliance, visit www.betterthancash.org, and follow @betterthan_cash. #epayments #progress.

For more about USAID Mobile Solutions efforts, visit www.usaid.gov and follow us @msolutionsUSAID.

Mexican Diaspora Leader Gives Back Green

The Impact Blog interviewed Luis Aguirre-Torres, CEO of GreenMomentum and recipient of the White House’s Champion of Change award. He partners with USAID in his homeland of Mexico to help foster green companies. 

You have been extremely successful in helping companies become green, why is it important for you to give back to your native country of Mexico?

After several years of living abroad, I found myself in a position to give back to the country that gave me an education and inspired me to continue moving forward. I have a personal believe that the future is something we work towards and not something that simply one day magically appears. Before I always imagined a better future than what the present turned out to be; today, I understand that the future will only be different if we take an active role in making it happen. What better place to reinvent the future than my country of origin.

What is the Cleantech Challenge and how did it come about?

The Cleantech Challenge was originally conceived as a green business plan competition. However, today it has become an open forum for investors, entrepreneurs, government and development agencies to share ideas on how to develop clean technology, how to finance it and how to accelerate its implementation. It was first conceptualized after a conversation with the Director of the UNEP a few years ago, when he challenged me and my team to do something different that could impact the Mexican economy. A few weeks later, the Cleantech Challenge was born.

What would a surge in green companies in Latin America mean for the region?

We are currently seeing a surge in green companies in Mexico. This has been echoed by other countries like Colombia, Chile and Argentina, among others. For all these countries, it represents an opportunity to become part of the world’s new green economy. As it has happened in other countries, it could also lead to a surge in investment opportunities and the development of new government policies. This could accelerate economic growth through the creation of new business and job opportunities, having therefore a direct impact on the competitiveness of the region as a whole.

Do you think Latin America faces unique challenges regarding greenhouse gas emissions compared to the rest of the world?

Latin America faces a series of challenges regarding climate change. It has to develop new and more reliable mechanisms for financing the implementation of adaptation and mitigation programs. Specifically, it has to find a way of fighting climate change without negatively impacting economic growth and increasing the region’s competitiveness.

The White House just honored you with a Champion of Change award, what does this mean for you?

This has been a great experience. I feel humbled and forever grateful to those who from the beginning believed in this project. The recognition from the White House means the world to us, not only because it validates our efforts during the past four years, but also because it has allowed us to share it with the American people and the rest of the world. It has inspired me to continue working and to work towards newer and bigger things.

To read more, visit the White House’s Champions of Change webpage.

An “IdEA” That Runs Deep: Engaging America’s Diaspora Communities

Growing up, John Henry Thompson was fascinated by technology. His family’s farm in Jamaica had no running water or electricity. But when he immigrated to New York with his parents at the age of 12, he quickly proved his technological aptitude. He devoured books on electricity and the latest editions of “Popular Mechanic.” For his seventh grade science fair, he built a rudimentary computing device. This science fair marked the beginning of what would become a lifelong passion for computer programming.

There are many “John Henry”‘s from India to Colombia to the Philippines who have come to the United States to learn and create new futures. Currently, more than 60 million Americans are first- or second-generation Diasporas, and many of them have close ties to countries with critical needs. Instead of just sending money back home, imagine what they could do to help improve the lives and change futures.

Like John Henry, his homeland of Jamaica has come a long way in the past few decades. Yet he knows that Jamaicans haven’t leveraged that mobile lead into greater economic prosperity and better health. He knows that Jamaica can do better. And he wants to ensure that future generations of Jamaicans have the tools they need to compete in the global knowledge economy.

This is why he became a volunteer mentor and trainer for the Digital Jam 2.0 Mobile Applications Competition. Sponsored by the Government of Jamaica and the World Bank, the Mobile App Competition combined both a competition and educational workshops for app developers. As trainer, John Henry helped young developers gain the tools they needed to build effective native mobile applications.

This passion to give back to their homelands is what makes the potential for diaspora communities’ engagement in development so powerful. From their language skills and cultural familiarity to professional networks and personal ties, the diaspora community has the potential to be a significant people-to-people asset for positive development impact. If we can deepen and expand diaspora outreach, we can develop stronger bonds with other nations — through their civil societies, business leaders, inventors, and scientists. We can do things that USAID working alone never could.

That’s why USAID joined with the U.S. Department of State in 2011 to launch the International diaspora Engagement Alliance (IdEA). Recognizing the powerful yet untapped potential of diasporas in development, IdEA seeks to deepen America’s engagement and partnership with diaspora communities.

To further advance our work with diaspora communities, USAID, the U.S. Department of State, and IdEA are hosting the second Global Diaspora Forum, an annual celebration of America’s diaspora communities, July 25-26. The Forum is focused on how new technology can empower and increase diaspora philanthropy, social entrepreneurship, volunteerism, and social innovation. I encourage you to visit IdEA’s website to watch live streaming videos from the Forum and read more about diaspora communities’ contributions to their countries of origin and America’s diplomatic relationships and development commitments worldwide.

Developers for Development: The Evolution of the Food Security Open Data Challenge

Geeks, Coders, Hackers, Developers, Computer Scientists, Technologists- whichever term you choose, people with technical acumen have proven to be some of the most prolific volunteers for social good.  It is not hyperbole to state that on any given weekend, in nearly every major city around the world, volunteers can be found gathering together to create products that benefit education, security, economic, and other social interests. Participants cobble together the vision, team, the code, and the experts over 48 hours, and present themselves for judging by Sunday evening.  These gatherings are dubbed “hackathons,” “codeathons” or “codesprints” and they have found success: out of the Disrupt Hackathon, which is hosted by TechCrunch and connects developers and entrepreneurs, the Docracy team formed to make legal and business documents more free and accessible, and went on to raise $650,000 over the next year to expand its operations.  StartupWeekend, a hackathon targeting entrepreneurs, claims hundreds of new startups including Reddit, a widely popular user-generated news aggregator.  In 2010, the State Department and iHub launched the Apps4Africa challenge  to connect local developers and global mentors to local NGOs to learn and solve local problems.  The winner, iCow,  is a successful mobile-phone application that tracks cows’ hormone cycles to inform better breeding, milk production, and nutrition information to Kenyan dairy farmers.

Indian woman arranges a display of grains and seeds at Millet Fest 2012, in Hyderabad on March 24, 2012. The three day event aims to promote use and increase knowledge of the nutritional benefits of millet seeds when used as part of a daily diet. Photo Credit: AFP

If you’re not familiar with the hackathon model, you’re not alone.  Government engagement with the tech community, though expanding, is limited.  And though hackathons bring together widely diverse communities to contribute their time and expertise to solve problems, they are not a flawless solution.  Rare is the startup that can convene and be commercially viable in 48 hours.  To increase the impact of the products of these hackathons, and ensure that those volunteering their time are doing so wisely, we have to improve on the existing model.

Enter White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, and his bold concept for public sector improvement of the hackathon model to connect developers directly to the people who will ultimately use their product, and to incubate solutions to be attractive to investors.  Under his model, weekend sessions are stretched across at least ninety days and buttress the hackathon with brainstorming and planning session weeks prior and an incubation period of the successful products for weeks following.  He outlines this model as an endeavor of the White House’s “Open Data Initiative” and, following on the successful implementation at HHS, has taken it to various other agencies including the Department of Energy, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Education, and USAID. Through his leadership, each agency has taken up the mantle of instituting their own open data initiatives.

USAID is  building its first data initiative around food security, and I encourage anyone who is curious to get involved.  All backgrounds and interests are welcome; participants need not be an expert in food security nor in software, a willingness to contribute to the efforts of innovative solutions and commercially viable products is all that’s required.  Writers, designers, networkers, and creative thinkers from all walks are welcome.  As access to information increases globally, so does the potential for innovation and great ideas to be borne and fomented across borders.  USAID is convening a global community to engage more directly with those who are willing to volunteer their time and expertise to the cause of development, and who want to work together to “hack” new and creative solutions to long-standing development priorities.  Just yesterday, Secretary Clinton observed “Data not only measures progress, it inspires it.” At USAID we want to build and support the platform for those who are inspired to create and sustain lasting progress.

For more information and to participate, visit agrilinks.org/openagdata and contact OpenAgData@USAID.Gov

USAID and Partners Kick Off LAUNCH: Beyond Waste Forum in Pasadena

The intense aura of intelligence that permeates NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA seems to signal that it is the perfect place for USAID and our partners to kick off this week’s LAUNCH: Beyond Waste Forum.  It is an incredible privilege—and, to be honest, a great deal of fun—to be at LAUNCH with a world-class group of experts and innovators.  This impressive group that crosses many sectors and industry boundaries will spend the next three days focusing on breakthrough technologies and problems that address some of the world’s toughest waste problems.

USAID and our partners NASA, Nike, and the Department of State formed LAUNCH to showcase and support extremely high potential innovators addressing the world’s most critical sustainability challenges.  LAUNCH: Beyond Waste is our fourth LAUNCH program cycle (previous cycles focused on water, health, and energy).  After a rigorous application and vetting process, we selected nine innovators we believe will make an outsized impact on waste issues in both the developed and developing worlds.  Through LAUNCH, we will spend the next six months working with them to accelerate that impact.

Waste is unfortunately one of the most neglected issues in international development practice.  While many donors in our field have only a few programs worldwide dedicated to waste issues, the waste challenges developing world citizens, organizations, and governments face are daunting.  In most major developing world cities and countries, the vast majority of municipal solid waste streams are not formally processed, while ‘eWaste’, medical waste, and agricultural waste streams (among others) often go unaddressed as well.  At the same time, “untapped” waste streams represent enormous potential resources when waste-to-energy and “upcycling” or recycling methods are applied.

Many of our LAUNCH: Beyond Waste innovators are building thriving businesses and programs based on that very premise: waste is often a resource and an opportunity, not an unfortunate byproduct of modern life.  This impressive group of innovators includes, for example:

Attero Reycling: India’s leading provider of “end-to-end” electronic and electrical goods e-Waste management services—likely the only such full service company in the developing world.

re:char: A leading developer and provider of ‘biochar’ operating in Kenya and the United States.  Biochar is a carbon-negative charcoal that can be used as a charcoal substitute and as a powerful soil amendment, which boosts crop yields.

Sanergy: A provider of sanitation infrastructure for Nairobi, Kenya’s slums and of fertilizer and electricity from its byproducts.

You can see the full list of the LAUNCH: Beyond Waste innovators and descriptions of their innovations.

We are thrilled with the bright and diverse group of people who have joined the LAUNCH Council, which will advise the innovators.  During the Forum, the innovators will engage in three days of collaboration with the Council, a group representing the waste, business, investment, international development, policy, engineering, science, communications, and sustainability sectors.  We have assembled the Council to give individualized advice to the innovators and to form a network that can help accelerate their progress in the coming months. Check out profiles of the LAUNCH Council members.

Please follow the LAUNCH: Beyond Waste Forum this Friday and Saturday (July 20 and 21, beginning at 1 PM EDT/10 AM PDT) and participate right along with us.  The Twitter hashtag is #beyondwaste and portions of the Forum will be streamed live.  You can also view and participate in the live conversation about the innovations.

Visit LAUNCH to learn more.

USAID in the News

Weekly Briefing (4/9/2012 – 4/13/2012)

April 9: Returning from a recent trip to Ethiopia, USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah told Voice of America that assistance to the country’s health sector has saved thousands of children’s lives. “Because of those joint partnerships that we have had for years and years, last year, we now know, that partnership helped save 36,000 Ethiopian kids’ lives,” said Shah.

April 12: In an interview with NextGov, USAID’s Chief Innovation Officer, Maura O’Neill, discussed the role the White House’s new chief technology officers’ council will play. O’Neill also discussed USAID’s approach to technology and development. How do you get the interagency to not stifle innovations? We have a lot of the same issues in each of our agencies and we can talk about particularly smart approaches to them.”

 

Partnering to Harness the Potential of International Corporate Volunteerism

Christopher Jurgens is the Global Partnerships Division Director in USAID’s Office of Innovation and Development Alliances.

All too often, service and volunteerism are viewed as well-intentioned efforts with limited impact. However, international corporate volunteerism (ICV) programs have significant untapped potential within the development space—potential to both contribute to U.S. development assistance, and to support diplomacy efforts in emerging markets. ICV programs can serve as valuable tools in the formation and implementation of complex development programs worldwide.

It is with this potential and value in mind that I am excited to participate in the 3rd Annual International Corporate Volunteerism Conference. This two-day conference (April 11-12) will involve participants from more than 150 companies – from small businesses to Fortune 500s – NGOs, and government agencies, and highlight best practices and lessons learned from ICV initiatives. Sample topics include how development impact is measured; what has been achieved to date; and the impact ICV programs have on the private sector. I look forward to is a discussing the Center of Excellence for International Corporate Volunteerism (CEICV), a partnership between USAID, IBM, and CDC Development Solutions.

The CEICV is a two-year pilot program that brings together private sector and development professionals. By participating, private sector participants gain access to best practices and infrastructure for developing and running corporate pro-bono consulting programs. USAID Mission beneficiaries gain access to teams of talented individuals and technical assistance. Partners hope that the CEICV will establish a self-sustaining international corporate program that will serve as a resource to:

  1. Enhance USAID’s development efforts by leveraging the skills and expertise of corporate volunteers in the implementation of USAID projects in critical Agency sectors;
  2. Increase the number of participating companies and active skilled business volunteers and the impact and effectiveness of their contributions; and
  3. Track the development impact of ICV programs and create a proof of concept focused on best practices for mobilizing corporate volunteers to increase development impact.

Our partner IBM is a particularly active company in the ICV space. To date, the company has dispatched more than 1,200 of its top employees to over 100 engagements in nearly 20 countries as part of its Corporate Service Corps.  These highly skilled teams of IBM professionals implement projects to improve local economic conditions, support entrepreneurship, and improve transportation, education, health care, and disaster recovery.

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MAMA Bangladesh – Connecting Health Information and Services to Mothers Through Mobiles

Kirsten Gagnaire is the Global Partnership Director of the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA).

IDEA/Mobile Solutions is an office at USAID that champions the use of mobile technology for development issues. Mobile Solutions provides support to mobile technology initiatives implemented by USAID pillar bureaus, such as mAgriculture and mHealth. One of the most prominent mHealth initiatives, launched by Secretary Hillary Clinton on Mother’s Day last year, is the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA).

MAMA is a Global Development Alliance founded by USAID and Johnson & Johnson, with support from the mHealth Alliance, United Nations Foundation and BabyCenter. In March, MAMA board representatives visited Bangladesh to meet with MAMA country partners and conduct field visits to meet pregnant women, new mothers and family members who have subscribed to the MAMA mobile phone service, which is called ‘Aponjon’ in Bangladesh. This blog post comes from MAMA Global Partnership Director, Kirsten Gagnaire, and is part of the “blog tour series” reporting on the site visits and experience in Bangladesh. Read how USAID is helping women connect to health services in the developing world.

In Bangladesh, as in so many low-income areas across the globe, pregnant women and new mothers don’t have access to timely, reliable and culturally relevant information about how to best care for themselves and their babies.  Although there has been some improvement over the past ten years, it remains a fact that death due to pregnancy, childbirth and infancy-related causes are high in Bangladesh. And these deaths are often preventable with basic knowledge and care.

A young mother in Bangladesh using a cell phone. Photo Credit: MAMA

The Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) was created to provide new and expectant moms with vital stage-based information via mobile phones. Subscribers who register indicate their expected due date, or the birthday of their recently-born child, and receive weekly messages timed to the stage of pregnancy or the age of their newborn. MAMA’s first in-country program is an initiative catalyzed by USAID and local partner D.Net. Catalyzing the support of a public-private coalition in country, with strong support from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Health, MAMA Bangladesh has developed and piloted an mHealth service called Aponjon, the Bengali word for “trusted friend”. Aponjon works as a mobile-messaging based service, providing moms and the gatekeepers within their families (usually spouses, mothers, and mothers-in-law) with information about how to take care of themselves and their babies, and includes an entirely separate service for husbands that reinforces messages that their wives are receiving and includes information on how to best care for their loved ones during pregnancy and early childhood.

MAMA messages include information on self-care during and after pregnancy, as well as information on when to seek care and how to care for a newborn. MAMA Bangladesh recognizes the need for linking subscribers to local health services, and has  built strong relationships with local health providers.

“I can only visit my clients once each month,” one community health worker told us during a site visit. “But the mobile phone messages continue to provide information between visits; more information than I would be able to share during a single visit.”

The importance of the connection between information about health and information on where to seek assistance was highlighted during one of our site visits.  When asked what was the most important message they received, Shoma and Sale, new parents, beamed at their healthy baby and said that it was a message that discussed the signs of newborn respiratory illness.  They realized their baby was exhibiting the symptoms which required care, according to the message they received.  They were able to connect with their local clinic, where their baby was treated and recovered.

Messages to moms and their families are one of the first, and critically important, steps in educating people about their health, connecting them to care and changing behaviors. MAMA Bangladesh has registered 1,800 women in three districts thus far, and aims to launch nationwide later this year.

To learn more about MAMA, visit http://www.mobilemamaalliance.org/.

 

Youth Shine at 5th Annual Clinton Global Initiative University

This past weekend I joined over 1,000 college students from 80 countries, and over 75 youth organizations, at the 5th annual Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU) held this year at George Washington University. For many, the highlight might have been Usher summing up his sentiment about why his foundation focuses on youth empowerment by singing Whitney Houston’s “I believe the Children are our Future” (while sharing the stage with President Clinton and Secretary Albright); or the closing conversation between Jon Stewart and President Clinton.

Dr. Nicole Goldin of USAID with youth at George Washington University while attending the 5th Annual Clinton Global Initiative University this weekend. Photo Credit: USAID

For me however, it was connecting and interacting with the participants – some I learned already have a USAID connection.   Like the members of the CGI annual meeting in New York every September, all participants must make a commitment to action in order to attend – and many of these student personal stories and commitments are extraordinary.

During the opening plenary panel, along with President Clinton, Secretary Albright, and Usher, an amazing young Afghan woman named Sadiqa Saleem inspired the crowd with her personal journey from refugee camps, to the US and back  home to educate the girls and young women of Afghanistan.  “We need a coalition of fathers [like hers] to fight for the education of their daughters….”  Along with her follow-women founder, they went from educating 36 girls in an abandoned building, to creating and running  the Oruj Learning Center which teaches nearly 3400 girls in 6 primary schools, as well as executes other womens’ education and youth leadership programs.

After the panel, I spoke with Sadiqa and she told me she worked as Manager of the professional development center under the USAID Afghanistan Higher Education Program  – and that’s where she got the ideas and increased skills to enable her to establish her colleges.

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