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Meet Amit Mistry, AAAS Science and Technology Fellow at USAID

Amit is an AAAS Science and Technology Fellow at USAID.  He was recently interviewed by his former colleagues at Research!America for their blog New Voice for Research.

New Voices (NV): What do you do, and why is it important?

Amit: I am a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). I am working on the development and implementation of a strategy to combat global hunger and food security. Part of my job involves communicating technical information to non-technical audiences, keeping them informed and engaged in our activities. Another part of my job is connecting research programs to country programs that may benefit from the research. More broadly, my work supports a coordinated effort across the U.S. government to sustainably reduce global poverty and hunger.

NV: What’s the most exciting part of what you do? Any particularly interesting stories?

Amit: The most exciting part of my job is getting to see the impact of our agency’s work through the real people who are impacted by it. In September 2010, I traveled to Uganda for a few weeks and provided the local government feedback on its plan to strengthen the agriculture sector and reduce hunger. I met inspirational government leaders, researchers, and farmers who all shared the goal of lifting millions of Ugandans out of poverty.

NV: What is the biggest policy issue affecting your work? Describe how you’ve dealt with it, or even advocated regarding that issue.

Amit: One of the important challenges I face is working across multiple sectors, such as food security and climate change. These two sectors are closely linked and should be addressed comprehensively for the greatest impact. At USAID, I helped create a Strategic Integration Working Group, which brings together various sectors so they can share best practices. The group has developed recommendations for USAID that can improve our work across multiple sectors.

NV: How might the public misinterpret your work? Is there anything you want to clear up?

Amit: There is a misconception that U.S. investments abroad don’t have an impact on Americans. In fact, investments in foreign assistance have a far-reaching impact that affects our own economic security and national security. Our investments in foreign assistance build allies, strengthen trade partnerships, and create opportunities for American innovators and entrepreneurs.

NV: What’s your advice for someone in science who wants to get involved in policy, advocacy or outreach?

Amit:
My advice for someone interested in science policy is to strengthen your communication skills and practice communicating with different audiences, and for different purposes. Good communication skills are an incredible asset in science policy and will make you a more effective advocate or policy-maker. Also, I recommend learning the federal budgeting process because it is extremely helpful to understand, no matter where you work in the science policy world. Finally, I would encourage you to always promote the use of science-based decision-making in the policy area.

Addressing the World’s Greatest Development Challenges

As a career Foreign Service Officer, I’ve seen many international frameworks that try to address some of the world’s greatest development challenges. It’s a tricky balance to strike—ensuring the inclusion of viewpoints from the international partners we depend on, but not losing the needed focus at the expense of broad buy-in.

Susan Reichle, Assistant to the Administrator for USAID’s Bureau of Policy, Planning and Learning (far left) speaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Photo credit: USAID

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently released statebuilding guidance that achieves this fine balance. This guidance will help shape and improve the international community’s engagement with fragile states.

Over the past two years, USAID has been deeply involved in the development of this guidance. USAID worked closely with other OECD members to stress the important role that legitimacy plays in making governance more effective and less fragile. This idea was outlined in USAID’s 2005 “Fragile States Strategy” where concrete examples of what it means to be “legitimate” and “effective” were developed. USAID also helped the OECD to more clearly define the significance of gender roles and relations and place these at the core of how we improve state effectiveness

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to comment on the statebuilding guidance at a panel discussion hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). After presentations from the OECD’s Stephen Groff and CSIS’s Mark Quarterman, I became even more convinced that the guidance offers a critical framework to address fragile states, one that helps us avoid conflicting signals and wasted time when every minute counts.

Additionally, the statebuilding guidance reinforces many of the reforms we’re focused on through USAID Forward. It emphasizes the importance of evaluation, the imperative of working with local partners, and the opportunity of employing technologies like geographic information systems (GIS) to better connect and adapt our programs to changing conditions in the countries in which we work, especially in fragile states.

The statebuilding guidance also complements our broader U.S. foreign policy goals as outlined through the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development (PPD) and the Quadrennial Diplomacy & Development Review (QDDR). As called for in the PPD, the guidance promotes a modern aid architecture in support of common objectives, and applies a unique approach and division of labor when working in conflict affected countries. Furthermore, the guidance contributes to the development of “standing guidance and an international operational response framework to provide crisis and conflict prevention and response,” called for in the QDDR.

I am pleased with the OECD’s timely work and proud that USAID was able to play an active role in its formulation.

USAID in the News

Weekly Briefing (2/14/2011–2/18/2011)

February 15 The New York Times and CBS Evening News reported that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Monday that proposed Republican cuts to foreign aid would hurt national security. In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Clinton wrote, “Cuts of this magnitude will be devastating to our national security, will render us unable to respond to unanticipated disasters and will damage our leadership around the world.” AFP cites that Clinton added the cuts would cause the State Department and USAID “to scale back their critical roles in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

February 17 Bloomberg News wrote that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised on Wednesday to increase support to civil society activists fighting repressive governments around the world. A fund managed by USAID to protect groups from government censoring will be increased from $1.5 million to $3.4 million.

USAID’s Battleground: Expanding Access and Strengthening Health Systems

Administrator Shah: “Our experience with GHI has made it clear: our largest opportunities to improve human health do not lie in optimizing services to the 20% of people in the developing world currently reached by health systems; they lie in extending our reach to the 80% who lack access to health facilities. That is where the success of everything I’ve discussed today will be determined.  That is our battleground.  And I am proud to say: that is where USAID will lead the fight.”

Today, in a packed auditorium at NIH, Administrator Shah outlined a global health agenda around five transformational goals.  Dr. Shah believes that we can achieve the following by 2016: save the lives of over 3 million children; prevent more than 12 million HIV infections, avert 700,000 malaria deaths, ensure nearly 200,000 pregnant women can safely give birth, prevent 54 million unintended pregnancies, and cure 2.4 million people infected with TB.  To achieve these ambitious goals, he emphasized the need to strengthen health systems by empowering community health workers and midwives by equipping them with better diagnostics and treatments.

As part of the President’s Global Health Initiative, USAID helps countries integrate their health systems across WHO’s six health system “building blocks” (human resources; medical supplies, vaccines, and technology; health financing; information; leadership and governance; and service delivery) and within their national infrastructure.  Recent activities included: strengthening health care financing in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Senegal through the use of national health accounts; helping nine countries implement human resource information systems; and instituting performance assessments to raise standards for HIV services in six Central American countries.

USAID in the News

February 8, 2011: In an editorial, Voice of America writes that 50 years after USAID was created, the agency still remains a vital actor in U.S. global presence. VOA also notes that USAID “has become a quiet force for progress: preventing disease and disasters, stabilizing societies and expanding free markets, and changing with the times to best serve the people of the developing world.”

February 11, 2011: Voice of America reports that private businesses are being encouraged to assume a greater role in development efforts as part of the Obama administration’s agricultural development initiative. In an interview with Voice of America, USAID’s Greg Gottlieb, head of the food security bureau, stated that the agency is looking towards economic growth as a way to increase development. “We want to work more with the private sector than we have in the past.”

USAID in the News

Weekly Briefing (1/31/2011–2/4/2011)

January 31 Reuters reports that at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the world’s preeminent companies announced a major plan to invest in agriculture projects in Tanzania and Vietnam. USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah championed the plan, stating “we believe it is smarter and more efficient to support agriculture than to prevent the more costly famines, food riots and failed states that we will face if we do not make these investments.”

January 31 The Washington Post reports that new contracts from USAID have been awarded to Cardno Emerging Markets of Arlington and Chemonics of DC for professional, administrative, and management support services.

February 2 Foreign Policy’s “The Cable” blog reports that Senator Lindsey Graham, who is expected to be named the ranking Republican on Senate Appropriations’ State and Foreign Operations subcommittee, plans to “use his position…to increase State Department and USAID funding for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq and increase the civilian side of various military-civilian partnerships.” Senator Graham noted that the State Department and USAID “help win this struggle against radical Islam.”

February 3 In an editorial, Voice of America reports on USAID’s new approach to development and cites USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah’s recent speech at the Center for Global Development. During his speech, Dr. Shah said that, thanks to a series of reforms called USAID Forward, “our agency is fundamentally changing, becoming more efficient, more effective and more businesslike.” He added, “We are seeking to build something greater: a modern development enterprise.”

February 3 In a blog posted on The Huffington Post, President of the Kraft Foods Foundation Perry Yeatman supports USAID’s new reform efforts and describes how “inspired” she was by USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah and his perspective on U.S. foreign assistance. Speaking at Davos, Dr. Shah said that USAID’s work is not just “from the American people” but actually “for the American people.”

February 4 The Washington Post reports that U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham could soon be in a leadership position to support USAID. Final decisions have yet to be made, but if Graham is named the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on state and foreign operations he will be in a key position to make the case that US national security considerations
“require a fully financed diplomatic and development effort.”

From the Field

In Kenya, partnering with Pact Kenya we will hold a Trauma Healing and Social Reconciliation Workshop to develop a team of trainers/experts in the region to enhance the sustainability of people to people/social reconciliation processes.  By helping individuals deal with trauma, we hope to improve relationships between communities in the area and create environments more receptive to peace-building interventions.

In Tanzania, along with the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare and DFID, we are procuring $10 million in contraceptives to avoid stock-outs.  The event will be used as a platform to advocate for adequate budgeting and disbursement to ensure contraceptive supply in public sector health facilities.  We will also use the event to highlight the positive outcomes from donor partnership and coordination.

In the West Bank, we will hold our biannual press round table to update the local West Bank media of USAID activities in the area.  We will do the same in Jerusalem with Gaza journalists.

USAID In the News (1/24/2011–1/28/2011)

January 24: In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy’s “The Cable” blog, USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah responded to calls from Republicans in Congress to cut development and foreign aid, stating it would undermine US national security. Shah explained that it would not only put USAID’s reforms in jeopardy, but have “real and drastic negative implications for American power and the ongoing missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

January 25: The Washington Post published a story on USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah’s recent speech at the Center for Global Development. The Post reported that Shah outlined a new vision for USAID with the goal of replacing the agency over time by “efficient local governments, by thriving civil societies and by a vibrant private sector.”

January 26: The Huffington Post published an op-ed by USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator for Africa Larry Garber on the recent election held in Southern Sudan. In the piece, Garber underscored the importance of the vote and how significant it is given the challenges the region has overcome in recent years.

January 27: Foreign Policy’s “The Cable” blog presented statements made by State Department’s outgoing Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter arguing for the increase of funding for USAID and the State Department.  She called for budget increases in targeted areas for certain USAID and State programs in order to implement crucial reforms and streamline the system.

‘Modern Development Enterprise’ – A Major Address by Administrator Shah

As featured in the White House Blog

Last week, USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah gave a major address to over 200 non-governmental organizations, think-tanks, academics, and international development leaders hosted by the Center for Global Development. The text of the speech as prepared for delivery can be found here.  Dr. Shah’s speech on The Modern Development Enterprise addressed the current state of development and formally announced the Agency’s 50th anniversary.

In his speech, Dr. Shah recognized the important role of religious and community groups in providing assistance to those most in need around the world. I thought you’d be especially interested in the excerpts below:

  • American Values:  When we prevent violence in Southern Sudan, we’re not just avoiding future military involvement; we’re also expressing America’s values.  When schoolchildren organize bakesales to pay for anti-malarial bed nets, they are expressing America’s values.  When more American families gave money to the Haiti relief than watched the Super Bowl, they were expressing America’s values.  When church groups across America raise money and volunteer to support children orphaned by AIDS, they are expressing America’s values.
  • Communities of Faith:  I’m proud to know that USAID is one of CRS’s largest supporters.  But I’m also proud to know that we support a wide-range of faith-based organizations, from Samaritan’s Purse to the American Jewish World Service. Organizations of faith not only express the moral values of millions of Americans, they also provide some of the most dependable support systems for millions in the developing world. In Kenya for example, 30% of all healthcare services are provided by Christian Hospitals.  Our success depends on listening to communities of faith, connecting with them deeply, and supporting the vital work they perform around the world.
  • Food Security:  Instead of merely providing food aid in times of emergency, we are helping countries develop their own agricultural sectors, so that they can feed themselves.  We launched Feed the Future – bringing together resources across the federal government and engaging in deeper partnerships to extend the impact of our efforts.  We are now leveraging more investment from countries themselves and from other donors.  Firms ranging from General Mills to local African seed companies are all doing more.  As a result, in just five of our twenty focus countries we will be able to help nearly 6.5 million poor farmers – most of them women – grow enough food to feed their families and break the grip of hunger and poverty for tens of millions of people.
  • Global Health:  In our Global Health Initiative, instead of a scattered approach that fights individual diseases one at a time, we are pursuing an integrated approach that will generate efficiencies and strengthen health systems.  We are now working with partners such as the NIH, CDC and PEPFAR to leverage recent advances in science and technology, especially in high return areas such as vaccinating children, preventing HIV, malaria and TB and focusing on childhood nutrition during pregnancy and the first two years of life.
  • Smart and Transparent Investments:  I want the American taxpayer to know that every dollar they invest in USAID is being invested in the smartest, most efficient, and most transparent way possible.
  • 50th Anniversary:  This year, USAID will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Our legacy is filled with incredible accomplishments. Throughout those fifty years, we have contributed greatly toward ending an incomprehensible measure of human suffering, and I urge you to learn more about our Agency’s rich legacy through our newly launched anniversary Web site, http://50th.usaid.gov.  But if I am lucky enough to live another 50 years, I hope I am also lucky enough not to witness our centennial. Instead, I hope we will be commemorating the success of USAID’s mission.

Ari Alexander serves as Deputy Director at the Center for Faith-based & Community Initiatives and the Coordinator of Global Engagement.

USAID’s January Frontlines

FrontLinesRead the latest edition of USAID’s premier publication, FrontLines for these stories:

A farmer in Balochistan, Pakistan, displays wheat affected by wheat stem rust, a disease that can destroy a significant amount of crops. USAID is working in the agriculture sector here and in other parts of Pakistan to prevent the damage caused by the rust. Photo credit: USAID

Read these stories and more in the new issue of FrontLines. If you would like to automatically receive FrontLines every month, you can subscribe here.

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