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16 Day Challenge: Preventing Violence Against Children and Women

Neil Boothby speaking at a press conference in Geneva in October 2012 to launch the "Mimimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action". Photo Credit: USAID

Today is Day 15 of our of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.

The science is clear – childhood experiences shape adult outcomes, including long-term health, cognitive development, academic achievement, and one’s ability to be gainfully and safely employed. Our experiences as children shape our lives as adults, affecting our ability to develop as healthy and productive individuals, families, communities and nations. One could say (with firm evidence as back up) that there is no sustainable development without sincere and sustained commitment to child development.

In the same way, our notions about what it means to be a female or male are imprinted in our brains early in development. Formative experiences – such as how our parents behave with one another and what caretaking and economic roles our mothers and fathers assume—influence our “normative gender expectations”.

If we are serious about change – really breaking through cycles of poverty and gender inequality– we must start early. Dr. James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, has demonstrated that investments in young children produce much greater dividends than those made later in life. These physiological and economic arguments reinforce an even stronger moral imperative.

Evidence shows that violence against and exploitation of children and women – which often occur together and share common risk factors – can be prevented. Children who witness violence are significantly more at risk of health problems, anxiety disorders, poor school performance and violent behavior. Women who experience violence are less likely to earn a living and less able to care for their children.

Those who face violence face significant threats to their survival and well-being, as well as profound life cycle risks that have an impact on human, social and economic development. And the cycle of violence, exploitation, and abuse repeats itself, compromising the lives of children, women and families, and hindering the growth and productivity of communities.  The cycle also contributes to abuse as a normative gender expectation for males and females alike.  Until this cycle is broken—intentionally, strategically and early on, poverty, inequality and inhumanity will persist.

In the same way that public health efforts have prevented and reduced pregnancy-related complications, infant mortality, infectious diseases and illnesses, so can the factors that contribute to violent and abusive responses – attitudes, behavior and social, economic, political and cultural conditions –be changed.

In a few days, the U.S. Government will release an Action Plan on Children in Adversity, the first-ever government-wide strategic guidance for international assistance for children. The goal is to take strategic action to ensure that children grow up within protective family care and free from deprivation, exploitation and danger.

The Action Plan identifies programs that work and that can be taken to scale. It demonstrates that we can measure impact and affect change.  It builds on existing efforts that allow children to not only survive, but thrive – honoring children’s rights to strong beginnings, protective and loving family care, and protection from violence, exploitation, abuse and neglect. These objectives are central to U.S. development and diplomatic efforts and, as a result of the Action Plan, will be integrated into our international assistance initiatives.

We know what needs to be done.  Let’s get to it!

Storify Features This Week at USAID

This week has been a busy one at USAID Headquarters in Washington, D.C.! We began the week by launching the Agency’s first-ever policy and program guidance  on Building Resilience to Recurrent Crisis. The widespread suffering seen across the Horn of Africa and Sahel this past year revealed that in far too many places, too many communities, families and individuals consistently rely on humanitarian assistance to survive. The policy is in response to this clear need, and together with our international development partners, USAID has committed, through its Resilience policy and program guidance, to better coordinate its development and humanitarian approaches to effectively build resilience in targeted areas of recurrent crisis.

At our launch event here at the Ronald Reagan building,  Administrator Shah was joined by a distinguished panel of guests, including His Excellency Ambassador Elkanah Odembo, Kenyan Ambassador to the United States; The Honorable Jim McGovern (D-MA); Gayle Smith, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director at the National Security Council; David Beckmann, President of Bread for the World; Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps; and Carolyn Woo, President & CEO of Catholic Relief Services. In case you weren’t able to make the event, check out this Storify feed which recaps the event!

On Wednesday, we launched our fourth Grand Challenge for development:  Making All Voices Count. This challenge is a unique multi-donor partnership to support innovative, next-generation solutions that use web and mobile technology to grow the global movement for open government, transparency and accountability. At the launch, Administrator Shah was joined by Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and White House’s Samantha Power, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights.

This $45 million partnership with the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), the Government of Sweden, and Omidyar Network will support innovation, scaling-up and research that will enable better citizen engagement with governments and help governments deliver to their citizens.  Check out this Storify feed re-capping the event!

16 Day Challenge: A Helping Hand for Trafficking Victims in Uzbekistan

Today is Day 13 of our 16 Days Against Gender Activism.

Uzbekistan is at the heart of the ancient Silk Road. For centuries, people traveled across the country to exchange goods and share news. In today’s world, Uzbekistan’s strategic location has made its women prime targets for human trafficking to the Middle East and Russia.

I wanted to see firsthand how USAID is supporting services for female victims of trafficking on the modern Silk Road, so I visited the NGO Istikbolli Avlod(“Future Generation”), which is part of a small USAID-supported network of NGOs that work around the clock to help trafficked women return to Uzbekistan, get new passports, recover from their experiences and start their lives again.

Istikbolli Avlod NGO leaders conduct a trafficking awareness training for school teachers in Djizak, Uzbekistan. Photo Credit: IOM

Istikbolli Avlod has established connections in 10 cities across the country and operates a resource hotline for victims of human trafficking or domestic violence. In Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, this hotline receives more than 100 calls a month.

The national impact of this work is evident in the stories of more than 800 human trafficking victims who have been helped by Istikbolli Avlod.

I had the opportunity to meet some of these women during my recent visit to the NGO. Lina (full name withheld), a young brunette with a quiet disposition, had already lived through a great amount of personal tragedy before her 21st birthday.  At age 18, Lina was trafficked by her teacher and made to work in the United Arab Emirates. She tried unsuccessfully to escape. When she finally made it back to Uzbekistan, she had little hope for her future. Istikbolli Avlod changed that. She learned life skills, such as baking, sewing and money management. She received the emotional help she needed and was able to start her life over. Now, Lina volunteers her time to help other women who face similar situations.

The leaders of Istikbolli Avlod noted that the government’s attitudes about trafficking have undergone a sea change. Five years ago, when this network of NGO leaders started working together, the Uzbekistan government didn’t take combating human trafficking seriously. However, “Now,” they said, “police will call us and ask us for help, and will refer women in trouble to us. We are working much more closely with the government to change laws and assist citizens in returning to a normal life here.”

Going forward, one key to tackling the challenge of human trafficking in Uzbekistan will be coordination among the many and growing number of NGOs working on this issue. To address this, a network of 43 women’s rights NGOs throughout the country is being established to share experiences and advice on how to strengthen their organizations and meet community needs. They are training each other in best practices for running an NGO and are making joint plans to avoid a redundancy of services. This is a truly impressive group of women who have woven together a strong and sustainable network to help women like Lina, who have nowhere else to turn.

Giving Youth a Real Voice in Development

Giving youth real decision-making power and leadership roles in development processes and programs is a challenge in practice. We know from both our practice and research efforts that effective youth development needs to put meaningful youth participation at the forefront. RTI International’s experience working with youth around the globe in the areas of education, employment, health and governance for the past 30 years directs our strategy in placing them in key partner roles to solve global development challenges. With that in mind, we, along with other members of Alliance for International Youth Development (AIYD), strongly support the new USAID Youth in Development Policy (PDF), launched in November 2012.

The engagement of youth in development has been inconsistent. There are cases where youth are consulted on their needs and expectations and are invited to attend planning workshops or conferences. While these are important steps for youth participation, oftentimes they fall short of creating active roles in leadership. At worst, they provide the illusion that youth actually have a stake in the decision-making process.

The Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011 showed many governments the importance and impact that youth can play in civil society. This was clearly reflected in the passing of the new Moroccan constitution in July 2011, which emphasized good governance, accountability and citizen input into government affairs.

This past May, youth leaders convene with Moroccan government representatives to offer recommendations on the new Consultative Council for Youth and Community Work. Photo Credit: USAID Morocco Local Governance Program

Capitalizing on this unique context, RTI began working with commune councils and existing youth associations in the Moroccan cities of Safi, El Jadida, Séfrou, Sidi Harazem, and Ain Chgag to create seven Local Youth Councils that represent 134 youth associations in their cities.  RTI’s current implementation of the USAID Morocco Local Governance Program (LGP), “A Platform for Dialogue between Citizens and their Commune”, offers some lessons learned on giving youth a real voice in development.  LGP is taking an innovative approach in creating formal mechanisms for meaningful participation of youth in local affairs.

LGP is training young people in critical skills such as communications, participatory planning and negotiation in order to participate in roundtable discussions with commune council members. Together they discuss civic participation, youth employment, education and the communal charter.

The results are encouraging. Youth are engaged in local governance and are better organized as an important political constituency. They discuss and advocate their priorities to elected officials. But they want more, and are expressing that they want to see this heightened dialogue translate into concrete changes such as different decision-making patterns and results on youth issues.

A real opportunity for enhanced youth leadership and decision-making is before the Youth Councils and the Moroccan government. The new Moroccan constitution calls for the formation of an institutionalized Consultative Council for Youth and Community Work to play an advisory role to the government on youth policies. This past May, youth leaders from the LGP-formed Youth Councils hosted a forum with civil society experts, local government representatives and Parliament officials to provide concrete recommendations on how the Consultative Council should be created, what it should be implementing and how it can represent young people in the democratic process.

According to a youth leader from Safi, “Our proposals for the new Consultative Council are based on real discussion among youth leaders. Nobody told us what to do or what not to do. We do not want this to be just something that is designed in the capital. Instead, it should represent the vision of the youth across the country.”

An important focus for LGP in the next two years is to help the Youth Councils continue to work to influence the formation and agenda of the new Consultative Council, and to consolidate the existing seven (soon to be 10) youth councils into an institutionalized political structure that can be sustained beyond USAID-funding support.

RTI has learned that forming Youth Councils and training youth in the leadership skills they need to affect change takes significant time and resources. Often, the fruition of these efforts – marked by transformation into formal decision-making power and active leadership – is difficult to achieve in typical three to five year programmatic cycles.

Over the next few years, it will be critical to take a long-term perspective in achieving a real youth voice in Arab Spring countries, as well as other developing countries. This means sustaining youth dialogue and participation mechanisms from one program cycle into the next and institutionalizing youth bodies into formal political structures.

We are optimistic that the release of the Youth in Development Policy will encourage more missions, especially in countries with large and growing youth populations, to prioritize greater youth participation in development. RTI and the other AIYD members are committed to helping fulfill the Policy’s goal of equipping local youth leaders with skills and tools to create their own solutions, and to institutionalize their efforts in their countries’ development processes.

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.

No Mountain Too High: Saving the Snow Leopards, Ecosystems and Communities of High Asia

Today is Wildlife Conservation Day, and USAID’s missions around the world are raising awareness of the interconnectedness between human and wildlife welfare in developing countries.

Here in Kyrgyzstan, we announced on Saturday the launch of a new four-year project focused on preserving the ecosystems of Asia’s mountainous regions, benefiting its people and environment. Entitled “Conservation and Adaptation in Asia’s High Mountain Landscapes and Communities,” the project will be implemented in close partnership with our partners: the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Snow Leopard Trust. It will operate not only in Kyrgyzstan but also in Bhutan, India, Mongolia, Nepal and Pakistan, and build alliances across all countries with snow leopards.

Officials from 12 countries attended a three-day conference on the snow leopard in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on December 1-3, 2012. Photo Credit: USAID

The snow leopard is a focus of this project for three major reasons. First, these endangered animals face significant threats to their habitats in the context of a changing climate and increased human activities. Second, animals like the snow leopard have great popular appeal, drawing attention to the challenge of conservation and providing a rallying point to benefit entire ecosystems, including the humans who depend on these ecosystems for their livelihoods. Finally, snow leopards are indicative of the health and vitality of entire ecosystems across their range. They are an integral part of the ecosystems in which they live, and the well-being of countless other species and human communities depends on the health of those ecosystems.

The primary goal of the new USAID project is to stimulate greater understanding and action on the environment, by helping conserve this iconic and endangered species, as well as by connecting snow leopard conservation to a broader set of environmental, economic and social issues with consequences for Asia’s future sustainability, including local livelihoods, water and food security, and climate change adaptation. In Kyrgyzstan, the project will include a snow leopard population survey considering recent and predicted changes in key habitats, support to anti-poaching teams, and engagement in species conservation activities through conservation education and training with local communities.

It was not a coincidence that the project was announced in Kyrgyzstan. The President of the Kyrgyz Republic, Almaz Atambayev, and other senior Kyrgyz officials have shown great initiative in bringing this important topic to the international level, as demonstrated by the three-day conference on the snow leopard which ended on December 3, attended by representatives from 12 countries and NGOs from across the world. We hope this is just the beginning of our joint work with local and international partners on this challenging task to bring positive impact on both wildlife and the mountain communities of Asia.

Helping Families Build Resilience and a Better Future for Kids

Carolyn Miles and Moussa in Diema, Mali in August 2012. Photo Credit: Save the Children

Whenever I’m asked to describe the scale of the hunger crisis in the Sahel, I see Moussa’s face.

I met him in August during a trip to Mali when he was two months old, but he was so small and frail that I worried he would die in my arms. That day, Moussa’s mother rushed him to an emergency clinic where he received medicine and treatment for malnutrition, and he improved within days. What’s shocking about this story is not how narrowly this little boy escaped death—but that he was one of the lucky ones.

This year, more than 18 million people, including millions of children, struggled during a hunger crisis in the Sahel for the fourth time in a decade. Too many children struggle repeatedly because families don’t have the resources to recover from previous crises, restore their livelihoods or build savings in preparation for the next crisis. Families and communities must be resilient so they can cope with the shock of a crisis and help their kids survive and thrive, even in challenging times.

Last week in Vietnam, I saw the flip side of drought—how too much water causes flooding and landslides that turn poor children’s lives upside-down. With the long-term impact of climate change looming on the horizon, we must sustainably reduce families’ vulnerability to these and other hazards that threaten their ability to bounce back.

We will never be able to stop shocks from happening, but we can give families the tools they need to protect children in the short- and long-term. To do this, we must tackle the root of the problem by developing resilience in chronically vulnerable areas when a crisis is not at hand.  In parallel, we must increase the capacity of all levels of society—household, community and national—to cope when disaster strikes.

USAID’s new policy and program guidance (PDF), “Building Resilience to Recurrent Crisis, is an important step in helping families in vulnerable settings build pathways to a brighter future.  This policy will enable USAID and partners—including Save the Children—to better coordinate emergency response and development assistance, decreasing the need for repeated assistance in the same affected areas while increasing families’ ability to face and overcome future crises.

Recently, USAID has impressively reorganized itself to meet the challenges of resilience, including forming country-led strategies, learning agendas and joint planning—all of which will help create a more hopeful future for children. We encourage the U.S. government to continue its leadership role in the Global Alliance for Action for Drought Resilience and Growth and the Champions for Resilience, and invite others in the development community to join in this opportunity for families.

A child’s future shouldn’t depend on luck. For every Moussa who received care just in time, there are countless others who did not. We can’t reach every child when a crisis hits. But we can give parents and communities the tools they need to help kids weather the storm, stay safe and healthy, and build a better future for the next generation.

Resilience: Safety Net for Reducing Hunger and Malnutrition

David Beckmann is President of Bread for the World. Photo Credit: Bread for the World

Over the last month, we have watched communities along the New York and New Jersey coastline begin to rebuild from the devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy. It is a reminder that we are all vulnerable to natural disasters that can happen at any time. How communities survive and recover from these shocks depends very much on their resilience – their ability to cope and their systems for preparing, responding and rebuilding. In the United States, these systems are already in place and, for the most part, function well. This is not the case in many low-income countries.

Year after year, we see poor communities in developing countries deal with the effects of floods and droughts. Many of these weather-related problems are predictable, and so is the recurring “hunger season”—the period before the main harvest is ready—in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. All of these cause a great deal of suffering, including severe malnutrition which threatens the lives of the most vulnerable. In fragile states, vulnerability to shocks is even higher. Each year, humanitarian agencies mobilize relief efforts to save lives. Once the crisis is over, we go back to business as usual.

It shouldn’t be this way. People in the affected communities know all too well that every year the rainy season or monsoon cuts off their contact with nearby towns, or that every year the dry season leaves many families without access to enough food. With the right support, countries and local communities can build systems and develop responses that help people get through these difficult seasons. This way, they are not stuck in the powerless position of hoping, year after year, that emergency assistance will arrive in time.

In 2007 and 2008, many millions of poor people suffered because of a dramatic rise in global food prices, particularly for basic grains such as rice and wheat. They had no control over the causes of the price hikes, and they had very few coping mechanisms. Poor families spend a large percentage of their income on food, so when prices soared, they had to cut back on more nutritious foods, eat fewer meals, and go without other basic needs such as health care. The World Bank estimated that the food price crisis pushed more than 100 million people deeper into poverty.

The crisis served as a wake-up call — it risked reversing the tremendous progress the world had made in reducing extreme poverty and hunger. In fact, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), progress against hunger stalled due to high and volatile food prices.

As a result, there has been a greater focus on the concept of resilience since 2008. It is very important that USAID now has its first policy and program guidance (PDF) on building resilience. Through Feed the Future and Food for Peace, USAID has already acted on important components of such an undertaking, with the focus on reducing malnutrition in the 1,000 days between pregnancy and age 2 and helping smallholder farmers improve their livelihoods and diversify diets in their families and communities. Social safety nets are also essential. With dramatic weather events and food price volatility only likely to continue and intensify due to climate change, the need to build resilience has never been greater.

16 Day Challenge: Invisible Women: Violence Against Women with Disabilities

Today is Day 9 of our 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.

There are over a billion people with disabilities on the planet. Approximately half of them are women with disabilities. They are grandmothers, mothers, partners, lovers and sisters. They are seldom seen in market places, the fields, the classrooms, at the health clinics or in the workplace. Women with disabilities are by and large an invisible group in society. Their invisibility is partly due to the multiple forms of discrimination and the intersectionality of disability and gender.

Violence against women and girls with disabilities is an important, and often overlooked, aspect of gender-based violence. A reflection of attitudes ingrained in all cultural systems of the world where women are seen as lesser human beings – and women with disabilities as even less worthy – makes it easy for abusive power and control over them. Research by Women’s Aid indicates that one in four women experience domestic violence. For women with a disability, this figure doubles. Be it at the hands of their partner, family, or caregiver, almost one in two women with disabilities will be abused in their lifetime.

Two women conducted a street poll on disability issues for a disability inclusiveness project in Armenia. Photo Credit: World Vision

The experiences of women with disabilities fit within traditional definitions of domestic violence, but some do not – they are disability-specific, such as having medicine withheld, being physically assaulted, deliberately not being assisted to go to the toilet, or having their assistive devices taken away.  Also women with disabilities may fear reporting or leaving an abuser because of emotional, financial or physical dependence, or fear of loss of parental rights. In situations of conflict where rape is often used as a weapon of war, women with disabilities are seen as easy targets. Conversely, situations of conflict invariablely increase the incidence of disability. The United States Government National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security highlights the need to take special measures to protect women and girls with disabilities from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, and all other forms of violence in situations of armed conflict.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 2006, recognized that “women and girls with disabilities are often at greater risk, both within and outside the home of violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation” and emphasized “the need to incorporate a gender perspective in all efforts to promote the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms by persons with disabilities.”

So as we work to combat the epidemic of violence against women, the inclusion of women with disabilities must be deliberate.  For examples, shelters must have the necessary accommodations for women with disabilities. Courts should have ramps, sign language rosters and trained staff who do not turn away women with disabilities because they do not think they are deserving of services.

Our intensified efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women must translate into accessible information on a range measures – that legal frameworks and policies are more reflective of the day-to-day experience of women with disabilities; that  prevention actions are addressing all segments of the population; that efforts to prosecute perpetrators and protect and support victims recognize the specific needs women with disabilities might have;  and that  initiatives to enhance research and collect desegregated data include women with disabilities.

Finally as we consider the major structural factors underlying gender-based violence, it is necessary to address disability-based discrimination as a root cause of some of the gravest inequalities and human rights violations in the world. The intersection between gender and disability needs to be addressed explicitly and recognized in the post-Millennium Development Goals (MDG) framework and beyond.

Putting People at the Heart of Resilience

Since 2000, it is estimated that floods, cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural hazards have cost the world more than $1 trillion. These disasters have triggered significant social, ecological and economic devastation well beyond their immediate points of impact. As the President of Oxfam America, a humanitarian relief and development organization, I am often asked which characteristics makes one community more resilient than another and what can communities do to better prepare for natural disasters?

Under Administrator Raj Shah’s leadership, USAID has been trying to answer these questions and today released its first ever policy and program guidance (PDF) on building resilience to recurrent crisis. This guidance should be considered a breakthrough, and Oxfam congratulates USAID on a very thoughtful framework to saving lives and creating conditions where families and communities can prosper. The guidance outlines a real commitment to link short-term humanitarian response interventions with longer-term development programming by creating joint planning cells that work comprehensively to address both humanitarian and development needs in close coordination. This is not an easy undertaking. Oxfam, too, is trying to do a better job at linking humanitarian and development programming in countries where we work.

Medhin Reda in her teff field at her home in Tigray, Ethiopia. Oxfam America and partners are working on the Rural Resilience Initiative, which offers the poorest farmers a chance to buy weather insurance. For those too poor to have cash, they can pay for their premiums by working on community projects. The initiative also promotes a variety of tools that will help rural families build their resilience, including access to credit, encouragement to save, and steps to reduce the risk of disaster. Photo Credit: Oxfam America

For me, what makes some more resilient than others comes down to people’s rights. The question is: rights – who has them, who doesn’t and why? Risks and vulnerabilities are never equitably distributed:  poor men and women are more vulnerable because of the structure of their societies and economies.  Lack of access to economic assets, essential natural resources, or to political power translates into greater risk and vulnerability when crises hit. That is why it is essential that when we talk about resilience, we must also talk about issues of rights and equity and how they contribute to resiliency.  As USAID goes about implementing its new guidance throughout the world, this interrelationship should be at the core of the new framework.

As an example of how resilience, rights and equity relates in El Salvador, located in one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to natural disaster, Oxfam has been part of disaster risk reduction programs in which community organizations have not only led projects to prepare communities to evacuate, but have also taken measures to reduce the chance of floods. Those same groups have helped bring about the enactment of civil protection laws, which has subsequently enhanced government investment, in risk reduction infrastructure for communities where it is needed most.

The new USAID guidance comes at a critical juncture when the world is looking more deeply than ever at how to assist people and their societies withstand and recover from a growing number of natural disasters. In many cases, national governments and the poorest and most marginal communities already have found ways to increase their resilience, and we should be doing more to enhance their capacity to prepare for and respond to crises. We would be remiss to not only support local capacity but to ensure communities’ successful approaches and methods to weather disasters are at the heart of our operational principles.

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