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Raising the Bar, Honduran Singer Fights Violence through Music

With an inspiring message about peace and non-violence, Eduardo Umanzor performs at a Community Heroes event organized by USAID. / Photo Courtesy Eduardo Umanzor

With an inspiring message about peace and non-violence, Eduardo Umanzor performs at a Community Heroes event organized by USAID. / Photo Courtesy Eduardo Umanzor

Growing up in a middle-class neighborhood in San Pedro Sula, Honduras in the 1990s, the only concern I had was being yelled at or spanked by my parents because I was out late riding my bicycle or playing with kids in the street.

Today, it is a different story.

San Pedro Sula is now one of the most dangerous cities outside of a war zone, with a homicide rate about seven times higher than what health experts consider to be an epidemic. Some have dubbed my hometown “the murder capital of the world.” It fills me with deep sadness to see the city devolve into such violence.

So when the staff of USAID’s Alianza Joven program contacted my band Montuca Sound System to write the theme song for the campaign “Sí podemos Sampedranos”– or “Yes, we can, citizens of San Pedro Sula” — I felt honored. I saw it as a huge opportunity to give hope to a lot of young people through song.

At the time, my band had just become very popular across Honduras thanks to a contract with a mobile phone company, which beamed us into people’s homes with jingles we wrote for TV commercials. I was happy to use my newfound influence to raise social consciousness.

The 2011 launch of the “Sí podemos Sampedranos” campaign to end violence in San Pedro Sula coincided with the development of a Municipal Violence Prevention Plan and the construction of new outreach centers for at-risk youth.

Through nearly 50 youth outreach centers in seven Honduran cities, USAID’s Alianza Joven Honduras program, implemented by Creative Associates, offers a variety of activities to keep young people away from gangs and drugs. The youth outreach centers serve as safe spaces in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country.

By participating in sports, art, school tutoring, life skills coaching, volunteerism and job training, vulnerable youth are developing the skills they need to live a better life.

Musician Eduardo Umanzor is inspiring young fans to take pride in their communities through uplifting songs.  / Photo Courtesy Eduardo Umanzor

Musician Eduardo Umanzor is inspiring young fans to take pride in their communities through uplifting songs. / Photo Courtesy Eduardo Umanzor

I’ve been impressed with the success of the outreach centers in bringing hope to the community. Many of my songs are about restoring pride in San Pedro Sula and bringing more love and peace to the city and youth. I’m always happy to sing them at graduation ceremonies and community talent shows with youth from the neighborhoods where Alianza Joven works.

Music can be a powerful force for social change. As soon as I get on stage and start singing the song “Un Poco De Amor,” which says, “Honduras needs a little bit of love,” I see the way my fans sing along. I see the way they feel inspired. Then they come to me and say, “Eduardo, these songs help me feel positive about the future.”

I sensed a burgeoning social movement while playing in my past band, Montuca Sound System, several years ago. I was writing songs about bloodshed, injustice and inequality in Honduras, and I saw how that led my friends and other kids my age to open their eyes and become interested in politics.

It’s hard to believe, but a lot of the people that I knew didn’t know they were living in such a troubled place.

I’m optimistic about the future for Honduras. Two and a half years ago, I had the chance to visit my sister in Bogota, Colombia, a city that once struggled with high rates of violent crime. My brother-in-law told me stories of how dangerous the area used to be, the near-constant fear he felt growing up, not knowing when a car was going to explode. You couldn’t feel safe anywhere.

Today, Bogota is beautiful, and not for one second during my stay did I feel unsafe. The transformation Bogota underwent gives me hope for the future of San Pedro Sula. It’s a matter of the community coming together to figure out what’s wrong and then working hard to fix those problems.

It’s never too late to start again for a new beginning.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eduardo Umanzor is a singer and songwriter in Honduras. Follow him @EduardoUmanzor_

An Inclusive Society, a Paraguay without Barriers

Fundación Saraki’s President María José Cabezudo hugs her brother Carlos Cabezudo during a recent event promoting disability rights. / Giovanna Pederzani.

Fundación Saraki’s President María José Cabezudo hugs her brother Carlos Cabezudo during a recent event promoting disability rights. / Giovanna Pederzani.

As an  advocate for the inclusion of people with disabilities, I thought I understood the issue well.

But today I finally understand what putting myself in someone else’s shoes really means.

I recently attended an event organized by Fundación Saraki, the leading disability rights organization in Paraguay. The event was intended to raise awareness and support for their activities, but it ended up teaching people like me about the world people with disabilities live in.

After I arrived at the Hotel Guarani, I was forced to walk up the stairs to the main event room, rather than use the elevators. Organizers wanted guests to experience the inconveniences that many people with physical disabilities encounter every day. Reaching the second floor with my high heels and a loaded backpack was challenging — imagine what it must  be like for someone in a wheelchair?

At the entrance to the venue, I registered … with a tiny pen that would be too small for even my son’s small hands, and on a paper that was placed on a registration desk that was only a foot tall. Another message: This is everyday reality for people with disabilities who are significantly shorter than the average height.

To reach the event room, I had to navigated through a dark tunnel that organizers had constructed. As I meandered through the claustrophobic space, I could not see anything, and I struggled to go around obstacles with my hands and feet. Unfortunately, this is an experience all too common for someone who cannot see.

After traversing the frightening tunnel, I finally reached the event space. Twenty to 30 people in wheelchairs blocked the entrance, forcing me to apologize and suck in my stomach as I tried to get around them and into the room. Message received: This must be what it’s like for someone with a physical disability who is trying to enter a public restroom that is not accessible.

I finally reached my seat and opened an envelope with the agenda. It was in Braille. I don’t read Braille. I tried to close my eyes and imagine what it might say, but I couldn’t. This information was important, yet it was not available to someone like me who has different capabilities.

U.S. Ambassador Leslie A. Bassett and Director Of  Employment Of the Paraguayan Ministry of Labor Cesar Martinez pose with Mario Marecos, a Paraguayan human rights activist and  member of the National Commission of the Rights of People with Disabilities. / Chiara Pederzani

U.S. Ambassador Leslie A. Bassett and Director Of Employment Of the Paraguayan Ministry of Labor Cesar Martinez pose with Mario Marecos, a Paraguayan human rights activist and member of the National Commission of the Rights of People with Disabilities. / Chiara Pederzani

In the background, I could hear one of my favorite songs, Maxixe by Agustín Barrios. But this time, it was at a high pitch and too loud. Instead of being a song for the soul, it was an absolute nuisance to my ears.

When the music finally stopped, a woman took the floor and began to speak. I could not understand anything. She might have spoken in French and German, two very common languages, but incomprehensible to me.

Then a short film played on a giant screen. The film and sound were blurry and I could not understand what people were saying or what was being shown.

The whole experience lasted less than 30 minutes, but it worked. It was enough to make me feel totally excluded. I couldn’t get around. I could not understand the people around me. Everything felt narrow, too low, or too uncomfortable. I could not see well. Nothing was done to accommodate my needs.

I realized this is daily life for so many persons with disabilities.

No one should have to fight this way to live their lives. We can change it. We have to continue fighting for an accessible society, an inclusive Paraguay without barriers.

With the support of USAID, Fundación Saraki is working to make this a reality by raising awareness, influencing legislation, strengthening organizations for persons with disabilities, and promoting inclusion in work and education.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Giovanna Pederzani is a Paraguayan architect and an advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities.

Meet the Next Generation of Disaster Responders

It only takes one bad storm to kill or injure thousands, inflict billions of dollars in damage, and wreak havoc on communities in its path. As part of Hurricane Preparedness Week, USAID joins other response organizations in raising public awareness and preparedness efforts for the upcoming Atlantic hurricane season.

While this national effort happens once a year, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) works year-round with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to reduce the impacts of hurricanes by helping them prepare for storms before they happen.

In Kingston, Jamaica, people take notice when the St. Patrick’s Rangers come to their neighborhood. The Rangers wear matching shirts, and have a certain swagger to their walk. And they always seem to make a beeline for the worst house on the block.

USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance is partnering with Catholic Relief Services to support the St. Patrick’s Rangers, a program to empower at-risk youth to become the next generation of disaster responders. / Carol Han, USAID/OFDA

USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance is partnering with Catholic Relief Services to support the St. Patrick’s Rangers, a program to empower at-risk youth to become the next generation of disaster responders. / Carol Han, USAID/OFDA

These organized and enthusiastic teens represent the next generation of disaster responders.

For years, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance has supported the work of Catholic Relief Services to transform at-risk youth into disaster preparedness leaders. By joining the St. Patrick’s Rangers, young people learn how to help communities plan for and respond to hurricanes, administer first aid, map out evacuation routes and set up emergency shelters. They also help people repair their homes after storms hit.

Jamaica is no stranger to extreme weather, having been slammed by some 50 hurricanes and tropical storms since modern-day record keeping began in the late 1880s. / Carol Han, USAID/OFDA

Jamaica is no stranger to extreme weather, having been slammed by some 50 hurricanes and tropical storms since modern-day record keeping began in the late 1880s. / Carol Han, USAID/OFDA

“People normally think that it’s older persons that are part of disaster risk reduction … who can [be] a leader,” said Tovia Rankine, a member of the St. Patrick’s Rangers. “And we, the young persons are taking on this mantle.”

Jamaica is no stranger to extreme weather. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan slammed into Jamaica, damaging the homes of more than 19,000 people — including the Kingston home of 64-year-old Lincoln “Bull” Parks.

“Ivan just took everything. Put everything on the ground flat and left me outside under the sun,” Bull said.

Lincoln “Bull” Parks lost his home when Hurricane Ivan hit Jamaica. It wasn’t until the St. Patrick’s Rangers came calling that he got help to start over. / USAID/OFDA

Lincoln “Bull” Parks lost his home when Hurricane Ivan hit Jamaica. It wasn’t until the St. Patrick’s Rangers came calling that he got help to start over. / USAID/OFDA

With his home leveled, Bull lived in a little hut made out of scavenged materials. It was so small that he had to crawl on his hands and knees to get inside. Having lost hope that help would come, he retreated from the community and only came out to “charge” at those entering his property, thereby earning his nickname Bull.

Then the St. Patrick’s Rangers came calling. Not only did they help rebuild Bull’s home, they also gained skills to build themselves a better future.

“Many of these kids weren’t aware of what they can do before,” said Dwayne Francis, a St. Patrick’s Rangers group leader. “And now they’re doing stuff that’s to their wildest dreams.”

What’s more, Bull now has a home.

“I said, ‘I thank everyone from the top to the bottom.’ Everyone involved. Grateful,” Bull said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Kimbrough is the Regional Advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean in the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.

Fostering a Sense of Belonging Key in Preventing Youth Violence

USAID and A Ganar run a sports and leadership program that partners with companies like Nike and Coca Cola to increase employment opportunities for at-risk youth. / Partners of the Americas

USAID and A Ganar run a sports and leadership program that partners with companies like Nike and Coca Cola to increase employment opportunities for at-risk youth. / Partners of the Americas

What do violent street gangs in the United States and Central America and extremist groups in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa have in common?

The answer to that question — which violence prevention researchers and practitioners are increasingly concerned with — could be the key to solving some of the world’s most intractable problems.

So far, group identity has been found to be a major factor in kids making the “irrational deliberative decision” to join a gang.

From the inner city streets of L.A. or Baltimore, to the rough barrios of Tegucigalpa or Guatemala City, to the violent post-revolutionary urban districts in Tunis, youth are getting involved in gangs or extremist groups in the pursuit of one simple thing: belonging.

A young Arab who once considered joining ISIS told USAID staff in Tunisia, “I just wanted to be part of something.”

The same feeling has been articulated by hundreds of disaffected youth in American urban ghettos, as well as in marginalized neighborhoods of Central America.

This was one of the themes addressed by experts at the USAID-sponsored L.A. Gang Violence Prevention and Intervention Conference, held in Los Angeles earlier this month.

At the conference, Robert Örel, a former neo Nazi, shared a similar yearning for joining the white supremacist group as a teenager in Sweden. “It was about forming an identity,” he said.

“The group helped me channel my anger and disappointment,” he added.

Fabian Debora, a former gang member in California, told the audience about the physical abuse he and his mother endured at the hands of a relative. As a teen, Debora said, the abuse made him feel angry, and so he wanted to take it out on everyone else.

This situation is forcing governments and civil society organizations around the globe to double down on prevention and counter-recruiting efforts. USAID supports such efforts in different corners of the world, including Mexico, Central America and North Africa.

Jesus Lanza, of Honduras, won an entrepreneurship contest with his burger business, part of a program to boost job skills among at-risk youth. / David Snyder, Creative Associates International

Jesus Lanza, of Honduras, won an entrepreneurship contest with his burger business, part of a program to boost job skills among at-risk youth. / David Snyder, Creative Associates International

For those of us who attended the Gang Conference from across the United States, Mexico and Central America, the personal testimonies of panelists—like Örel and Debora—sounded all too familiar.

The feelings of disconnect and hopelessness that motivate youth to join violent and extremist groups echo what I’ve heard repeatedly from at-risk youth in Guatemala on their reasons for pursuing lives of violence.

Similarly, Michele Piercey from Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI) — who led countering violent extremism programs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Tunisia — shared with us innovative strategies used in Tunisia to foster a sense of belonging in at-risk youth. The goal is to counter the despair many Arab youth experienced in the wake of the Arab Spring.

She showed us pictures and videos of youth who learned to express their feelings through art and music, such as rap and hip hop. USAID is pursuing similar strategies here in Guatemala.

Honduran Police Sub Commissioner Cesar Mendoza advocated at the conference for policymakers to invest more in prevention than in “reactive and repressive approaches.”

Yet, others emphasized the importance of family in reducing the risks for youth to engage in violent behavior, whether it is in street gangs or extremist groups.

Richard Ramos of the Latino Coalition for Community Leadership, hit the right tone when he said “you cannot replace parents with programs.” I agree.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carlos A. Rosales is a Violence Prevention Specialist at USAID’s field office in Guatemala.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. The entire city just shrunk.”

Within mere seconds, more than 200,000 people were killed, and 1.5 million were displaced from their homes.  Buildings were completely destroyed. Phone connections were down. The scene was, in short, total devastation. It was January 12, 2010—five years ago today—when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked Port-au-Prince and forever changed Haiti.

This earthquake would have been calamitous and overwhelming anywhere, but in Haiti—a poor country with weak building infrastructure—it hit at the heart, in the populous capital city, creating a massive urban disaster.

USAID’s Haiti Earthquake Disaster Assistance Response Team Leader Tim Callaghan and USAID Administrator Raj Shah during the 2010 response.  / USAID.

USAID’s Haiti Earthquake Disaster Assistance Response Team Leader Tim Callaghan and USAID Administrator Raj Shah during the 2010 response. / USAID.

As Team Leader for USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), I deployed in the first 24 hours and witnessed firsthand the perfect storm of challenging response issues: no communication as all phone connections were down; 1.5 million people were instantly displaced, with no shelter; in seconds, children were orphaned; Haitian Government officials and local disaster responders were affected themselves; transportation was severely hampered by the rubble; there was a myriad of health and nutrition concerns; and death was everywhere.

USAID-supported programs helped remove more than 50% of the total rubble cleared by the international community. / U.S. Navy, Chief Mass Communication Specialist Robert J. Fluegel

USAID-supported programs helped remove more than 50% of the total rubble cleared by the international community. / U.S. Navy, Chief Mass Communication Specialist Robert J. Fluegel

Rubble literally filled the streets. We found out later that the earthquake had generated enough rubble to fill dump trucks lined up from Maine to Florida twice. On the ground, this meant major obstacles to delivering life-saving assistance. It also required our DART to have a large urban-search-and-rescue (USAR) component with over 500 USAR members at its peak. These teams worked tirelessly, crawling through broken buildings, to find and save people who were trapped inside. One of my proudest memories was being on site early one morning around 3 a.m. to see our USAR teams pull people out of the wreckage. It is something I will never forget.

Members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Search and Rescue Team rescue a Haitian woman from a collapsed building in downtown Port-au-Prince. The woman had been trapped in the building for five days without food or water. / U.S. Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin Stumberg

Members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Search and Rescue Team rescue a Haitian woman from a collapsed building in downtown Port-au-Prince. The woman had been trapped in the building for five days without food or water. / U.S. Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin Stumberg

In addition to so many Haitian lives tragically taken on that day, several American colleagues from the U.S. Embassy also perished—the first time I had ever worked on a disaster response where this was the case.

Yet it’s during times like the Haiti earthquake that I am so vividly inspired by the mandate of the office I work for—USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance—which is to save lives and alleviate human suffering. The DART did that in Haiti five years ago, rapidly providing humanitarian assistance and care to those in need. I was honored to manage a team of dedicated people who worked 20-hour days for weeks on end in grueling conditions.

Looking back, I also will never forget the incredible resilience and strength of the Haitian people. They lost so much, and yet were willing to roll up their sleeves amid all the tragedy to work with us in every way possible to build back their lives. The people of Ravine Pintade—one of the hardest hit areas—joined us and our partners Global Communities and Project Concern International to transform their devastated neighborhood into a model community.

Since 2010, USAID has continued to work together with the people of Haiti and their local and national governments traversing the long road from recovery to development and helping mitigate the damage of future crises. We’ve increased communities’ disaster resilience through preparedness and response planning, support to emergency operations centers and evacuation shelters, and small-scale infrastructure projects like retaining walls and drainage systems. We’ve also helped improve local capacity by training locals to handle disaster response efforts—everything from preparing first responders to designating leadership roles to managing relief supplies.

Haiti is vulnerable to many disasters including earthquakes, hurricanes, and flooding; but through these disaster risk reduction efforts, USAID is helping Haiti become more capable of preparing and responding to whatever disaster may strike next.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tim Callaghan is the Senior Regional Advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean for USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. During the 2010 Haiti earthquake response, Callaghan served as USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team Leader.

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Mapping Change in the Amazon: How Satellite Images are Halting Deforestation

This blog post originally appeared on the Global Envision blog published by Mercy Corps.

In the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, a group of scientists have become unconventional crusaders in the battle to halt deforestation. They are the engine behind Imazon, one of the most prolific research groups based in the Amazon. Imazon is now collaborating with the government of the Brazilian state of Pará to combine real time satellite imagery and advanced mapping techniques with a system of incentives and penalties to embolden indigenous communities, local governments, and farmers to protect the rainforest.

Amazon rain forest. Credit: The Skoll Foundation

The Skoll Foundation


Until recently, Pará was the epicenter of unchecked rainforest devastation. Known locally for its rural corruption and banditry, the region had been losing 6,255 square kilometers of rich biodiversity annually – an area roughly the size of Delaware. The assault threatened the territory of some of the last untouched tribes in the world, and chipped away at the Amazon’s ability to absorb 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, a critical factor in regulating the earth’s climate cycle.

But the Brazilian Amazon is vast. Patrol vehicles can’t monitor the entire region from the ground. This is particularly true for indigenous communities trying to oversee their protected lands with limited resources.

Imazon

Imazon


And without accurate and timely information about illegal logging and sawmills, authorities and community members are helpless to stop the destruction before it it’s too late.

That’s why Carlos Souza Jr., a native of Pará’s capital of Belem, got involved. Souza earned a doctoral degree in advanced image processing techniques from the University of California-Santa Barbara and recognized that this technology could be the crucial missing link to address deforestation in his home country. Souza and a small team of researchers at Imazon developed detailed maps using free satellite imagery from the NASA sensor MODIS.

The Skoll Foundation

The Skoll Foundation


But the end goal was not just to produce beautiful maps.

Souza and his team began tracking changes in deforestation. They used the information to spark frank discussions about the future of the Amazon and to push for informed action on the issue. In some cases this meant cracking down on illegal operations, and in others it meant training farmers in improved farming techniques to enable higher incomes.

Imazon

Imazon


“Using scientific methods to approach sustainable development puts Imazon in a very good position to host dialogues with different stakeholders because the information we produce is neutral,” Souza explains. “They may not agree with the results, but they know there is no bias.”

For Souza and the Imazon team, this is the real value of their program: putting detailed scientific data in the hands of the people who can create positive change.

Photo: Skoll / Map: Imazon

Photo: Skoll / Map: Imazon


And it’s started to work.

In early 2013, the Brazilian police and army from the community of Nova Esperança do Piria used Imazon’s satellite images to conduct large scale raids on unlicensed sawmills that were infringing on the Alto Guáma Indigenous Reserve, situated within the Amazon.

Imazon

Imazon


Last year, Imazon expanded its work with support from the Investment Innovations Alliance, a joint venture fund between USAID and the Skoll Foundation, in collaboration with Mercy Corps. The Alliance invested $6 million, which allowed Imazon to grow and institutionalize its cartographic monitoring system and support the expansion of the Green Municipalities Program.

Map: Imazon, ISA, and IPAM  Photo: The Skoll Foundation

Map: Imazon, ISA, and IPAM Photo: The Skoll Foundation


Deforestation is already on the decline: after rising in the first half of 2013, the deforestation rate between August and December decreased by 70% compared to the same period the year before.

Now Imazon wants to take this movement beyond Brazil’s borders.

M24instudio

M24instudio


The launch of Google Earth Engine has allowed Imazon to share their pioneering maps with the global community and they are connecting with leading organizations throughout the region that want to integrate Imazon’s approach.

Souza is optimistic about the organization’s ability to adapt their strategies and burgeon their impact as they continue in the battle to preserve the world’s most pristine rainforests.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Huguet is the Assistant Program Officer of the Investment Innovations Alliance

5 Ways USAID is Preparing for Hurricane Season

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

Eight Facts About ZunZuneo

On Thursday, April 3, the Associated Press published an article on a social media program in Cuba funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The article contained significant inaccuracies and false conclusions about ZunZuneo, which was part of a broader effort that began in 2009 to facilitate “twitter like” communication among Cubans so they could connect with each other on topics of their choice. Many of the inaccuracies have been re-reported by other news outlets, perpetuating the original narrative, or worse.

Photo credit: Manpreet Romana/AFP

Photo credit: Manpreet Romana/AFP

The article suggested that USAID spent years on a “covert” program to gather personal information to be used for political purposes to “foment” “smart mobs” and start a “Cuban spring” to overthrow the Cuban government.  It makes for an interesting read, but it’s not true.

USAID’s work in Cuba is not unlike what we and other donors do around the world to connect people who have been cut off from the outside world by repressive or authoritarian governments. USAID’s democracy and governance work focuses on strengthening civil society, governance, and promoting human rights.

Here are eight claims made by article, followed by the facts:

1) The story says the “program’s legality is unclear” and implies the program was “covert.”

FACT:  USAID works in places where we are not always welcome. To minimize the risk to our staff and partners and ensure our work can proceed safely, we must take certain precautions and maintain a discreet profile. But discreet does not equal covert.

The programs have long been the subject of Congressional notifications, unclassified briefings, public budget requests, and public hearings. All of the Congressional Budget Justifications published from 2008 through 2013, which are public and online, explicitly state that a key goal of USAID’s Cuba program is to break the “information blockade” or promote “information sharing” amongst Cubans and that assistance will include the use or promotion of new “technologies” and/or “new media” to achieve its goals.

In 2012, the Government Accountability Office—the U.S. government’s investigative arm—spent months looking at every aspect of USAID’s Cuba programs. GAO’s team of analysts had unrestricted access to project documents, extended telephone conversations with Mobile Accord (ZunZuneo) and even traveled to Cuba. The GAO identified no concerns in the report about the legality of USAID’s programs, including ZunZuneo, and offered USAID zero recommendations for improvements.

2) The article implies that the purpose of the program was to foment “Smart Mobs,” funnel political content and thereby trigger unrest in Cuba.

FACT:  The “USAID documents” cited in the article appear to be case study research and brainstorming notes between the grantee and the contractor.  The specific reference to “Smart Mobs” had nothing to do with Cuba nor ZunZuneo. The documents do not represent the U.S. government’s position or reflect the spirit or actions taken as part of the program in Cuba.  The project initially sent news, sports scores, weather, and trivia.  After which, the grantee did not direct content because users were generating it on their own.

3) The story states there was a “shell company” in Spain formed to run the program.

FACT:  No one affiliated with the ZunZuneo program established a private company in Spain as part of this program.  The project sought to do so if it was able to attract private investors to support the effort after USAID funding ended.  Private investment was never identified and thus no company was ever formed.

4) The story implies that the USG tried to recruit executives to run ZunZuneo without telling them about USG involvement.

FACT:  A USAID staff member was present during several of the interviews for candidates to lead ZunZuneo.  The staff member’s affiliation with USAID was disclosed and it was conveyed that the funding for the program was from the U.S. Government.

5) The article states that private data was collected with the hope it would be used for political purposes.

FACT: The ZunZuneo project included a website, as is typical for a social network.  Users could voluntarily submit personal information. Few did, and the program did not use this information for anything.

6) The article says that the funding was “publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan,” implying that funds were misappropriated.

FACT: All funds for this project were Congressionally appropriated for democracy programs in Cuba, and that information is publicly available.

7) The story stated, “At its peak, the project drew in more than 40,000 Cubans to share news and exchange opinions.”

FACT: At its peak, the platform had around 68,000 users.

8) The article suggests there was an inappropriate base of operations established in Costa Rica outside of normal U.S. government procedures.

FACT: The Government of Costa Rica was informed of the program on more than one occasion.  The USAID employee overseeing the program served under Chief of Mission Authority with the U.S. Embassy, as is standard practice.

We welcome tough journalism – and we embrace it.  It makes our programs better.  But we also believe it’s important that the good work of USAID not be falsely characterized.

Cooking With Green Charcoal Helps to Reduce Deforestation in Haiti

An organization in northern Haiti is promoting a cooking fuel made from agricultural waste that can save trees, help farmers increase their yields and generate additional income.

“Our aim is to try to stop deforestation in Haiti by teaching people to switch from cooking with charcoal to using cooking briquettes, small discs made from charred agricultural waste,” said Anderson Pierre, the Supply Chain Manager for Carbon Roots International (CRI), a USAID-supported non-profit organization operating in Quartier Morin.

Carbon Roots International on Dec 12, 2013. Copyright Kendra Helmer/USAID

Workers create cooking briquettes, small discs made from charred agricultural waste, in northern Haiti. Copyright Kendra Helmer/USAID

Despite the fact that only about 2 percent of Haiti’s forests remain, it is difficult to shift habits of cooking with wood charcoal to methods that are environmentally friendly.  According to Pierre, other alternative fuels are still not well-known – or accepted.

“We work little by little, changing perceptions and providing information on the benefits of using briquettes,” Pierre said.

CRI employs smallholder farmers and entrepreneurs to produce carbon-rich char from agricultural waste such as sugarcane bagasse, the fibrous matter that remains after sugarcane stalks are crushed to extract their juice. CRI uses this waste to create two innovative products: renewable charcoal cooking briquettes called “green charcoal,” and “biochar,” a potent natural soil additive that increases soil fertility and removes carbon from the atmosphere. CRI sells the briquettes as an alternative to traditional wood charcoal through a network of women retailers, and disburses biochar back to farmers to increase crop yields and further raise incomes.

As a result, the project contributes to the sustainability of Haitian agriculture and provides income opportunities for women entrepreneurs. It offers a comparably priced, locally appropriate green cooking fuel to the Haitian marketplace, as well as encourages the adoption of biochar as a viable tool for increasing agricultural productivity and soil resiliency.

CRI’s efforts to promote green charcoal are gradually gaining ground in northern Haiti. While they’ve been focusing on market research and production, they plan to expand to bulk sales and more roadside kiosks this spring. In December, CRI ran a public awareness campaign in Quartier Morin under the slogan “Green Charcoal is Your Charcoal”, using demonstration stands and offering free samples of briquettes.

“The Haitian consumer likes the fact that this comes from a source other than wood. People have heard about a Haiti that used to be green. They understand that deforestation is not good. If they have an alternative, they will go for it,” said Ryan Delaney, co-founder of CRI. The briquettes are 5 to 10 percent cheaper to buy than wood-based charcoal and they can be burned in a traditional cook stove, making it an attractive fuel alternative.

USAID is supporting CRI through a $100,000 Development Innovation Ventures award. The USAID award has helped CRI prove itself — it developed a network of producers, started production and created viable markets for biomass products.

“We want this to be a self-sufficient project,” Delaney said. “We have just purchased a machine that can increase the briquette production from 3,000 briquettes a day to 3 tons an hour. There is a lot of sugarcane production in Haiti providing the needed sugarcane waste…. Right now we sell small-scale, but we have ambitious expansion goals.”

Delaney estimates the charcoal market in Haiti to be valued at about $700 million a year (approximately $90 million in northern Haiti).  “The potential to scale in Haiti and beyond is enormous, as there is little centralized production of charcoal,” he said.

This month, the U.S.-based CRI expects formal operations to begin for their for-profit entity in Haiti, called Carbon Roots Haiti, S.A.  Eventually CRI wants to hand over green charcoal production to Haitians, Delaney said. “Ultimately, we envision this as a Haitian company run by Haitians.”

Launched in October 2010, USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) holds a quarterly grant competition for innovative ideas, pilots and tests them using cutting-edge analytical methods, and scales those that demonstrate cost-effectiveness and widespread development impact. DIV uses a staged-funding model inspired by venture capital to invest comparatively small amounts in relatively unproven ideas, and continues to support only those that prove effective.

For more information on DIV and how to apply, go to http://www.usaid.gov/div. For more information on CRI visit http://www.carbonrootsinternational.org/ and see photos of CRI in Haiti on Flickr.

Read another story about how USAID is fighting deforestation through an improved cooking technology program.

Anna-Maija Mattila Litvak is the Senior Development Outreach and Communications Officer for USAID/Haiti.

Let’s Stand Up For Inclusion, Not Exclusion

The stigma and discrimination faced by people living with HIV/AIDS continues to be a roadblock for access to critical prevention and care. Yet every day I see significant steps that are being taken to overcome this obstacle, especially efforts led by USAID.

I was invited to speak at the USAID-funded Panos Caribbean media launch of its latest publication, “Speaking Out! Voices of Jamaican MSM.” This publication is a compilation of oral testimonies from the men having sex with men (MSM) community in Jamaica and an important product by the Panos Caribbean/World Learning project which works to strengthen and improve the livelihoods of these men. Through this publication, Panos Caribbean develops public awareness about the issues affecting the MSM community and promotes through the media, tolerance and accountability for MSM who are impacted by HIV/AIDS.

Denise A. Herbol

Denise A. Herbol

The social complexities surrounding the MSM community in Jamaica is often polarizing to the public.  There is serious stigma attached to any activities by this community. This is compounded by the fact that HIV remains a complex issue among the most-at-risk populations in Jamaica, including the MSM community. Current statistics on HIV prevalence rates in Jamaica are 1.7% in the general population, or roughly 32,000 persons living with AIDS. Figures are significantly higher in a number of high risk groups: for the MSMs, the prevalence rate is 32%, which in many cases can be directly attributed to the stigma, discrimination and fear of violence or legal sanctions.

In an effort to achieve an AIDS-free generation, breaking down the barriers for all individuals is essential. With support from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), USAID is allocating significant resources to reach populations most at risk for transmitting or becoming infected with HIV/AIDS. PEPFAR seeks to promote an enabling environment of supportive laws, regulations, policies and social norms in order to facilitate meaningful access to HIV services for these populations at both the facility- and community-level.

USAID, in partnership with Panos, is leading positive efforts to promote tolerance and accountability in response to HIV through constructive use of the media.  Panos continues to equip these men with effective tools to expand their voices and concerns so that they can be heard across Jamaica.

Progress will continue to be hampered until we include all people to achieve an AIDS-free generation.  Each of us must do our part to promote inclusivity, celebrate diversity, and eliminate stigma and dehumanizing stereotypes.

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