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Archives for Latin America and the Caribbean

Haiti: First Impressions on the Runoff Election

Submitted by Ben Edwards, USAID/Haiti

Like most days in Port-au-Prince, Haitians began to fill the streets at sunrise.  On this Sunday, however, they were headed to the polls, eager to exercise their democratic right in the presidential runoff and parliamentary elections.

Voters at many polling stations waited calmly in line for their turn to vote.   At a few other polling stations that opened late, long lines of would-be voters seemed anxious about the missing their chance to vote.

I was part of a small U.S. Government team that traveled to several polling stations around the city.  As we roved from polling station to polling station, we identified those that were running smoothly and those that were experiencing problems.

It was my first time as an election monitor, so I was lucky that my two team members were experienced experts.  Our team leader, Denise Dauphinais, also heads USAID’s elections support program in Haiti.  She shares her first impressions of the polling stations she visited in the video embedded in this blog post.  Among her impressions, she notes:

  • There appeared to be more people in and around polling stations than there were during the first round of elections last November.
  • There were logistical problems early in the morning that caused some polling stations in Port-au-Prince to open late, but the Provisional Electoral Council and United Nations seemed to address them.
  • The mood appeared more comfortable and calm than it did during the first round of elections in November.

Dauphinais and the rest of our small team were part of a much larger effort to support the elections on Sunday.  The U.S. Government disbursed a number teams – more than 40 people all told – across the country to monitor election-day activities.  The international community, led by the Organization of American States and the United Nations, and a cadre of domestic partners also provided important services throughout the day: election observation to vote counting to name a few.

Support for elections in Haiti may have been most visible on Sunday, but it was only the latest crescendo in an effort that took millions of dollars and months of planning by Haitian institutions and the international community.  The U.S. Government alone invested more than $15 million in support of both rounds of elections, including:

  • A public information campaign using SMS messages, radio, television, billboards, and a call-center to inform people about the location of their polling station;
  • Training for poll workers and election observers; and,
  • Equipping poll stations with supplies such as ballots, ballot boxes, and tamper-evident transport bags.

As we wait for the preliminary results to be announced by March 31, and final results by April 16, both Haitians and the international community are no doubt hoping that the relative calm on Sunday is a sign of what’s to come.

Presidential Trip to El Salvador Highlights Youth

On his trip to Latin America, President Obama highlighted the theme of partnership and echoed President Kennedy’s challenge “to build a hemisphere where all people can hope for a sustainable, suitable standard of living, and all can live out their lives in dignity and in freedom.”

Students from a US public school in San Salvador, wait for the arrival of US President Barack Obama at the airport in the Salvadorean capital on March 22, 2011. US President Barack Obama arrived in El Salvador Tuesday on the last leg of a three-nation tour of Latin America. Photo Credit: Salvador Melendez

One of the modern challenges for Latin American countries like El Salvador is addressing the grip of gangs and criminal organization on local communities, especially on young people.  One of the ways that USAID works to address youth issues in Central America is by partnering with local organizations and governments to invest in crime and drug prevention programs.

To highlight the need to engage youth and harness their potential for positive development, First Lady Michelle Obama visited the site of a USAID project called ¡Supérate! in San Salvador.

Accompanied by USAID Administrator Raj Shah, the first lady helped 30 enthusiastic ¡Supérate! students complete their community service project by painting a mural to decorate the center’s health clinic, which is scheduled to open next month.

¡Supérate! (which means improve yourself!) is a three-year after-school program that provides English, computer and life skills training to underprivileged youth-at risk (ages 13-18) who have demonstrated high academic performance and a desire for self-improvement.  Students train two hours, six days a week before or after their regular school day.

Students involved in this enriching program develop the skills necessary for a successful transition to higher education and or future jobs. With the help of Microsoft, youth involved in iSupérate! have access to computers and other technologies that allow them to further their education and compete in the modern job market.  More than 300 ¡Supérate! graduates have obtained university scholarships and/or permanent employment.

The program was launched in 2004 by the Sagrera Palomo Family Foundation, a local organization. Encouraged by the earlier success of ¡Supérate!, USAID teamed up with the foundation and Microsoft to open six new education centers in El Salvador. The partnership expects to benefit an additional 1,000 youths through the next 3 years.

At the event today, the first lady congratulated the students and the community of teachers and mentors who support them for their achievements and emphasized how important it is for students to give back to their communities through action.

USAID supports Ministry of Education in Haiti

When the Ministry of Education building collapsed in last year’s earthquake, people scrambled to pull colleagues from the rubble.

Employees quickly returned to work in donated shelters, with little time to mourn the loss of their friends, family and colleagues. Among those killed around Haiti were 38,000 students, 1,347 teachers and 180 education personnel. More than 4,200 schools were destroyed.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) faced a monumental challenge in getting the education system back online. Its gradual progress has been impeded by the loss of office equipment.

Last week, employees, who have shared the few working computers, happily welcomed new supplies provided by USAID project PHARE (Programme Haitien d’Appui à la Réforme de l’Education). The donation included 60 laptops, 20 desktop computers, 80 desks and chairs, and 20 printers.

“This will help us accelerate our work,” said Pierre-Michele Laguerre, MOE director general.

Laguerre described the scene when the three-story building crumbled Jan. 12, killing 11 employees.

“We heard a lot of crying and screaming,” he said. “We spent many days trying to save those under the rubble.”

Those trapped included Jacqueline Jasmin and Marie Lourdes Borno.

A mass of concrete collapsed on Jasmin, whose son leapt from an opening on the first floor as the building pancaked.

“I heard my son crying, ‘My mother is dead!’” she recalled. “I yelled out, ‘I am alive!’”

Jasmin’s son frantically ran for help as colleagues worked by hand to rescue her. Ten hours later, they pulled her out.

When the earthquake struck, Borno had just walked away from Jasmin. Borno lost consciousness and said that upon waking, “I found myself with my arms on me, but they were crushed. I tried to be brave, and prayed to God to have given me life even without arms.”

Her colleagues freed her within 10 minutes, but her arms had to be amputated at the elbow. Jasmin had a metal rod inserted in her broken right arm, which, along with her head, bears multiple scars.

The two share a strong bond, along with a nickname for each other.

“Whenever I see Madame Borno, I hug her and say, “My rubble companion!’” Jasmin said.

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Photo of the Week: Chile and the U.S. Join efforts for Development

Mark Lopes, Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Latin America signing the bi lateral agreement between Chile and U.S.A., with Ambassador Liliana Ayelde, Ms. Cristina Lazo, Executive Director from AcGI and Minister for the Social Cabinet, Miguel Lopez Perito. Photo Credit: USAID/Paraguay

Deputy Assistant Administrator Mark Lopes of the United States Agency for International Development Agency (USAID) and Executive Director of the International Cooperation Agency of Chile (AgCI), Maria Cristina Lazo, signed a Memorandum of Understanding to pursue joint development cooperation in third countries. As part of the new partnership, they signed a trilateral agreement to help the Government of Paraguay strengthen its capacity in customs administration, export promotion and support to farmers.

Going forward, USAID and AgCI will collaborate to reduce poverty, strengthen institutions, improve economic development and expand economic and social inclusion across the Hemisphere.

“This Agreement is yet another step in advancing the Obama Administration’s commitment to engage Latin American and Caribbean governments as equal partners in the region’s sustainable development”, said Lopes. “Chile has made remarkable strides in building an open, inclusive and prosperous society and we want to help promote the Chilean experience to help solve other challenges in the Hemisphere.”

“USAID and AgCI are partners for development. This agreement is being signed today, but the joint collaboration between Chile, the United States and Paraguay to identify specific areas of work has already begun” said Lazo. “We believe this is just the first step of many joint efforts in the future.”

Strengthening the Social Service Workforce

Jean-Claude works as a social worker for a small community-based orphan care program based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In this capacity, he is responsible for assessing the welfare of children and families, helping them to identify and access essential services and resources, organizing support groups for children and their parents and guardians, investigating allegations of child abuse, mediating family conflicts, and developing and implementing case plans in an effort to keep families strong and together.

Following the earthquake last year, Jean-Claude’s very full job description was further stretched to include negotiating temporary placement and locating caregivers for nearly 150 children who lost contact with their families or whose parents were killed in the earthquake’s aftermath. As a social worker, particularly a social worker in an environment devastated by natural disaster, political turmoil and disease, Jean-Claude has a critically important and almost impossible scope of work. Yet when asked what he considers to be the most difficult aspect of his job, Jean-Claude explains, “Everyone thinks they can do my job, but nobody wants to.”

Around the world, social work is one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated professions. While we recognize that social concerns have a tremendous impact on health, education, economic and other development outcomes, we rarely recognize the skills and expertise of those professionals who address these concerns. Like the health sector, the social service sector struggles to attract and retain qualified workers. Vacancy rates for established professional and para-professional positions within Africa range between 50%–60%, and half those employed leave their jobs within five years (as compared to seven years for healthcare workers). These statistics indicate a global crisis within systems of care and support for vulnerable children and a serious threat to global development.

This past November, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, under the auspices of USAID, funded a global conference in South Africa to highlight this crisis and explore strategies for addressing the crisis at a country level and global level. “The Social Welfare Workforce Strengthening Conference: Investing in those who care for children” brought together teams from 18 countries to share experiences, promising practices, and develop concrete action plans.  Each team included representatives from relevant government ministries, non-governmental organizations, donor organizations, social work training institutions, and professional associations, which provided an opportunity for multi-disciplinary problem solving and team building.

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Staff Exchange Program Deepens Relationship Between Brazil and U.S.

By Mark Lopes, Deputy Assistant Administrator, USAID/ Latin America and Caribbean Bureau

USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean Mark Lopes and Minister Marco Farani of the Brazilian Agency for Cooperation (ABC) sign a Memorandum of Understanding to create a professional staff exchange program between their agencies. Photo Credit: USAID/Brazil

The US and Brazil took another step yesterday toward deepening our joint efforts in developing countries,  with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding to formalize a staff exchange program between USAID and the Brazilian Cooperation Agency (ABC). Starting in April 2011, USAID will have a staff member working in ABC’s offices and vice versa. The program will facilitate peer-to-peer learning and create more opportunities to jointly leverage US and Brazilian assistance in third countries.

The USG’s trilateral arrangements with Brazil are a reflection of that country’s emergence as a global economic and diplomatic force and a net donor to development.

For the United States, the more donors with whom we can collaborate to address the some of the world’s most intractable problems, the more we advance our national interests and provide paths out of poverty. In Brazil, we have a partner who shares our commitment to advancing global development; and who has come up with effective and innovative approaches to tackling some of the very same challenges facing developing countries in Latin America and the Caribbean and Africa.

Through the staff exchange program, we are continuing to put into practice President Obama’s commitment to an equal partnership with the countries of this hemisphere, based on mutual respect, common interests and shared values.

Response to Natural Disasters in Brazil

When today’s adults were in school, 20, 30 or 40 years ago, we used to learn that Brazil was a blessed country, because we didn’t have wars, we didn’t have volcanoes or hurricanes, and we didn’t have floods. We are now over 190 million people, and our cities are growing each day. The careless occupation of our territory led to a drastic change in the water cycle, and now every summer we face floods that bring destruction, economic losses and death to our cities.

Volunteers organize donations in the district of Conquista, municipality of Nova Friburgo, Rio de Janeiro. Credit: ABr/Valter Campanato

Whenever a disaster like this hits Brazil, the U.S. government, through USAID, provides support to the Brazilian government in assisting the victims. In 2011 it was no different. São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro states are struggling to recover from floods and mudslides that left over 15,000 people displaced. The mountainous areas of Rio de Janeiro were hit by the heaviest downpours in 44 years. Businesses were destroyed, plantations were devastated and over 700 people died. The U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, Thomas Shannon, announced the donation of a total of US$ 100,000 – US$50,000 each to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, through USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).

This assistance is complementing existing federal, state, and municipal efforts to address the destruction caused by the floods. The money was donated to the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), to buy items that are not usually donated, such as personal hygiene and cleaning products. ADRA is an international organization with experience in disaster assistance. USAID and OFDA are coordinating the actions, and are working close to the Brazilian government and the civil defense offices of both states.

The rain caused rivers of mud to rush down the mountains and tear through towns, leveling houses and throwing cars over buildings. The rain didn’t stop until five days after the tragedy, which made the rescue efforts really difficult. Rescuers had to walk to the worst-hit areas, because vehicles could not cross blocked roads. Many people are still missing, and this is already considered the worst natural disaster of Brazilian history.

We know that in the face of such tragedy, all help we can get is essential. Besides the official assistance, USAID is coordinating assistance actions of American companies established in Brazilian territory, through the Mais Unidos Group. This group is a partnership between the U.S. Mission in Brazil and over 100 companies that aim to strengthen alliances between the private and public sectors to improve corporate social responsibility investments.

Over 25 companies are involved in the assistance efforts. They are donating money, food, water and hygiene and cleaning products. They are collecting and supporting the distribution of donations made by their employees, clients and business partners. They are campaigning to raise money for non-governmental organizations that are already working in the assistance of the victims of the floods. They are encouraging their employees to volunteer in the assistance efforts.

In previous years, these companies have already demonstrated their ability to mobilize. The first time they united to provide support to the victims of a natural disaster in Brazil was in 2008, when the heavy rains flooded over 60 cities in Santa Catarina State, in the South Region. In 2009, Maranhão and Piauí states, in the Northeast Region, were hit by floods that affected over 60,000 people. Once again, the Mais Unidos companies provided assistance. In 2010, when Alagoas, Pernambuco and Rio de Janeiro were hit by floods and mudslides, the Mais Unidos companies quickly organized to deliver money, food and water to the families affected.

Each year, the American people are united with the Brazilian people through USAID to provide assistance to victims of natural disasters that bring sorrow and pain, but also arouse sympathy and solidarity. Even though I would hope we could do a better job in preventing these tragedies that repeat year after year, I’m still glad we can find ways of helping those who suffer the most.

Haiti One Year Later: “As long as I am alive, I have hope”

By: Ben Edwards

If you read a newspaper, surfed the internet or watched TV on Wednesday, you know the heart-wrenching state of Haiti one year after the earthquake.  For many, the milestone was a benchmark to measure progress toward earthquake recovery – to report the amount of rubble moved and shelters constructed.  But, for those who lost loved ones in the earthquake, rubble figures and shelter facts seemed far from their minds.

In the Carrefour Feuilles neighborhood of Port-au-Prince,more than a thousand Haitians squeezed into a street corner wearing white to commemorate those who died in the earthquake.  Small children grasping heavy blocks of rubble to use as seats wobbled toward the gathering.

From a small stage, a religious leader addressed his community, several of whom clutched tattered photos of loved ones.  He called for a moment of silence at 4:53 p.m., muting whispers and shuffling feet.  Seconds later, a wail erupted from a young girl, tearing through the silence.

“Mama…Mama,” she cried.

A lump grew in my throat.  Heads turned to pinpoint the source, which we never found.  It didn’t matter; her burden was shared by all in attendance.

The crowd began to sing, “How Great Thou Art,” and washed away the sound of weeping.  The music rolled up an adjacent hillside where a group of locals were planting trees – orange, mango, coconut and others — to signify the community’s rebirth.

“Today is a day to remember my friends, and it’s a day to think about a new future,” said a worker.

The 60 trees planted on Wednesday were a small sample of a much larger USAID project to recognize the lives lost in the earthquake by planting 300,000 trees in Parc la Visite National Parc.  Forests cover less than two-percent of Haiti, and the new tress will help restore part of a watershed that descends toward Port-au-Prince and Jacmel.

The 60 trees planted on the hillside in Carrefour Feuilles overlook a new school that was rebuilt in the past year.  The school is a sign of progress, but skewed buildings and pockets of rubble are lingering reminders that Carrefour Feuilles was hit particularly hard by the earthquake. To make matters worse, neighborhoods that suffer the greatest human loss and infrastructure damage tend to attract criminal activity.

After the earthquake, USAID helped keep Carrefour Feuilles from falling into this trap by employing residents to rebuild their neighborhood.  Temporary employment brought relative calm to the community, but stability remains tenuous.  The tree planting that took place on Wednesday was part of USAID’s temporary employment program.

While most of the workers on the hillside seemed happy to talk about trees, they offered less about hopes for their country’s future.  One man, however, was eager to talk reconstruction.

“(International) aid built shelters, helped with rubble and with cholera,” said Maxime.

He then offered a wish-list for progress, citing education reform and governance as key issues.  The timely gut-check highlighted the staggering challenges that lie ahead and the years it will take to overcome them.

As the sun dipped below the surrounding mountains and the sky turned orange, Maxime reconciled my ambivalence about what they’ve accomplished and what remains.

“As long as I am alive, I have hope.”

Dèyè mòn gen mòn

Photo: A woman holds a USAID hygiene kit

A woman holds one of the USAID hygiene kits at a Cholera Treatment Center on Thursday, Oct. 28, in Verrettes in the Artibonite department of Haiti. The center, run by USAID partner International Medical Corps, opened earlier this week. Photo by Kendra Helmer/USAID

Submitted by:  Ryan Cherlin

When a Haitian says, Dèyè  mòn gen  mòn, they mean to say, as you solve one problem there is always another that must also be solved.

Driving through the densely populated city of Port-au-Prince I wondered how many times this old proverb was the subject of conversation this past year.

In the months following the earthquake in early January 2010, Haitians endured the devastating effects of hurricane Tomas, political instability and violence stemming from a presidential election, and a cholera epidemic.

Perhaps more numerous than the aggregate woes that befell this nation are the number of foreign aid workers and spotted NGO sites funded by international donor organizations like USAID. These organizations continue the behemoth task of delivering the humanitarian and development assistance so desperately needed by the Haitian people. Despite some media reports of stagnant progress, one only has to scratch the surface to realize these programs are making a real difference.

I decided to sit down with USAID beneficiaries from Haiti’s famed Cité Soleil, an extremely impoverished and densely populated commune generally regarded as one of the most dangerous areas in the Western Hemisphere. I wanted to get a sense of the impact USAID programs have in an environment seemingly impervious to progress.

Etienne Jean-Gardy and Ernancy Bien-Aime  are two youth educators trained by a USAID Leadership Development Program (LDP) led by Management Sciences for Health that sensitizes community members to the importance of family planning and HIV prevention and awareness.  Armed with knowledge received in training, they host meetings in local parks, in homes and in schools to disseminate their message in Cité Soleil.

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Administrator Shah Observes Guatemala’s Agriculture Value Chain Programs

By: Wende Duflon, USAID/Guatemala

Dr. Shah and LAC Assistant Administrator, Mark Feierstein, were accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Stephen McFarland, USAID Guatemala Director, Kevin Kelly, and USAID staff on a visit to the village of Magdalena la Abundancia (Magdalene of Abundance) in the municipality of Sacapulas of the Quiché Department.  The visitors were met by leaders of the ADIES (Sacapulas Association for Integrated Ecological Development), a small-scale producer group that forms part of the network of USAID agriculture value chain alliances that USAID has supported throughout Guatemala with our long-standing  implementing partner, the Guatemala Exporters Association (AGEXPORT).

The successful agriculture value chain approach is a key cornerstone of the USAID Guatemala Feed the Future Strategy to reduce food insecurity and poverty.  The value chain program enhances food access for rural populations by assisting small-scale agricultural producers to increase their incomes and improve family quality of life.

Administrator Shah with villagers from Magdalena de la Abundancia, Sacapulas Photo Credit: Wende Duflon

Magdalena la Abundancia is similar to thousands of other villages in the highlands of Guatemala in terms of the high poverty (51% of the Guatemalan population lives in poverty or extreme poverty) and high chronic malnutrition rates (nearly half, 43.4% of all children under five years old).  It is within this context of scarcity that ADIES was formed and is thriving, thanks to their ability and determination to maximize on assistance received from USAID and AGEXPORT.

The ADIES president Manuel Tum welcomed Administrator Shah and his team to a celebration of their successes.  The venue was the small concrete patio outside the simple processing and packing plant built in the middle of a field of export-quality onions.  A brightly-colored plastic tarpaulin protected villagers and VIP visitors from the strong high-altitude sun and the floor was covered with the traditional greeting of pine boughs that scent the air as people walk over them.  Villagers as young as a few months to 80 years old sat on plastic chairs or stood on the sidelines, many in colorful clothes, typical daily wear of this principally indigenous community.

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