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The Courage of Atefa: Afghan Women Learn to be Candidates

It’s hard to imagine someone more optimistic about her country’s future, more determined to be on the front lines of social change, than Atefa, whose last name is being withheld for security reasons.

Women provincial council candidates in training.

Women provincial council candidates in training. Photo credit: Jean-Marc Gorelick

Only 25 years old, and already a teacher with seven years of challenging classroom experience, she is running for provincial council in Kabul, a governing body similar to a U.S. state legislature.  It was an agonizing decision, made with full awareness of the risks she would face, but she couldn’t be clearer about her reasons:  “I am running because I want to serve the vulnerable groups, the women and especially girls. Girls who are educated stay at home because they are not allowed to work outside and even if they are allowed they cannot get good jobs,” she says.

This young woman’s leap into the democratic fray, fueled by a belief that Afghanistan’s successful future will require the talents and commitment of men and women from every walk of life, is occurring in the midst of what is almost certainly the most significant election (presidential and provincial) in her country’s history, scheduled to take place on April 5.

And Atefa is not alone.

 Hundreds of young women – and, to be sure, young men – have signaled their eagerness to be participate in a moment with so many seemingly intractable problems: insecurity, poverty, illiteracy.

Now come the formidable and often frustrating challenges of running for office. Atefa now must run her campaign, meet voters, prepare campaign materials, hone her ability to speak publicly, and present a vision for her country’s future.

USAID is helping women in Afghanistan learn to become candidates. / Photo c/o U.S. Government

USAID is helping women in Afghanistan learn to become candidates. / Photo c/o U.S. Government

First-time candidates often lack the skills needed to campaign effectively. Funds to produce materials can be hard to come by. And, in a country still confronting challenges from those who prefer rage over renewal, many candidates have had their lives threatened.

To address these challenges, USAID supported a campaign school, which began on November 9, 2013, training 290 of 308 women provincial council candidates.

This training is provided by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), through the Supporting Political Entities and Civil Society (SPECS) program.

Each five-day workshop provides candidates with nuts and bolts information on conducting a campaign, fundraising, staff management and voter outreach. On the last day of the training, candidates produce a plan to guide them through the campaign cycle.

The training plays a vital role in expanding women’s political participation, a key component of Afghan democratic development. By enhancing the ability of women to compete for provincial council seats, this program contributes to achieving greater inclusivity in the Afghanistan 2014 elections.

None of the formidable challenges seem to have dampened the enthusiasm of extraordinary Afghan women determined to be valued and included in a democratic Afghanistan.

With her drive and courage, aided by her new tools, Atefa will be ready.

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Texts Connect Midwives to Mothers in Timor-Leste

Health posts in rural Timor-Leste are often several hours' walk from remote communities. / Henrique Bere, HAI

Health posts in rural Timor-Leste are often several hours’ walk from remote communities. / Henrique Bere, HAI

‘A pregnant woman has one foot in the grave.’ This common saying reflects the reality in many developing countries: bearing a child is one of the main risks to a woman’s life. In the poor countries of the world, giving birth is both one of the most significant days in a woman’s life but also a time when she is closest to losing it.

In Timor-Leste, a tiny country just north of Australia, progress against maternal deaths has been slow. Since independence from Indonesia in 2002, the country has made great efforts to provide trained midwives for pregnant women who seek them, but a wide gap remains. The rural population is widely dispersed in mountainous terrain and often far from health facilities. More than half of all babies in Timor-Leste are born at home with help only from family members. As a result, many women and babies die in those first few hours and days after birth.

USAID has been working with Timor-Leste’s Health Ministry since 2004 to help find solutions to this terrible problem. In 2011, U.S.-based NGO Health Alliance International (HAI) won a USAID Child Survival and Health Grant to try a new approach.

“We realized that one basic reason that many women didn’t give birth with professional help was that their contact with midwives was so brief that they weren’t able to develop a sense of trust and confidence,” said Susan Thompson, HAI’s Program Director, based in Seattle. “There also was a lot that women could do to have a healthy baby that they didn’t know about, and it couldn’t be conveyed in the usual two or three short prenatal care visits.”

Midwife Justa Pereira and mother-to-be Rosalia Juela test the project's SMS messages. / Catalpa International

Midwife Justa Pereira and mother-to-be Rosalia Juela test the project’s SMS messages. / Catalpa International

How could HAI help the Ministry bridge that gap between women and their midwives? Noting the dramatic increases in mobile phone use throughout the country, HAI proposed the first use of this technology as a permanent behavior-change tool. The focus for this new use of mobile phone technology is in Manufahi District, where cell phone ownership is fairly high at just over half, but, at 19 percent, use of skilled birth attendants is well below the national average of about 30 percent. Ministry statistics estimate that the district has about 11,000 women of reproductive age, and expected 2,200 pregnancies in 2013, the first year of the project.

The project is called “Mobile Moms” or Liga Inan (“connecting mothers”) in the local language of Tetun. The project team matched the technological opportunity to the needs of the Ministry and developed a dual approach to making use of the widespread availability of mobile phones.

First, working with Catalpa International, a software development group in Timor-Leste, the project team created an internet-based program to send SMS maternal health messages twice a week to pregnant women in Tetun, the language most widely spoken. The messages detail important actions that the women can take to safeguard their pregnancies, and include advice on postpartum and newborn care for the first six weeks after delivery.

Second, the project facilitates phone conversations between midwives and the expectant mothers at critical times. Women can send SMS messages very cheaply to ask for information or assistance, and midwives can call them back at the project’s expense.

Health Ministry officials in rural Manufahi District have been supportive and intensely involved since the beginning. Director of District Health Services Teofilho Tilman said that they have “seen … a significant increase in the number of women receiving antenatal care and delivering at the health facility” since the project began. Over the past year in Same Subdistrict, where the project started its work in February 2013, the number of women coming to a birthing facility, using a skilled birth attendant or making four or more antenatal care visits has doubled.

In a recent study on the impacts of this project on health professionals, midwives consistently reported that they liked the service because they can better follow the progress of their patients and meet their needs. In her response, one midwife said:

For me, it helps… because before Liga Inan we didn’t know the condition of the mothers. Through Liga Inan, we have their number and we know their due date. So for example, in November we know which mothers will give birth. We match that info with the data here to check, and if they didn’t come to the health facility, we call to find out how they are.

Amalia Martins Calapes is a new mother in Same, the capital of Manufahi District. Project SMS messages have encouraged her to visit her midwife regularly. / Marisa Harrison, HAI

Amalia Martins Calapes is a new mother in Same, the capital of Manufahi District. Project SMS messages have encouraged her to visit her midwife regularly. / Marisa Harrison, HAI


In the first year of the project, Same Subdistrict midwives enrolled more than 1,000 women in the project. Nearly 600 women have completed their pregnancies and received the special postpartum SMS messages to help them give their babies a healthy start in life.

Women participating in Liga Inan provide the project with valuable input about project impact and success. Amalia Martins Calapes from the town of Same did not participate in the program through her first two pregnancies. During her third, she did. And it helps her stay motivated to seek care.

Sometimes I feel too lazy to go to the clinic… but on Mondays and Thursdays I read the SMS that comes to my phone, and think, ‘Today, I must make myself go to the clinic.’

An important goal of the program is to increase community understanding of better ways to assure a healthy pregnancy. Encouraging women to share the SMS messages is one way that can happen. According to Amalia:

When the messages arrive, the first person that I share them with is my husband. He knows and then the household knows, and then I can share information with my girlfriends. I can tell them that the Liga Inan program sent me messages about this, and this, and this. So when they need something, they can contact this number or go directly to the clinic.

Today, Amalia agrees with Timor-Leste’s new saying for mothers:

‘Healthy mothers and healthy babies give us a strong nation.’

Eye in the Sky Moves Mountains in Development

THE WORLD IN HIS HAND: Him Lal Shrestha, a Remote Sensing Analyst at the USAID-funded SERVIR Himalaya initiative, explains how data is transmitted from a satellite and informs the Government of Nepal on how best to make use of their land. Photo by Richard Nyberg, USAID

THE WORLD IN HIS HAND: Him Lal Shrestha, a Remote Sensing Analyst at the USAID-funded SERVIR Himalaya initiative, explains how data is transmitted from a satellite and informs the Government of Nepal on how best to make use of their land.
Photo by Richard Nyberg, USAID

When Him Lal Shrestha wants to know what is happening on the ground affecting Nepalese farmers, he shoots a glance up—way up to an orbiting satellite. That great big white ball on the top of his building helps bring life-saving data down to earth. Here’s how.

Shrestha is a Remote Sensing Analyst at the USAID-funded SERVIR Himalaya initiative. He showed me around his facility and explained how satellite imagery can tell us what is happening to land in Nepal and across the countries surrounding the scenic Hindu Kush Himalayas.

Pointing to his screen, he explains how land cover, particularly in agriculture and forest, in many areas of Nepal is being depleted — a serious issue that will affect how local people plant, harvest and survive. It’s also a huge concern for government officials who are trying to thwart potential calamities that could make things tougher for people just trying to make ends meet.

Screenshot on the SERVIR Himalaya website shows land cover trends over time.

Screenshot on the SERVIR Himalaya website shows land cover trends over time.

Shrestha describes what he sees on his screen. “In the case of Nepal, from 1990 to the current year, we see remarkable pressure on the land cover changes,” he said. “Land cover is a function of population growth; because of population growth, there is urbanization. So ultimately there is pressure on the forest coverage,” he said, adding that the survey work is important internationally because “we are discussing reducing emission from the deforestation and degradation.”

Helping people understand forest cover and other development challenges at home and across borders is the goal of this USAID effort in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Some of the tools help people detect forest fires hidden behind mountain ranges and send SMS messages to firefighters so they can speed off in pursuit in less than an hour.

Dr. Rajiv Shah meets local scientists at SERVIR Himalaya.

Dr. Rajiv Shah meets local scientists at SERVIR Himalaya.

“It is hard to fix a problem that you cannot see,” said USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah during a recent visit to Nepal. Dr. Shah believes that by harnessing science and technology, “we can put critical information in the hands of the people most affected by natural disasters.”

Other tools keep a big eye on glacier melts leading to water flows and help monitor food production and estimate crop yields to better inform the Nepal government so they can make critical decisions ahead of time to avoid famine and all the suffering that comes with it. Similarly, other governments in the region can use satellite imagery of land conditions within their borders to make informed decisions.

Top: Imja Glacier in 1956.  Bottom: By 2012, the Imja glacier had receded dramatically, leaving behind a lake 110 m deep and containing over 60 million cubic meters of water.

Top: Imja Glacier in 1956.
Bottom: By 2012, the Imja glacier had receded dramatically, leaving behind a lake 110 m deep and containing over 60 million cubic meters of water.
Photo Credits: (Top) Erwin Schneider, Courtesy of the Association for Comparative Alpine Research, Munich. (Bottom) Alton C.Byers, The Mountain Institute

According to Bronwyn Llewellyn, Environment Team Leader at USAID Nepal, a lack of transparency in decision-making is an issue to tackle across the region. “Science and technology can help a lot with that transparency. It’s a tool that is accessed by everyone online. By creating tools that cross boundaries, you are creating a language of science that can be used across the borders. So everyone is looking at the same tool and making the same decisions.”

So what’s USAID’s vision for this science-based development mapping toolkit? Governments across the region need the big picture. And the satellite data it collects enables them to track global climate change and make more informed decisions about land and water use that impact their countries’ future.

Grading Donors on Land Rights: Where We Are, and Where We’re Going

In 2010, I was sitting in a meeting at the World Bank where initial principles were being discussed for guiding large-scale agricultural investments– which had grown dramatically after the food price spike of 2008.

Governments, the private sector, civil society and others want to promote investment in ways that benefit all local communities, investors and governments; and improve economic growth and food security for many of the worlds most vulnerable populations.

However, four years later, the global community is still deeply engaged in developing these guidelines for the private sector, now known as the Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment (RAI) and led by the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS).

While we do not yet have investment principles for the private sector, we do have guidelines for host governments to use in developing land policies, laws and procedures to promote good land governance, including in the context of investment. They are called The Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries, and Forests in the Context of National Food Security. Secure property rights are the gateway to broad-based economic growth, improved food security, reduced violent conflict, and improved natural resource management and, by extension, one of the best tools to address global climate change. Weak land and resource rights limit investment (of any size),threaten good natural resource management, often promote conflict and pose special problems for vulnerable groups including minorities, indigenous people, the poor, and women.

This past week, nearly 1000 experts and influencers in the land rights sector gathered at the World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty to present field-based research, announce new initiatives and to develop innovative partnerships. Many of these presentations and announcements are rooted in the desire to implement aspects of the Voluntary Guidelines.

I had the pleasure of chairing the Voluntary Guidelines negotiations back in 2011 and 2012 for the eventual adoption of this seminal agreement. Having had a unique position to participate in the negotiations, and now managing USAID’s global program supporting the Voluntary Guidelines, I feel compelled to take stock of where we are now and what have we accomplished in the past two years and, most importantly, to ask where we should go next.

Asilya Gemmal proudly displays her land certificate

Youth Benefit from Land Certificates (Photo: Links Media)

So Where Are We Now?

I believe we are witnessing the emergence of a global consensus among bilateral and multilateral institutions, the private sector, and civil society organizations that the Voluntary Guidelines are the guiding doctrine for emerging-economy governments to be able to recognize and promote the protection of property rights around the world.

In the two years since the Voluntary Guidelines were adopted, donors and development agencies have started to align their bilateral and multilateral assistance programs supporting property rights and improved resource governance to them.

Throughout 2012 and 2013 USAID led an initiative through the Global Donor Working Group on Land that collected information on the land and resource governance programs of 16 donors and development agencies to help us better coordinate our programs, and understand their successes and pitfalls as they pertain to supporting the Voluntary Guidelines. The result is a comprehensive database of 445 programs, being implemented in 119 countries, with a value of over $2 billion.

In December the Governments of Ethiopia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany formed a partnership to support the Voluntary Guidelines and promote greater transparency in rural land governance. This partnership was a result of coordinated work under the 2013 G8 transparency initiative on land.

Proud Holders of Land-Use Certificates

Proud Holders of Land-Use Certificates (Photo: Nina Terrell/USAID)

And Where Are We Going?

While the development community has made important progress supporting the Voluntary Guidelines, I believe we have far more to do.  Here are some suggestions:

  • While the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN has developed initial advice, we must strive to develop additional guidance for emerging economies, including “how to” manuals for the Voluntary Guidelines that make them easier for governments to implement.
  • We should also increase our efforts to raise awareness, provide training, and build capacity at the local level to bridge the gap between global best practice and what is understood and pursued on the ground in the developing countries.
  • The development community should also recognize that the private sector plays a key role in the success of this process. The private sector is moving forward—in consultation with civil society and donor organizations—to develop better practices for acquiring land for commercial agriculture, extractives, and biofuels. Last year, the Coca-Cola Company negotiated an agreement with Oxfam to respect local property rights along its supply chain. PepsiCo and eight other large companies have recently agreed to do the same under the ‘Behind the Brands’ campaign.
  • Another possible next step could be the development of a certification standard – as was done with Fair Trade Coffee or the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil – under the rubric of “Fair Land.” Industry certification would set an acceptable expectation for how companies will invest and conduct business with respect to land rights in emerging economies and could help build the private sector expertise required to effectively manage land throughout supply chains. Such a scheme would also empower civil society to monitor investments in a more systematic way and allow consumers to reward companies that behave responsibly and apply pressure to those that do not. Through certification, we might see an uptick in investments leading to local economic growth that could propel the bottom billion out of extreme poverty.

These ideas and recommendations were echoed in more than two dozen meetings USAID hosted with private sector, civil society, development partners and academia at this year’s World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty.

If we want a stable world, where market-based democracies thrive and trade and job markets expand, we must focus on empowering every global citizen to make private decisions about how they will acquire, use, enjoy, and dispose of property.

The Cost of Corruption

Many consider corruption to be an unavoidable cost of doing business around the Middle East and North Africa. The costs of corruption are obvious, and widely acknowledged. It is commonly accepted that corruption limits development, siphons off critical development resources, causes citizens to lose confidence in their governments, and undermines the region’s progress toward democratic reform. In spite of this, many just assume that corruption is here to stay, and that there’s little ordinary citizens can do to push back.

USAID-supported youth CSO coalitions share perspectives on constitutional reform, youth representation in parliament, and other government initiatives affecting youth.

Credit: USAID/K. Rhanem

In recent years, USAID has played a key role in supporting regional anti-corruption efforts. In partnership with Transparency International, we launched the ACTION program – Addressing Corruption Through Information and Organized Networking – in order to study corruption in the region and develop a roadmap for addressing it. The project examined corruption in Yemen, Morocco, Egypt and West Bank/Gaza. Last fall, activists from around the region gathered to present a series of case studies detailing examples of corruption, the costs corruption imposes, and potential solutions.

A critical first step in addressing corruption is ensuring that regional legislation protects citizen access to information. As Palestinian journalist Ahed Abu Teima observed, “access to information, and the provision of information to journalists, reporters and the media, is one of the most important factors in the success of anti-corruption efforts.”

The project documented how existing legislation in all four countries limits access to information critical to identifying corruption, for example through secrecy laws in Egypt and Morocco. As a result, citizens and citizen groups are unequal partners in their relationship with government institutions, undermining a country’s democratic development. Adequate legislation is a necessary first step in the battle against corruption. “The only way, the best way, to end corruption is to establish transparency on a broad scale. That isn’t going to happen without the passing of a law,” said Egyptian professor Khaled Fahmy.

ACTION launched an anti-corruption portal that for the first time provides Middle East and North Africa-region activists, academics and media professionals with research and action-oriented tools and resources. The project also developed a series of video case studies profiling anti-corruption activists in each of the four countries.

Initiatives such as ACTION are making a difference. In 2011 Morocco included language ensuring access to information in its constitution, and in 2013 drafted a corresponding law. In 2012 Yemen enacted an access to information law and may include it as a constitutional right. Prior to the change in Egypt’s government in July 2013, the government had drafted an access to information law and included the right in the 2012 constitution. Egyptians are now waiting to see how these commitments are carried forward by the transitional administration.

Disclosure of governmental activities and access to information are core principles of open government and democratic reform. They are essential tools in battling corruption, and promoting accountability, transparency and integrity. Through efforts such as our partnership with Transparency International, we are helping to lay the long-term foundations for a successful transition to democracy around the Middle East.

Registering for Democracy in Yemen

Yemen is poised to launch a high-tech Biometric Voter Registry (BVR) system representing a significant step forward in the development of a credible voter registry in that country. During my recent visit to Yemen, I met with the chairman of Yemen’s Supreme Commission of Elections and the Referendums (SCER) Judge Mohammed Hussein Al-Hakimi to learn first-hand about the opportunities and challenges that exist for Yemen’s upcoming electoral processes.

During her recent visit, USAID DAA Elisabeth Kvitashvili practices registering with Yemen's new biometric voter registration system.   Photo credit: USAID

During her recent visit, USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator Elisabeth Kvitashvili practices registering with Yemen’s new biometric voter registration system.
Photo credit: USAID

For a country with previous voter registries acknowledged to contain duplicate and under-age voters, as well as “ghost” voters, the use of the new registry will generate a list of voters that is far more rigorous and less susceptible to fraud. Past voter registries were compiled manually and took upwards of two years to complete.

Funded by international donors, including USAID, the registry is a public sector IT project with software procured in Yemen and ranks among the most sophisticated in the world.  I was eager to try it out and so I was fingerprinted–both hands–on a screen that “captured” my fingerprints and then photographed with special eye recognition technology.

The new biometric registration process will generate a far more accurate voters list. It will also provide the government, in particular the Civil Status and Registration Authority, with the basis to complete their civil register and assist in the issuance of a national identity card.  To our knowledge, this is the first biometric voter registration project undertaken in the Middle East and North Africa region and is on par with recent, high-quality projects, such as one developed in Kenya last year.

The registry is housed with the SCER which is charged with carrying out the registry in advance of national elections scheduled in the next year. The elections will follow a constitutional drafting process and referendum, both of which will receive major technical support from USAID.

As an essential foundation for a modern civil Yemeni state, the country’s upcoming constitutional referendum is an important process of giving citizens an opportunity to register their opinion on the outcomes of the recently completed National Dialogue Conference.

Improving Agriculture to Help Lift Nigerian Families Out of Poverty

Alex Thier (far left) looks on as a Nigerian farmer checks the starch level of his cassava crop. (Photo Credit: USAID)

Alex Thier (far left) looks on as a Nigerian farmer checks the starch level of his cassava crop. (Photo Credit: USAID)

Standing at the gates to the Nigerian cassava processing plant, Thai Farms, we held our breath while watching a local farmer anxiously weigh a sack of his latest cassava crop. Cassava, a starchy local staple crop, takes 12 to 24 months to grow, but begins to rot after only 48 hours out of the ground.  So for this local farmer, transporting and being able to quickly sell his crop is essential to getting a good price.

To determine purchase prices, cassava is weighed and then tested for starch content through a simple, yet ingenious method of submersing the cassava tubers in water to test buoyancy. The higher the starch content, the more cassava flour is produced and the more money the farmer earns per kilo. The farmer breathed a sigh of relief when the starch content turned out to be high enough for the factory to buy his produce, but not high enough to fetch the best price.  The farmer left relieved, but somewhat disappointed and hopefully inspired to plant improved varieties next season.

In Nigeria, more than 70 percent of the population earns their livelihood from agriculture and 70 percent of the MARKETS II farmers live on less than $1.25 each day. By giving these farmers the tools to improve their harvest and connecting them with buyers, USAID is helping the farmers earn a higher selling price that is essential to increasing their household income and lifting their families out of extreme poverty.

a fish pond

Fish swim in one of many fish ponds at the USAID supported Timmod Farms in Nigeria. (Photo Credit: USAID)

Thai Farms exemplifies the MARKETS II model of connecting local farmers to new markets and technologies. However, there are several other local agri-business enterprises boosting the economy in Nigeria. Timmod Farms, for example, is a Nigerian success story. The farm was established in November 2004 with just four ponds of fish and is now one of the leading fish processors in Nigeria. Timmod Farms produces a smoked catfish that is well-known in the local Nigerian market and has been recognized by the Federal Department of Fisheries in Nigeria. The extremely entrepreneurial owner, Rotimi Omodehin, keeps adding new parts to the business, but is also concerned about the potential for further growth. Every step on the value chain suffers from some fundamental constraints, especially reliable access to energy and credit. These producers pay three to five times the price of energy from the grid to power their enterprises with expensive diesel generators. This is necessary as the power supply from the utility is unreliable and surges can damage expensive equipment. Credit, meanwhile, is hard to get at all and often costs 20 to 25 percent annual interest making loans hard to get, very expensive and very risky. To really enable small famers and small enterprises to drive inclusive economic growth, these problems will have to be addressed.

USAID has the opportunity to pull farmers out of poverty by sharing best practices in agriculture activities and focusing on value chains as a whole. Let us know what programs have been most successful for you or share your local stories of success.

Building Skills and Promoting Collaboration among the Middle East and North Africa’s Budding Journalists

I have a rule of thumb when looking at the democratic transitions underway around the Middle East and North Africa. When the press is open and objective, I am optimistic. When it’s muzzled and biased, I am concerned. At its best, an objective and professional media can hold accountable government and business leaders, and educate and inform citizens. At its worst, poor journalism can mislead, minimize growing problems, and even provide cover for incompetence and corruption.

Around the Middle East and North Africa, USAID is partnering with The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) to empower the region’s professional journalists, as well as  citizen journalists, to report on public-service issues that affect citizens’ everyday lives. The Building a Digital Gateway to Better Lives Program, administered by USAID’s Office of Middle East Programs, provides online instruction, in-person training and peer learning, and mentoring to participating journalists. Particular emphasis during the training is placed on the  use of digital media tools. The program also provides seed funding for promising investigative projects.

Journalists from Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco discuss a collaborative research project at a regional training program organized by USAID and ICFJ in Rabat, Morocco. (Photo: Frank Folwell, ICFJ)

Journalists from Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco discuss a collaborative research project at a regional training program organized by USAID and ICFJ in Rabat, Morocco. (Photo: Frank Folwell, ICFJ)

So far, over 250 journalists from Morocco to Yemen have participated in the training programs. ICFJ and USAID recently brought together 30 of the most talented participants, 11 of them women, to Morocco to work on cross-border investigative projects tackling regional topics that transcend national boundaries. The quality of their work is astounding. Research topics covered hard-hitting and challenging topics including trafficking of women, the black market for pharmaceuticals, and targeted recruitment of the region’s youth by extremist organizations.

Experience sharing is critical to the success of the program. I enjoyed watching how valuable the broader regional perspective was to individual participants. Group work was filled with moments of inspiration where participants realized that issues they encounter are also experienced elsewhere, or where participants from one country shared an experience which deepened the thinking of participants from another. A tight network has formed among participants, allowing them to share experiences, challenges and successes. USAID/Morocco Mission Director Dana Mansuri, who met with the group, relayed that her mother worked as a journalist and newspaper librarian, and how her comprehensive knowledge inspired her own curiosity and love of learning. As I watched this peer-to-peer learning and support develop, I understood better why developing the skills and capacity of local partners and participants sits at the heart of USAID Forward.

The success of the democratic transitions underway around the Middle East and North Africa will depend on well-informed voters educated by a professional and objective media. Ismail Azzam, journalism graduate from Morocco, confirmed that, “I learned more in these USAID-ICFJ workshops than I did in four years of university studies. This program teaches us the journalism skills we need in the real world.” Through our collaboration with ICFJ, USAID is helping regional journalists report with objectivity and impact. As Mission Director Mansuri recalled at the event, quoting Oscar Wilde, “In America, the President reigns for four years. Journalism governs forever and ever.”

Wafaa El Adawy is a Cairo-based Program Management Specialist with USAID’s Office of Middle East Programs.

Experts and Practitioners Discuss Global Trends in Civil Society

2012 CSO Sustainability Index coverUSAID relies on local civil society organizations (CSOs) to play important roles in the development and humanitarian efforts that we support worldwide.  However, current trends of governments placing restrictions on CSOs are requiring donors to find new and better ways to support civil society in difficult circumstances.

Following the release of the latest USAID Civil Society Organization Sustainability Index (CSOSI) reports for the Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Europe and Eurasia (E&E) regions, USAID organized and hosted a panel discussion entitled, “Closing Civil Society Space: Implications for Civil Society Sustainability,”  for practitioners, experts and CSO leaders to discuss the report findings.

Without exception, a free and active civil society remains vital to a nation-state’s health.   According to the findings of the CSOSI, however, civil society and CSOs in many countries around the world faces burdensome financial and legal restrictions carrying out their work.

In light of the growing trend of similar restrictive CSO/NGO laws appearing in countries around the world, the CSOSI tool “is more important than ever in helping us to understand the challenges and constraints CSOs face,” explained USAID’s E&E Bureau Assistant Administrator Paige Alexander who moderated the discussion.

Douglas Rutzen, the President and CEO of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) said that we are on the cusp of a “tipping point,” where civil society constraints become a social epidemic.  Referencing Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Mr. Rutzen noted the importance of the “messenger” and that constraints are being adopted and transmitted by well-connected, influential countries, such as Russia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Venezuela. He then noted the “stickiness factor,” commenting that these governments have been adept at casting constraints in rhetorically appealing terms, such as sovereignty, counter-terrorism, and aid effectiveness.  Mr. Rutzen concluded on an optimistic note, stating that it is possible to reverse the tipping point.  Indeed, he referenced numerous examples where the tireless efforts of local civil society, supported by long-term USAID assistance, have had significant, positive impact on civic space around the world.

Claire Ehmann of USAID’s Bureau for Democracy Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, Center of Excellence on Democracy, Rights and Governance, provided an overview of the CSOSI methodology and highlighted global patterns in sustainability .  For example, financial viability continues to be the weakest area of CSO sustainability in both the Africa and E&E regions while advocacy is one of the strongest.

CSO leaders in Egypt, Ukraine and Ethiopia weighed in with the realities on the ground.  According to Egypt’s Mohamed Zaree of the Cairo Institute of Human Rights Studies, just getting CSOs registered remains practically impossible in his country.    Funding is also a significant problem in Egypt, where NGOs are prohibited from accepting foreign funding, on national security grounds.

In Ukraine, where CSO-led protests were occurring in real time, challenges lay in the relationship between citizens and the government.  In her presentation, Lyubov Palyvoda of the CCC Creative Center asserted that in comparison to CSOs’ strengths to advocate on behalf of citizens, service delivery lags far behind.

In Ethiopia, the trend is reversed, with the great majority of CSOs working in service delivery.  There, CSOs are burdened by the restrictions placed on the sourcing and utilization of funds.  Debebe Haillegebriel, an independent legal service professional with CSO experience, explained that stipulations in the CSO regulations further constrain organizations from effectively carrying out their work.

The Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A. (AKF USA), a financial supporter of the CSOSI in four countries, remains committed to improving the enabling environment and promoting the sustainability of CSOs globally.  In his presentation, the CEO of AKF USA, Dr. Mirza Jahani, elaborated upon the Foundation’s commitment to developing the financial viability of CSOs in participating countries.  Through ‘community philanthropy’, public institutions can recognize and develop material resources locally to engage and change their countries for the long term.  Building trust within CSOs and between citizens and the public sector is the second area of AKF’s work related to the CSOSI.   For that, AKF USA supports an accreditation process, starting in Kenya and Pakistan. In those cases technological innovation such as e-platforms can help promote community responsiveness and resource-building.

Maintaining Women’s Potential in Yemen

“The women of Yemen should never again be relegated as second class citizens.”
-Attendee of the New Voices of Yemen Dinner, March 3, 2014

This was the heart of the messaging from the New Voices of Yemen: Women Leaders Dinner I attended on my second evening in the country’s capital, Sana’a. These women, a far larger network than the 20 who attended the dinner, gathered together once again to promote women’s political participation in the continuing transformation of the country.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Elisabeth Kvitashvili in Yemen

Deputy Assistant Administrator Elisabeth Kvitashvili in Yemen

With the recent successful conclusion of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference, the women lobbied me to ensure USAID would continue to maintain its support in amplifying their voices, calling for a commitment to the quota of 30 percent women’s representation in constitution drafting, elections, and cabinet positions. They also recognize the need to promote opportunities for women in leading private sector roles in support of much needed economic reforms for Yemen.

Women play such a critical role in all of Yemeni society as demonstrated by the small representation at the dinner of a much, much larger community. Women leaders from the government, civil society, and private sector connect through various networks such as Women’s Integrated Network and Women’s National Committee that they themselves established. These women transcend the country’s north and south divisions as much as political differences. They represent the women of Yemen, young and old.

The two women who facilitated the lively and energetic discussion, Entiem and Rabab both represent the dynamic and articulate nature of these new voices of Yemen. They are part of the youth segment representing the future of Yemen.

These new voices play a critical role in assuring Yemen continues on a path toward peace and prosperity, and USAID plans to continue to support their empowerment and equality.

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