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El Salvador Makes the Grade in Universal Primary Education

Jorge Renderos (left), Principal of the Oscar Arnulfo Romero School, and Oscar Armando Cruz (right), math teacher, celebrate finishing the day's school work with their fourth grade students. Photo credit: Karen Azucena, USAID

I live in the Zaragoza region, one of the poorest areas in central El Salvador.  We have limited economic development opportunities for our people, yet one of the highest rates of population density in the country.  While grappling with poverty, our municipality must also deal with gang activity and school violence.

In order to respond to this situation, my school joined with 12 other schools to form a cluster under the Ministry of Education’s Integrated System for Full Time School (SI-EITP, its acronym in Spanish).  SI-EITP is supported by USAID/El Salvador’s Strengthening Basic Education Program.

We share limited resources so that we can equitably offer educational and extracurricular services to all students, especially those who are at risk of joining a gang or dropping out of school.  For example, my school shares its sports auditorium with all 1,670 students coming from those 12 schools.  The group of schools provides extracurricular activities in areas such as technology, baking, dressmaking skills, school gardens, art, culture, sports and recreation.  Because of these activities, our students are more excited to attend school and learn new skills.

Teachers are also using new resources, materials, and techniques like more group work that allow students to more actively participate in their lessons.  The response from students has been very positive.  The lessons have been so successful that students from the Barillo school, who previously had spotty attendance, said that they were excited to go to school each day.

And this integrated system doesn’t end at the school gate. Parents, teachers and school principals all participate in the school cluster.  For instance, parents are walking to school with their children every day, as they need to cross dangerous areas where gangs are prevalent.

School principals are also working together in new ways.  Because of SI-EITP, the principals of the Corralito and Canton Guadalupe schools collaborated to improve transportation for their students.  As a result, 56 students who finished sixth grade, but did not have a secondary school close to their home, are now able to travel to neighboring secondary schools and continue their education.

With the support of the Ministry, USAID and its implementers, we have made a lot of progress but we must acknowledge the leadership of the students.  When the educators were worried about gang clashes, the student governments mitigated our concerns. They formed a “Peace Band” with participants from all of the schools.  Today the Peace Band has 300 members whose purpose is to promote healthy living and a culture of peace. We are proud to say that, not only are the student working hard to reach their own potential, they are showing real leadership skills and giving back to the community.

MDG Countdown: Working to Fulfill A Global Promise

Susan Reichle is the Assistant to the Administrator for USAID's Bureau of Policy, Planning and Learning. Credit: USAID

We all have a deadline in 2015 that can be easily lost amid our busy day-to-days and crowded lists of to-dos.

In 2000,189 nations made a promise to free people from extreme poverty and to extend hope and opportunity to millions across the developing world – all by 2015.  Under the United Nation’s umbrella of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), the 189 countries committed to eight development goals that were  ambitious in scale and yet vital.

That’s why this week, USAID and our counterparts at the UK Department for International Development are once again drawing attention to the MDGs at an event in New York,during the UN General Assembly.

The good news is that great progress is being made towards achieving the MDGs, and the global community can be inspired by the innovations and successes we are seeing around the world.

Poverty has been cut by 50 percent globally and the proportion of people with no safe drinking water has been cut in half, ahead of the 2015 deadline..   

As evidenced at the New York event this week, USAID is also making a significant contribution to meet the MDG’s:

  • In El Salvador, we work with the Salvadoran Ministry of Education to not only improve the quality of teaching and learning, but also partner with local communities to keep students in school and to recruit children who were not attending classes.  (MDG 2)
  • In Afghanistan, we work with the Government to build capacity in its Ministry of Health, among midwives, and in local hospitals, and have helped to increase health coverage from eight percent to over 60 percent of the people over ten years and helped the country realize an incredible drop in infant, child and maternal mortality rates.   (MDG 4 and 5)
  • In Indonesia, where only 40 percent of citizens receive water from a household tap, we worked to vastly improve the water and sanitation systems.  While our effort has scaled down, the program legacy lives on in private and public sectors’ support for clean water and sanitation, and proof that local and the central governments are willing to commit funds to the utilities to improve performance and expand services if a clear and compelling justification is presented.  (MDG 7)

Still, with only 15 months until the deadline we still have the other six goals to meet.  USAID is applying its resources more strategically than ever to enable countries to achieve the MDGs.  As outlined in USAID’s County Development Coordination Strategies, we are implementing the President’s Policy Directive on Global Development by focusing on those development imperatives that are priorities for the host country and USAID investment can make a difference.  These strategies are informed by evidence, rather than anecdote and lead to stronger projects designed in cooperation with host country counterparts, including government and civil society.

The challenges involved in meeting the MDGs by 2015 remain daunting, yet USAID along with our global partners are making significant strides.  Using breakthrough innovations, integrated approaches, and strategic partnerships we can achieve unprecedented progress in the years to come.

Live from UNGA: Day Two

To see the online conversation from Day 2 at UNGA, visit our Storify Feed.

Our second day at UNGA included two addresses by President Obama, an event about Ensuring Resilient Livelihoods, a Coca Cola partnership announcement, and an event to commemorate the the Every Woman Every Child movement.

Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama remembered Ambassador Chris Stevens and delivered a defense of both free speech and the spirit of tolerance:  “Understand America will never retreat from the world.  We will bring justice to those who harm our citizens and our friends, and we will stand with our allies. We are willing to partner with countries around the world to deepen ties of trade and investment, and science and technology, energy and development — all efforts that can spark economic growth for all our people and stabilize democratic change.”

Later that day at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), President Obama made moving remarks on combating trafficking-in-persons (C-TIP), calling it “one of the great human rights struggles of our time.”  USAID is answering the President’s call to “pay attention” to this “barbaric” human right offense.  Earlier this year, USAID launched a new Counter-Trafficking in Persons Policy to reinvigorate and focus Agency efforts to C-TIP on concrete, measurable principles and objectives.

At CGI, the Coca-Cola Company and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria announced that they will expand the reach of “Project Last Mile,” which helps government and non-governmental organizations deliver critical medicines to remote parts of the world, beginning in rural Africa.  As “Project Last Mile” continues to expand to other regions, USAID will partner to help ensure that vital drugs, medicines and medical supplies get to the people who need them most.  “We are proud to join this high-impact public-private partnership with an eye towards expanding into other countries,” said USAID Administratrator Shah. “Leveraging Coca-Cola’s core business expertise and distribution channels has the potential to significantly improve how we bring life-saving products to the hardest-to-reach parts of the world.”

That afternoon, USAID, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the United Nations Foundation hosted a high-level event highlighting the new international commitment to building resilience for vulnerable communities.  Rockefeller Foundation President Dr. Judith Rodin and USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah welcomed expert speakers including Valerie Amos, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator; Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director, World Food Programme; and Heikki Holmås, Minister of International Development of Norway. USAID is helping to lead an international commitment to building resilience in areas prone to cyclical crisis so that development gains endure and whole livelihoods are not lost with the next shock.

Finally, Administrator Shah joined global leaders and celebrities to advocate for women and children at the Every Woman, Every Child dinner held at the Museum of Modern Art. In his remarks, Dr. Shah reflected on U.S. leadership in maternal and child health, and highlighted the Child Survival Call to Action held in June. More than 150 countries have now signed the “A Promise Renewed” pledge – committing to sharpen country strategies with the goal of ending preventable child deaths.

To see the live conversation, read our story on Storify. You can also stay up-to-date with the latest and follow our live coverage on Twitter @USAID.

The Journey Towards “Cash Light”

Around the world, 2.5 billion people lack access to formal financial services. As a result, most poor households live almost entirely in a cash economy. The Better Than Cash Alliance, a global public-private partnership dedicated to accelerating the use of electronic payments in place of physical cash.  USAID convened the Alliance, which includes forward-thinking partners like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Citi, the Ford Foundation, Omidyar Network, Visa Inc., and the U.N Capital Development Fund, to move the world toward a more transparent, efficient, inclusive, cash-light society.

Shifting to electronic distribution of social benefits, humanitarian aid or payroll payments can advance financial inclusion and help poor people build savings while achieving cost savingsefficiency and transparency.  The Alliance provides expertise and resources needed to make the transition from cash to digital payments to achieve the shared goals of empowering people and growing emerging economies.

Visit Betterthancash.org for more information.

Designing Smartphones For Resource-Poor Women

Mobile phone use in the developing world is exploding, yet women are at risk of being left behind.   On average, GSMA research shows women to be 21 per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone in low- to middle-income countries.  The resulting mobile phone gender gap represents as many as 300 million women in the developing world who do not have access to this potentially life-enhancing tool.

Barriers to mobile phone ownership among resource-poor women include limited technical literacy and limited understanding of the full potential of mobile devices and services.  The GSMA mWomen Program, as part of USAID’s mWomen Global Development Alliance, set out to address this by launching the GSMA mWomen Design Challenge: Redefining the User Experience at the third annual Social Good Summit in New York on Sunday. Through submissions from the global design and developer community, the design challenge seeks to increase access to life enhancing mobile services so that regardless of someone’s skill level, they can pick up a phone and maximize its potential.

From Conflict to Coping

Tisda, Mercy Corps Program Officer, in Ethiopia. Photo Credit: Erin Gray, Mercy Corps

Last summer, amidst the Horn of Africa’s worst drought in generations, Mercy Corps received encouraging news from local officials in the Somali-Oromiya region of Ethiopia.  In this area – long known for conflict, scarce resources and harsh conditions – communities that had participated in USAID-supported Mercy Corps peacebuilding efforts were reportedly coping better than they had during less severe droughts in the past.

We were intrigued, so we sent out a research team—and the findings were striking: when local conflict had been addressed, people were far better equipped to survive the drought.

To understand why, put yourself in the position of an Ethiopian herder.  When a drought hits, you can cope in several ways.  First, you will sell the weakest animals in your herd, raising cash to meet your family’s short-term needs while reducing grazing pressure on a water-scare environment. You may migrate with the remaining herd to areas where the grazing potential is better.  Along the way, you will rely on sharing access to scarce remaining water resources wherever you go.

Yet conflict can make these coping mechanisms impossible – blocking market access, freedom of movement, and access to shared resources like water. In this part of Ethiopia, population pressure and climate change had strained resources, spurring violence that in 2008-09 resulted in massive loss of lives and assets. In response to that conflict, Mercy Corps initiated a peacebuilding process in 2009 with support from USAID.  We helped participating communities focus on establishing peaceful relations, economic linkages, and joint management of natural resources.

A “resilience” approach to aid focuses on understanding, and improving, how communities cope with drought and other shocks.  Instead of just providing assistance that meets immediate material needs, a resilience approach also focuses on factors that affect a community’s ability to cope.  As Mercy Corps found last summer in Ethiopia, this often means focusing on factors that fall well outside the traditional assistance toolkit.

The program had focused on reducing violence – but our researchers found that it also built resilience along the way. Communities that participated in Mercy Corps’ program reported greater freedom of movement and fewer barriers to accessing resources, markets and public services than did non-participating communities. They identified greater freedom of movement as the single most important factor contributing to their ability to cope and adapt to the severe drought conditions. As one herder from the Wachile community said, “It is very difficult to use or access dry reserves (grazing areas) located in contending communities in a situation where there is no peace…the peace dialogues in the area have improved community interaction and helped us to access these resources.”

Our research report – titled Conflict to Coping – confirmed the important link between conflict and resilience in this region, and demonstrated that effective peacebuilding interventions help build resilience to crises.  Participating communities showed less reliance on distressful coping strategies, especially depletion of productive assets, than other communities. Importantly, the increased peace and security has allowed participating communities to employ more effective livelihood coping strategies, enabling them to better cope with extreme droughts.

Live from UNGA: Day One

Follow the online conversation on our Storify Feed

This week, Administrator Shah and other Agency leaders are participating in several events taking place during and around the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Sunday evening we kicked off our week here in New York at the Social Good Summit, a three-day conference where big ideas meet new media to create innovative solutions. This Summit unites a dynamic community of global leaders to discuss a big idea: the power of innovative thinking and technology to solve our greatest challenges. The most innovative technologists, influential minds and passionate activists will come together with one shared goal: to unlock the potential of new media and technology to make the world a better place, and then to translate that potential into action.

USAID’s chief innovation officer, Maura O’Neil launched the mWomen Design Challenge with partners GSMA, Qtel Group, AusAID, to help improve mobile access for women in developing nations by improving the user experience. She addressed the technical literacy barrier of women’s mobile phone access and ownership. The event included a live design demo and discussions on improving mobile design to make it more intuitive for illiterate populations and the importance of collaborating with the private sector to drive change at scale.

Administrator Shah also appeared at the Social Good Summit yesterday where he spoke on a panel organized by UNICEF called  A Promise Renewed. The event highlighted child survival, technology and innovation for change. Dr. Shah spoke on a panel moderated by CNN anchor Zain Verjee, along with Tony Lake, UNICEF, Clay Shirky and Ethiopian Health Minister Tedros.

Yesterday we also launched two incredible partnerships.

Administrator Shah co-hosted the launch event for the Better than Cash Alliance, a global public-private partnership dedicated to supporting organizations’ transition away from cash to electronic payments. USAID convened the founders of the Alliance, which include The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Citi, Ford Foundation, Omidyar Network, U.N. Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) and Visa Inc. The Alliance will call on governments, the development community and the private sector to adopt the use of electronic payments for programs that support people living in poverty and provide resources to those who commit to make the transition. Watch the  video.

And finally, Administrator Shah concluded the evening by joining New York Times Journalist Nicholas Kristof and others in commemorating Half the Sky, the best-selling book and multimedia initiative which tell the stories of women in the developing world on issues of family planning, health, girl’s education, sex trafficking, women’s economic empowerment, and domestic violence. USAID  supported the development of eighteen educational and advocacy videos, and three mobile phone games on health and gender equity, developed by Show of Force partner, Games for Change, which will be launched in the early fall for use in East Africa and India.  At the event, Dr. Shah launched Women and Girls Lead Global, a public-private alliance with Independent Television Service (ITVS) and Ford Foundation, in cooperation with CARE, focused on using the power of documentary film and new media to empower women and girls around the world.

To keep up with our team live at #UNGA, Follow @USAID, the Administrator @rajshah, Assistant Administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan @Thieristan or Chief Innovator @MauraATUSAID.

Equal Futures Partnership Advances Global Women’s Opportunities

Sarah Mendelson is the Deputy Assistant Administrator for USAID's Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. Credit: USAID

I am excited to have just returned from the kick-off of the Equal Futures Partnership to expand women’s opportunities around the world. The event was held in New York City and part of a number of events USAID is participating in during the United Nations General Assembly this week.

The world has made significant strides in expanding opportunity for women and girls; in the U.S., we just celebrated 40 years of Title IX, an act of Congress that changed the lives of many in my generation by enabling girls to have equal access to education playing sports. Equal access to sports in schools, particularly, taught many of us how to be fierce competitors and learn valuable lessons in team building.

Yet more work is needed to tackle the global gender inequality. Last week, I met in London with donors on this very topic where researchers discussed a number of startlingly facts:

  • In 2011, women held only 19 percent of parliamentary seats worldwide, while less than five percent of heads of state and government were women.
  • While in the past 25 years, women have increasingly joined the labor market, the World Bank’s 2012 World Development Report describes “pervasive and persistent gender differences” in productivity and earnings across sectors and jobs.
  • Though women are 43 percent of the agriculture labor force and undertake many unpaid activities, they own just a tiny fraction of land worldwide.

These realities demand an urgent response.

Building on President Obama’s challenge a year ago at UNGA, the United States government has partnered in a new international effort to break down barriers to women’s political participation and economic empowerment. The goal of the Equal Futures Partnership is to realize women’s human rights by expanding opportunity for women and girls to fully participate in public life and drive inclusive economic growth in our countries.

Through this partnership, the countries of Senegal, Benin, Jordan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Peru, Denmark, Finland, Australia and the European Union are all making new commitments to action, and will consult with national stakeholders inside and outside government, including civil society, multilateral organizations including UN Women and the World Bank, and the private sector, to identify and overcome key barriers to women’s political and economic participation.  This partnership promises to be groundbreaking not only for the countries involved but also for those who are watching its implementation.

USAID and its Center for Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance stands by to provide assistance to these countries as well as many others throughout the world as they work to advance women’s political participation and economic empowerment.

This is thrilling work that helps make the promise of development real for everyone–not just a privileged few.

Saving Mothers, Giving Life

Ugandan mother with newborn

Imagine that you are a young woman who is pregnant, lives in a remote location far from a hospital, and you have a husband and mother-in law who think giving birth at home with an untrained attendant will suffice.  Imagine that you are giving birth in a local health clinic and you start convulsing, and the medicine to help you and your unborn baby is simply not on the shelf, which is also slim on other, much-needed medications.  Imagine that all goes well with your birth until you start bleeding and, even though you are in a hospital, there is no blood bank and a family member is asked to go out of the hospital to find a blood donor.

Unimaginable, right?

No woman should die giving birth, and yet maternal mortality, despite progress, remains one of the leading causes of death among women of reproductive age in developing countries.  Most of these deaths are preventable.  Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently stated in Oslo, “… surviving childbirth and growing up healthy should not be a matter of luck or where you live or how much money you have.  It should be a fact for every woman, everywhere.”

The Saving Mothers, Giving Life initiative represents a unique partnership through which the United States government has enlisted significant support from key public, private and non-governmental players in the global health field with one collective purpose—to reduce maternal mortality. The founding partners include the United States government, Merck’s Merck for Mothers initiative, the Government of Norway, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and Every Mother Counts.

The Saving Mothers, Giving Life partnership is prioritizing countries where women and children are dying at alarming rates—starting in Uganda and Zambia.  The initiative focuses on care for women and their babies around labor, delivery and the first 24 hours after birth, the most critical and vulnerable time, by strengthening district health systems that are essential to provide life-saving services in a sustainable way.  It also looks for ways to identify other private sector partners to expand our reach.

Additionally, the Saving Mothers, Giving Life partnership is beginning to mobilize U.S. citizens to understand the problem of maternal and newborn mortality, and encourage donations to support women who have a lifetime chance of death that is as high as 120 times that of women in the U.S.

USAID is working with a number of other partnerships to advance science, test innovations and implement programs to rapidly decrease maternal and newborn mortality.  Our optimism has a strong foundation based on what we know works: invest in education for girls and overall economic growth, improve use of family planning and maternity services, and develop new technologies to help in communications, training and accountability.  If we stay focused on these areas, we’ll see the elimination of preventable maternal mortality within our lifetime.

Now imagine that!

Is Cash the Enemy of the Poor?

This post originally appeared on the Better than Cash blog

In wealthy countries, most people conduct their financial activity in digital form; money and value is stored virtually and transferred instantaneously with a touch of a button, and the system provides an easy access to a wide-range of financial services. In contrast, most poor households operate almost entirely in the informal economy, using cash, physical assets (e.g. jewelry and livestock), or informal institutions to meet their financial needs. This creates two fundamental inequities in the financial lives of poor households. First, it is riskier and costlier for them to send, store, and receive money, and when large problems arise, such as a major illness in the family, the tools often break down completely, leaving households exposed. Second, it marginalizes poor households from the formal economy because it makes it costly for financial service providers and other institutions (e.g. governments, utility companies) to contract with them.

According to the Global Findex survey, of the 2.5 billion people who live on less than $2 per day, three quarters do not have a bank account and most of these also lack credit and insurance.   Financial exclusion is the most severe among women and rural residents: globally, 47 percent of women (vs. 55 percent for men) and 22 percent of rural residents in low income economies have a bank account (vs. 35 percent in urban areas).

Although, poor households lead very active financial lives, the market has failed to serve the poor with formal financial services because building and maintaining the bank branches, ATMs, POS terminals necessary to facilitate access to the formal system is expensive and often not profitable in poor areas.

The best way to reduce the costs of reaching poor people with financial services is to help shift the majority of their cash-based transactions into digital form which will strip the majority of costs out of the system and enable robust commercial efforts.

Communication technology now offers innovative new ways to make payments through mobile phones, smart cards and other electronic means. In fact, instruments like mobile money have the ability to reach poor and rural communities faster than any traditional bank. Since its launch in 2009, the Pakistani mobile money deployment EasyPaisa has quickly penetrated lower income segments with 40 percent of active users living on less that 2.5$ a day.

Today across the world, government institutions, multinational companies and donor agencies make billions of dollars of cash payments to poor households every month.  These payments include salaries, payments to vendors, pensions, social welfare stipends, cash-for-work programs, and emergency relief payments. Not only are cash based payments costly and inefficient, they represent a missed opportunity to bring poor people into the formal, digital financial system.

The Better than Cash Alliance is a partnership of governments, NGOs and businesses that believe there is real value in creating an electronic financial services infrastructure that the world’s poor can use. By joining the Alliance, these organizations agree to convert their payments into digital form, strengthening the digital financial infrastructure and fostering the poor’s access to the formal financial system while benefiting from a wide-range of benefits.

Once poor people are connected to institutions like utility companies, enterprises & governments through an e-payment system, transactions can be made instantly. Social welfare payments could reach households directly without some (or all) of that payment being diverted to unintended beneficiaries. Electricity bills could be paid with a push of a few buttons instead of traveling to an often distant office with a handful of cash and waiting in a long queue.

Read the full article at Better Than Cash.

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