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Road to Impact: A Small Business Journey with USAID

Today USAID hosts its annual Small Business Conference at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington. Below are some tips for growing your small business with USAID from Social Impact, recipient of the 2012 USAID Small Business of Year Award.

This week Social Impact (SI) is proud to receive USAID’s inaugural Small Business of the Year Award, based on our growth and service to support USAID in Washington and overseas to accomplish its international development priorities.

It seems like just the other day that SI started as two-person company in 1996 with our same mission and vision—to make international development more effective in improving people’s lives. As the two founders, Pat Hanscom and I started SI with a small virtual team of like-minded individuals—people who cared about development and thought that they could help big international agencies, like USAID and the World Bank, to become more results-oriented and people-centered in their approaches to working with  developing countries. These are really the very same principles central to USAID Forward and USAID’s strategic plan. Yes, earlier versions of this thinking go way back in USAID and the international development community and when we created Social Impact we successfully spotted these needs and saw them as growth areas.

Small business owner Arnoise Clerveaux (in back) sits in her shop in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, on March 24, 2011. Photo credit: Kendra Helmer/USAID

When SI started out there were few opportunities for small businesses to get into the game. We had luck marketing SI and developing smaller contracts directly with USAID missions where we knew people and where we correctly identified opportunities to market SI’s services in project design, strategic planning, organizational capacity building, gender integration, monitoring and evaluation and participatory development. During these earlier years “relational” marketing produced a good result for us though it involved lots of meetings and hoof work. Through some of our earlier work we helped USAID create some of its good practices in participatory approaches to project design and strategy development in the field.

By the late 1990s things really got tough as USAID began to bundle all most all of its work into large Indefinite Quantity Contracts (or “IQCs”). These IQCs were hard barriers for micro and small business to break through and most of the work was reserved for USAID’s big business partners–”the usual suspects.” SI and many other small business saw token participation in USAID projects as small business subcontractors (or “subs”) but few opportunities to gain meaningful work as prime contractors, even with our demonstrated and growing capabilities.

After diverse efforts to work with development banks, UN agencies and other donors, we managed to win our first USAID IQC in 2003 with USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives. We got to know them and they to know us through some conferences and strategy sessions that we facilitated as a sub. Our work with OTI in fragile states put us on the map with USAID and give us some additional “street cred”, especially with USAID’s emerging focus on fragile states.

About this time we grew bolder and started to advocate with our colleagues at OSDBU for more small business opportunities. When new RFP’s came out that had no opportunities for small business we’d say, “Hey, we’re here and we have capabilities to do this!” “Why doesn’t USAID follow through on its Congressional requirements to do more with small business?” In some cases we even wrote to the House Small Business Committee and said “USAID needs to be more accountable in meeting it small business goals”. Bottom line is that our advocacy—and that of other small businesses- helped to call more attention to our capabilities and those of the small business community to support USAID. USAID’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU) became our trusted ally and advocate during this time.

Things really started really started to change dramatically with the new OSDBU team led by Mauricio Vera, Director and Kimberly Ball, Deputy Director. They had a clear mandate, a strong sense of purpose, a great sense of agency politics and contracting procedures, and top-level support from the Administrator to create additional opportunities for small business at USAID. Through their peaceful and persistent persuasion, Contracts Review Boards were set up, Bureaus and Contracting Officers became more accountable for creating small business opportunities and the pressure was truly on to change things for the better.

Now USAID has an “A-” on the SBA Scorecard and most of the new generation of IQCs contain solid set-aside provisions for small business. And we’re even beginning to see some USAID missions create small business opportunities (in large part due to OSDBU’s “road shows” in the field). What was once a barren landscape for small businesses now looks pretty fertile.  I can’t imagine a better time for small businesses to get started with USAID.

Based on our experiences here are some tips for growing your small business with USAID:

  1. Know your core capabilities and advocate for them through OSDBU. Get to know your OSDBU colleagues and keep them informed about your capabilities and growing successes with USAID.
  2. Get to know USAID as your customer including its current priorities, strategy documents and quality standards in the areas of your work.
  3. Focus on the quality of your work. USAID’s rating of the quality of your work in Customer Performance Reports or “CPRs” is critical to your landing new business.
  4. Find a capable medium or large sized business or two who will subcontract with you so you can get into the game and establish your credentials with USAID. Look for business who are willing to give you a well-defined piece of the action rather than just “blowing kisses” in your direction.
  5. As resources permit, grow your management team to include people who have successful experience working with (or in) USAID in your areas of expertise. This will give you tremendous insight on how to win work and how to perform at the high level of quality that USAID expects.
  6. Don’t grow too quickly. Growing purposefully–while not overextending your capabilities–will  allow you to build your experience  while minimizing the risks for your company and for USAID.
  7. Enjoy and appreciate the value of your work! When you step back from this all, there are few industries that enable you to produce a double or triple bottom line of a financially viable company while contributing to global social wellbeing and a more sustainable environment!

Learn more about USAID’s Small Business partnership opportunities.

Join My Village Lift Women and Girls out of Poverty

During the month of May, IMPACT will be highlighting USAID’s work in Global Health. From May 11-17, we will be featuring the important role of mothers and partnerships in Global Health.

In the last 23 years, global mortality rates have decreased by 47 percent. With funding from international governments and non-governmental organizations, developing countries across the globe have received unprecedented aid in the form of education and healthcare support to decrease mortality rates.

Join My Village (JMV), a program of CARE in partnership with General Mills and Merck, is working to resolve this issue by building awareness online and providing on-the-ground programming that includes support groups for men and women as well as community engagements to reduce misconceptions about pregnancy and maternal health. JMV helps to lift women and girls out of poverty through education while also providing sustainable improvement in maternal and newborn health through effective service delivery and women’s empowerment initiatives. The programs are having a remarkable impact on communities in India by changing the behavior and attitude of whole communities around the treatment of women.

Preventing maternal deaths not only saves women’s lives, it can positively impact families and whole communities. Photo credit: PATH/Evelyn Hockstein

Along with working to uplift women, JMV is has also made a point to engage men in these communities. Men have a larger say in decisions that ultimately affect women’s economic, educational and reproductive health. To ensure that the women have a conducive and supportive environment at home, their husbands are invited to participate in the interactive meetings.

Recently, we heard from a young husband and wife participating in the JMV program in Uttar Pradesh, India. After going through a difficult first pregnancy where the mother did not receive prenatal care, the young woman almost lost her life and her baby. Of the second pregnancy, her husband said, “Though that incident taught me the risks involved in home deliveries, today’s meeting taught me how to be better prepared even before the child arrives. My wife stopped taking her iron tablets as she said they made her nauseous. I didn’t bother much about it until I came here today and learned how important they are for both the child and my wife. Now I will ensure she takes them at the appropriate time to avoid uneasiness. Planning for the future is another critical thing I learned, and I will start saving for the child right away.” The couple, happy to have attended the meeting, feel that they are now better equipped for the birth of their second child.

Preventing maternal deaths not only saves women’s lives, it can positively impact families and whole communities. When a mother dies, her family oftentimes breaks apart and her children are less likely to go to school, receive immunizations against diseases and eat nutritionally sound diets. By equipping women and their partners with lifesaving information, women will bear children at the healthiest times so that mother and child are more likely to survive and stay healthy.

Through these outreach programs, JMV encourages communities to be supportive of the health, education and empowerment of women and girls. To learn more about Join My Village and its partners please visit www.joinmyvillage.com.

Akanksha Nigam is a Media Officer for Join My Village, a program of CARE.

Follow USAID for Global Health (@USAIDGH) on Twitter and use #GHMatters to join in the conversation.

“How to Work with USAID” 101

Today USAID hosts its annual Small Business Conference at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington. Below are some tips that a small business partner offer to other organizations interested in working with USAID. 

As the co-owner and co-founder of Sonjara, a woman-owned IT firm that specializes in IT for international development, I am often asked, “How do we get work with USAID?” The reality is — it isn’t easy but it IS possible.

USAID is looking for new, innovative partners who come with great ideas and real experience that can be applied to international development. For example, do you work in rural/underserved environments in the U.S.? Do you do a lot of capacity building and training of local civil society or government institutions? Do you improve the supply chain of existing government workflows? Have you worked with the World Bank, State Department, or the UN? These are all valuable experiences that just need to be shaped for USAID’s needs.

USAID staff take international development SERIOUSLY. To get a job with USAID, you often have to have decades of experience living and working overseas and have advanced degrees in international development topics. They are dedicated to international development and it shows.

And nearly everything at USAID has an international development component. The combination of the humanitarian assistance focus, tiny budgets, and working in some of the more remote/unfamiliar parts of the world means that the challenges and priorities faced by USAID may not often be faced in other government programs.

I have witnessed contractors (especially from defense) not take this passion into account and get into hot water by being ignorant of on the ground reality of working in a developing country or be dismissive of the humanitarian focus.

Conversely, I have seen companies move deftly into USAID by attending sessions on development topics and bringing relevant, non-USAID/non-international development experience to the conversation.

In contracting, USAID is more different than similar to other U.S. Government Agencies. Every expert in government contracting I have ever met has told me “Oh, USAID is different. They have their own way of doing things”. Explaining all the areas where this is true would take a book, so suffice it to say, you will probably need a partner who has experience with contracting at USAID to help you respond to RFPs effectively.

The key to getting in the door with USAID is developing relationships with existing implementing partners. The easiest and fastest way to get into USAID is to get a subcontract with an organization currently being funded by USAID. From there, you can build relationships and past performance, and prove that you understand USAID and international development.

USAID uses implementing partners (private U.S.-based and local firms and universities) to deliver its program work, and contractors to support Washington operations. These partners are both non-profits and for-profits and the work is funded through contracts and cooperative agreements.

To get in front of these folks, join advocacy groups such as SBAIC and PSC/CIDC, as well as Society for International Development (SID). Check out Interaction for a great list of US-based international development non-profits (they sometimes use small business subcontractors to help deliver on their cooperative agreements). Make sure you read www.usaid.gov and peruse the DEC (it is a goldmine of historical data!). Keep an eye out for public events on USAID focus areas where you add value; for example, if you know a ton about IT and Health, the mHealth working group sponsored by the K4Health group may be a good use of your time.

Plug into the community and you will find opportunities for your firm to bid and hopefully win a contract or two!

Learn more about how small businesses can partner with USAID or contact them.

Connecting Parliament to the People in Timor-Leste

It was a bright morning on April 19 in Maliana town as participants gathered for an unusual meeting. The meeting brought members of Timor-Leste‘s Parliament to the capital of Bobonaro District, southwest of the capital Dili, to hear from members of the public. The public forum was part of USAID’s Fostering Meaningful and Responsive Representation project, implemented by the International Republican Institute (IRI). The project’s activities include support to political parties as they find effective ways to interact with constituents.

Timor-Leste is one of the world’s newest democracies, gaining its independence in 2002. Over the past 11 years, voters have participated in seven free and fair elections, most recently in 2012, when they elected a new president and new Parliament.

Citizens from Bobonaro District, southeast of the capital Dili, voice their opinions and concerns to members of the Timor-Leste Parliament at a USAID-supported public forum in April 2013. Photo credit: Paul Randolph, USAID

Seats in Timor-Leste’s Parliament are party-based, and on election day voters choose a party rather than an individual candidate. Members of Parliament are drawn from the party lists based on what percentage of the popular vote each party received. This means that parliamentarians don’t have specific geographic constituencies.

In every democracy, it’s crucial that parliamentarians meet their constituents regularly to explain how they are serving communities as their elected representatives and listen to the views of citizens to incorporate them into legislation and public policies.

That kind of interaction is often difficult in Timor-Leste, where the population of just over 1 million people is spread across the island in a dozen district capitals, many small towns and scattered rural communities. Roads to the capital are in bad condition and transportation costs are high. It’s often impossible for citizens to make their way to Dili to gain attention for their views and concerns.

With significant transportation challenges and a nationwide constituency, it’s not easy to reach out to citizens to get their input. So the USAID responsive representation project is finding effective ways to increase parliamentarians’ interaction with the public.

One way of facilitating more interaction between parliamentarians and citizens is through a public forum, like the Bobonaro meeting. This was the second in the project’s series of constituency outreach activities focused on “Listening to the People’s Voice.” The series itself is a first for this Parliament.

Parliamentarian Mateus de Jesus (CNRT) shows notes received from constituents during the “Listen to the People’s Voice” forum in Maliana, Timor-Leste, in April 2013. Photo credit: Paul Randolph, USAID

This forum enables members of parliament to meet and interact with citizens outside Dili. They can explain their party’s stance on major issues of public interest and, more importantly, listen to constituents’ viewpoints.  In particular, parliamentarians said that they are eager to hear feedback and local concerns because they were just elected in July 2012.

Four parties won seats in Parliament in the 2012 election. Three form the governing coalition: the National Congress of Timor-Leste Reconstruction (CNRT), the Democratic Party (PD), and the National Reconstruction Front of Timor-Leste (Frenti-Mudanca). The Revolutionary Front of Independent Timor-Leste (FRETILIN) is now the opposition party, having governed Timor-Leste from 2002 to 2007. Three of the four parties sent parliamentarians to the public forum.

The 100 participants in Maliana represented a typical cross section of Timorese society – students, teachers, community leaders, representatives from NGOs, women and youth organizations, local offices of political parties, and district offices of government ministries. Participants raised many concerns, including poor rural road conditions, poor quality of small infrastructure projects, a lack of medical supplies at the district hospital, and the need for ambulances. Students highlighted a lack of books in their schools and limited access to scholarships for rural students. Others talked about their concerns related to government social programs, such as pension payments for veterans and the elderly people that do not always reach their recipients. Many voiced their concerns about the government’s plan to adopt and implement a new decentralization policy.

Parliamentarians said that they shared most of the participants’ concerns, and promised to channel those concerns to the relevant government ministries. They also said they would urge the government to address those concerns appropriately.

At the end of the forum, both parliamentarians and participants expressed appreciation for the opportunity to better communicate with each other. After the forum, Mateus de Jesus said this USAID-supported outreach activity was the first such opportunity for the current legislature, helping parliamentarians improve their outreach activities and connecting parliamentarian with their constituents. ” This forum was very important so that we can hear directly from the people living in the districts,” de Jesus said.  ”As parliamentarians, we’re aware that most of the issues raised during the forum relate to government capacity.  However, as representatives of the people, we can channel these concerns to the relevant ministries or departments and demand accountability.”

Timor-Leste’s parliamentarians are demonstrating their commitment to reach out to constituents, helping to fulfill their role of overseeing the executive branch. As one of the participants said, “It’s good that today we have the chance to meet the parliamentarians in the district and convey our concern directly to them, but we hope that parliamentarians will conduct such forums regularly in the future as part of their own agendas, and that they must will their authority to ensure that our concerns are addressed.”

Based on this success, USAID’s representation project will help expand these opportunities to other districts in the next few months.

I hope that Timor-Leste’s parliamentarians and party benches will continue to schedule more frequent outreach forums themselves and develop their own best strategies for meeting constituents, listening to their feedback, and ensuring that their concerns are addressed appropriately.

As parliamentarians begin to strengthen these kinds of mechanisms, and development partners like USAID continue to assist, I think that it would not be a far-fetched hope that in the future the relationship between Timor-Leste’s parliamentarians and citizens will be as bright as the morning sun that day in Maliana.

LGBT Families at USAID: Integration and Solidarity in Nicaragua

In 2009, Secretary Clinton announced that the U.S. State Department would extend benefits to the same-sex partners of Foreign Service officers. Although I didn’t officially begin working for USAID until September 2012, I had applied to the agency’s Development Leadership Initiative program that summer and had little idea just how much this and other policy advancements towards LGBT equality would impact me, my family and my work just a few years later.

USAID Democracy, Human Rights and Governance officer Jessica Morrison with her wife and newborn daughter. Photo credit: Jessica Morrison/USAID

My wife and I departed for Nicaragua for my first assignment as a Democracy, Human Rights and Governance Officer in August 2012, having just learned that I was pregnant with our daughter. I had the good fortune of being assigned to a Mission with a long legacy of work with the LGBT community through its HIV/AIDS programming, and an incredibly supportive Ambassador, supervisor and Mission Director (who caught me more than once sleeping under my desk at lunch during those exhausting days of the first trimester). My wife, now considered an “eligible family member” under the new policy, was able to apply for and obtain employment at the Embassy, providing a source of income during my maternity leave.

In December 2012, the Mission leadership passed a Mission Order to provide guidance on further integrating LGBT persons and priorities into its programs, which has served as a model in the region. In February 2013, the interagency LGBT Working Group collaborated to host a half-day workshop at the U.S. Embassy for leaders from the LGBT community in order to better understand their needs and priorities and to inform them of policy changes and upcoming opportunities for U.S. Government support of their work.

Unfortunately, despite advances throughout Latin America towards LGBT equality, the LGBT community in Nicaragua still suffers widespread societal discrimination and gender-based violence, issues that USAID will continue to address through its health and democracy, human rights and governance programming. However, our experience here in the capital of Managua – first as a same-sex couple and now as two proud new mothers – has been nothing but positive, giving me hope that the tides are turning in Nicaragua. While we were likely the first same-sex couple to give birth at the main hospital here in Managua, which caused some confusion at City Hall when picking up our daughter’s birth certificate, our Nicaraguan caregivers, colleagues and friends have greatly enriched our experience, and we are delighted with our decision to remain here for her delivery.

As I write this from Managua with my wife, mother, parents-in-law, and newborn baby girl by my side, the theme of this year’s International Day of Families, ”Advancing Social Integration and Intergeneration Solidarity,” feels especially appropriate. Not only am I privileged to work for an agency that recognizes the value and importance of advancing the integration of LGBT families both within the agency and in its programming, but I am blessed that our little one has three grandparents and two great-grandparents who embrace and celebrate the diversity of our family almost as much as they celebrate her arrival.

Food Voucher Program Gives Palestinian Families Choices and Supports the Local Economy

Recently, while visiting the West Bank, I had the pleasure to meet Palestinian shop owner Abu Shadi at his store in the community of Dura in the Hebron governorate. His Al Awawdeh Shop is one of 130 West Bank shops participating in an innovative USAID/World Food Programme (WFP) food assistance voucher program that channels aid through the local market.

Introduced in the West Bank in 2009, the voucher program now covers 86,000 West Bank beneficiaries, including 63,000 who are covered through USAID support.

As Abu Shadi explained, his customers, fellow shop owners and local farmers, all benefit from this relatively new way of delivering food assistance. The voucher program allows families to choose from a selection of staple foods, including bread, milk, yogurts, cheese, eggs, beans, lentils, vegetable oil and salt with an electronic card, similar to a debit card. They have more choice in what they can buy, the food is fresh, and they are injecting money directly into the Palestinian economy by supporting more local producers, farmers and shopkeepers.

Thanks to the USAID/WFP voucher card system, families can purchase the basic foods they need most. Photo credit: WFP/Quique Kierszenbaum

One voucher card user told our WFP colleagues that, “For a very long period we could not afford to buy eggs, milk and other dairy products. Thanks to the voucher program, my children now eat eggs and cheese regularly. They have become so much more active and full of energy now.”

To the extent possible, all of these goods come from local producers and are delivered through the normal private sector supply chain to the shops – giving the private sector a role in delivering the food assistance and also saving the donors the high costs of shipping and delivering the food commodities. Abu Shadi’s shop currently redeems vouchers for 113 households, or about 874 people. With the increased business he has seen thanks to this program, he has hired an additional worker for the store.

Abu Shadi proudly told us, “I am very happy being part of this project. I hope we can reach and include other stores in the community, so they can get the same benefits I have received. I doubled my income and now have a steady income for myself and my married son. It also gave me the opportunity to expand my store.”

Like all stores participating in the program, Abu Shadi’s store is registered with the Palestinian Authority (PA) tax authorities, which strengthens the PA’s ability to collect taxes. The stores also meet a set of standards required from all stores in the program. These stores must maintain refrigeration to keep the foods fresh and safe for consumers, maintaining Internet connectivity so that WFP can instantly track voucher redemptions, and guaranteeing a constant stock of all food products included in the program.

A voucher user explains to AAA Romanowski which products she buys using the USAID/WFP voucher system. Photo credit: WFP/Quique Kierszenbaum

“It was really fantastic to see how adjusting our way of delivering assistance has made such a difference for the local community,” one mother explained. “My daughter suffers from rickets and our doctor has been advising us for a long time to give her milk and yogurt daily. We couldn’t afford to do that. Thanks to the voucher program, we can now provide our daughter with the food she needs.”

Overall, USAID helps WFP and its implementing partner CHF to provide food and voucher assistance to vulnerable, non-refugee families in the West Bank and Gaza. Currently the USAID-funded caseload includes 203,000 individuals in the West Bank and Gaza. The United States also is the largest bilateral donor to UNRWA, which provides food assistance to nearly 750,000 Palestinian refugees and supplemental school feeding to more than 223,000 children in Gaza; aid to 52,000 food insecure persons in the West Bank; and food relief to 290,000 other vulnerable Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.

As President Obama noted in his recent proposal to reform U.S. food assistance, voucher programs are a cost effective way to provide many vulnerable families with the food assistance they most need while simultaneously creating much-needed employment opportunities for local economies.

 

Photo of the Week: Celebrating Mothers Everywhere

During the month of May, we have been highlighting USAID’s work in Global Health. Global health plays a critical role in ending extreme poverty — with a particular focus on ending preventable child and maternal deaths, and creating an AIDS-free generation. The first part of the month, from May 1-10, we focused on the role that science, technology and innovation plays in global health. In celebration of mothers everywhere, we will be featuring the important role of mothers and partnerships in Global Health during May 11-17. Future highlights include AIDS-Free Generation (May 18-27), Family Planning (May 27-June 2), Nutrition (June 3-8). Photo is from PATH/Satvir Malhotra.

Follow USAID for Global Health (@USAIDGH) on Twitter and use #GHMatters to join in the conversation.

The Best Mother’s Day Gift of All

During the month of May, IMPACT will be highlighting USAID’s work in Global Health. From May 11-17, we will be featuring the important role of mothers and partnerships in Global Health.

B. Ryan Phelps serves as Medical Officer for PMTCT and Pediatric HIV, Office of HIV/AIDS. Photo credit: B.R. Phelps

By far, the best Mother’s Day gift I’ve ever seen was given to another child’s mom. It was in Swaziland and I was working in an HIV clinic as a consulting pediatrician. The mom’s name was Nomcebo. What she received was a simple bit of news: “Your baby is not infected with HIV.” She was told that her baby was protected by the HIV medicines she had taken during her pregnancy and during breastfeeding. She was told that her baby was HIV-free because she had come to clinic for her refills, and taken the drugs religiously. The mother’s eyes, wet with tears, were set on the sleeping baby in her arms. She was smiling, and whispering softly, over and over, the words “thank you.” Then she paused, looked up, and said: “Tell them thank you.”

Every day, around 1,000 babies are born with HIV, and there is a growing recognition that we can decrease that number to near zero. In other words, we can virtually eliminate pediatric AIDS. We can give children like Nomcebo’s a healthy start.

The implementation toolkit to assist countries as they scale up universal treatment strategies. Photo credit: Interagency Task Team

USAID, through the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief
(PEPFAR), is working closely with the World Health Organization, the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other international
partners to do just that. Through more progressive policies that help
ensure that all pregnant mothers get access to lifelong HIV therapy,
countries throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America are increasing
mothers’ access to once-daily, lifelong antiretroviral drugs that will protect
their babies from infection. Such treatment decreases the risk of HIV
transmission to the child from ~40 percent to less than one percent. These
drugs also protect against the spread of HIV to other adults, as well as
keep mothers healthy so that they can care for their children.

Over a dozen countries are in the process of developing and rolling out universal treatment strategies for pregnant women, and USAID continues to work side-by-side with ministries of health toward the goal of an AIDS-free generation. To further bolster this technical support, USAID recently helped in the creation of an Interagency Task Team implementation toolkit to assist countries as they scale up these strategies.

In Swaziland, when Nomcebo said, “Tell them thank you,” she was looking directly at me. Besides Nomcebo and her baby, there was nobody else in the exam room.

I said that I would.

So…if you are reading this, there is a mother in Swaziland who thanks you. By supporting USAID and PEPFAR, you have helped give Nomcebo (and hundreds of thousands more) one of the best Mother’s Day gifts imaginable.

Follow USAID for Global Health (@USAIDGH) on Twitter and use #GHMatters to join in the conversation.

Harnessing the Commitment & Energy of Diaspora Communities to Transform Development

Rajiv Shah serves as Administrator at USAID

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to meet a Syrian-American trauma surgeon who told me about the multiple trips he had taken to Syria with other doctors to help remove shrapnel from the bodies of children.

As I listened to him share these devastating experiences, I knew that his story reflected the tremendous contributions of Syrian-Americans to the humanitarian response. Every day, at great risk to their own lives, they were caring for the injured, training doctors in triage and medicine, and helping deliver lifesaving medical supplies throughout Syria.

Whether we’re talking about the struggle for freedom in Syria or the fragile–but remarkable–transition happening in Burma, we know the diaspora community has a uniquely important role to play in addressing the challenges of today and shaping a brighter future for tomorrow.

Last year, global remittances topped $534 billion—more than 5 times U.S. official development assistance. So often the result of long hours and sacrifices, these contributions mean so much more than their monetary value. They mean the chance for a child to afford her school uniform. The chance for a young man to take out a loan and open a business. And sometimes, they make the difference between life and death – when they allow a family to buy food in tough times.

We are determined to work together to ensure the each dollar saved and each dollar transferred can make a lasting impact. Through our Development Innovations Fund, we’re partnering with a major Filipino bank, a Filipino education NGO, and a group of researchers from the University of Michigan to pilot a financial innovation called EduPay. The tool allows overseas individuals to pay school fees directly to educational institutions in the Philippines, instead of channeling the funds through an informal trustee. The tool also goes one step further by enabling you to monitor the student’s attendance and performance so you can be sure you’re supporting a quality education.

Whether saving money to send home, building a business from the ground up, or partnering with us in response to a crisis, the commitment and energy of diaspora communities holds the potential of transforming developing countries around the world. Through a partnership with Western Union, we’re helping support diaspora leaders who have a great idea to start a business, but need the resources to get it off the ground. Since 2009, the African Diaspora Marketplace has provided grants to 31 companies, totaling more than $2.2 million.

At USAID, we’re increasingly focusing on providing a platform to connect problem-solvers everywhere to the greatest challenges of our time. We call it “open-source development,” and it reflects our desire to harness the creativity and expertise of a much broader development community. Through our new model of development, we aren’t focused on our solutions. We’re focused on yours.

To learn more about the Global Diaspora Forum or to learn how to partner with USAID, the State Department, and the private sector, please visit: http://diasporaalliance.org/.

Join conversation on Twitter (@USAID) using #2013GDF.

U.S. Provides Wheat to Fill Urgent Food Gaps in Syria

An Arabic translation is available.

As part of our nearly $510 million in humanitarian aid to help those affected by the crisis in Syria, wheat recently provided by the United States will feed more than one million people in Syria for four months.

The 25,000 metric tons of wheat donated to the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) will be milled into flour and distributed to vulnerable families across Syria’s 14 Governorates through WFP as part of a monthly food ration. In addition to the 25 kilogram bag of flour that is being provided in these monthly food kits, families receive vegetable oil, pasta, bulgur, canned pulses and sugar.

An American ship arrives in Beirut, Lebanon with enough wheat to feed more than one million people affected by Syria’s ongoing crisis. Photo credit: WFP/Laure Chadraoui

The U.S. remains the largest donor of food assistance to Syria through WFP, contributing nearly $125.5 million in emergency food assistance since the conflict began more than two years ago. This most recent wheat contribution—worth more than $19 million—will provide much-needed bread for families in areas of Syria where access to humanitarian aid has been most constrained by the conflict and where there are severe shortages of bread.

“We are very grateful for this timely contribution from the United States which will allow us to supplement our food rations with wheat flour especially in the areas where families are struggling to get their hands on bread, a staple part of their diet,” said Muhannad Hadi, WFP’s Emergency Coordinator for the Syria crisis.

WFP, with support from the U.S., is working to reach 2.5 million people across Syria and approximately 300,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

Visit our website for more information about USAID efforts in Syria

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