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Digitizing Education

This year’s Women’s History Month theme is “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics”. In observance, USAID is spotlighting innovative women working in these fields. Below is an interview with Catherine Oliver Smith, COO and Co-Founder of Urban Planet Mobile.

How would you describe the work of Urban Planet?

Urban Planet Mobile develops and distributes digital education worldwide, primarily through basic mobile phones that provide English language education. The Urban English™ program design – simple SMS with an embedded audio file – creates the potential of reaching 95% of mobile phones worldwide with life-changing educational content. An English-speaking taxi driver in a tourism-based economy, for example, has the opportunity to earn a greater income than one who can’t speak English.

Students play a mobile game in Kenya. Photo credit: Ed Owles, Worldview

We believe access to quality education is a human right so our focus is to make education readily available to people, with little or no other access, on a device they already own and use. We also ensure affordability by charging micro-payments. Free programs are hard to scale and sustain because there is always a cost to developing and deploying the content. By providing quality, in demand content, people are more inclined to make the small investment for the tangible results education brings.

Urban Planet started with the goal of reaching the most basic phones and helping bring mobile education to the world. Today we are successfully reaching hundreds of thousands of people with our scalable and affordable technology. And this is only the beginning. Through the support of USAID, Urban Planet is testing and evaluating the effectiveness of MobiLiteracy, our 90-day mobile literacy program in Uganda. The intervention is an out of school supplemental program for pre-literate children. It introduces letters, sounds, and common words, and works on developing both listening comprehension and encouraging storytelling and sharing.

Why is language learning critical for development? Is there something about this modality of education that disproportionately benefits women?

Literacy is the basis for learning, but it’s more than that. According to the UNESCO (PDF), in the developing world, the children of literate mothers have a 50% greater chance of surviving past the age of five. Literate communities are generally healthier, less violent, more civically engaged, and more economically strong.

Mobile phones are very personal devices, more so than any other technology device. MobiLiteracy lessons are sent as a basic SMS daily lesson with an audio link. Mothers can open the audio lesson at a convenient time, which could also mean a safe and private time. The lesson can be deleted from the phone, saved, and also shared privately.

While the lessons are generally meant for children, mothers with limited or no literacy can certainly benefit. Parental involvement in education is a proven precursor to success but parents with limited education feel inadequate and ashamed. This program empowers mothers to take an active role.

Where do you see this technology ultimately going over the next several decades? 

The cost for tablets and smartphones will continue to decrease as the competition increases and the capacity of the technology expands. Also, areas with limited or no connection will get connected.

Right now, simple programs that provide for supplemental education make a tremendous impact, but the future is more robust educational programs, widely accessible and available to people currently limited from such programs due to lack of technology and the requisite infrastructure. More and more formal curricula will be created for this digital world.

While censorship and repression inhibit the spread of certain ideas, information, and education, through the use of mobile technologies, marginalized members of society will have unprecedented access to education. It is through education that a more peaceful, healthier, and better world will emerge.

Securing a Better Future Means Knowing Your Past

Jean Geran, Founder & President, Each Inc. Photo credit: Jean Geran

This year’s Women’s History Month theme is “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics”. In observance, USAID is spotlighting innovative women working in these fields.

Everyone loves a good story. Fairy tales take us to faraway lands and help us dream dreams. Horror stories scare us and make us appreciate our own security. The moral of a story can grow our character and teach us valuable principles. But the stories we love most are those that allow us to see new possibilities for our own story. Because the most valuable story for each of us is our own. I was fortunate to have parents who believed in their little girl’s potential and made me feel that I could accomplish anything if I set my mind to it.  A ‘sky’s the limit’ mentality is not always the norm for young women in the United States and often remains unimaginable to women and girls around the world.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, I think about the millions of women and girls who hold up half the sky but feel invisible and trapped due to poverty, illiteracy, disease, abuse and other forms of marginalization and deprivation.  At the top of the list of concern are the children, both girls and boys, living in adversity. Alone, scared, and vulnerable, children living outside family care in orphanages, refugee camps, brothels or the streets are the most invisible of all.  No one knows their stories. Often they don’t even know their own. To survive, they must find food, shelter and protection but they often say that their greater struggle is their desire to be known and to belong somewhere. We all wrestle with personal identity. Imagine having nothing to start with.

Because each child has a unique story, I founded a social enterprise called Each Inc. that is developing technology products and services to help both practitioners working directly with children, and governments or researchers interested in aggregate data to improve policies and programs at a macro-level. The girl effect and other related efforts have been successful in raising awareness of the necessity and wisdom of investing in each girl’s future.  To make those investments effectively it helps to know her story.

It’s difficult to find a solution for each child without having their case history data in a timely, usable form. How can you find families for orphans in institutions if you don’t know their family history? How can you safely reunify a trafficked child with their family if you don’t know who they are? Social workers are faced with these kinds of questions every day and the lack of data makes their difficult job even harder.

Improving data and technology systems in this field for practitioners would enable them to make more informed decisions for each child and share information securely for better collaboration. For government officials, particularly in underdeveloped countries, improvements are critical to strengthening child protection systems and to disaggregating data by gender to target assistance appropriately. The U.S. Government Action Plan on Children in Adversity includes these goals and I wrote about Each Inc.’s support for this effort here.

We are eager to work with individuals and organizations involved in the identification, care and protection of children. Each child has a story.

Why Women’s Leadership Matters in a Macho World

Gangs are often seen as a problem of boys and men. Historically, communities have focused on men as both perpetrators and victims of gang related crimes, which include assault, kidnapping, extortion, illicit substance and human trafficking, theft, and murder. And to date, the answer has also been a predominantly male approach – police and court systems that focus on penalizing individuals for these crimes.

However, gangs don’t only make boys and men vulnerable; they make communities insecure for girls and women, too. Although the majority of homicide victims and perpetrators are male, there is an alarming trend of girls joining gangs as well as becoming victims of sexual assaults and femicide.

Volunteers of the Youth Movement Against Violence in Guatemala. Photo credit: Creative Associates

Fed up with the violence and driven by a desire for positive change in their communities, women are taking leadership roles to tackle gang violence and crime. Through youth movements, such as Movimiento Jovenes Contra La Violencia (Youth Movement Against Violence)  in Central America, young women are leading efforts and bringing together communities, governments, and youth to form partnerships and find creative solutions.

“I am worried about the alarming situation and of the number of youths that are killed every day, and the impact that the violence has on my family. So I decided to take part in finding a solution,” says Vivien Rueda, one of the founders of Youth Alliance Association in Guatemala City.

The Youth Alliance Association project takes a whole-of-community prevention approach. Through USAID’s outreach centers in high-crime areas, the group helps to provide a safe space for recreational activities and job training for at-risk youth as well as ex-gang members. In order to strengthen a sense of community, the centers are called “Outreach Centers for My Neighborhood,” which is similar to a local, common catch phrase “for my neighbor, for my neighborhood.”

The visibility of youth activism was raised to the national stage in Honduras by Alejandra Hernandez, former head of Movimiento Jovenes Contra La Violencia in Honduras. In addressing the Honduran National Congress, she echoed the frustration of youth, of which 2.3 million are girls: “We are here to say that we are tired of being just observers of the violence in our country, now we want to be actors in the construction of solutions that allow us a safer Honduras.”

Women are unique actors and add value to these crucial conversations. They are instrumental to help achieve peace in their communities by bringing diverse perspectives, mobilize a variety of community actors, and ensure that all citizens have their security concerns heard.

Saving a Leg and a Life in Rif Damascus

An Arabic translation is available.

As part of the $385 million in U.S. government humanitarian assistance for the people of Syria, USAID is supporting more than 110 field hospitals, medical clinics and medical points across Syria that have saved countless lives.

Hajji Rajaa is a 69-year old grandmother who lives on her own in Rif Damascus. As she was traveling to buy groceries for her family, she was hit in the knee by sniper fire.

A doctor tends to Hajji Rajaa’s leg in a clinic in Rif Damascus, Syria. Photo credit: USAID Partner

Once the scene was deemed safe, bystanders transported Hajji Rajaa to a nearby USAID-funded field hospital. The medical team quickly determined the extent of the damage, thankful the bullet had not hit the femoral artery.

Doctors removed the bullet and treated her wound, but Hajji Rajaa required daily care to ensure her wound was healing properly.  Though she wanted to recover at home with her family nearby, she was unable to travel to the field hospital due to the nature of her injury. The doctors, supported by USAID, decided to take turns visiting Hajji Rajaa every day to change her dressings and check the wound.

On their last visit to Hajji Rajaa, she told the head doctor that she wanted to thank him, his team at the field hospital, and the donors who provide the aid for the support that they offered her. She knew that without proper medical care, she would have lost her leg.

Thanks to the assistance provided by USAID, Hajji Rajaa will fully recover and be able to continue helping her children and grandchildren.

USAID medical programs in Syria provide medical supplies and equipment, pay doctors’ salaries, and train additional first responders and medical staff. Our medical teams have treated hundreds of thousands of patients, including performing nearly 35,000 surgeries.

Every day U.S. humanitarian aid is saving lives in Syria. Learn more.

Photo of the Week: President Obama Visits West Bank

On March 21, President Barack Obama joined President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, West Bank to deliver remarks to the Palestinian people. The President remarked, “I was last here five years ago, and it’s a pleasure to be back — to see the progress that’s happened since my last visit, but also to bear witness to the enduring challenges to peace and security that so many Palestinians seek. I’ve returned to the West Bank because the United States is deeply committed to the creation of an independent and sovereign state of Palestine.” He added that “young Palestinians and young Israelis… deserve a better future than one that is continually defined by conflict.” During his trip, the President visited with some children at a USAID-funded center. Photo is from Muhannad Mansour from the Al Bireh Youth Development and Resource Center.

View photos from the President’s trip to the Middle East.

Learn more about USAID’s work in the West Bank and Gaza. Follow USAID West Bank/Gaza on Facebook and Twitter (@USAIDWBG).

INFOGRAPHIC: USAID Forward Progress Report

We have accomplished a lot over the last few years: increasing our funding to local organizations, companies, and institutions by more than 50%; leveraging $525 million in private capital through our Development Credit Authority last year alone; and creating a worldwide network of seven development innovation labs. We invite you to take a look and share with your friends who might be interested in our new model of development that puts us on a path to deliver more innovative and sustainable results. And if you’d like to learn more, please take a look at the USAID Forward Report that we released last week, as well as Administrator Shah’s remarks.

Water Projects as part of the Middle East Regional Cooperation Program (Part 4)

Note: This is the fourth post in a 4-part series. Read part onepart two and part three.

USAID’s Middle East Regional Cooperation (MERC) Program promotes cooperation between the Arab and Israeli scientific communities through joint research projects addressing common development problems. The program was established in 1981 to facilitate research cooperation between Egyptian and Israeli scientists, and was subsequently expanded to include Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and the West Bank and Gaza.

Today, active projects involve more than 400 Arab and Israeli scientists, engineers, students and technicians at 50 institutions in seven Middle Eastern countries.  New project proposals which seek out sustainable solutions to regional development challenges are accepted every year. Working together, these scientists have led innovation in agriculture, environment, water resources and health.

A Moroccan farmer makes use of a USAID SMS advisory service to plan irrigation for his crops. Photo credit: USAID

Given the region’s water shortages and the regional nature of water challenges, the water sector is an important component of MERC’s research portfolio.  Because agriculture consumes a large amount of the region’s freshwater resources, MERC projects seek to increase the use of treated wastewater as appropriate in agriculture, minimize water demand in existing crops, and identify new crop varieties that are resistant to drought and salinity.

For example, MERC programs explore the use of wetlands and membrane-based filters for the effective and efficient re-use of reclaimed water in agriculture. Its programs model crops’ abilities to make use of low-quality water, seek the optimal amount of water plants need, and develop protocols for the safe and effective use of reclaimed water. They identify and optimize high-value traditional and specialty crops suitable to arid climates and saline soils, such as potato varieties adapted to saline soils and water, and virus-resistant tomato lines.

As do USAID’s other water projects around the region, MERC’s water portfolio makes use of cutting-edge science, technology and innovation in improving the impact and sustainability of its initiatives.  One new project, for example, brings together Israeli and Palestinian scientists to look at the interaction between coastal aquifers and the Mediterranean under changing conditions. The scientists are developing empirical, quantitative estimates of seawater intrusion and freshwater outflow along the coast in and near Gaza. They will subsequently provide policy makers with recommendations about how best to manage these aquifers.

The re-use of wastewater is a growing practice in the region. Another MERC project studies the hormonal health hazards related to this re-use, the effectiveness of new wastewater treatment plants in removing hormonal pollutants, and the cost-effectiveness of new treatment alternatives. Project leader Alon Tal from Ben-Gurion University, who works with Israeli and Palestinian scientists from Bethlehem University and other groups to implement the project, commented, “I think this is going to take to the next level what we know about streams.”

Today, at a time of rapid change in the Arab world, MERC continues to bring together Arab and Israeli scientists and students to create and share solutions to regional development challenges like water while promoting a peaceful exchange between neighbors.

Read other blog posts in this series:

Latin America’s Slums and TB

In the slums of Latin America, 117 million people live in poverty. The region’s megacities, including Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Bogota, Rio de Janeiro, and Lima, generate over-crowded living conditions without access to clean water or electricity, poor nutritional status, and often lack of basic health services.  These marginalized populations are made up of the poor, the homeless, and vulnerable indigenous groups that have migrated to the city in search of a better life; they are the urban poor of Latin America.

The combination of these social determinants generates a breeding ground for tuberculosis (TB).

A woman and child receive TB treatment. Photo credit: USAID

Around the world, tuberculosis rates are often high in urban areas and in the Americas it is no exception. Twenty-five percent of Peru’s urban poor live in Lima-Callao, which reports 60% of the tuberculosis cases for the entire country and 85% of drug-resistant tuberculosis cases which is difficult and costly to treat.

As populations continue to explode throughout the region, health conditions will continue to worsen if they are not addressed, particularly in slums.  In 2011, 30,000 people died of tuberculosis in the Americas and there were 268,000 new reported cases. Worldwide, 1.4 million lost their fight against the disease. Tuberculosis, once thought an old disease, is the new emerging problem for the most vulnerable.

Tuberculosis has been used as a prime example of a “social disease” because it finds its nest among the poor and marginalized. The control of tuberculosis in cities requires social, economic, and environmental interventions to improve living conditions and increase access to health services. USAID has funded the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to tackle this concentrated epidemic in key cities across the Americas.

PAHO currently works with municipalities in Sao Paulo, Brazil; Bogota, Colombia; and Lima, Peru to improve their tuberculosis programs that service the urban poor. The successes from these cities will be shared with Mexico City, Guayaquil, and other megacities in Latin America and around the world.

As urbanization rates continue to increase, so are the chances of tuberculosis among the urban poor. Tuberculosis is contagious but also curable; acting now while the epidemic is concentrated will help avoid astronomical costs for treatment and keep the region healthy.

USAID in the Middle East: using data to improve regional water management (Part 3)

Note: This is the third post in a 4-part series. Read part onepart two and part four.

USAID has supported Egypt’s water sector – including its water and wastewater utilities – for more than three decades. Much of Egypt’s water and wastewater infrastructure built since the early 1980s – including treatment plants and water distribution networks – has been developed with U.S. assistance. Before USAID’s involvement, water and sanitation services were unevenly provided by a mix of municipal services providers and regional authorities. In 1975, for example, 70 percent of Egyptians had access to piped water; today, nearly 100 percent do. Accurate and consistent data were rare. Data aggregated nationally were difficult to verify. As elsewhere in the region, U.S. assistance strives to make available accurate data and decision-support systems to improve water-related decision-making.

In Egypt, a team using USAID’s Program Management Information System (PRISM) to monitor the status of 3,000 water and wastewater construction projects around the country validates system data with a site visit. Photo credit: USAID

The latest generation of USAID assistance works to ensure the sustainable stewardship of Egypt’s water infrastructure by emphasizing the management systems required to make the most of past infrastructure investments. With USAID assistance, major infrastructure investment and regulatory reform projects were launched, and the local water and wastewater departments were restructured and consolidated as operating subsidiaries of a national holding company. A key element in USAID’s approach is creating the systems to track and monitor data, and indicators to monitor service quality, the efficiency of water applications, and the cost-effectiveness of capital investments.

In Egypt, five national agencies are involved with construction and maintenance of water supply infrastructure. Until recently, there were no systems in place to track the thousands of construction projects underway nationwide at any given time. This inability to track and monitor construction progress led to poorly informed investment decisions and inadequate cost control. In 2006, the newly-installed minister overseeing these efforts requested U.S. assistance to establish a capital investment project tracking tool. Today, this system provides real-time summaries of over 3,000 construction projects underway, helping to prioritize investment decisions, quantify the expected impact, and justify and explain investment decisions.

Another USAID funded system provides a platform for tracking utility performance against key indicators for national- and regional-level managers. The system, installed in all 25 of Egypt’s water and wastewater companies, tracks a wide variety of data on a quarterly basis, including figures on utility finances, customer service, drinking water quality and efficiency of operations. The comprehensive and standardized set of indicators allows leadership to review performance, make accurate comparisons across utilities and detect inefficiencies. Mohamed Hassan, executive director of the Egyptian Water Regulatory Association, credits the USAID system for “allowing the water sector regulator to track the performance of water and wastewater utilities and customer-based level of service indicators, and assisting in tariff and licensing decisions.”

Today, a range of USAID systems and tools are being used by sector officials, making use of American technical expertise to improve local water management. Using these and other management tools, USAID is helping monitor performance, prioritize and track investments, and effectively make the case for water and wastewater investments.

 

Read other blog posts in this series:

USAID in the Middle East: Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Part 2)

Note: This is the second post in a 4-part series. Read part onepart three and part four.

A map of cultivation areas made by the FEWS NET famine early warning project helps decision makers adapt to and mitigate climate change.

In arid parts of the Middle East and North Africa, famine and climate-related food shortages remain critical development concerns. In sub-Saharan Africa, after devastating famines in the 1980s, USAID created the Famine Early Warning Systems Network – FEWS NET –to monitor and predict developments that affect food security. The system has been serving the region ever since. Among its accomplishments, FEWS NET is known for pioneering the application of satellite remote sensing and models to track and predict climate-sensitive aspects of food security.

There is a powerful interdependence between water availability and agriculture, health, nutrition, and political and economic development. In Yemen, for example, variable rainfall has decreased crop production, food prices are rising, and declining GDP growth and security diminish the population’s ability to obtain adequate nutrition. Today, more than 10 million Yemenis face food insecurity, as do 8 million citizens of Sudan and South Sudan. In Sudan, rainfall has declined by 20 percent since the mid-1970s, with acute impacts for pastoral communities reliant on rainfall for crop production.

Without a stable and sufficient food supply, little other development is possible. Climate change threatens to further destabilize the situation, and recent changes in weather patterns and rainfall have already exacerbated regional water resource management problems. Rain-fed agricultural productivity is particularly vulnerable to shifts in precipitation patterns. Resilience to climate change is critical to ensuring that broad-based development priorities can be met. As Jose Graziano Da Silva, director-general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, puts it, “there is no food security without water security.”

FEWS NET staff collaborates with U.S. Government agencies, national government ministries and international partners to collect data and produce objective, forward-looking analyses on more than 30 of the world’s most food-insecure countries. FEWS NET helps guide adaptation efforts by providing high quality analyses of recently observed climate trends.

The importance of early warning is critical. With adequate lead time, governments, development agencies and citizens have the opportunity to plan for and mitigate the impact of climate developments. FEWS NET provides continuous monitoring of weather, climate, agricultural production, prices, trade and other factors, and thus can predict and plan for emerging problems. Pioneering in its analytical approach, FEWS NET forecasts the most likely climate patterns up to six months in advance. To help government decision-makers and relief agencies plan for food emergencies, FEWS NET publishes monthly reports on current and projected food insecurity, up-to-the-minute alerts on emerging or likely crises, and specialized reports on weather hazards, crops, market prices and food assistance at www.fews.net.

Programs like FEWS NET are putting to work leading American science and technology in support of effective regional water management and decision-making. “Much of the information that we rely on comes from FEWS NET,” says Abdoulaye Diop, director of the World Food Program in Malawi. “It is quite valuable…no one else on the ground can provide this type of information.”

Read other blog posts in this series:

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