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Meet the Next Generation of Disaster Responders

It only takes one bad storm to kill or injure thousands, inflict billions of dollars in damage, and wreak havoc on communities in its path. As part of Hurricane Preparedness Week, USAID joins other response organizations in raising public awareness and preparedness efforts for the upcoming Atlantic hurricane season.

While this national effort happens once a year, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) works year-round with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to reduce the impacts of hurricanes by helping them prepare for storms before they happen.

In Kingston, Jamaica, people take notice when the St. Patrick’s Rangers come to their neighborhood. The Rangers wear matching shirts, and have a certain swagger to their walk. And they always seem to make a beeline for the worst house on the block.

USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance is partnering with Catholic Relief Services to support the St. Patrick’s Rangers, a program to empower at-risk youth to become the next generation of disaster responders. / Carol Han, USAID/OFDA

USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance is partnering with Catholic Relief Services to support the St. Patrick’s Rangers, a program to empower at-risk youth to become the next generation of disaster responders. / Carol Han, USAID/OFDA

These organized and enthusiastic teens represent the next generation of disaster responders.

For years, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance has supported the work of Catholic Relief Services to transform at-risk youth into disaster preparedness leaders. By joining the St. Patrick’s Rangers, young people learn how to help communities plan for and respond to hurricanes, administer first aid, map out evacuation routes and set up emergency shelters. They also help people repair their homes after storms hit

Jamaica is no stranger to extreme weather, having been slammed by some 50 hurricanes and tropical storms since modern-day record keeping began in the late 1880s. / Carol Han, USAID/OFDA

Jamaica is no stranger to extreme weather, having been slammed by some 50 hurricanes and tropical storms since modern-day record keeping began in the late 1880s. / Carol Han, USAID/OFDA

“People normally think that it’s older persons that are part of disaster risk reduction … who can [be] a leader,” said Tovia Rankine, a member of the St. Patrick’s Rangers. “And we, the young persons are taking on this mantle.”

Jamaica is no stranger to extreme weather. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan slammed into Jamaica, damaging the homes of more than 19,000 people — including the Kingston home of 64-year-old Lincoln “Bull” Parks.

“Ivan just took everything. Put everything on the ground flat and left me outside under the sun,” Bull said.

Lincoln “Bull” Parks lost his home when Hurricane Ivan hit Jamaica. It wasn’t until the St. Patrick’s Rangers came calling that he got help to start over. / USAID/OFDA

Lincoln “Bull” Parks lost his home when Hurricane Ivan hit Jamaica. It wasn’t until the St. Patrick’s Rangers came calling that he got help to start over. / USAID/OFDA

With his home leveled, Bull lived in a little hut made out of scavenged materials. It was so small that he had to crawl on his hands and knees to get inside. Having lost hope that help would come, he retreated from the community and only came out to “charge” at those entering his property, thereby earning his nickname Bull.

Then the St. Patrick’s Rangers came calling. Not only did they help rebuild Bull’s home, they also gained skills to build themselves a better future.

“Many of these kids weren’t aware of what they can do before,” said Dwayne Francis, a St. Patrick’s Rangers group leader. “And now they’re doing stuff that’s to their wildest dreams.”

What’s more, Bull now has a home.

“I said, ‘I thank everyone from the top to the bottom.’ Everyone involved. Grateful,” Bull said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Kimbrough is the Regional Advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean in the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.

Canines Deployed with USAID Help in Search for Survivors in Nepal

Rescue canine siblings Phayu and Port and their handlers Jennifer Massey of Bristow, Va., and Teresa MacPherson of Catlett, Va., deployed to Nepal as part of USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team last month. / Kahish Das Shrestha for USAID

Rescue canine siblings Phayu and Port and their handlers Jennifer Massey of Bristow, Va., and Teresa MacPherson of Catlett, Va., deployed to Nepal as part of USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team last month. / Kahish Das Shrestha for USAID

Even though it was their first tour of duty overseas, one pair of heroic canine siblings stepped into the frontlines of the recovery efforts in Nepal with the confidence of old pros.

Phayu and Port, 3-year-old Labrador Retrievers from Virginia, deployed with the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) immediately after last month’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake catapulted Nepal into crisis.

With more than 760,000 homes destroyed or damaged by earthquake, the superhuman attributes of canines like Phayu and Port played an important role in finding survivors injured and trapped beneath rubble.

“Technology helps us see and hear people who may be trapped, but the dogs allow us to smell,” said Phayu’s handler Teresa MacPherson of Catlett, Va. “They can detect the scent of human breath.”

Phayu and Port helped search for survivors the in the rubble after Nepal’s devastating earthquake. / Kahish Das Shrestha for USAID

Phayu and Port helped search for survivors the in the rubble after Nepal’s devastating earthquake. / Kahish Das Shrestha for USAID

Part of the family

Phayu and Port were among the 12 canines that deployed with the Fairfax and Los Angeles County urban search-and-rescue teams to help in the search for survivors.

Working with the Government of Nepal and local and international search-and-rescue crews, USAID’s urban search-and-rescue specialists led canine responders to locations in the field to hunt through rubble and debris. The nimble rescue dogs navigated tight spaces that could not be reached by humans.

Phayu and Port’s handlers describe them as bold, confident, athletic and driven — attributes that any human leader might embody. It is this drive and determination that allowed the dynamic duo to focus intently on the search process, even in chaotic situations.

As days passed, hope for finding survivors dwindled. But then the urban search-and-rescue members of the DART helped pull a 15-year-old boy out of the rubble, five days after the earthquake.

After a powerful aftershock rocked the country two and a half weeks later, the USAID rescue teams jumped back into action, rescuing a 41-year-old woman.

On April 30, the USAID DART's urban search-and-rescue teams helped pull 15-year-old Pemba Tamang from the rubble, five days after the Nepal earthquake. / Chief Chris Schaff, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue

On April 30, the USAID DART’s urban search-and-rescue teams helped pull 15-year-old Pemba Tamang from the rubble, five days after the Nepal earthquake. / Chief Chris Schaff, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue

Finding survivors wasn’t the only reward for canine search dogs.

“To them searching is fun,” said Massey, comparing the process to a game of hide and seek.

“We select dogs with high ‘toy drive,’ ” added MacPherson, of what a trainer looks for a rescue dog. “In a way, the dogs actually select us by how they behave when they are young.”

On May 16, all the urban search-and-rescue members of the DART — including Phayu, Port, and the 10 other rescue canines — returned home.

The DART, which now comprises 15 USAID disaster experts, continues to coordinate closely with the Government of Nepal and international partners to ensure that urgently needed relief supplies reach remote areas.

Teresa MacPherson of Catlett, Va., with canine responder Port in Nepal. /</i> <i>Kahish Das Shrestha for USAID

Teresa MacPherson of Catlett, Va., with canine responder Port in Nepal. / Kahish Das Shrestha for USAID

When not on a mission, Phayu and Port live with their handlers.

MacPherson has been working with canine teams since 1990, including responses to Hurricane Katrina and the Japan earthquake and tsunami

Although Massey works full time at the U.S. Federal Reserve, she has trained and managed three canine search-and-rescue animals.

USAID’s DART team knows that it’s all “paws” on deck when a large-scale catastrophe occurs and thanks to the work of rescue canines like Phayu and Port, human volunteers have invaluable partners at their sides.

This week, USAID announced an additional $9 million to assist in Nepal earthquake response and recovery efforts, bringing the total amount of U.S. humanitarian assistance for the disaster to nearly $47 million.

The new funding will go toward more emergency shelter materials, safe drinking water, hygiene kits, and improved sanitation to the most critical areas and also support programs to address psychosocial needs and the protection of earthquake survivors, including women and children.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephanie Bluma is the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs at USAID. Follow her @stephaniebluma.

Towards a New Global Education Agenda

USAID Senior Advisor for International Education Christie Vilsack visits with primary grade students in Malawi. / Christie Vilsack, USAID

USAID Senior Advisor for International Education Christie Vilsack visits with primary grade students in Malawi. / Christie Vilsack, USAID

In a small first grade class at Mikombe Elementary School in rural Malawi, a girl named Martha is receiving the opportunity of a lifetime – she is learning to read in her local language, Chichewa.

This might not sound like an incredible feat, but for many children in developing countries around the world, especially girls, literacy is elusive.

Poor education systems, untrained teachers and a lack of textbooks in local languages are just a few of the obstacles that hinder education for all in countries like Malawi.

However, what is truly remarkable about Martha is not just that she is learning to read in her local language, but that she is acquiring a skill that can lead to job opportunities her parents never had.

Reading enables education, and education opens doors.

While global health, food security, clean water and energy often dominate the conversation on ending extreme poverty, we at USAID know that education can act as a keystone for all development efforts.

The ability to read and write is essential for living in today’s world. This fundamental competency determines whether someone can understand the instructions on a medicine bottle, apply for a job, follow road signs, read a receipt, or vote in an election.

Unfortunately, hundreds of millions of children around the world are failing to learn fundamental reading, writing and math skills. For some of them, school is not accessible at all.

By increasing both quality and access to education, we can forge pathways towards ending extreme poverty. In fact, if all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty.

Education takes center stage on the global policy agenda this week as a diverse group of education leaders from around the world gather for the World Education Forum in South Korea.

Martha, a first grade student in Malawi, practices reading. / Christie Vilsack, USAID

Martha, a first grade student in Malawi, practices reading. / Christie Vilsack, USAID

After looking at the successes of the Millennium Development Goals — a blueprint created by the international community in 2000 to address eight key development goals — world leaders will renew their commitments in the Sustainable Development Goals that they will create later this year.

With this backdrop, the World Education Forum offers a platform for education advocates to come together to establish a new “Framework for Action” that will guide Sustainable Development Goals for education.

USAID stakeholders will be at the table alongside our development colleagues to share our measurable successes in education projects and to recommend best practices that can be woven into the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals.

Over the past four years, USAID missions around the world have worked tirelessly towards the three goals of our agency’s education strategy. We are working to improve reading skills of 100 million children, create employment opportunities for youth, and increase access to education for 15 million children in crisis- and conflict-affected areas.

And our work is making an impact. Since 2011, USAID programs have reached millions of primary school students in 42 countries, provided thousands of youth with new or better employment, and created learning opportunities for children and youth all around the world who would otherwise be out of school.

Despite these successes, the international education community agrees that there is much work left to be done. It will take a group effort to achieve the goals that will be established at the World Education Forum this week.

It will take a particular collaboration to shift program focus to measurable learning benchmarks and not simply access to education.

A report recently released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) titled, “Universal Basic Skills: What Countries Stand to Gain,” draws attention to the fact that even though enormous gains have been made in school enrollment around the world, large gaps exist in the quality of education a child receives once enrolled.

In few places is this more evident than in Martha’s native country of Malawi, where access to primary school is almost universal, yet 92 percent of the country’s youngest students cannot read a single word.

The World Education Forum is an important forum for building a pathway out of poverty through education and learning.

USAID — along with the U.S. Departments of State, Education and Agriculture — are committed to moving towards an integrated education development agenda that will achieve inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all children by 2030.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christie Vilsack is the Senior Advisor for International Education at USAID working to ensure ALL children have access to a quality education. Follow her @ChristieVilsack.

The End of Extreme Poverty

Alex Thier, USAID’s Assistant to the Administrator for Policy, Planning and Learning, on the main stage at TEDx Foggy Bottom 2015. / Gregg Rapaport, USAID

Alex Thier, USAID’s Assistant to the Administrator for Policy, Planning and Learning, on the main stage at TEDx Foggy Bottom 2015. / Gregg Rapaport, USAID

The end of extreme poverty is President Obama’s bold vision, central to the mission of USAID.

For as long as humans have existed, so have the travails of poverty.

If you were born in 1980, you had a 50 percent chance of living in destitution — a life without enough food, medicine, education or freedom to live a decent life.

But there is reason to believe in a world of less disparity: In just two decades, we have cut global rates of extreme poverty in half, and we now have the tools to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030.

At a recent TEDx talk, one of our agency’s top experts on poverty policy, Alex Thier, shared USAID’s vision for manifesting this reality.

Thier shared the three critical principles that drive how USAID and its partners collaborate to end extreme poverty: fostering economic growth globally; cultivating transparent, democratic systems of governance; and embracing a “new model for development” that is built on partnerships, local ownership, innovation and a relentless focus on results.

“Ending extreme poverty will be perhaps the greatest accomplishment of our human civilization,” Thier told the audience of 1,500 people who attended TEDx Foggy Bottom in Washington, D.C., last month.

Strong governments are the cornerstone of healthy and resilient societies and one of the key factors to ending extreme poverty.

Thier shared contrasting stories of how good governance — and the lack of it — impacted how two countries rebounded from separate, devastating earthquakes that occurred weeks apart in 2010.

Five years ago, a 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti. It killed 300,000 people. Just weeks later, an earthquake that was 500 times more powerful struck Chile. Yet that earthquake killed 1/500th the number of people. / PPL/USAID

Five years ago, a 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti. It killed 300,000 people. Just weeks later, an earthquake that was 500 times more powerful struck Chile. Yet that earthquake killed 1/500th the number of people. / PPL/USAID

Chile’s government set the right course in advance of the earthquake by preparing for such a disaster, creating and enforcing rigorous building codes that protected its population. The government built institutions and infrastructure while investing in its people.

Haiti did not. When the earthquake struck the island, the most vulnerable population — those living in extreme poverty in poorly constructed buildings of densely populated ghettos — experienced the loss of not only their homes, but thousands of their lives.

“What’s particularly tragic is that it’s avoidable,” he said. “It’s not theory or fate. It’s not about geography or natural resources. It’s about the choices that governments and their societies make every day.”

Cultivating more resilient, democratic societies like the one in Chile is just one of the ways that USAID is working to make Obama’s vision of ending extreme poverty a reality. With our international partners, we are well on our way to solving one of humanity’s greatest challenges.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Hope Bryer is the Communications Team Lead for USAID’s Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning.

Ensuring LGBTI People Have Right to Vote in Guatemala

Researchers Paola Ramos (left) and Aden Tedla (right) meet with Gabriela Tuch (center), the head of the Human Rights Ombudsman: Sexual Diversity Office in Guatemala. Created in 2014, the office promotes LGBT rights and works to end discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. / Paola Ramos

Researchers Paola Ramos (left) and Aden Tedla (right) meet with Gabriela Tuch (center), the head of the Human Rights Ombudsman: Sexual Diversity Office in Guatemala. Created in 2014, the office promotes LGBT rights and works to end discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. / Paola Ramos

“As a transwoman I have never voted because of the stigma, the discrimination, the lack of respect for my gender identity… because I am an object of laughter. From my point of view, this has not motivated me to vote even though I have the right to vote and to be elected.”

          —Carmen, Guatemala City

Carmen* is a Guatemalan transgender woman living in Guatemala City. As a determined activist and committed community leader, Carmen has been fighting for the basic rights and dignity of transgender persons for decades.

She is motivated by her own experiences of hardship and abuse; due to her gender identity, Carmen was rejected by her family, raped and sexually assaulted numerous times, infected with HIV/AIDS at an early age, and forced to migrate to the capital in hope of finding community and better opportunities.

Unfortunately, stories like Carmen’s are far too common. Hundreds of transgender women across the country flee their households with hopes of a better future, only to encounter more discrimination on the urban streets.

From threats to their physical safety and harassment by police officers, to limited access to employment, education, health and housing opportunities — transgender women live in Guatemala’s shadows.

As students from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, we met Carmen while conducting interviews for a USAID project that aims to make Guatemala’s upcoming presidential elections in September more inclusive to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons.

In January, two researchers traveled to Guatemala to identify barriers the trans community faces in being able to participate in elections. / Aden Tedla

In January, two researchers traveled to Guatemala to identify barriers the trans community faces in being able to participate in elections. / Aden Tedla

Although transgender persons do have the legal right to vote, the discrepancy between their self-identity and recognized gender on their identification documents leads to discrimination when registering to vote and casting a ballot.

These inequitable situations are what make USAID’s efforts to increase inclusion of transgender persons in electoral processes so significant. By providing a much needed opportunity for the LGBTI community to have a say in the country’s political course later this year as voters and election workers, all Guatemalan voters will be empowered and encouraged to exercise their human rights

Similar efforts to ensure human rights are happening all over the world. This past Sunday, May 17, was International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia and represents a moment when millions of people around the world mobilize in support of the recognition of human rights for all, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.

The ability for Carmen and her colleagues to cast a ballot has the potential to pave the way towards greater justice and equality, giving a marginalized community hope.

For instance, Maria Elena,* a transgender woman driven to make a living by working in Guatemala City’s sex industry, said: Beyond being able to exercise our vote, we see this as a means to achieve greater social acceptance and sensitize institutions, so that one day some of my colleagues can run for office themselves.”

Her words underscore the message that voting is not only the affirmation of a person’s voice; it is also the promise of a brighter future to come.

What can be done?

We traveled to Guatemala in January to identify barriers the transgender community faces in being able to participate in elections, and then we examined ways to counter these problems.

During our fieldwork, we spoke with LGBTI community organizers, NGO leaders, government officials and civil society groups to get a better sense of how USAID could best support transgender inclusivity efforts in the upcoming elections.

Our key takeaway was that there are already tools and programming in place to help the transgender community exercise their right to vote. As such, we envision a more comprehensive campaign with components tailored to three electoral cycle periods: pre-electoral phase, electoral phase and post-electoral phase.

The pre-electoral phase would focus on strengthening and building consensus among the country’s LGBTI civil society leaders and allies in order to execute the strategy, building transgender individuals’ confidence and motivation to vote through educational tools and better leaders, increasing voter registration numbers, and planning electoral security and sensitivity trainings in anticipation of election day.

The election phase would focus on promoting inclusivity among political platforms and providing mechanisms to avoid prejudices that may arise from conflicting identity documents and security risks

Finally, the post-electoral phase is meant to continue the momentum by pushing for government accountability, supporting a grassroots movement calling for the legal rights of the transgender community, and solidifying the foundation of the country’s LGBTI civil society organizations.

Only when transgender people like Carmen and Maria Elena are guaranteed the right to vote and treated as equal citizens will Guatemala be closer to achieving justice for all.

*Pseudonyms were used in this piece to protect the identities of research participants. 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Paola Ramos and Aden Tedla are graduate students at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Growing Children, Trees and Science: The Work Towards an AIDS Vaccine

HIV's outer-envelope proteins penetrate and infect host T-cells; this illustration shows areas where antibodies can bind to and block the virus. / Evan Oto, Science Source

HIV’s outer-envelope proteins penetrate and infect host T-cells; this illustration shows areas where antibodies can bind to and block the virus. / Evan Oto, Science Source

Sixteen years ago, on HIV Vaccine Awareness Day, a group of mothers, their children and a few researchers gathered to plant a new maple tree on the median of Monument Street.

The group was composed of women and children, all of whom were at risk for HIV by virtue of where and how they lived; some came from areas of East Baltimore with HIV rates worse than in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

lab technician works in the Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative (KAVI) laboratory / Sokomoto Photography

A lab technician works in the Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative laboratory / Sokomoto Photography

I stood with them, as well as fellow Johns Hopkins Center for Immunization Research staff and a White House representative, for an official dedication of the little sapling. In all of our hearts was the hope that by the time the little tree and these precious children were grown, we might have a vaccine to prevent HIV infection and AIDS.

Former President Bill Clinton harbored the same hope, when in 1997, in a commencement speech at Morgan State University, he declared that we should have an AIDS vaccine in 10 years’ time.

Clinton’s hopeful statement began the annual recognition of May 18 as World AIDS Vaccine Day, when we mark the progress made in the global search for an AIDS vaccine.

Now, the children and maple tree are grown, and we still don’t have an AIDS vaccine – not yet. But we will. Because along with the tree and children, the other thing that has grown considerably is the body of amazing science that tells us how a vaccine might work.

Many of these potentially pivotal discoveries are, in part, thanks to USAID’s support and the Agency’s belief in the critical importance of an HIV vaccine as potentially the singular most important tool to end AIDS.

We will stay the course — here are just a few of the reasons why:

  1. We know that an HIV vaccine is possible. Between 1999 and 2009, a trial with Thai volunteers proved that an experimental HIV vaccine was modestly effective. This proof-of-concept trial has encouraged droves of world-class scientists to work together on improving the 31 percent protection rate seen in that historic trial, known as RV 144. Significant improvements to the vaccine regimen have been made, and trials to test these enhancements are now underway in South Africa.
  2. We’re learning key lessons about how HIV behaves and how it can be stopped. New insights about how the virus invades the body’s infection-fighting T-cells are helping scientists design promising AIDS vaccine candidates that can produce antibodies to block the invasion that leads to chronic HIV infection.
  3. While these and other remarkable discoveries are happening, USAID stays ever-focused on strengthening clinical trials in developing countries, building on our longstanding partnerships in Africa, actively increasing local scientific leadership, improving the sustainability of advanced research, and helping to expand and prepare the next generation of investigators.

No matter what, we’ll keep at it — and like that 16-year-old maple tree, we’ll keep growing until we have reached an AIDS vaccine that is safe, effective and accessible to those who need it most.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Margaret McCluskey is a Senior Technical Advisor in USAID’s Office of HIV/AIDS working on HIV vaccines. Follow her @m3indc.

Community Empowerment in Guatemala Through Improved Literacy

Andrés Ixcuná Mateo, a community volunteer with the Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos project, helps children learn to read in San Andrés Sajcabajá, Guatemala. / Save the Children

Andrés Ixcuná Mateo, a community volunteer with the Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos project, helps children learn to read in San Andrés Sajcabajá, Guatemala. / Save the Children

In chasing the “American dream,” 21-year-old Guatemalan Andrés Ixcuná Mateo tried to cross the border into the United States twice but failed. He says the experience of being arrested by immigration authorities and spending several days in jail traumatized him.

But after returning to his hometown of San Andrés Sajcabajá, he began serving as a community volunteer with the Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos project to help children learn to read in the Mayan language of K’iche. The experience of giving back to his community and helping preserve their indigenous culture helped him start to overcome the emotional and physical hardships he endured in his pursuit of a better life.

Now, he’s filled with a renewed hope for a better future in his hometown.

“I suffered very much, and I do not wish that on anyone,” Andrés said at a training session for volunteers in March, about one year later. “Now that I volunteer for this project, I have realized that one can do many good things and help boys and girls so that they can be someone important.”

Implemented by Save the Children with support from USAID, the three-year project Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos — which means “reading together, learning together” — aims to improve the readings skills of children in rural, indigenous communities in Guatemala and Peru in their mother tongue. In San Andrés Sajcabajá, the program includes community action activities to improve literacy in the the K’iche language, alongside in-school activities.

Andrés Ixcuná Mateo, a community volunteer with the Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos project, helps children learn to read in San Andrés Sajcabajá, Guatemala. / Save the Children

Andrés Ixcuná Mateo, a community volunteer with the Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos project, helps children learn to read in San Andrés Sajcabajá, Guatemala. / Save the Children

The project is part of USAID’s global education strategy to improve the readings skills of 100 million children in primary grades around the world. These skills are essential to students’ success in later grades and open doors to better economic opportunities once they become adults.

In the beginning, the project staff in San Andrés Sajcabajá had trouble recruiting volunteers. While searching for young people who might be willing to give up their time to help children learn to read outside of school hours, they contacted the principal of the community school, who referred them to Andrés–who had recently returned to his hometown.

Andrés, who was living at home and reflecting on what had happened to him, had graduated as a primary grade teacher before trying to emigrate. After meeting with the project staff, he agreed to join the team.

The Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos project changed Andrés’s life and encouraged him to seek new horizons in order to improve himself and improve his family. After two volunteer trainings, he came to understand that it is possible to achieve “self‐improvement through education,” as he termed it.

Andrés is one of the volunteers who continues to be committed to the project, and this year he has taken up another year‐long commitment to lead community actions being implemented by the project in his village. He has also decided to enroll in the university to continue his studies.

Andrés told the 93 young colleagues assembled at the March training: “Take advantage of these spaces for learning, and the studies that your parents are facilitating. Do not think about migrating to another country, because in Guatemala there is space for you to act and seek your self‐improvement.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anibal Barrera Santay is a Community Action Officer with the USAID-funded program Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos (Reading Together, Learning Together) at Save the Children.

Riding the Growth Bubble in an Increasingly Urban World

Did you know that more than half the world now lives in urban areas? And that in the next several decades nearly all population growth will be in urban areas? That’s equal to about 1.4 billion additional urban residents in developing countries from 2010-2030 alone—equivalent to a city the size of Chicago emerging every two weeks for the next 20 years. It doesn’t just stop there, either: The growth bubble gets even bigger after 2030.

To make matters worse, more and more urban residents are living in squalid, hazard-prone, unhealthy and crime-riddled environments, leaving them highly vulnerable to the devastating impacts of natural disasters. The living conditions depicted in films such as Slumdog Millionaire and the image below are everyday life for nearly one in six human beings on the planet. By 2030, it will be reality for nearly one in four.

Shanties hug the water in Manila’s slums. / United Nations University in Bonn

Shanties hug the water in Manila’s slums. / United Nations University in Bonn

The recent earthquake in Nepal, and its impacts on the capital Kathmandu, has laid bare the challenges of governance in the rapidly growing cities of developing countries, particularly with regard to urban planning and management. The risks and vulnerabilities of living in urban conditions like these are only exacerbated during crises. Additionally, the fastest urbanization is taking place in developing countries, which are already disaster-prone. This is why now, more than ever, we must take into consideration the rapidly growing urban bubble before us.

In the past, most plans to manage urban growth and reduce poverty were aspirational–or even inspirational–but almost never operational in terms of actually helping urban communities affected by disasters and crises. Acknowledging this and looking forward, we must focus on creating resilient living conditions in urban areas that are capable of withstanding the subsequent shocks of a disaster.

In Ravine Pintade, USAID worked with partners to remove rubble and help rebuild the neighborhood using two-story shelters. / Carol Han, USAID/OFDA

In Ravine Pintade, USAID worked with partners to remove rubble and help rebuild the neighborhood using two-story shelters. / Carol Han, USAID/OFDA

Take for example Haiti, where in 2010 a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked the city of Port-au-Prince, killing over 200,000 people and displacing 1.5 million more. The Ravine Pintade neighborhood was one of the hardest hit areas—nearly two-thirds of the 1,000 families living in the area were instantly made homeless. In the wake of this tragedy, USAID worked with the local community and partners, Project Concern International and Global Communities, to build back safer shelters and neighborhoods.

Ravine Pintade now has a range of disaster-resistant shelters, including what is thought to be the humanitarian community’s first-ever two-story shelters, 8,000 feet of drainage pipes, and improved access to clean water through water kiosks and rainwater harvesting systems for bathing and washing. With these risk reduction measures, Ravine Pintade is serving as a model of how to “Build Back Safer.”

Our work in hazard-prone urban areas reflects the lessons learned in Ravine Pintade. In Mixco, Guatemala, USAID and partners worked to develop the “Barrio Mio” (My Barrio) project, featuring neighborhood-level pre-disaster planning to address natural hazards and socioeconomic vulnerabilities. Thanks to that project, Mixco ended up with reconfigured neighborhoods that created a safer living space

If both humanitarian and development actors engage now and continue to work together toward operational solutions like these, then we can improve resilient living conditions in urban areas that will better withstand the shocks of future crises. We must manage the rising humanitarian risks in areas with rapid, unplanned urbanization and ensure that our humanitarian responses account for the challenges of rapid urban growth. The next time a disaster hits a densely populated city, this will ultimately help us save lives and reduce suffering.

Now is the time to make effective change and get ahead of the expanding global urban growth bubble. It is critical that the places where more and more of our species choose to live – cities – become better able to withstand the shocks of disasters and crises — making them better, safer places to live.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Charles Setchell is the Senior Shelter, Settlements, and Hazard Mitigation Advisor with USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.

U.S. Increases Funding to Nepal Earthquake Relief Effort

Military personnel unload USAID emergency supplies to be distributed to those in need in hard-hit areas following the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that devastated Nepal on April 25. / Kashish Das Shrestha for USAID

Military personnel unload USAID emergency supplies to be distributed to those in need in hard-hit areas following the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that devastated Nepal on April 25. / Kashish Das Shrestha for USAID

During my brief trip to Nepal, I witnessed firsthand the strength and courage of the Nepali people. From rescuing family and friends in the immediate aftermath of the April 25 earthquake, to sharing food and water with neighbors, the Nepali people are a model of how communities can work together in the face of tremendous loss and devastation.

The United States has stood by Nepal for more than 60 years, and USAID is working shoulder-to-shoulder with the Nepali people as part of an international relief effort.

On April 30, the USAID DART's urban search-and-rescue teams helped pull 15-year-old Pemba Tamang from the rubble, five days after the Nepal earthquake. / Chief Chris Schaff, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue

On April 30, the USAID DART’s urban search-and-rescue teams helped pull 15-year-old Pemba Tamang from the rubble, five days after the Nepal earthquake. / Chief Chris Schaff, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue

USAID deployed a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) hours after the earthquake struck to help in the search for survivors and coordinate the U.S. response to the disaster. Last week, five days after the earthquake struck, we all saw the amazing footage of the DART team saving a 15-year-old boy trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building.

Families in hard to reach places are already receiving assistance, including those in the worst-hit areas like Sindhupalchowk — a district where the earthquake destroyed 90 percent of homes. When I visited, I saw teams distributing emergency shelter materials that USAID airlifted to the region. Thousands of additional rolls of plastic sheeting are expected to arrive this week.

From Nepal, USAID Acting Administrator Alfonso E. Lenhardt announces an additional $11 million for earthquake response efforts. / Suraj Shakya for USAID

From Nepal, USAID Acting Administrator Alfonso E. Lenhardt announces an additional $11 million for earthquake response efforts. / Suraj Shakya for USAID

Building on a rapid and effective disaster response, I announced an additional $11 million toward Nepal relief efforts, bringing total U.S. humanitarian assistance to nearly $26 million. This new funding will provide additional shelter materials, critical medical supplies, safe drinking water, hygiene kits, and improved sanitation to people affected by the earthquake.

With the monsoon season fast approaching, international aid groups must work quickly. In the coming days and weeks, USAID and partner organizations will ramp up assistance with a focus on providing emergency shelter to those in need.

We have a key partner in the U.S. military, which has deployed personnel and five aircraft that will support the delivery of critical commodities to remote villages. To date, the U.S. military has flown four missions to transport emergency shelter kits to a region 100 miles east of Kathmandu. USAID is also in the process of airlifting critical medical supplies to help 40,000 people for three months. Our DART will continue aerial assessments of remote, earthquake-affected areas to make sure supplies continue to reach those in need.

Amid earthquake rubble, USAID Acting Administrator Alfonso E. Lenhardt helps distribute emergency shelter materials to families in need. / Kashish Das Shrestha for USAID

Amid earthquake rubble, USAID Acting Administrator Alfonso E. Lenhardt helps distribute emergency shelter materials to families in need. / Kashish Das Shrestha for USAID

More than a week after the earthquake, the Nepal government is shifting response efforts from rescuing survivors to relief and recovery. International foreign rescue teams are starting to leave the country. The DART is demobilizing its urban search-and-rescue teams, preparing for their return to Virginia and California.

The road to recovery will be long, but rest assured, Nepal will not walk that road alone. The people of Nepal have a longstanding partner in the United States, and we will stand with them as they recover and rebuild from this disaster.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alfonso E. Lenhardt is USAID’s Acting Administrator.

Media’s Multiple Roles in Democracy and Development

A reporter in Yerevan, Armenia scuffles with a police officer while covering a protest against the demolition of a historic building. / Photolur, IREX

A reporter in Yerevan, Armenia scuffles with a police officer while covering a protest against the demolition of a historic building. / Photolur, IREX

Reading the newspaper while sipping morning coffee and settling into an armchair to watch the evening news have long been iconic images — and for good reason. These sources of information are critical to promoting civil engagement and democracy

Today, in advance of the United Nations General Assembly’s World Press Freedom Day on Sunday, we take a moment to reflect on the vital role that journalists and media play in our daily lives and pay tribute to those who have sacrificed their lives for their profession. Operating around the clock, year-round, the media is expected to provide factual up-to-the minute reporting in addition to deeper analyses of societal issues ranging from democratic governance and free and fair elections to disaster reconstruction and reducing preventable diseases.

USAID Community Radio struggles to keep lines of communication open in a rural, isolated community in Haiti. / Nicole Widdersheim

USAID Community Radio struggles to keep lines of communication open in a rural, isolated community in Haiti. / Nicole Widdersheim

Over the last 15 years as senior media advisor for USAID’s Center of Excellence for Democracy, Human Rights and Governance, I have observed a recurrent theme of the media as a central hub of information exchange. This seems to be something almost everyone can agree on–ordinary citizens and elites alike, regardless of the issue.

This expectation was recently reiterated in Haiti, when a leading Haitian human rights activist told our USAID delegation that “everything is channeled through the media,” comparing media to a “traffic circle, where all issues must pass.” A former journalist, she understood how the media system in Haiti can be a double-edged sword. While some journalists provide accurate and professional media content, educating the public and promoting progress, others can spread misinformation, increase tensions and even undermine stability.

A man in Myanmar reads a newspaper on the street. / Kim Nguyen van Zoen, Internews

A man in Myanmar reads a newspaper on the street. / Kim Nguyen van Zoen, Internews

While in Haiti, we visited seven towns, where local focus groups talked about what they liked and disliked about the Haitian media. Individual opinions differed, but we found widespread appreciation for a few specific areas, such as the recent health information campaigns that helped reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, cholera and other illnesses.

However, Haitians across the board also expressed clear frustration with the lack of quality local news; they felt that more coverage of social issues and educational content could help the country develop faster. This kind of media, they reasoned, could help people make better life choices and engage citizens in their country’s government and development. Simply stated: People valued the power of knowledge and believed in media as a translator of information and source of empowerment.

Women radio journalists from  Radio Ibo FM 98.5 read the midday news for the listening public in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. / Nicole Widdersheim

Women radio journalists from Radio Ibo FM 98.5 read the midday news for the listening public in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. / Nicole Widdersheim

Haitians and international representatives across development sectors agreed. A medical doctor noted that “using community radio for prevention is much more cost effective” than treating diseases that could have been prevented. A specialist working to improve food safety nets added: “The more I work on health issues — including nutrition, the more I realize that the main problems arise from the public’s lack of information.”

USAID Media Officer Mark Koenig treks to the isolated, rural  community radio station, Radyo Vwa Peyizan Abriko / Radio Voice of the People of Abricot. This radio station has received support over the years from USAID and is beloved by the community, not only for sharing news and information, but also for acting in a mediation role and helping in lost and found. / Nicole Widdersheim

USAID Media Officer Mark Koenig treks to the isolated, rural community radio station, Radyo Vwa Peyizan Abriko / Radio Voice of the People of Abricot. This radio station has received support over the years from USAID and is beloved by the community, not only for sharing news and information, but also for acting in a mediation role and helping in lost and found. / Nicole Widdersheim

Throughout the world, USAID supports programs in over 30 countries to strengthen journalistic professionalism, establish media management skills and promote freer media. USAID programs are helping local media systems deliver critical information in diverse areas of development including agriculture, education, health, growth, environmental protection, resource management, conflict mitigation, election reporting and more. In countries struggling to cope with and recover from conflict, USAID also supports peace-building messaging and civil society monitoring.

As the testimony of Haitians suggested, citizens in all countries can be empowered by local media to address the issues they care about. People everywhere — across all development sectors — need trustworthy information and opportunities for public discourse. Access to information is a basic human right — freedom of press is a key foundation of this right. Today, and every day, we applaud the difficult work that journalists and media do and refocus our efforts on how best to empower media systems across the globe.
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Koenig is Senior Advisor for Independent Media Development at USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance.
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