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NASA Earth Data Jumpstarts World’s Aspiring Researchers

Question: What do you get when you mix NASA data, USAID’s development expertise, and some of the best young scientific minds the world can offer?

Answer: Some of the most promising ideas to help solve the world’s biggest challenges

In early April, a select group of fellows for the USAID and NASA My Community Our Earth (MyCOE) program travelled to Washington D.C. where experts from the two agencies, the Association of American Geographers, and U.S. Universities and NGOs proffered advice and encouragement on continuing their research and their careers.

International students in MyCOE fellowship program pose with USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah. / Brandy Ajose

International students in MyCOE fellowship program pose with USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah. / Brandy Ajose

The MYCOE fellowship program supports the next generation of scientific leaders from developing countries to create innovative, science-based solutions to meet their countries’ development challenges. These students – who hail from some of the poorest, most climate-vulnerable countries in the world in East and West Africa, the Himalayas and Southeast Asia – used NASA satellite information to develop tools and approaches that bring higher incomes to those in poverty and help protect their country’s most vulnerable from potential disasters.

Their innovative solutions range from monitoring frost to improve tea crops in Kenya, to predicting glacier melting patterns to prevent catastrophic outburst floods in Nepal. Here are some highlights:

Helping Kenya’s Tea Fight Frostbite

(1) SERVIR in Africa is installing Wireless Sensor Networks in Kenya to help tea growers fight crop-killing frost.  / Servir

SERVIR in Africa is installing Wireless Sensor Networks in Kenya to help tea growers fight crop-killing frost. / Servir

Aberdere and Mount Kenya are among Kenya’s top areas for growing tea, a crucial crop for the region’s smallholder growers. Recently, frequent frosts in the region — a weather phenomenon that could worsen due to climate change — have led to severe crop damage and income losses for tea growers. Susan Malaso, a student at Kenyatta University in Nairobi is addressing this challenge head on. With support from NASA and USAID, Susan is using Geographic Information System (GIS) and remote sensing data to map and predict frost risk in the region. The project produces data on frost trends to help farmers plan their planting schedules, choose the most frost-tolerant crops, and select the safest locations for planting their higher value tea crops. The data will also inform crop insurance programs that will help smallholder farmers recover from severe crop damage. Ultimately, this will help a wide range of Kenyans employed by the tea industry and promote sustainable economic growth, even in the face of climate change.


Helping Thai Fishermen Weather a Changing Climate

Fish market in Gizo, Solomon Islands

Fish market in Gizo, Solomon Islands / USAID, CTSP, Tory Read

Jirawat Panpeng, a doctoral student at the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand, is researching the vulnerability of coastal fishery communities in the Laemsing district of Thailand. Laemsing has been affected by rising sea levels and associated soil erosion and flooding, a phenomenon linked to climate change. Using climate simulation and GIS software, Panpeng’s results are helping to raise awareness among both government officials and local communities on the need to develop adaptation measures such as improved infrastructure to adapt to climate fluctuations.


Protecting Burma’s Lake Ecosystem

Burma’s Inle Lake attracts thousand of tourists each year but its fragile ecosystem is in danger.  / Kelly Ramundo, USAID

Burma’s Inle Lake attracts thousand of tourists each year but its fragile ecosystem is in danger. / Kelly Ramundo, USAID

Khi Seint Seint Aye, another AIT student, is studying the impact of floating gardens on the environment of Inle Lake in central Burma. This lake attracts thousands of local and international tourists each year because of its scenic beauty and the rich ethnic and cultural diversity of surrounding communities, who live in stilt houses in and around the lake and derive their livelihood from aquaculture, fishing and floating garden aquaculture. Floating gardens are one of the highlights of the lake’s cultural heritage; however, the lake can sustain only a limited amount of such gardening without compromising its natural balance. Seint Seint will assess the impact of the gardens on the lake’s ecosystem using a participatory rural appraisal, water analyses, and remote sensing and GIS technologies facilitated by SERVIR. The results of her research will be used to conduct an awareness campaign with local and national stakeholders and to develop a mitigation plan to prevent the collapse of the lake’s ecosystem.

10 Ways the U.S. Government is Fighting Global Climate Change (that you’ve never heard about)

Photo Credit: Daniel Byers, SkyShip Films 2011

Nepals Imja Lake / Daniel Byers, SkyShip Films 2011

1. In Nepal, rapidly expanding glacial lakes are often unstable and prone to burst their banks, washing out communities below. USAID is working with high-mountain communities to help measure the impact of melting glaciers on Imja Lake, not far from Mount Everest base camp.

Read about how we’re helping bring Andean expertise to Nepal’s glacial lake region.


Wheat farmers in Kazakhstan are learning about the expected climate change impacts on their crop.

Wheat farmers in Kazakhstan are learning about the expected climate change impacts on their crop. / USAID

2. In Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s breadbasket, USAID is working with the government to ensure wheat farmers get better weather and climate forecasts to make better planting and harvest decisions. A severe drought in 2012 slashed Kazakhstan wheat harvests by half, contributing to a worldwide food shortage that led the World Bank to issue a global hunger warning.

Read more about how we’re helping to preserve “Asia’s breadbasket.”


Ethiopian Sheep

Ethiopian Sheep / Nena Terrell, USAID

3. Cows, camels, goats and sheep are the lifeblood of pastoralist farmers in Kenya and Ethiopia. But these poor farmers live with the constant threat that a severe drought, like the one in 2009, could decimate herds and flocks. USAID is working with locals to develop livestock insurance, new water conservation practices and other measures so pastoralists can survive and bounce back from severe droughts.

Read more about how East Africa’s dryland herders are taking out a policy on survival.


Forest measurement demonstration near Lae by staff of Forest Research Institute, Papua New Guinea.

Forest measurement demonstration near Lae by staff of Forest Research Institute, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Low Emission Asia Forests project / USAID, RDMA

4. Worldwide, forest destruction generates more greenhouse gas emissions each year than do all the trains, planes and cars on the planet. Worldwide, 50 soccer fields of forest are lost every minute of every day, and forests in Southeast Asia are being cleared faster than almost anywhere on earth. In Papua New Guinea, USAID is working to teach forest carbon measurement techniques so that local people and communities can show the progress they are making conserving tropical forest.


multispectral imagery of the Nzoia River basin

The Nzoia River basin lies entirely within the Lake Victoria basin in Kenya. The SERVIR-Africa team captured multispectral imagery of the Nzoia River basin from the NASA’s EO-1 satellite on August 23, 2008 to provide baseline imagery of this frequently flooded area for future analysis. / NASA, EO-1

5. Fighting climate change requires good data. USAID and NASA partner to provide satellite-based Earth observation data and science applications to help developing nations improve their environmental decision-making as well as monitor other issues like famines, floods and disease outbreaks. We are currently working with Tanzania’s weather agency to use satellite data to map climate and weather risks and to create early warning systems, including for malaria outbreaks.

Read more about how USAID uses data to better manage land resources.


The Russian boreal forest

The Russian boreal forest / Vladimir Savchenko

6. What happens when anyone can become a forest ranger? USAID is supporting World Resources Institute with the Global Forest Watch interactive global forest mapping tool. The online tool allows people to access – or upload – near real-time information about what is happening on the ground in forests around the world.


Southern downtown section of Hue. Photo: Spencer Reeder, Cascadia Consulting

Southern downtown section of Hue. / Spencer Reeder, Cascadia Consulting

7. In 2006, the Vietnamese city of Hue was paralyzed for days, submerged under more than six feet of floodwater after a large rain. USAID today helps Hue and other at-risk coastal cities anticipate and address the repeated flooding and other climate impacts on roads and energy systems by helping them plan smarter cities that can weather climate events. In Hue, we are helping urban planners customize and apply a tailored software tool that anticipates the effects of climate change on critical infrastructure.

Read more about how USAID is helping build a climate-smart Vietnam.


Asma Molla with her husband Jalal, their five sons, and their two solar lamps.

Asma Molla with her husband Jalal, their five sons, and their two solar lamps. / Souradeep Ghosh, Arc Finance

8. Worldwide, more than 1.4 billion people lack access to electricity, and 2.8 billion lack access to modern cooking fuels and devices. In Uganda, India and Haiti, USAID is helping low-income people buy devices that improve their incomes and quality of life, and reduce carbon emissions at the same time by expanding the availability of consumer financing for clean energy products. We are also helping 13 companies develop and test business models that will make it easier for tens of thousands of poor people to purchase clean energy products such as solar lanterns and clean cookstoves.

Check out how USAID’s Renewable Energy Microfinance and Microenterprise Program is improving the quality of life of low-income populations while at the same time helping USAID partners to reduce carbon emissions.

Read more about how the Renewable Energy Microfinance and Microenterprise Program is bringing clean energy to people who live most of their lives in the dark.


Fish market in Gizo, Solomon Islands

Fish market in Gizo, Solomon Islands / USAID CTSP, Tory Read

9. Ever hear of the Coral Triangle? This  massive swath of ocean in between Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste is not only likely where your seafood dinner came from – it’s reefs also buffer shorelines against waves, storms and floods, helping to prevent loss of life, property damage and land erosion. But today, as much as 90 percent of Coral Triangle reefs (and the 360 million people that depend on them) are threatened by overfishing, population growth, development, pollution and the impacts of climate change. USAID helps protect this “amazon of the seas” by helping the six Coral Triangle nations better manage the most biodiverse and productive ocean region in the world.

Read more about how the Coral Triangle Initiative is helping protect this unique marine wonder and check out this photostory.


A Cofan shaman.

Strengthening their organizations has enabled the indigenous Cofan people to preserve their cultural identity and ancient knowledge / Thomas J. Müller

10. Deforestation is a major contributor to climate change. Several studies show that deforestation and illegal trafficking of species are significantly lower in indigenous territories, even when compared with natural protected areas, such as national parks and reserves. USAID is equipping indigenous populations to become active guardians of the Amazon biome in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, and is investing in youth who will continue the fight to preserve the native culture and territory as future scientists, lawyers, doctors and political leaders.

Serbia Plugs Into Cow Power

In the past, I would speed up when driving by a farm. The only thing I could think of was the awful smell that made me hold my breath. Now, I slow down and think of endless supplies of clean energy, thanks to a USAID project that is helping convert manure into renewable energy– all the while, banking on American industrial expertise.

On one farm in Blace, a town of 11,000 people in southern Serbia, 700 cows produce thousands of gallons of manure each day. But this farm’s waste does not “go to waste.”

With support from USAID’s Agribusiness Project, manure from the Lazar Dairy is being “digested” by Serbia’s first biogas plant and converted into electricity, which the dairy sells to the national electricity company, EPS, at a preferential rate applicable to renewable energy suppliers.

Lazar pays about €0.05/kWh for the electricity it purchases from EPS, but it will receive about three times as much for the electricity that it sells to power company.

Lazar Dairy Biogas Plant 5

A DAI-led USAID project supported the construction of Serbia’s Lazar Dairy new biogas plant. The plant was designed by DVO Inc., of Chilton, Wisconsin, a leading U.S. designer and builder of anaerobic digesters.

Ushering the $2 million plant from drawing board to full operation took two-years. USAID’s Agribusiness Project acted as the “matchmaker” between Lazar Dairy and DVO, Inc., of Wisconsin, a leading U.S. designer and builder of anaerobic digesters.

The dairy had faced significant problems dealing with its manure, a major pollution issue. Now, this is virtually eliminated by the digester — a sealed container — as is the odor problem. Since its inauguration in May 2012, the plant has been operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, feeding up to 1 MW of renewable electrical energy into the national electrical grid every month—enough to power more than 1,000 homes.

In addition to generating biogas that powers the generator, the leftover solids and liquids are filtered and used for cow bedding and as fertilizer. The recycling of other organic waste (such as whey from cheese production at the farm) results in a liquid fertilizer and waste heat in the form of hot water that can be used to heat buildings.

Lazar Dairy Biogas Plant 3

A DAI-led USAID project supported the construction of Serbia’s Lazar Dairy new biogas plant. The plant was designed by DVO Inc., of Chilton, Wisconsin, a leading U.S. designer and builder of anaerobic digesters.

“The introduction of the bio-digester completely changed our business operations. We now have a steady cash inflow and dispose of our waste without harm to the environment,” said Milan Vidojevic, owner of the Lazar Dairy and one of Serbia’s most successful entrepreneurs.

Bolstering technological innovations like these, which encourage economic growth both abroad and at home, while supporting responsible agricultural practices, is a priority at USAID.

“This investment demonstrates that environmentally sound production can increase profits AND provide wide reaching benefits for the whole community. The U.S. Government is proud to have facilitated this process, through which this American technology has found its way to Blace,” said the former U.S. Ambassador to Serbia, Mary Warlick.

Lazar Dairy, which employs 120 people, is an economic engine for villages around Blace. In addition to its dairy farm, Lazar buys up to 45,000 liters (12,000 gallons) of milk per day from a network of more than 2,000 local farmers within a 100-kilometer radius. Its processing plant converts this raw milk to processed milk, yogurt, creams, and cheeses.

As a result of USAID’s assistance since early 2009, the company has generated annual sales of nearly $1 million, which translates to more than $600,000 in cash payments to the 2,000 raw-milk suppliers. Should future environmental regulations in Serbia allow it, the dairy would be eligible for additional revenue through the sale of carbon credits.

Eight Facts About ZunZuneo

On Thursday, April 3, the Associated Press published an article on a social media program in Cuba funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The article contained significant inaccuracies and false conclusions about ZunZuneo, which was part of a broader effort that began in 2009 to facilitate “twitter like” communication among Cubans so they could connect with each other on topics of their choice. Many of the inaccuracies have been re-reported by other news outlets, perpetuating the original narrative, or worse.

Photo credit: Manpreet Romana/AFP

Photo credit: Manpreet Romana/AFP

The article suggested that USAID spent years on a “covert” program to gather personal information to be used for political purposes to “foment” “smart mobs” and start a “Cuban spring” to overthrow the Cuban government.  It makes for an interesting read, but it’s not true.

USAID’s work in Cuba is not unlike what we and other donors do around the world to connect people who have been cut off from the outside world by repressive or authoritarian governments. USAID’s democracy and governance work focuses on strengthening civil society, governance, and promoting human rights.

Here are eight claims made by article, followed by the facts:

1) The story says the “program’s legality is unclear” and implies the program was “covert.”

FACT:  USAID works in places where we are not always welcome. To minimize the risk to our staff and partners and ensure our work can proceed safely, we must take certain precautions and maintain a discreet profile. But discreet does not equal covert.

The programs have long been the subject of Congressional notifications, unclassified briefings, public budget requests, and public hearings. All of the Congressional Budget Justifications published from 2008 through 2013, which are public and online, explicitly state that a key goal of USAID’s Cuba program is to break the “information blockade” or promote “information sharing” amongst Cubans and that assistance will include the use or promotion of new “technologies” and/or “new media” to achieve its goals.

In 2012, the Government Accountability Office—the U.S. government’s investigative arm—spent months looking at every aspect of USAID’s Cuba programs. GAO’s team of analysts had unrestricted access to project documents, extended telephone conversations with Mobile Accord (ZunZuneo) and even traveled to Cuba. The GAO identified no concerns in the report about the legality of USAID’s programs, including ZunZuneo, and offered USAID zero recommendations for improvements.

2) The article implies that the purpose of the program was to foment “Smart Mobs,” funnel political content and thereby trigger unrest in Cuba.

FACT:  The “USAID documents” cited in the article appear to be case study research and brainstorming notes between the grantee and the contractor.  The specific reference to “Smart Mobs” had nothing to do with Cuba nor ZunZuneo. The documents do not represent the U.S. government’s position or reflect the spirit or actions taken as part of the program in Cuba.  The project initially sent news, sports scores, weather, and trivia.  After which, the grantee did not direct content because users were generating it on their own.

3) The story states there was a “shell company” in Spain formed to run the program.

FACT:  No one affiliated with the ZunZuneo program established a private company in Spain as part of this program.  The project sought to do so if it was able to attract private investors to support the effort after USAID funding ended.  Private investment was never identified and thus no company was ever formed.

4) The story implies that the USG tried to recruit executives to run ZunZuneo without telling them about USG involvement.

FACT:  A USAID staff member was present during several of the interviews for candidates to lead ZunZuneo.  The staff member’s affiliation with USAID was disclosed and it was conveyed that the funding for the program was from the U.S. Government.

5) The article states that private data was collected with the hope it would be used for political purposes.

FACT: The ZunZuneo project included a website, as is typical for a social network.  Users could voluntarily submit personal information. Few did, and the program did not use this information for anything.

6) The article says that the funding was “publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan,” implying that funds were misappropriated.

FACT: All funds for this project were Congressionally appropriated for democracy programs in Cuba, and that information is publicly available.

7) The story stated, “At its peak, the project drew in more than 40,000 Cubans to share news and exchange opinions.”

FACT: At its peak, the platform had around 68,000 users.

8) The article suggests there was an inappropriate base of operations established in Costa Rica outside of normal U.S. government procedures.

FACT: The Government of Costa Rica was informed of the program on more than one occasion.  The USAID employee overseeing the program served under Chief of Mission Authority with the U.S. Embassy, as is standard practice.

We welcome tough journalism – and we embrace it.  It makes our programs better.  But we also believe it’s important that the good work of USAID not be falsely characterized.

Commemorating World Health Day

In his State of the Union address, President Obama called upon our nation to join with the world in ending extreme poverty in the next two decades. Today, we have new tools that enable us to achieve a goal that was simply unimaginable in the past: the eradication of extreme poverty and its most devastating corollaries, including widespread hunger and preventable child and maternal death.

Preventing and controlling vector-borne diseases, diseases carried by insects, ticks and small animals, is central to achieving President Obama’s vision of ending extreme poverty. On World Health Day, commemorated each year on April 7, the World Health Organization (WHO) highlights actions we can all take to protect ourselves from the serious diseases that these “vectors” can cause.

Children wash their hands in Ghana, where USAID supports prevention and treatment of trachoma, a blinding eye disease.  International Trachoma Initiative (ITI) ..

Children wash their hands in Ghana, where USAID supports prevention and treatment of trachoma, a blinding eye disease.
International Trachoma Initiative (ITI) ..

More than half of the world’s population is at risk from vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever and neglected tropical diseases. The most commonly known vectors include mosquitoes, sandflies, bugs, ticks and snails, which are responsible for transmitting a wide range of parasites and pathogens contributing to deadly diseases.

Senegal: Demonstrating the proper use of ITNs in Senegal. Photo Credit: Maggie Hallahan

Senegal: Demonstrating the proper use of ITNs in Senegal. Photo Credit: Maggie Hallahan

Below, we highlight solutions to combat extreme poverty and vector-borne diseases.

Solutions

  • In this scene-setter, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah explains how USAID and its partners have embraced the challenge of creating a world without extreme poverty.
  • In “A Call to Action to End Extreme Poverty,” Alex Thier and Ilyse Stempler discuss how USAID and its partners are adopting an integrated, holistic approach that capitalizes on their collective expertise. They share past successes in addressing extreme poverty and introduce some new ideas to finish the job.
  • In “Your Voice,” a continuing FrontLines feature, Adm. Tim Ziemer, U.S. Global Malaria Coordinator, shares his perspective on leading a major presidential initiative to end deaths from malaria
  • Katherine Sanchez profiles Ghana’s efforts to become the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to eliminate trachoma, the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness.
  • A Yumbe survey team learns how to use electronic tablets to collect data on trachoma.  Christine Ninsiima

    A Yumbe survey team learns how to use electronic tablets to collect data on trachoma.
    Christine Ninsiima

    And in “Trachoma vs. Technology,” Phil Downs and Scott Torres uncover efforts to capture and analyze data quickly on mobile electronic tablets in rural Uganda. This approach is transforming the battle against an ancient eye disease, for which timely treatment can prevent blindness.

  • Students prepare to take part in a mapping survey at Pav Primary School in Rattanakiri.  Credit: Chan Vitharin ..

    Students prepare to take part in a mapping survey at Pav Primary School in Rattanakiri.
    Credit: Chan Vitharin ..

    In “Wiping Snail Fever Off Cambodia’s Map – by Drawing It On,” Sokhon Sea delves into an effort to enlist many, including school children, on a mission to wipe out the infection that can lead to debilitating illness and malnutrition and cognitive difficulties in children.

  • Finally, Ann Varghese and Chris Glass explore a unique drug-shoe combination that could stomp out two debilitating diseases endemic to Haiti and how wearing new sneakers kicks up that protection even more by creating a barrier between parasites and kids’ feet.

 

U.S. Global Development Lab Launches to Develop and Scale Solutions to Global Challenges

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton & Dr. Rajiv Shah on April 3, 2014 at the New York launch of the Global Development Lab

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton & Dr. Rajiv Shah on April 3, 2014 at the New York launch of the Global Development Lab

Imagine a world in which diagnostics for diseases that are prevalent in developing countries are available at pennies per use, renewable off-grid energy services are affordable for households earning less than $2/day, and every family has enough healthy food to eat.  USAID is helping to turn these ideas into realities by launching the U.S. Global Development Lab. The Lab is a critical part of delivering on the President’s commitment to game-changing innovation in the first-ever Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development.

The Lab’s creation is part of a strategic decision to emphasize innovation as one of the critical tools needed to end extreme poverty and achieve broad-based economic growth in light of a number of converging trends:

  • Recognition that quality of life and economic improvements in developing countries over the last few decades can be traced in large part to the use of scientific advances such as improved agricultural seeds and practices, oral rehydration therapy, vaccines, and the cell phone.
  • Emphasis on leveraging U.S. core competencies.  America is a global leader in innovation and invests $453 billion in public and private research and development annually.  It also has 17 of the top 20 research universities, and world-class innovation hubs such as Silicon Valley and Cambridge, MA.
  • The information economy is changing the way innovation occurs and is increasingly enabling people in even the most remote parts of the world to use mobile communications and data to learn, co-create, and deploy solutions locally and globally.
  • The emergence of new pathways to scale innovations via for-profit or social business models that are made possible by a surge in private sector investment in developing countries.  These pathways are critical since they exceed the level and reach of official assistance by the U.S. Government.
Farmers using a SuperMoneyMaker pump.

The U.S. Global Development Lab puts tools in place to create and scale solutions to global challenges in partnership with public and private innovators around the world, USAID Missions, and interagency colleagues.  The Lab has Centers that will focus on Data Analysis and Research (problem definition), Development Innovation (ideas), and Global Solutions (scale).  It will also have teams dedicated to private sector and Mission partnerships, and evaluation and impact.

The Lab brings together a number of existing programs from across the innovation pipeline: Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER), the Higher Education Solutions NetworkGrand Challenges for DevelopmentDevelopment Innovation VenturesMobile Solutions, and Global Development Alliances.

Students using mobile devices

We believe that the U.S. Global Development Lab can help lead the transformation of the U.S. development enterprise and strengthen critical initiatives including Power AfricaFeed the Future and Global Health by increasing USAID’s ability to:

  • Invest in breakthrough technologies;
  • Scale what works;
  • Attract scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to work at USAID, and harness the growing interest of young people in development;
  • Leverage America’s $453 billion investment in public and private R&D – which can often have significant benefits for the developing world;
  • Effectively partner with governments, the private sector, researchers, investors, and civil society – at home and abroad; and
  • Excel at using new approaches to solve hard development problems, including Grand Challenges, incentive prizes, and other “pull” mechanisms, crowdsourcing, impact investing in inclusive businesses, managing a “pipeline” of innovations, user-centered design, and the formation of global “communities of practice.”

Cross-posted from the White House Blog.

FrontLines: The End of Extreme Poverty

FrontLines March/April 2014: The End of Extreme Poverty
Read the latest edition of USAID’s FrontLines to learn about the Agency’s plans for eliminating extreme poverty within the next two decades. Some highlights:

The Courage of Atefa: Afghan Women Learn to be Candidates

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

Women provincial council candidates in training.

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

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

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

And Atefa is not alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Texts Connect Midwives to Mothers in Timor-Leste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eye in the Sky Moves Mountains in Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Rajiv Shah meets local scientists at SERVIR Himalaya.

Dr. Rajiv Shah meets local scientists at SERVIR Himalaya.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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