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Fighting Ebola with Information

Youth-turned-social mobilizers in Liberia learn how to use social media tools on their cell phones to stay connected while spreading awareness about Ebola prevention in communities. / Eric King, USAID

Youth-turned-social mobilizers in Liberia learn how to use social media tools on their cell phones to stay connected while spreading awareness about Ebola prevention in communities. / Eric King, USAID

A room full of young people with heads buried in their phones is not an unfamiliar sight. In fact, this was the scene in rural Margibi County, Liberia, during a training of youth-turned-social mobilizers in late February.

The audience members weren’t distracted, though — they were following the trainer’s instructions. To foster culturally adaptive community engagement in the fight against Ebola, USAID-funded training events like these are teaching social mobilizers how to use social media tools like WhatsApp and SMS-based U-report to stay connected while they’re out in the communities, educating people about how to protect themselves from the disease.

“This is enhancing coordination, it’s cost effective, and the young people find it exciting to work with,” said Jzohn Alexander Nyahn, Jr., executive director of nongovernmental organization (NGO) CHESS Liberia.

Outsmarting the deadly Ebola virus requires that communities and response organizations work together. A key component of the USAID-led U.S. Ebola response strategy in Liberia — where they have now reached zero cases — has been arming community members and responders with the information they need to prevent Ebola transmission.

For example, at-risk communities need to know the facts about Ebola and how to prevent its spread. Rapid response teams need to know where to find suspected cases as soon as they show symptoms. Health ministries need to know which public health facilities are not yet equipped to isolate and treat infected individuals.

But these types of data originate in thousands of different places with thousands of different people, and we must get the right information into the hands of thousands more who can take action. Fast moving collective action on such a massive scale is a serious challenge.

By weaving well-placed feedback loops into human response networks, USAID, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the governments of the affected countries, and private and NGO partners have coordinated efforts to prevent, detect and treat the disease. And, in many cases, mobile phones provide the key link to connect those who have life-saving information with those who need it.

The growing ubiquity of mobile phones in the developing world is unlocking tremendous opportunities to amplify humanitarian response efforts. Liberia, for example, which is one of the world’s poorest countries, has seen an explosion in its mobile market in recent years; phone ownership rates skyrocketed from 4 percent to 60 percent in just the last decade.

In the Ebola response, information and communication technologies like mobile phones empower local and international humanitarian responders to save lives by tightening the feedback loops between those who need help and those who can offer it.

Here are a few examples of how:
Adaptive Media Crowdsourced Community Engagement Ebola Hotlines Connected Healthcare Real-time Risk Mapping
This Ebola outbreak has mobilized one of the largest public health crisis responses in history. Although it is the hard work and sacrifices of frontline responders and the people of West Africa, and not technology, that will ultimately defeat the disease, transformative technologies like mobile phones empower us to act together to get to zero cases.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eric King is an Innovation Specialist with the U.S. Global Development Lab’s Digital Development Team, who joined the USG DART in Liberia for several weeks. Follow him @eric_m_king.

In Sierra Leone, Care Kits Deliver Assistance and Hope to Families

When a call comes in to report a suspected Ebola case, Sierra Leone’s national Ebola response system kicks into high gear immediately.

An ambulance and team of health care workers are dispatched to the site to transport the sick person to an Ebola treatment unit. As a precautionary measure, the patient’s family members are isolated in their home and monitored over 21 days — the period of time when an infected person is most likely to show symptoms of Ebola.

Even when this response system works perfectly, it can take a few hours or sometimes a day due to the remote area for the ambulance to arrive with a team of health care workers appropriately clad in personal protective equipment. Without protective suits, gloves and other equipment, it is dangerous to care for an Ebola-infected person.

Untrained and inadequately protected caregivers risk exposure to the Ebola virus when they come into contact with a sick person’s vomit, diarrhea and other bodily fluids. If caregivers clean or even hug a loved one who has fallen ill, they could be contracting this life-threatening disease themselves.

A man receives an interim care kit and is now able to better protect himself from Ebola. / Paloma Clohossey, USAID/OFDA

A man receives an interim care kit and is now able to better protect himself from Ebola. / Paloma Clohossey, USAID/OFDA

To ensure that no well-meaning caregiver falls victim to Ebola, USAID is collaborating with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Medair and Lifeline to deliver life-saving interim care kits to families across Sierra Leone.

USAID’s DART Deputy Team Leader Sonia Walia has been working on the Ebola response in Sierra Leone for almost a year. / Paloma Clohossey, USAID/OFDA

USAID’s DART Deputy Team Leader Sonia Walia has been working on the Ebola response in Sierra Leone for almost a year. / Paloma Clohossey, USAID/OFDA

The kits contain critical supplies like bleach, oral rehydration salts, chlorine, soap, and gloves. Although this kit is simple, it can make the difference between life and death for caregivers.

“These kits can save lives,” says the USAID’s Ebola Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) Deputy Team Leader Sonia Walia. “Family members want to help their loved ones when they’re sick, so we need to give them the tools to do so safely. These kits are able to keep loved ones from getting sicker while also making sure caregivers are protected.”

Because people infected by Ebola lose large amounts of body fluids, extreme dehydration quickly deteriorates their health. Oral rehydration salts in USAID’s interim kits stabilize sick patients and offer victims the best chance of survival while they wait for an ambulance and health workers to arrive.

As the rainy season approaches, some remote areas of Sierra Leone will be almost impossible to access by road and air traffic. Reaching these remote communities to deliver interim care kits is more critical now than ever.

In Sierra Leone’s capital city of Freetown, USAID is working alongside our partners to deliver these interim kits — along with fresh produce and other food items — to families that are quarantined in their homes.

USAID and its partners deliver produce to quarantined homes. From left to right: Mandewa Momoh (Lifeline), Samantha Johnson (Medair), Nicholas Bishop (IOM), and Philemon Kamara (Lifeline) / Paloma Clohossey, USAID/OFDA

USAID and its partners deliver produce to quarantined homes. From left to right: Mandewa Momoh (Lifeline), Samantha Johnson (Medair), Nicholas Bishop (IOM), and Philemon Kamara (Lifeline) / Paloma Clohossey, USAID/OFDA

A day out for delivery

As part of USAID’s Ebola Disaster Assistance Response Team, I recently joined IOM, Medair and Lifeline to deliver kits to homes in the Moa Wharf neighborhood of Freetown. After reviewing the plan for the day, the Lifeline teams led us downhill into the Moa Wharf neighborhood — a dense community with narrow alleys locatable only with a local guide.

The Lifeline team members knew the area well because of their ongoing work in the neighborhood. Every day, they visit the area so they can rapidly identify and isolate suspected Ebola cases.

Moa Wharf neighborhood, a hard-hit area where many families have been under quarantine. / Nicholas Bishop, IOM

Moa Wharf neighborhood, a hard-hit area where many families have been under quarantine. / Nicholas Bishop, IOM

We soon reached the edge of a wide, muddy, trash-covered shore that stretched out towards the Atlantic Ocean. In a little while, we would make a delivery to a home that reported a suspected case of Ebola in their household.

After pausing outside the home, a group of young men and one young woman shuffled out. We offered a round of warm greetings to one another, which the Lifeline team translated from Krio to English and back again.

The Lifeline team gave them a care kit — delivered in a set of bright red buckets — and explained how to use the contents if Ebola symptoms appeared. As we moved on to the next quarantined home, one of the young men raised the two red buckets over his head like a trophy as we departed ways for another delivery.

A young man brings his care kit back to his house. Since March we have delivered 530 kits to quarantined homes. / Paloma Clohossey, USAID/OFDA

A young man brings his care kit back to his house. Since March we have delivered 530 kits to quarantined homes. / Paloma Clohossey, USAID/OFDA

The spread of the Ebola virus is due in large part to a uniquely human tendency: the desire to care for sick loved ones.

By equipping communities with the tools they need to protect themselves against contracting Ebola, we are not only stopping the spread of the outbreak, but encouraging communities to support each other in difficult times.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paloma Clohossey is an Information Officer with USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.

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.
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