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Creating an AIDS-Free Generation through Science and Technology

Last year, the United States government provided testing and counseling for more than 57 million people through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The program enrolled more than four million men in voluntary medical circumcision programs and supported more than five million orphans and vulnerable children in countries with some of the highest rates of HIV and AIDS. These are just a few of the remarkable achievements that PEPFAR has made over the past decade—a small testament to the hard work of so many who are committed to and work tirelessly every day to achieve an AIDS-free generation. These great achievements, however, would not be possible without inspiring advances in science and technology.

Women can use this ARV-based vaginal gel to protect themselves against HIV. International Partnership for Microbicides

Credit: International Partnership for Microbicides

For the first time, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) – through its Office of Science and Technology - has created an awards program that embodies the agency’s commitment to supporting innovation in science and technology applications. The Pioneers Prize pays tribute to technological advances that offer innovative solutions to critical issues facing global development. By utilizing science, technology and innovation, USAID is working toward its mission to end extreme poverty and promote resilient democratic societies.

As a key implementer of PEPFAR, USAID’s work in HIV and AIDS was well-recognized with this year’s Pioneer Prizes. Awarded three grand prizes, the Office of HIV/AIDS, along with its partners, has been able to share the transformative nature of its work with the rest of the global health and development community.

Among the grand prize winners is the Delivery Team Topping Up (DTTU) program, which uses vendor-managed inventory principles to “top up” supplies, such as condoms and HIV test kits, at public health facilities. To date, the program has serviced 1,800 clinics in Zimbabwe.

The PLACE Method, also a recipient, applies new technologies in HIV and STI testing, spatial mapping, epidemiologic theory and empiric evidence to address the problem of obtaining valid information that can prevent the spread of infections in sex workers and injecting drug users. It targets geographic areas with high rates of infection and the venues where people at high-risk meet. It then uses low-cost GPS receivers and Google Earth to identify gaps in prevention programs.

Finally, Tenofovir gel, a vaginally applied antiretroviral microbicide used to prevent HIV infection, gives women an alternative method to keep themselves safe during unprotected sex. Tested in the CAPRISA 004 trial, Tenofovir gel reduced HIV acquisition by an estimated 39 percent overall and by 54 percent in women with high gel adherence. While still awaiting the results of an ongoing confirmatory trial, regulatory approval, and scale-up, the CAPRISA 004 trial demonstrated for the first time that a microbicide has the potential to drastically reduce HIV infection for women.

With these awarded innovations, it is clear that USAID’s work toward HIV and AIDS prevention through PEPFAR remains essential to achieving our mission of ending extreme poverty. With the commitment, innovative spirit, creativity and hard work of our partners, USAID is continuously using science and technology in unprecedented ways to make great strides toward an AIDS-free generation.

250 Million Children In The World Cannot Read And USAID Is Doing Something About It

Two hundred and fifty million children in the world cannot read according to the recently released Education for All Global Monitoring Report, Teaching and Learning: Achieving Quality for All; 130 million of them are in primary school. That’s equal to more than a third of the population of the United States. If these children do not learn to read they will have fewer opportunities and struggle with learning for the rest of their lives. Learning to read in the early grades is critical and hard work. It is not a skill that can be “picked up.” With the help of teachers trained specifically to teach reading, children learn to read over time by practicing and honing their skills. Strong readers perform better in all subjects, so children who learn to read in the early grades have a better chance of graduating from high school and getting a job or pursuing a college education.

At the State of the Union the other night, I was sitting in the gallery listening to President Obama say, “One of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is a world class education.” I was on my feet applauding. His words ring true here at home and in developing countries around the world.

I’m visiting Zambia and Malawi over the next two weeks where USAID is working hard with our partners to end extreme poverty and to promote resilient, democratic societies by investing in new, results-based reading programs that start with building capacity in the existing teacher corps and in training new teachers in the best practices of teaching reading.

Children in class in Kenya

Children in class in Kenya
Photo By: Derek Brown

In Malawi, USAID partners developed a phonics-based reading program in the Chichewa language, and provided Chichewa readers to students and accompanying scripted lesson plans to their teachers. Teachers received training on the use of the materials and extensive on-site coaching to help them use them every day in their classrooms. In 2012, after two years of the implementation of this program, the proportion of 2nd graders who could read at least one word in Chichewa had risen from 5.3 to 16.8 percent. The program is now in the process of being scaled up to all districts in the nation of Malawi.

Malawi and Zambia aren’t the only countries where we’re making an impact. In Kenya, USAID is sponsoring an initiative to improve reading outcomes in Kiswahili and English in 500 primary schools. The program has introduced innovative teaching methods, new, phonics-based reading materials for mother tongue instruction, and professional development to build the skills of educators and improve student literacy outcomes. In a recent study we found that children enrolled in schools using the USAID-funded program were up to 27 times more likely to read than students in schools outside the program. This program, too, is in the process of being scaled up to reach more schools in the future so that more children in Kenya will have access to a high quality education.

In the Philippines, USAID is supporting a program known as the Improved Collection and Use of Student Reading Performance Data. Each time a teacher participating in the program conducts a reading test (in either Tagalog or English), he/she submits the test results via SMS to a Department-of-Education administered database. Teacher supervisors from the department then use this information to provide timely feedback to the teachers on their reading instruction, based on the student results. This USAID program is heightening transparency about student outcomes and tightening the feedback between teachers and their coaches, leading to an increased likelihood that teachers will identify and assist children who are not meeting grade-level expectations in reading.

Through these programs children are learning to read and will have better lives thanks to the support of the American people, and USAID will continue to do more to get all children reading and access to quality education.

Syrian Women: Critical Partners for Peace

As negotiations to halt the violence in Syria continue, I am reminded daily of the essential role that Syrian women must play in order to resolve the crisis. Two weeks ago, I represented the U.S. Government at a high-level preparatory conference organized by UN Women and the Dutch Government to prepare women for a voice in the upcoming Geneva II talks. The compelling briefings and written declarations by delegates underscored how important women’s perspectives are to progress.

Despite their widely varying views regarding the future of Syria, the women who gathered in Geneva unambiguously called for an immediate end to violence, unfettered humanitarian access, and support of the Geneva 1 communique and diplomatic negotiations. Most importantly, their declaration also emphasized that women must participate robustly in all talks.

Syrian refugees in Ankara, Turkey

Credit: AFP/Adem Altan

I have no doubt that the perspectives of women will add breadth and depth to the conversations. Syrian women and girls are experiencing the conflict in specific ways. They are coping with sexual violence that can have a significant impact on their health, well-being, and position within their families and communities. They are assuming non-traditional roles as their husbands, fathers, and brothers go off to fight or are targeted by violence. They are facing the risk of being married off young in exchange for dowries to put food on their families’ table, or to pay rent.

Last week, Geneva II negotiations began and fortunately, for the mediators and for the Syrian people, women were included on government and opposition delegations. Today, the talks focus on enabling humanitarian aid for Homs. Women at the talks are reminding delegates that a diverse coalition of women called for medical and humanitarian aid weeks ago. These women can also help garner support for negotiations back home in Homs, in Aleppo, in Damascus and elsewhere, because they represent a constituency on the ground, living the violence every day.

The participation of these women will be invaluable because like other women before them, including in Sudan, Uganda, Iraq, and among Israelis and Palestinians, they raised unique issues during negotiations. Women focus on the need to re-establish civilian security; they emphasize the need to maintain and rebuild communities; and they focus attention on the needs and interests of the displaced. Women are well-connected to war-affected communities back home; they help create lines of communication to increase local knowledge and ownership of talks and support for negotiated solutions.

As negotiations continue, women will remain a critical resource in pushing for peace. They will be able to provide insight to the situation on the ground and best strategies for rebuilding and reuniting communities torn apart by the conflict.

It is in the global community’s own interest to ensure Syrian women’s continuing role and influence in dialog and problem-solving at both the local and national levels. Without their involvement, peace is likely to be harder to attain, more tenuous, and more fragile.

USAID Welcomes the Crowd to Use Geo-Mapping Tools for Open Source Development

In 2014, USAID’s embrace of open source tools and crowdsourcing projects will continue to improve the effectiveness of U.S. development assistance while creating new opportunities for the communities where we work. USAID took the unprecedented step in June 2012 to improve government transparency by hosting a crowdsourcing event to open up access to the public to help map USAID’s loan guarantee data. Crowdsourcing leverages small amounts of volunteer time from a large group of people to finish tasks too large for a smaller group to complete. Open source development is often complementary with crowdsourcing and is helping to accelerate global innovation by promoting universal access to free software and hardware designs, which anyone can use and improve upon.

“These aren’t boxed tools that no one can fiddle with. These are evolving tools that can be improved in the future.”
Andrew Wiseman
Geographic Information Unit
Office of Transition Initiatives
USAID

USAID’s GeoCenter recently wrote about an Open Cities and Crisis Mapping initiative. The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team is an important USAID partner that applies the principles of open source mapping and open data sharing for humanitarian response and economic development. OpenStreetMap is like Wikipedia but with an intention to create a free and open map of the entire world, built entirely by volunteers.

Figure 1   – St. Marc, Haiti – OSM map with limited data

Figure 1 – St. Marc, Haiti – OSM map with limited data

In 2012, USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) partnered with OpenStreetMap to train 30 youth to map the city of Saint Marc, Haiti (compare before and after images of Figure 1 and 2). The activity produced the most complete data available anywhere for that part of the country with detailed maps of streets, houses, shops, restaurants, schools, hospitals, water points, and agricultural areas, as well as building the capacity of the youth. Some of the mappers have since worked on mapping projects for other donors, like ACTED and Mercy Corps in Haiti

The better data provided by these maps allowed for better planning and analysis, which eventually led to the generation of new project ideas. USAID’s Jessica Bryant who worked on the St. Marc and Limonade OpenStreetMap activities, said that the new technology is combined with “some basic, traditional development principles: projects work better when information and agency are in the hands of local community members, they are more successful when participants can see tangible results from their work, and ownership is key…[And] the areas where they have worked have become the best mapped cities in Haiti.” According to USAID’s Geographic Information Specialist, Andrew Wiseman, who was also involved with the OpenStreetMap activities, “OpenStreetMap often has better and more recent data than other available data sets and maps, especially in the developing world.”

Figure 2– St. Marc, Haiti – OSM map after volunteers added data

Figure 2– St. Marc, Haiti – OSM map after volunteers added data

USAID’s Learning Improvement Projects, which aims to catalyze Agency learning by sharing lessons from innovative projects, supported Wiseman’s proposal to better utilize open source mapping by beta testing FieldPapers.org within the OpenStreetMap platform. Although OpenStreetMap holds enormous potential to help development and humanitarian assistance, Wiseman saw a couple barriers to entry for non-GIS professionals and local communities that include:

  1. Challenges to downloading data from the system for research, analysis, and planning; and
  2. Difficulty taking the data into the field, using it to take notes, or document specific landmarks./li>

Wiseman envisions Fieldpapers.org as an important community mapping tool for humanitarian groups and development practitioners because Field Papers enables anyone to choose a location anywhere in the world and download an atlas from OpenStreetMap. Field Papers then allows the user to print out the atlas, take it into the field, and take notes. Field papers also allows users to take a scan or take a picture of their marked-up atlas and re-upload it onto the right location on OpenStreetMap, essentially empowering non-professional mappers to document their findings that can be shared with a global crowd for further analysis and planning.

Figure 3 - OSM map of Cite-Soleil, Haiti/Google Map of Cite-Soleil, Haiti

Figure 3 – OSM map of Cite-Soleil, Haiti/Google Map of Cite-Soleil, Haiti

OpenStreetMap and Field Papers is changing the way USAID does business by freely sharing open source mapping programs and bringing in the global community to help solve local problems. Wiseman emphasized that these “aren’t boxed tools that no one can fiddle with. These are evolving tools that can be improved in the future… Anyone can use this stuff.”

By embracing innovations in open source technology and crowd sourcing collaboration, USAID will continue to improve the effectiveness of U.S. development assistance by expanding opportunities for smarter development.

For more information on USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives, please visit: http://www.usaid.gov/political-transition-initiatives, follow us on Twitter https://twitter.com/USAIDOTI and like us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/USAIDOTI.

For more information on Open Street Map, please visit: http://www.openstreetmap.org.
For more information on Field Papers, please visit: http://www.fieldpapers.org.

Adventures in Wildlife Screening: Monitoring Wildlife Farms to Prevent Disease

Ever tried porcupine? How about wild boar? While such unusual fare may not be to everyone’s taste, there is a huge demand for wildlife meat in Vietnam, and farming of wildlife for human consumption is becoming more common. This brings wildlife into close proximity with humans and domestic livestock, resulting in a greater risk of disease crossover. Approximately 75 percent of the diseases which affect humans were sourced from animals, and of these, 72 percent originate from wild species. Recognizing the potential threat of new pandemics, USAID partners with Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to build capacity for monitoring diseases in wildlife farms.

A Predict project trainer advises how to properly collect samples at a wildlife farm in Vietnam’s Dong Nai province. Photo credit: USAID Vietnam/Laurel Fain

A Predict project trainer advises how to properly collect samples at a wildlife farm in Vietnam’s Dong Nai province.
Photo credit: USAID Vietnam/Laurel Fain

I recently participated in a surveillance training conducted by USAID’s Predict project in Dong Nai province, one of Vietnam’s top wildlife farming provinces with more than one thousand wildlife farms housing hundreds of individual wildlife species. Myself, wildlife farmers and participants from the Department of Forestry Protection (Vietnam’s park rangers) and the Department of Animal Health (farm inspectors), whose job it is to inspect farms and restaurants to make sure they’re not illegally farming or killing endangered species, gathered to learn about the most common and dangerous diseases affecting wild animals when they are enclosed, how to protect ourselves and the public from contamination when monitoring farms, and proper biosafety precautions that should be in place on livestock farms. We also learned how to collect and prepare samples for analysis by the regional laboratory. I was struck by the enthusiasm and commitment of the training participants, who all demonstrated a strong understanding of the importance of this work in protecting against infectious diseases.

As part of the training, we went out into the field to practice our new skills. My team visited one farm that produced non-endangered species of wildlife to be served in the family’s restaurant next door, including wild boar, turtles, porcupines, civets, snakes, and rats. Farm owner Mai Thi Thanh was very interested in hearing advice from the team on improving her systems, and expressed pride and concern about keeping her stock healthy. The trainees excitedly collected samples from every animal present, with some expert supervision from our trainers. The second farm we visited belonged to one of our own group of trainees, who was eager to show us his farm and to hear our suggestions for improving hygiene on his farm. He raised mouse deer, porcupine, and wild boar that had been interbred with domestic breeds.

Finally, back to classroom to compare notes: between both groups, we collected 162 samples from bears, several types of primates, rats, two species of porcupines, boars, deer, and civets. We learned from the regional laboratory specialists how these samples will be analyzed for a wide variety of infectious diseases, and brainstormed on future training needs and next steps.

I feel quite fortunate to have been able to observe this process up close, and could honestly congratulate the group on their dedication to keeping the rest of us safe from emerging pandemic threats. The participants from the Animal Health and Forestry Protection departments can now add this health feature to their normal surveillance for illegal wildlife trade. We’ll all be very interested to hear the results of the tests done on these samples and on the more than 5,400 samples previously collected by the USAID-supported project in Vietnam this year.

Read more about USAID Vietnam’s work to prevent infectious diseases.

Uncovering Success: A Holistic Approach to Taking Stock of Natural Resource Management Interventions

How do we know if development projects have impacted people’s lives? We can collect data on how many people participated in a project or how much their income increased. We can also measure the effect on the number of people with access to a service or we can count the amount of land that has been reforested. But when we know that complex development challenges take a long time to change, how do we clarify our impact beyond these specific measures and the very short project life cycle, which is usually three to five years?

Natural tree regeneration not only helps protect the environment and enhance livelihoods, but cuts down on women’s time collecting household fuel wood. Photo: Brent McCusker

Natural tree regeneration not only helps protect the environment and enhance livelihoods, but cuts down on women’s time collecting household fuel wood. Photo: Brent McCusker

This question was at the heart of a challenge recently taken up by the Agency’s Productive Landscapes Team in the Land Tenure and Resource Management Office.

Real landscape-level change takes a long time to detect and often eludes our most finely tuned impact indicators. Because environmental and landscape change happens over decades, and because human actions are often the result of many causes, E3 developed a holistic assessment methodology called “Stocktaking” and tested it in several rural Malawian landscapes.

In trying to understand both the unintended and long term impacts of our interventions, the team drew upon findings in the Sahel that show significant re-greening of the land over the last thirty years. That finding was identified only after interviewing local people and asking them about the reasons for their successes—not passing judgment on their actions, but by identifying the root causes of successful land transformations and the ways in which land users overcame barriers.

Stocktaking differs from traditional impact assessments or monitoring and evaluation methods. These latter techniques judge success or failure against a benchmark (indicator) to determine whether or not a project has met its specific goals over a bounded period of time. Stocktaking takes a different path. The focus is on long term, multi-sectoral changes, and in discovering hidden and/or unintended impacts. For instance, a Stocktaking approach might examine how an agricultural intervention led to increased food production and forest regrowth and an increase in the amount of credit in a village. This variety of different outcomes might not be captured in a traditional assessment technique.  Stocktaking can be used to identify unintended impacts long after a program or development investment has ended.

With Stocktaking in mind, the E3 team traveled to Malawi in June and again in August of this year to search for the root causes of landscape change. Malawi’s north is relatively land abundant and USAID’s interventions have built value-chains from the local environment. Practices such as beekeeping, fishing along Lake Malawi, and sustainable cash crop production are all livelihood enhancing activities that put money in the hands of farmers without damaging the natural resource base.

After using the Stocktaking methodology to interview several households and community groups, the team learned valuable lessons about the longer-term impact of USAID interventions, and many of the positive unintended consequences of natural resource management projects. For instance, respondents remarked that natural tree regeneration resulted in significant labor savings. Women were able to reduce the amount of time they spent collecting fuel wood and transfer that labor savings to other income generating activities. Natural tree regeneration also reduced the amount of conflict with park rangers of nearby conservation areas.  Beekeeping in the Nyika-Vwasa Forest Reserve generated sufficient capital for project beneficiaries to start a range of businesses.

The follow-up trip in southern Malawi in August 2013 discovered similar unintended consequences. The Stocktaking methodology was conducted on water projects in an irrigation and watershed management scheme. A key finding was that village savings and loans, a type of micro-lending institution, were critical in financing activities such as buying seeds for more diverse crops that will help farmers adapt to climate change.

Like the re-greening of the Sahel, these unintended consequences of natural resource management interventions may have fallen “under the radar” in normal monitoring and evaluation since they were not expressed goals of any single project. Additionally, natural regeneration is difficult to quantify with traditional assessment and is easy to miss with standard geospatial imagery. Stocktaking team members are in the process of examining advanced geospatial methods to determine when forested plots were either naturally regenerated or planted. By locating interventions on the map and using such images, a longer term time series analysis can be compiled to determine exactly when the landscape changed, so that Stocktaking teams can then probe deeper with stakeholders to discover why that change occurred.  A instructional guide on how to conduct a Stocktaking evaluation and a community discussion board are found at:  http://www.frameweb.org/CommunityBrowser.aspx?id=7050&lang=en-US

The Stocktaking approach is one way the USAID Forward principles of evidence-based decision making and local stakeholder participation are supporting improved development outcomes in the Malawi and beyond.

USAID Remains Focused on Typhoon Response in the Philippines

Excerpts from remarks made by Greg Beck on January 8, 2014, at a Center for Strategic and International Studies conference on the U.S. response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines

I’m always worried that after the first month or two, on a large emergency such as Typhoon Haiyan, that the attention fades because there are so many other pressing issues and disasters around the world. It’s really important to remain focused on our efforts going forward.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Greg Beck discussing continuous Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda relief operations with a DSWD representative. Photo credit: USAID.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Greg Beck discussing continuous Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda relief operations with a Philippines Department of Social Welfare and Development representative. Photo credit: USAID.


I was in Tacloban a few weeks ago, and I was able to see the immediate impacts of a long-term partnership with the Government of the Philippines. I was able to see the impact of our initial investments over the last five years in building up their capacity to mitigate the effects of these large natural disasters. I also was able to see how we’ve been working very strongly with diaspora groups, NGOs, local groups and the private sector to build the long-term relationships that we were able to put into action on day one.

USAID had been tracking the typhoon and saw that it was becoming incredibly powerful about a week before it hit land. We prepositioned a number of disaster assistance staff in Manila from our regional office in Bangkok. Within the first day, they were in Tacloban and immediately working with our colleagues from the Department of Defense (DOD), who deserve recognition for contributing to strong interagency coordination. Without the “air bridge” support DOD provided, we would not have been able to effectively deliver all the supplies that we brought in from our bases in Dubai and Miami. Over 2,000 metric tons of critical relief supplies were brought out to the secondary and tertiary distribution sites because of the air bridge — because of the C-130s, the Ospreys, the choppers, and the operational support that the Defense Department gave to the Government of the Philippines. It was incredibly critical.

Having worked in Asia for over a decade and responded to a number of natural disasters that have happened, I have to say this really was a textbook response. We had been working for a number of years to build up the network and partnerships to have the capacity to immediately respond, no matter the size of the scope of the emergency.

We are now beginning our pivot to the early recovery stage and we will continue to focus on some critical areas. Transitional shelter, livelihoods, health, cash-for-work, microfinance, temporary schools, and the rebuilding of rural health units will be very important focus areas for us over the next three to 12 months. When Secretary of State John Kerry was in Tacloban on December 18th, he announced a terrific USAID partnership with Coca Cola and Proctor & Gamble to rebuild 2,000 sari-saris — small convenience stores that provide access to important basic supplies for people who are living on less than a dollar a day. Reestablishing sari-sari stores creates income and livelihoods for families, and it is our priority to get those up and running very quickly.

It is a heavy lift going forward. We have some critical areas to address, especially in shelter, as we saw in the Washington Post article over the weekend. We’ll be working with Leyte Province and developing a Green Plan so that we’re building back not only better, but building back safer, building back healthier. The Government of the Philippines has been building their capacity and their ability to respond quickly and effectively over the last decade. We’ll continue to work very closely with the government to further strengthen that capacity, recognizing that this is not the last of the emergencies that we’re going to be seeing.

Haiti’s Recovery Won’t Happen Overnight

This blog post originally appeared on Devex.

Each morning, the bulky, unwieldy vehicle navigates an uneven, rocky path that in some areas of Haiti is a common road. Only my seatbelt keeps me from hitting the roof as I make my way to the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince.

A row of damaged houses and buildings in the Cité Soleil neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Four years after the disaster, almost 75 percent of earthquake rubble has been removed and 89 percent of the 1.5 million displaced population have left camps for alternative housing options.

A row of damaged houses and buildings in the Cité Soleil neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Four years after the disaster, almost 75 percent of earthquake rubble has been removed and 89 percent of the 1.5 million displaced population have left camps for alternative housing options. Photo by: Andre Mellagi / CC BY-NC-ND

A newcomer to the country, I see each day during my journey a small remaining camp for Haitians displaced by the catastrophic 2010 earthquake. Living in temporary tent shelters, they, children among them, are still waiting for a new place to call home. Then, recently, I noticed that the camp was emptying.

Almost four years after the earthquake, 89 percent of Haiti’s 1.5 million internally displaced persons have left the tent camps for alternative housing options. Almost 75 percent of earthquake rubble has been removed. Security throughout the country has improved and, recognizing the importance of employment, the government is committed to attracting foreign investment, with agriculture, tourism and the apparel industry the most promising growth areas. Health indicators are up, with improvements in infant and child mortality rates and more public access to health services.

International donors — among them the U.S. Agency for International Development — have learned lessons along the way in Haiti in terms of how we can do better.

As the country leaves behind the era of post-earthquake relief and focuses now on longer-term development, USAID is striving to build the capacity of local organizations to lead and manage development initiatives.

This necessarily involves building public and private institutions so Haitians can lead and manage their own development. On our part, we are enhancing the capacity of the Ministry of Health to manage a national healthcare system using its own human and financial resources, so it will no longer be dependent on donors. Similarly, efforts are underway to build the financial and programmatic capacity of local NGOs to provide services and advocacy that are too often provided by international organizations. The country must also advance the rule of law, a prerequisite to the creation of durable institutions and economic growth.

Every USAID mission director’s goal is to help the host country one day reach a point when it no longer needs foreign economic assistance. Indeed, all donors and development organizations should be devoted to that goal. In Haiti, this will not happen overnight. But four years after the earthquake, Haiti remains a U.S. government priority to continue and improve our efforts to help Haitians building the opportunity and prosperity they are capable of and that they are so deserving.

John Groarke is USAID Mission Director in Haiti since August 2013. An expert in international law and counter-insurgency, he previously served in hotspots like Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and Morocco, as well as senior legal advisor for West Africa and South Asia.

Empowering Moms Through mHealth

This blog post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

My heart smiled the moment the four women entered the meeting room where I had been waiting. I stood to greet them and the babies they carried, eager to hear their stories. The young mothers sat in the chairs across from us and soon the babies were all up on the table, their proud moms making certain that we could see their precious little ones. The youngest baby was 4½ months old, the oldest 14 months. They were all adorable.

USAID harnesses the power of mobile phones to achieve results.

Credit: USAID

The conversation was lively. One young mother, Letty, described her pregnancy. Living in Johannesburg, she was far from her home country, Zimbabwe, and far from her mother,aunts,grandmother or anyone she trusted to give her the advice and information she craved.The cost of phoning these trusted relatives was prohibitive, so Letty found support when she enrolled to receive text messages via her mobile phone from MAMA, the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action. “I’m here. I’m alone. The SMS messages helped me a lot. They helped me feel that someone is there,” Letty told me.

MAMA South Africa was launched with the support of global partners USAID, Johnson & Johnson, the United Nations Foundation, the mHealth Alliance, and BabyCenter. In addition, Vodacom joined the South Africa partnership, offering MAMA’s mobile website, askmama.mobi, free-of-charge to its 25 million customers. The goal of MAMA is to deliver health messages that moms need at specific milestones during pregnancy and during the first year of their baby’s development.

An existing South African mHealth partnership helped bring MAMA South Africa to life: Cell-Life, Praekelt Foundation and WRHI at the University of the Witwatersrand. Through MAMA, new and expectant mothers receive messages that address important topics such as nutrition during pregnancy, how to prepare for childbirth and recognizing signs of trouble which, if unheeded, can lead to difficulties in labor and delivery.

I sat across from these four women who had benefited from the MAMA partnership and listened carefully as they described their experiences. For these mothers, the SMS messages calmed their fears. One of the women, Faith, said that she had enrolled in the program when she was five months pregnant and had found reassurance in the MAMA texts. “The messages sometimes tell you, ‘This is normal’ and then you don’t worry,” she said. Letty added that when her baby was up all night, she received a message that said “Your baby may be teething” and this convinced her that nothing was wrong with her baby.

Another mom, Ntando was seven months pregnant and already had one child when she enrolled in the MAMA program. On the day of our meeting, her baby boy was already five months old. “The way we raised the first one is different from the way we raise this one.” She looked at her son and then added a comment about MAMA. “They’ll help me raise this one,” she said.

The third woman, Memory, signed up to receive MAMA messages when her baby was five months old. She said that she appreciated the help in “how to say ‘no’ to my son.” Memory also told us that she found the messages so helpful that she shares them with a friend who does not have a phone.

Faith visits the MAMA website with her husband and they learn together. Her praise for MAMA struck a particular chord for me – “I like them because they don’t just take care of the baby, they also take care of the moms.”

As our time together drew to a close, I thanked Letty, Memory, Faith and Ntando for taking the time to meet with us. Many of their comments have stayed with me, but none more than this one: “You feel like you are alone, and these SMS messages make you feel loved.”

The MAMA partnership is based on the power and promise of mobile phones in empowering mothers to make healthy decisions for themselves and their babies. What a wonderful added – and unexpected — benefit that MAMA also makes moms feel loved.

FrontLines: Depleting Resources

FrontLines November-December 2013: Depleting Resources

Read the latest edition of USAID’s FrontLines to learn more about the Agency’s long-standing investments in biodiversity conservation and natural resources management. Some highlights:

  • A new generation of Cambodians is now living on forest land that has been officially recognized and titled to them. More confident in their present, they are working now to prevent deforestation and conserve the land for future generations.
  • Community-based conservation is making life better for people in western Tanzania who rely on the Miombo forests as workplace, fuel station, medicine cabinet and, most importantly, home.
  • The end of a typical day at the office for the Palawan NGO Network in the Philippines finds a desk of oily chainsaws piled to the ceiling. Find out more from USAID’s Scott Lampman about what it takes to curb illegal logging in this country’s vital forests.
  • Preserving natural resources is good for people, animals, plants and, sometimes, the bottom line. Ecotourism establishments in Jordan are helping their nearby communities prosper and allowing tourists a chance to see endangered creatures like the Arabian oryx, the Houbara Bustard and the Saker falcon.
  • Click on FrontLines‘ new podcast, which takes listeners on an adventure high above the treetops of a part of Ghana that is one of the world’s 22 critical biodiversity hot spots.

If you want an e-mail reminder in your inbox when the latest issue of FrontLines has been posted online, subscribe here.

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