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Archives for Democracy and Governance

Applying New and Existing Technologies to Atrocity Prevention

Over the past year, I’ve had the honor to be part of the team at USAID implementing the President’s vision of preventing and responding to mass atrocities, including through my service on the White House’s Atrocity Prevention Board.  I have deep personal connections to the issue of atrocity prevention, having worked throughout my career on countries in the midst of conflict where such atrocities have occurred, from Rwanda to Angola to Libya.

Knowing all too well the challenges – internal and external – that a government faces as it attempts to prevent or disrupt these horrific events, I have steered our team at USAID toward expanding the tools available to us and training and equipping our staff to improve our vigilance and response.  In this regard, much more can be done to take advantage of developments in technology.  So many more technologies are available to us today than existed during the Rwanda genocide, and we must harness them to build new capabilities in early warning, remote sensing, safe evidence collection, and elsewhere.

This awareness prompted a conversation that culminates with the contest launch of the Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention on October 31.  This exciting effort, co-sponsored by USAID and Humanity United, builds on our new commitment to open source development.  Instead of just drawing on the skill and imagination of our staff, we are engaging a broader community and posing fundamental questions and challenges to new problem-solvers, including students, coders, tech firms, and other innovative thinkers.

The challenges we seek to address through the Tech Challenges are at the heart of barriers we face in ending the cycle of violence in fragile countries.  What new tools or mobile apps can help activists safely document the physical evidence needed to hold abusers accountable and/or support transitional justice processes long after the violence abates?  How can new social media platforms and other tools build pressure on governments to respond, and on the private sector to address the enabling role served by resources generated from conflict minerals and other products?  How can we better monitor hate speech that is often a precursor and instigator of violence?  These are tough questions, but we need answers, fresh perspectives and new ideas.

Please visit the site, share the trailer via social media and forward this to friends, colleagues, or classmates who might help.  Our partner Humanity United will be hosting a Twitter Q&A on Thursday, November 1st at 2 p.m. EST via @HUTweets and #genprevtech to answer your questions about the Tech Challenge.

We look forward to seeing the new ideas you identify in this Tech Challenge, and we’re excited about the broader range of possibilities that open source development will yield.


*Updated to reflect change in event date*

Got Milk? 300,000 Kenyan Dairy Farmers Do

Kenya dairy farmers participating in USAID program. Photo credit: Robin Johnson/USAID

As a Dairy Value Chain Coordinator, I help Kenyan farmers apply innovative ideas and technologies to increase milk production by changing the way they manage their dairy cows.  I’m able to do this through the USAID-supported Kenya Dairy Sector Competitiveness Program, which aims to increase the quantity and quality of milk produced by smallholder farmers, and to link them to the growing market for dairy products. By teaching the dairy farmers more efficient techniques, production has increased, raising incomes and helping them adapt to unforeseen environmental shocks and stresses.

The dairy sector in Kenya contributes 14 percent of agricultural GDP and four percent of overall GDP, and is growing by five percent or more each year. We’ve worked with the Government of Kenya to help produce a National Dairy Master Plan with the objective of achieving a seven percent annual rate of growth in the sector.

Sara Maiya is a Kenyan farmer who, wanting to learn how to better allocate her resources and get the most out of her herd, attended one of our workshops.  As a result, Sara began to grow her own fodder, manually cutting and storing it to preserve it for the dry season. She dug a shallow well to have water for her cows year round. She adopted a zero-grazing approach, which we recommend as a best practice for farmers with small plots of land.

As a result, Sara has seen her milk production increase from 5 liters to 15 liters per day per cow. As her yields increased, Sara went from selling her milk to a local milk café to joining a dairy farmers’ cooperative that bulk sells her milk with other farmers who in turn sells to a commercial dairy processor. Along with the other farmers in the cooperative, Sara has instituted new techniques to adapt to Kenya’s changing cycles of rain and drought. By adapting and using these new techniques, they are producing a larger and more reliable quantity and quality of milk, creating a reliable source of income in the commercial dairy market.

I’m proud to have helped bring this knowledge and technology to 300,000 smallholder dairy farmers, like Sara, across Kenya. Through farmer-to-farmer outreach and through thousands of private sector service providers that have emerged as the Kenya dairy sector grows, our goal is to ensure these transformational approaches to small holder dairy farming continue to grow and expand to all 1.5 million rural Kenyan families that keep and maintain dairy cows.  We hope that long after this program has ended, Kenyan farmers will continue to increase their economic resilience despite recurring droughts and the subsequent spikes in staple food prices that result.

From Conflict to Coping

Tisda, Mercy Corps Program Officer, in Ethiopia. Photo Credit: Erin Gray, Mercy Corps

Last summer, amidst the Horn of Africa’s worst drought in generations, Mercy Corps received encouraging news from local officials in the Somali-Oromiya region of Ethiopia.  In this area – long known for conflict, scarce resources and harsh conditions – communities that had participated in USAID-supported Mercy Corps peacebuilding efforts were reportedly coping better than they had during less severe droughts in the past.

We were intrigued, so we sent out a research team—and the findings were striking: when local conflict had been addressed, people were far better equipped to survive the drought.

To understand why, put yourself in the position of an Ethiopian herder.  When a drought hits, you can cope in several ways.  First, you will sell the weakest animals in your herd, raising cash to meet your family’s short-term needs while reducing grazing pressure on a water-scare environment. You may migrate with the remaining herd to areas where the grazing potential is better.  Along the way, you will rely on sharing access to scarce remaining water resources wherever you go.

Yet conflict can make these coping mechanisms impossible – blocking market access, freedom of movement, and access to shared resources like water. In this part of Ethiopia, population pressure and climate change had strained resources, spurring violence that in 2008-09 resulted in massive loss of lives and assets. In response to that conflict, Mercy Corps initiated a peacebuilding process in 2009 with support from USAID.  We helped participating communities focus on establishing peaceful relations, economic linkages, and joint management of natural resources.

A “resilience” approach to aid focuses on understanding, and improving, how communities cope with drought and other shocks.  Instead of just providing assistance that meets immediate material needs, a resilience approach also focuses on factors that affect a community’s ability to cope.  As Mercy Corps found last summer in Ethiopia, this often means focusing on factors that fall well outside the traditional assistance toolkit.

The program had focused on reducing violence – but our researchers found that it also built resilience along the way. Communities that participated in Mercy Corps’ program reported greater freedom of movement and fewer barriers to accessing resources, markets and public services than did non-participating communities. They identified greater freedom of movement as the single most important factor contributing to their ability to cope and adapt to the severe drought conditions. As one herder from the Wachile community said, “It is very difficult to use or access dry reserves (grazing areas) located in contending communities in a situation where there is no peace…the peace dialogues in the area have improved community interaction and helped us to access these resources.”

Our research report – titled Conflict to Coping – confirmed the important link between conflict and resilience in this region, and demonstrated that effective peacebuilding interventions help build resilience to crises.  Participating communities showed less reliance on distressful coping strategies, especially depletion of productive assets, than other communities. Importantly, the increased peace and security has allowed participating communities to employ more effective livelihood coping strategies, enabling them to better cope with extreme droughts.

Equal Futures Partnership Advances Global Women’s Opportunities

Sarah Mendelson is the Deputy Assistant Administrator for USAID's Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. Credit: USAID

I am excited to have just returned from the kick-off of the Equal Futures Partnership to expand women’s opportunities around the world. The event was held in New York City and part of a number of events USAID is participating in during the United Nations General Assembly this week.

The world has made significant strides in expanding opportunity for women and girls; in the U.S., we just celebrated 40 years of Title IX, an act of Congress that changed the lives of many in my generation by enabling girls to have equal access to education playing sports. Equal access to sports in schools, particularly, taught many of us how to be fierce competitors and learn valuable lessons in team building.

Yet more work is needed to tackle the global gender inequality. Last week, I met in London with donors on this very topic where researchers discussed a number of startlingly facts:

  • In 2011, women held only 19 percent of parliamentary seats worldwide, while less than five percent of heads of state and government were women.
  • While in the past 25 years, women have increasingly joined the labor market, the World Bank’s 2012 World Development Report describes “pervasive and persistent gender differences” in productivity and earnings across sectors and jobs.
  • Though women are 43 percent of the agriculture labor force and undertake many unpaid activities, they own just a tiny fraction of land worldwide.

These realities demand an urgent response.

Building on President Obama’s challenge a year ago at UNGA, the United States government has partnered in a new international effort to break down barriers to women’s political participation and economic empowerment. The goal of the Equal Futures Partnership is to realize women’s human rights by expanding opportunity for women and girls to fully participate in public life and drive inclusive economic growth in our countries.

Through this partnership, the countries of Senegal, Benin, Jordan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Peru, Denmark, Finland, Australia and the European Union are all making new commitments to action, and will consult with national stakeholders inside and outside government, including civil society, multilateral organizations including UN Women and the World Bank, and the private sector, to identify and overcome key barriers to women’s political and economic participation.  This partnership promises to be groundbreaking not only for the countries involved but also for those who are watching its implementation.

USAID and its Center for Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance stands by to provide assistance to these countries as well as many others throughout the world as they work to advance women’s political participation and economic empowerment.

This is thrilling work that helps make the promise of development real for everyone–not just a privileged few.

USAID Book Club: A Farewell to Alms

Fall semester @USAID banner image

As part of USAID’s Fall Semester, we will host an online book club for our readers this fall. The Impact Blog will post suggestions from our senior experts at USAID to suggest a book on important issues in international development.  We’ll provide you and your book club with the reading suggestions and discussion questions, and you tell us what you think! Our fall reading list will  explore solutions to the most pressing global challenges in international development—mobile solutions, poverty, hunger, health, economic growth, and agriculture.

This week’s choice comes from: USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah

Dr. Rajiv Shah serves as the 16th Administrator of USAID and leads the efforts of more than 8,000 professionals in 80 missions around the world.

Dr. Rajiv Shah serves as the 16th Administrator of USAID and leads the efforts of more than 8,000 professionals in 80 missions around the world.

Book: A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, by Gregory Clark

Synopsis: The source of human progress has long been a subject of debate. What makes rich countries rich, and poor countries poor? In the this book,  University of California, Davis, Economist Gregory Clark offers a provocative take on the age-old question, arguing that it was culture—rather than geography, natural resources or centuries of exploitation—that left some parts of the globe behind.

According to Clark, relative stability and effective workforces enabled certain societies to take better advantage of the Industrial Revolution’s new technologies and opportunities. Those countries with lax systems or undisciplined workers lost ground, and stayed there.

Clark’s book is skeptical of whether the poorest parts of the world will ever achieve real progress. For development professionals, it offers up a challenge to the belief that outside intervention can help bridge the vast economic divide between rich and poor.

Review:  This book impacted me because it shows how for hundreds, or even thousands, of years basic economic progress was largely stagnant. You didn’t have rapid compound increases in living standards until the Industrial Revolution when some countries and some societies got on a pathway towards growth – towards better health, longer life expectancy, higher income per person and more investment in education. Others remained on a slower-moving pathway.

That great divergence, and the study of it, is at the core of development. It is that divergence that we try to learn from and correct for. We define success in development as helping communities and countries get on that pathway towards improved health and education, and greater wealth creation.

I didn’t choose this book because I think it is the definitive story on development, but rather because I share its focus on core economic growth as the driver of divergence.

I disagree where Clark concludes that some societies failed to take advantage of the availability of modern technology because their cultures were antagonistic to development. With the right conditions in place, you can unlock a formidable work ethic from a range of different cultures and communities. The last 50 years have shown us that. By investing in local capacity and local institutions, we can leave a legacy of economic infrastructure, strong and capable leadership, and transparent, effective public and private sector institutions.

USAID’s partnerships in Latin America helped country after country develop strong institutions. The same can be said for South Korea. Unfortunately, there have been examples where aid and assistance have been provided in a manner that was not as sensitive to building lasting local capacity and institutions. This is true for all partners, not just our Agency. That’s why we’ve launched a program called USAID Forward, to refocus on working in a way that will create durable and sustained progress.

Administrator Shah is on Twitter at @rajshah. You  can also “Ask the Administrator” your questions on Crowdhall

Discussion Questions

1. Do you agree with Clark that some societies failed to take advantage of the availability of modern technology because their cultures were antagonistic to development?

2. The Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Solow has said Clark does not take into account how institutional factors, such as cronyism, inequitable taxation and ineffectual government cripple development. What role do you think these institutional factors play?

3. Clark challenges how effective outside intervention can be in helping poor nations progress. Do you agree?

4. Regardless of why some nations have fallen behind, how do you think they can bridge that gap today?

5. Has your world view changed after reading this book and how?

Get Involved: Use the comments section of this blog post to share your answers, or tweet them to us at #fallsemester

Timor-Leste Administers Own Elections

On July 7, I went to the polls—along with my fellow citizens of Timor-Leste—to participate in a notable election:  not only did we elect a new parliament for the second time in our young country’s history, but we also voted in general elections that for the first time were managed and run entirely by Timorese institutions. As was widely anticipated, the elections were peaceful and the turnout was high, at about 75 percent.

My country’s independent conduct of free and fair elections demonstrated our government’s commitment to further consolidating our still-young, but vibrant democracy. I am proud that Timor-Leste was able to achieve this milestone just 10 years after the restoration of its independence.

As a Foreign Service National working with USAID, I am also proud about what this election demonstrates about USAID’s efforts to promote sustainability and local ownership in our programs. For the past 10 years, USAID has laid the groundwork for this day by supporting Timor-Leste in developing robust democratic institutions and processes. That work paid off on July 7.

Several Timorese institutions deserve credit for the successful Election Day—namely, the National Electoral Commission and the Technical Secretarial for Elections Administration, which administered the electoral processes. The National Police maintained security and tranquility not only on Election Day, but also during the periods before and after the election.

Although the elections were administered without international assistance, the Timorese government and public did welcome international observers. USAID funded a team of 20 international observers who covered every district throughout the country. Through the International Republican Institute (IRI), we also provided training to 1,700 domestic observers—members of a local non-governmental organization, the Observatorio da Igreja Para Os Assuntos Socials (OIPAS)—who were successfully deployed to every polling station across the country.

Before the election, USAID funded civic and voter education activities that familiarized voters with the elections procedures and processes and helped them to better understand the different platforms and programs proposed by the parties and coalitions competing in the election. And three weeks before the election, USAID deployed a separate team of observers to assess the pre-election atmosphere.

Timor-Leste’s successful elections are indeed a feather in the cap of my country. They are also a great example of what happens when USAID’s development programs work as they should, by strengthening the ability of local actors to carry out important work on their own for the long term.

Video of the Week: “Bosnia Moves Forward”

Bosnia and Herzegovina endured a devastating war from 1992-1995. In the aftermath, the country not only underwent post-war reconstruction, but also launched the transition from a Socialist system to a system of democratic governance. As local governments work to overcome the challenges posed by reconstruction, democracy-building, and the global economic downturn, the Governance Accountability Project, Phase II, has been working with 72 municipalities across Bosnia – comprising nearly 60 percent of the country’s population – to improve the quality of life for members of their communities.

Advancing the Dignity Agenda

One year ago, Administrator Rajiv Shah spoke about expanding human welfare at USAID’s Democracy, Human Rights and Governance 2.0 Forum, recounting the defining story of Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian fruit seller who set himself on fire, and the inspiring stories of other Tunisians who unwittingly sparked the Arab Spring.

David Yang, Director of USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance Photo Credit: USAID

Since that speech in June 2011, the trajectory of the Arab Spring has been filled with bright spots, such as in October 2011 when millions of Tunisians voted in their first-ever free election, but also with uncertainty, as genuine democratic transition in Egypt remains tenuous and violence continues in Syria.  Elsewhere in the world, historical achievements in advancing human dignity and self-determination took place in Africa, where South Sudan became the world’s newest country in July 2011, and in Asia, where Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in Myanmar’s Parliament in April 2012 after spending nearly 20 years under house arrest.

In this momentous year, we at USAID have responded to Administrator Shah’s call to elevate the importance of self-determination and human dignity in our Agency’s development approach. We helped bring together over 60 Tunisian organizations to form the country’s first civil society network, assisted the referendum on Southern Sudan’s independence, and launched the Agency’s new Counter-Trafficking in Persons Policy, among other highlights. In February 2012, USAID launched the Center of Excellence in Democracy, Human Rights and Governance to become a global resource for evidence-based research, aspiring to closely measure and evaluate what works best in democracy, human rights and governance.

We continue to be inspired by those at the frontlines in the fight for human dignity, such as Tawakkol Karman who became the international public face of the 2011 uprising in Yemen. She won the Nobel Peace Prize that year in recognition of her work in nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work, becoming the first Arab woman and youngest Nobel Peace Laureate to date.  We are delighted to have her give the keynote speech at this year’s Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (DRG) Forum from June 21-22.

I hope you will share in USAID’s renewed commitment to advancing the dignity agenda by viewing and participating virtually in our DRG Forum. The event will bring together government officials, international experts and innovative thinkers and will focus on innovative approaches to promoting human dignity in the wake of the Arab Spring. The Obama administration and USAID have been at the forefront of this change, by expanding political participation of women and girls, making governments more transparent, and promoting civil society, among other initiatives.

View a livestream of the event at

Drop in on the conversation and ask our panelists questions by following #DRGForum on Twitter.

Building Learning Communities at USAID

John David Smith of Learning Alliances and Nancy White of Full Circle are experts in institutionalizing learning at organizations and authors of Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities.

Earlier this year, Administrator Shah launched USAID’s new Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance within the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. The Center is designed to become a global resource for evidence-based research, closely measuring and evaluating what works best in advancing democracy, human rights and governance and sharing best practices with the international development community.  This learning agenda will be a focus of USAID’s upcoming Democracy, Human Rights and Governance Forum (June 21-22) and Workshop (June 25-27).

Institutionalizing learning in its activities means that USAID is making learning an everyday activity that permeates the organization. It is a way for the Agency to respond to change and learn quickly, leveraging staff and their knowledge. More mobile and more distributed staff using new technologies give us strikingly new opportunities to gather, interact and learn from each other in novel ways. Traditional organizational structures need to be augmented by more informal and fluid structures, which is why USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance is focusing on building a learning agenda.  A critical component of this agenda includes building “communities of practice” and leveraging technology in our work.

Read the rest of this entry »

Democracy, Human Rights and Governance Forum

This week, USAID will be holding our third annual Democracy, Human Rights and Governance Forum at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. The two-day event, June 21-22, will bring together government officials and international experts in the field of democracy, human rights and governance.

People gather on December 17, 2011 in Sidi Bouzid's Mohamed Bouazizi square, named after the fruitseller whose self-immolation sparked the revolution that ousted a dictator and ignited the Arab Spring. Photo Credit: AFP/Fethi Belaid

The theme of this year’s forum is Advancing the Dignity Agenda: New Approaches to Protecting Human Rights and Expanding Democratic Participation.

Discussion will focus on the innovative approaches to promoting human dignity advanced by the Obama administration and USAID in the wake of the Arab Spring. Issues will include expanding the political participation of women and girls, making governments more transparent, and promoting civil society.

The forum will be livestreamed on our event page. We encourage you join the conversation and submit your questions to our panelists by adding your comments below or using the hashtag #DRGForum on Twitter.

Also, be sure to visit our newly redesigned website for more information about our work in the field of Democracy, Human Rights and Governance.

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