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USAID Book Club: A Farewell to Alms

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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

Video of the Week: Reading in Peru

According to experts, in the first grade children must learn how to read and understand what they read. In the second  grade, they must improve their fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. With more fluency there is greater chance for children to understand what they have read. That’s why in countries that are are more advanced in education, there are set reading standards for children. In Latin America, children who finish second grade are supposed to read 60 words a minute. Watch this video to learn more about basic reading standards in Peru, and how young Peruvian children learn how to read.

Sparking the Love of Reading in Central Asia

When my daughter was younger, each night as I put her to bed, I read her a story. Some of our favorites included Make Way for DucklingsPing, and Ferdinand the Bull. Now that she is older and reading on her own, her appetite for books has become voracious.  Evenings find our family’s noses buried in books strewn about the house. When, like many Americans, I think about how reading and literacy has impacted my life, I also think about my love of reading outside of school – my favorite books as a small kid, my mom walking us to the library over the summer, and rereading my all-time favorites so often that they became worn-out friends on my nightstand.

A young student in Turkmenistan learns new vocabulary. Photo Credit: USAID Quality Learning Project

USAID wants to spark the love of  reading throughout Central Asia, and foster it throughout families everywhere.

Over the last 5-10 years, growing evidence indicates that literacy levels in Central Asia are declining. As one Ministry of Education’s national strategy frankly and astutely points out, the level of education of older generations is higher than that of its youth, in part due to declining budgets and major reorganizations after the collapse of the Soviet Union. USAID anticipates continuing to work with Ministries of Education and international partners in Central Asia to improve children’s reading abilities, by fine-tuning educators’ reading instruction skills, involving communities, and increasing the use of local language reading materials. How can a family create a culture of reading at home amid a major shortage of books currently published in local languages? This is the type of change we are working on together.

Literacy is a cornerstone of a developed society, and a well-educated population is paramount to a developed nation. I hope that my daughter grows up in a world where everyone makes reading a part of family life, has access to an abundance of reading material, and has the time to learn to read “just for fun.”


Ask the Expert: Literacy in Latin America

We interviewed Karen Towers from our Latin America and Caribbean Bureau to discuss the state of education in the region.

1)     It seems that Latin America and the Caribbean is doing better in education – is that true?

Yes and no. While it is true that access has increased, education quality is still a serious issue.  In the early 1960s, one out of every five children in Latin America and the Caribbean was enrolled in the first grade, now 95% of nine years olds are enrolled in school.  The problem is that children are not learning.  UNESCO tests indicate that more than 1/3 of third graders cannot read at grade level.  By the time these students reach the 6th grade,  20% will still be functionally illiterate.

Girls reading in Peru. Photo Credit: USAID

1)     Why are these literacy rates so low?

Many factors contribute to the low literacy rates, but primarily disorganized schools and poorly trained teachers. Teachers often only receive the barest guidance on what to teach and little or no training on how to teach it.  In addition, there is almost a complete lack of accountability. Often there are no independent evaluations of schools and teachers have no clear standards against which to measure student’s performance.  This video from Peru demonstrates some of problems with school performance for an average student in a public school in the region.

2)     Why is early-grade literacy important to development in the region?

When children cannot read, it limits their ability to learn other subjects such as math or science and also impacts their ability to participate in society in the long run. Studies have shown a correlation between literacy and voter participation and citizen security.   In addition, learning outcomes have a directly impact a country’s economic growth. A 10% increase in the share of students reaching basic literacy translates into a 0.3 percentage point higher annual growth rate for that country.

3)     What is USAID doing to improve early-grade literacy rates?

USAID’s new Global Education Strategy has made literacy a top development priority. By 2015, USAID aims to improve reading outcomes for some 100 million children across the globe. USAID programs include helping to develop teacher skills, introducing new technologies that facilitate learning, and improving tools to measure and assess children’s reading skills.

Percentage of 3rd graders with the lowest reading achievement level on UNESCO Tests Source: Ganimian, Alejandro. How Much Are Latin American Children Learning? PREAL, 2009

4)     Where are USAID’s programs located in LAC?

USAID has education programs in 10 Latin American and Caribbean countries: Haiti, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Eastern Caribbean, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Peru.

5)     What are the focus of these programs?

USAID programs are focused on improving reading by improving the 5 T’s:

  1. Teacher Technique – teaching teachers how to teach reading.
  2. Time Use – maximizing instructional time in the classroom.
  3. Texts – put appropriate books in the hands of children.
  4. Tongue – implement appropriate language policies and provide mother-tongue based instruction.
  5. Test – measure reading skills against a common standard.

    Percentage of 6th graders with the lowest reading achievement level on UNESCO TestsSource: Ganimian, Alejandro. How Much Are Latin American Children Learning? PREAL, 2009


Infographic: The Impact of Literacy

Ever think about the impact literacy can have on the developing world? Check out this great infographic that spells out the impact of literacy on future generations. Read about the effect of education on health, economic growth, and stability. Don’t miss International Literacy Day which we will livestream on Friday, September 7th at 9:15 am EST.

Photo of the Week: USAID in Yemen

Yemeni school girls wave the Yemen flag last autumn after USAID efforts helped return children to classes following the 2011 Yemen uprising. Photo Credit: USAID

This week, Administrator Shah is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for the Yemen Donor Conference. Learn about the work USAID is already doing in Yemen.

Technology Partnerships set Young Kenyans up for Academic Success

The classes were very quiet as we entered; students were all glued to their laptops, barely noticing us entering their classroom.  Finally, they all stand to greet us, still with one of their hands on either the keyboard or mouse. As acting Permanent Secretary from the Ministry of Education I visited several schools where the Ministry is piloting the Accelerating 21st Century Education (ACE) program in partnership with USAID, Microsoft, Intel and Cisco. I wanted to see for myself how our Kenyan students are benefiting from the use of information and communications technology (ICT), and hear for myself the opinions of students and teachers on the integration of ICT in their curricula.
ACE was designed to advance the Ministry of Education’s efforts to improve the quality of education through the use of ICT in both the training of teachers and as part of classroom curricula. The project trained 296 teachers, college tutors, head teachers, principals, and education managers in ICT competencies, and more than 1,000 laptops and other ICT equipment has been deployed to selected learning institutions.

Stephen Otoro, a student at Mwijabu primary school was quick to tell me how laptops have helped him and fellow students to stay in school. “Before, classes were boring and by 4:00 PM, we all left school to play. Since the laptops came, we stay in school until 6:00 PM because it is now interesting to learn. We even come on Saturday because we enjoy,” he says.

Michael Pascal from Mtomodoni primary school is determined to become a surgeon and is happy that the computers are helping him learn about science, which is his best subject. “I have promised my parents that they will have a surgeon in the family,” he says proudly while holding his laptop tightly in his arms.

Madam Grace, a teacher from Mwijabu primary school, used to spend a lot of time searching for information for her students but now she is able to access student assignments and grade performance from the server and send the information to the head teacher. “We are also happy to see that students no longer carry heavy bags full of books since most of their school work is stored in laptops,” she says with a smile.

Seeing students from Kibarani School for the Deaf in Kilifi using laptops to learn, with assisting software like Multimedia Instruction, was a confirmation that ICT is a fruitful tool for all the children in Kenya.

I thank USAID, Intel, Cisco and Microsoft first for joining me on this trip. The robust pilot introduction of ICT into 23 schools and three teachers’ training institutes has provided valuable lessons that inform the Government of Kenya’s planning for rolling out the use of ICT to ensure that all children in Kenya have access to quality education.  Thank you.

See more comments from  Professor Godia, students, and teachers.

The Path to Peace Starts with Embracing Diversity for Sudan’s Youth

Sudan is often described as a country rich with many different ethnic groups, languages, religions, and tribal affiliations.  I recently witnessed how true this is when I attended a USAID-sponsored session for young women from different areas of Sudan, held at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum.

The students visiting the temple at Naqa, a ruined ancient city of the Kush Kingdom, north of Khartoum. The exchange included field trips to great Sudanese historical sites to teach the students about their common identity and culture. Photo Credit: USAID/Sudan

The session focused on the options available for graduate study in the United States, but I took a different message away.  As I listened to where these women came from and what they were studying, I realized how different they all were in background, and yet how similar they were in their aspirations, hopes, and desires.

These young women are students at several Khartoum universities, as well as Assalam University in Babanusa, Southern Kordofan state.  They were brought together as part of a USAID program that is enabling Sudanese to tackle issues of identity, history, and culture in their country.  The exchange was designed to help these young women leaders explore and better understand the rich cultural plurality in Sudan and to engender a sense of strength from the diversity in Sudanese culture.  Issues of identity and ethnicity have proved highly divisive in Sudan over the last two decades, and still pervade Sudanese society in the post-war era.

Over the course of the week-long exchange, students began to grow a greater appreciation for the many cultures present in Sudan.  They discussed common history and identity across different groups and got to touch their history first-hand through trips to local historical sites and museums.

Throughout the exchange, the students became increasingly aware of their own tendencies to stereotype certain groups.  One young woman stated that she and others once “unconsciously, practice[ed] social exclusion,” but after the 5-day training, she now “knows what it is and will stop.” Another participant commented, “I used to hate history. After visiting the historical sites and knowing how great my history is, I now love it.”

The students concluded the workshop determined to carry what they learned back to their communities. Several participants stated that they would hold discussions with their peers at their universities on both the commonalities that exist between cultures in Sudan and the rich diversity that they represent. By the last day of training, the participants, most of whom met only five short days earlier, were referring to one another as friends.  The students from Babanusa even hope to host the Khartoum students at their university for future events to foster further understanding.

Some of the most important work that USAID does in Sudan, in my opinion, works to address intolerance and exclusion in a country with such strength through diversity.  I hope that many more Sudanese will get to experience the diverse cultures within their own society, as these young women did.  Such experiences will very likely be the foundation of healing in a country that has had a painful past.


Expanding Access to Quality Education and Improved Health Care in the West Bank’s “Area C”

I recently had the opportunity to visit a construction site in Jalazone, just outside of Ramallah in the West Bank, where the U.S. Government is partnering with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), in cooperation with Palestinian and Israeli officials, to build a school that will provide a safe and vastly improved learning environment for more than 1,100 girls.

Once completed, the school will provide an enhanced learning environment for more than 1,100 girls. Photo Credit: Lubna Rifi

Jalazone is located in what is known as “Area C,” an area that comprises approximately 60 percent of the West Bank and is under Israeli administrative and security control, in accordance with the terms of the Oslo Accords. The expansion work on the Jalazone School, which includes building 23 new modern classrooms, science labs, vocational training rooms, and all the facilities of a functioning school, is part of U.S. efforts, underway for some time, working closely with the Palestinian Authority and Israeli officials, to improve access to essential services for Palestinians living in “Area C.”

While visiting the construction site, UNRWA’s West Bank Field Director Felipe Sanchez and I spoke with the Principal at the school, Sana Bayyari. She explained how much she and her students and teachers are looking forward to moving from the current school’s overcrowded and run-down classrooms to what will effectively be a fully renovated school by March 2013. These renovations will significantly improve the educational environment at the school, originally built in the 1950s. Principal Bayyari also noted that they are especially excited that they will no longer have to attend school in double shifts as they have been doing for years to accommodate all of the students.

Read the rest of this entry »

New Tool to Assess Literacy

A free electronic tool is now available to quickly and accurately measure the reading progress of young children in the developing world. An adaptation of USAID’s paper-based Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA), the new tool called eEGRA runs in Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet software, available free on most computers. The new tool was demonstrated for international literacy experts and policymakers March 13th, at the Washington offices of Education Development Center (EDC) which developed eEGRA.

eEGRA puts valid, reliable reading results into the hands of teachers. Photo Credit: Rojessa Tiamson-Saceda

One of the benefits of eEGRA is that results are available immediately after a student has completed a test, instantly providing the classroom teacher or headmaster with a snapshot of the student’s reading progress. By comparison, data from the paper test can take six months to analyze, and because it is developed at the national or district level, is rarely seen or used by teachers.

In addition, the electronic test automates time calculations and restricts data entry mistakes by eliminating the need to interpret hand-written scores. It also standardizes the delivery of test instructions via audio playback, ensuring all students receive the same information. Because it is in electronic format, eEGRA uses less paper and comes with the capability to back up and save data.

“We are already finding that eEGRA is revolutionizing how we assess the reading skills of young children,” said EDC Vice President Nancy Devine. “It allows teachers to identify whether students have developed key skills for their grade level, and this in turn allows them to identify what remediation efforts, if any, are required. eEGRA directly links assessment and classroom practice.”

First conceptualized in 2009, eEGRA was developed for an Excel platform in the spring of 2010, and then field tested in the Philippines. That field study established that eEGRA scores learners as accurately as its paper-based counterpart and the use of a laptop does not inhibit testing. eEGRA was first presented at USAID’s M4Ed4Dev conference in August 2010 and has been available free and in open-source format since that time. To date, it has been used by development partners to assess student learning in three countries, in three languages.

“We continue to refine the tool with new features and improved performance,” said EDC’s Helen Boyle. “Our ultimate goal is to put reliable, valid reading assessments into the hands of teachers around the globe, enabling them to deliver more effective instruction to their students.”

Click here to learn more or download and begin using the free assessment tool.

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