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The Power of Storytelling

Sheryl Wu Dunn

Sheryl WuDunn. Photo: Half the Sky

Mikaela Beardsley, Executive Producer, Half the Sky Movement & Sheryl WuDunn, Co-Author, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide”

Storytelling is a powerful tool.  It can raise awareness, build compassion, encourage thinking, and motivate action.  That was the vision behind Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity, the book I wrote with my husband, Nicholas Kristof. Our goal was to bring these incredibly personal and powerful stories of women around the world to a mainstream audience.   When Half the Sky was published, Nick and I were floored by the response. The stories resonated with far more people than we imagined.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) knows that powerful narratives can set the stage for positive action.  From the general public to aid experts in the field, the stories and struggles in the developing play a big role in compelling the general public and aid experts to find solutions to global challenges. Telling these stories is not only an expression of our American values but demonstrates how working together to solve these challenges benefits all of us.

And yet telling a powerful story can be challenging.  Different audiences absorb information differently.  Some need an emotional connection, others respond to hard data and statistics so identifying your audience and finding the right platform is critical.  From films, books, and newspapers to exhibits, mobile gaming, and social media, storytellers are venturing into new and exciting platforms, and adapting the material to resonate with diverse audiences.

That’s why Nick and I didn’t want to limit these incredibly personal and powerful narratives to just print.  We wanted these stories to spread even farther. That’s how Half the Sky turned into multimedia initiative focused on presenting stories through multiple platforms.  Because of this, I’m proud to say that Half the Sky will not only be a documentary on PBS in early October and a Facebook game in November but, with USAID and our NGO partners, we also produced 18 short educational videos and 3 mobile games.

The short educational videos, produced by Show of Force, were filmed in India, Kenya, Somaliland, and Liberia and cover a wide range issues like family planning, health, girl’s education, sex trafficking, women’s economic empowerment, and domestic violence. Focused on community-level change, these videos allow experts and activists to raise awareness and encourage action on critical issues.  Check them out and let us know what you think!

A key audience for Half the Sky project was individuals, families, and communities in the developing world.  We wanted to teach children in the developing world about the benefits of deworming pills – a cost-effective medication that treats fatigue and helps keep kids in school. While many of the people we wanted to reach don’t have access to television, theaters, or the Internet, most have access to a mobile phone so we decided to reach out to them through mobile games, to engage kids with a familiar form of entertainment while simultaneously teaching them healthy practices.  Developed through C-Change, USAID, Show of Force, and Games for Change, these games will launch this October for use in East Africa and India.

Great storytelling relies on powerful characters and feasible solutions, but more importantly demands an understanding of the medium, audience, and objectives. The question, perhaps, is not only how to inspire action through one story, but also how to adapt a story across platforms to engage the greatest number of people.

U.S. Support for Yemen’s Transition

This post originally appeared on The White House Blog

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.

At the Yemen Donor Conference in Riyadh, which I attended on September 4, I was impressed by how far Yemen has come in the past year. But I think what really made this conference stand out is that we focused on what happens after the conference, and how key “quick impact” programs will benefit from the commitments made and deliver the greatest impact to the most critical challenges facing Yemen.

Last year, Yemen negotiated a political solution that allowed the country to pull itself from the brink of conflict and begin implementing long-overdue political, military, and economic reforms. Yet Yemen is embarking on this promising path under the shadow of significant challenges, including nearly 40 percent unemployment and a dire humanitarian crisis in which ten million people – nearly half of Yemen’s population – go to bed hungry every night. And, Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, could potentially run out of water in a decade.

The Yemeni government’s “Transitional Program for Stabilization and Development” – which was presented at the conference – describes plans to rebuild the economy, advance the political transition, enhance security and the rule of law, and significantly improve the welfare of the Yemeni population. At the conference, Yemen agreed to a “Mutual Accountability Framework,” which outlines the relationship between Yemeni goals to restore political, security and economic stability and the supporting role of donor countries.

Administrator Shah, USAID Yemen Mission Director Robert Wilson, and U.S. Embassy Riyadh Spokesman Mofid Deak meet with U.S. and international press. Photo Credit: U.S. Embassy Riyadh

Yemen cannot carry out its ambitious agenda without significant international support. The Donor Conference, hosted in Riyadh by Saudi Arabia, the World Bank and the Yemeni government, was critical to rallying this support and strengthening donor coordination. During the conference, partner countries pledged nearly 6 billion dollars and I had the opportunity to emphasize the strong commitment of the United States as a friend and partner to Yemen during this incredibly important time.

Supporting Yemen’s transition is a priority for the United States. To do our part, the United States is providing both immediate assistance in response to the humanitarian crisis and longer-term support to help lay the foundation for a stable, prosperous and democratic Yemen. This year alone, the United States is providing $346 million in security, humanitarian, and development assistance to Yemen – more than double what we provided last year.

More than half of what the United States is providing this year, $185 million, is for political transition, humanitarian, and development assistance. Of the $185 million, $117 million is for humanitarian relief, making the United States the single largest provider of humanitarian support to Yemen. The UN estimates that Yemen will need $585 million to get through this humanitarian crisis, but the UN humanitarian appeal is less than 50 percent funded. We urge all nations to generously give to the UN’s appeal for Yemen.

When I visited Yemen in June, I was able to see first-hand the critical impact of our development and humanitarians efforts. To address hunger, our aid has helped feed 415,000 Yemeni people and trained nearly 5,000 famers in good crop production and livestock management practices so they don’t have to rely on food aid. I visited Zinjibar in southern Yemen, where our partnerships are helping rehabilitate schools, clinics, and other public buildings, as well as supporting the recovery of vital public services,
including power and water. Our work also allowed 780,000 Yemenis to benefit from quality medical services at Red Crescent facilities that we refurbished.

Ultimately, we know that solutions to the humanitarian crisis and the nation’s pressing economic and security challenges can only be realized through the development of effective, responsive, and accountable institutions and an inclusive and transparent political system.

The foundations for such institutions and systems will be laid through Yemen’s upcoming National Dialogue Conference. To help prepare Yemeni civil society for participation in the Dialogue, the U.S. Agency for International Development has launched a training academy for 165 civil society organizations, and we have trained nearly 2000 youth in civic engagement.

It is an exciting moment for Yemen, as the Yemeni people come together to resolve some of the most difficult problems that have held their country back, write a new constitution, and build a new future.

Real challenges remain, however, not least of which includes responding to the pressing needs of millions of vulnerable people so that Yemen can successfully undertake the transition it has begun.

But as I saw during my visit to Yemen in June – and as made clear by the Donor Conference– there is real reason to be hopeful as citizens across Yemen take up the call to chart their own nation’s development.

The United States is a proud partner in those efforts.

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.

Welcoming to USAID: White House Presidential Innovation Fellows

“Our Agency must serve as a platform that connects the world’s biggest development challenges to development problems solvers – all around the world. We recognize that talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. – USAID Administrator Raj Shah, August 1, 2012

Credit: Justin Grimes
This Thursday, the White House launched The Presidential Innovation Fellows Program (PIF), which pairs top innovators from the private sector, non-profits and academia with top innovators in government to collaborate on solutions that aim to deliver significant results in six months.   USAID is proud to be part of two pillars of the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program: the 20% Initiative, and the Open Data Initiative.

The Mobile Solutions Division at USAID is excited to welcome fellow Karl Mehta for the 20% Initiative.  A Silicon Valley based entrepreneur, engineer and inventor, he has built and sold three businesses, and has worked in the intersection of media, technology and payments for years.

The 20% Initiative will create a system that supports foreign policy, development assistance, government operations or commercial activities to seamlessly move from making cash payments to electronic payments, including mobile money. The Initiative aims build greater transparency and significantly reduce fraud, and to provide cost savings for both institutions and end beneficiaries of programs through a 20% transition from cash to electronic payments by 2016. USAID is committed to supporting the integration of electronic and mobile payments in our programs and operations and starting within USAID the goal is to include as many U.S. government agencies operating overseas as possible.

The Office of Innovation and Development Alliances (IDEA) is thrilled to welcome open data fellow Nathaniel Manning. Coming from Ushahidi, a non-profit tech company specializing in free and open source software for information collection, visualization, and interactive mapping, Nathaniel has been leading the business development strategy on making the organization market sustainable.

The Open Data Initiative is part of a greater effort for the U.S. Government to serve as a platform for information and engagement to foment innovation and entrepreneurship.   The term “Open Data” can include making information public, transferring information into machine-readable format so that it can be sorted and analyzed on a large scale, or cleaning up data that could be available but needs back end work. Open data has a direct benefit to individuals abroad and domestic and stimulates a rising tide of entrepreneurship, whether helping farmers share information on best practices, tracking trends in global weather patterns, monitoring elections for fraud, finding the right health care resources, or keeping families safe by knowing which products have been recalled.

The Open Data Initiative includes USAID’s Food Security Open Data Challenge. Food security experts, data scientists, technologists, and other skilled volunteers are convening to use public data sets to build innovative solutions in the field of food security and agriculture. Join us in unlocking data so people everywhere can effectively eliminate hunger for their families and their communities. All are welcome to participate!

Sign up for email updates and follow @ProjectTwenty and @ProjectOpenData.

Video: Working for Equality for People with Disabilities in Haiti

The January 2010 earthquake in Haiti increased the challenge of supporting people with disabilities.  Not only were there more people with disabilities, many local disabled peoples organizations were severely impacted.  However, the earthquake also brought increased international awareness to the many barriers to inclusion that existed prior to the earthquake.

Immediately following the earthquake, USAID funded a spinal cord injury center. Recognizing the earthquake as an opportunity to make long-term change for people with disabilities during the reconstruction process, we recently made four new awards to address four different aspects of inclusion and provision of better and more accessible care.


Preventing and Responding to Gender-based Violence Globally

In Angola, where I was Ambassador from 1995-1998, I witnessed firsthand the broad effects gender-based violence can have on a society.  On the heels of the civil war there, demobilized soldiers were returning to their villages.  Often, what should have been happy homecomings were turning into just the opposite.   Out of place in societies that had learned to live without them in decades of absence, the former soldiers’ alienation produced a rash of domestic violence and rape. It was as if the end of the civil war produced an even more pernicious violence against women.

The problem of gender-based violence is not unique to post-conflict situations.  In fact, it’s a global pandemic that cuts across ethnicity, race, culture, class, religion, and educational level. One in three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.

Women and girls are disproportionally affected by gender-based violence.  But men and boys can also be affected; and, in addition, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people face heightened risk of experiencing violence, including sexual violence.

President Obama recognizes the importance of addressing issues related to gender-based violence.

On Friday, I had the privilege to participate in a White House event to release the United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally.  The Strategy is an interagency response to a Congressional request, led by USAID and the U.S. Department of State.

The strategy  establishes a government-wide approach that identifies, coordinates, integrates, and leverages current efforts and resources. It sets concrete goals and actions to be implemented and monitored by Federal Agencies.   In addition, President Obama issued an Executive Order that creates an interagency working group co-chaired by the Secretary of State and the Administrator of the USAID and directs departments and agencies to implement the new United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally.

Gender-based violence undermines not only the safety, dignity, overall health status, and human rights of the millions of individuals who experience it, but also the public health, economic stability, and security of nations.

I look forward to helping our Missions and operating units in Washington translate the strategy into meaningful action for millions of men, women, and children worldwide. In order to combat gender-based violence, we must redouble our efforts to change attitudes and behaviors by engaging men and boys and empowering women and girls.  Realizing this vision requires the collective efforts of all.  USAID is committed to working in collaboration with other USG agencies, NGOs, faith based communities, private sector companies, and most importantly, women and men around the world impacted by gender-based violence.


To learn more about the United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally, please visit

Progress Toward a World Without Violence Against Women and Girls

Originally posted to the White House Blog

Eqlima is a young girl from Afghanistan. She lived with an abusive father and stepmother who often beat her. They even set her hair on fire. She escaped to a U.S. State Department-supported women’s shelter. The staff helped move her away from her father and stepmother, and now is helping her move in with her older brother.

Stories like these are all too common. From beatings, to “honor” killings, to sexual violence as a tactic of war, from intimate partner violence to human trafficking– the forms of gender-based violence are varied, but their scope, and their impact are devastating.  Globally, an estimated one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.

When women and girls are denied the chance to fully contribute to society because of the violence or fear they face, our entire world suffers.  That’s why President Obama has made the treatment of women an essential part of our global vision for democracy and human rights. A key part of that effort is stopping violence against women and girls.

Last December, President Obama released the first ever U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security and signed an Executive Order directing the Plan’s implementation.  This action signaled a key commitment of the Obama Administration: to put gender equality and the advancement of women and girls at the forefront of our foreign policy.

Today, I am proud to announce that the President has taken another important step to prioritize and protect the rights of women and girls. President Obama issued an Executive Order on Preventing and Responding to Violence Against Women and Girls Globally.   The Executive Order requires enhanced coordination of the United States’ efforts through the creation of an interagency working group, co-chaired by Secretary of State Clinton and USAID Administrator Shah, designed to leverage our country’s tremendous expertise and capacity to prevent and respond to gender-based violence globally as well as establish a coordinated, government-wide approach to address this terrible reality.

The Executive Order directs Federal agencies to implement a new strategy, developed by USAID and the State Department.  The  four objectives of the strategy to prevent and respond to gender-based violence globally are to:  (1) increase coordination of gender-based violence prevention and response efforts among United States Government agencies and with other stakeholders; (2) enhance integration of gender-based violence prevention and response efforts into existing United States Government work; (3) improve collection, analysis, and use of data and research to enhance gender-based violence prevention,  and response efforts; and (4) enhance and expand United States Government programming that addresses gender-based violence.

The Executive Order also requires that the work is evaluated in line with the Administration’s focus on data collection and research.  Recognizing that this is a long-term commitment, the Executive Order directs the interagency working group to update or revise the strategy after three years.  You can read more about the Executive Order here.

Our commitment to ending violence against women and girls is both a foreign policy priority and a domestic policy priority.  The United States has made tremendous progress on violence against women and girls domestically since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994.  Since the passage of the Act, annual rates of domestic violence have dropped by more than 60 percent.

As you all know, the Violence Against Women Act, something that should be above politics, is mired in just that on the Hill. The Senate passed a strong bipartisan bill three months ago. The House should take up the Senate bill so we can get this important bill to the President’s desk. Women should not have to wait a day longer.  As the Vice President has said, Congress should act now to protect women.

The Obama Administration is doing its part in the effort to end violence against women and girls In 2010, President Obama announced unprecedented coordination across Federal agencies to continue our  progress in reducing violence against women in the United States, and Vice President Biden has led the Administration’s efforts to reach teens and young women who are most at risk of dating violence and sexual assault.  Most recently, President Obama and Vice President Biden appeared with star athletes in a public service announcement speaking out against violence and launched our 1 is 2 Many Campaign.

Globally, the President’s commitment is embodied throughout the Administration’s foreign policy efforts, from the President’s National Security Strategy; to the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development; to the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. Ultimately, the President and his administration’s goal is a world free from violence against women and girls.

But we realize that government alone cannot end this problem. That’s why the Executive Order directs agencies to deepen their engagement with a broader set of stakeholders, including civil society, grassroots, and international organizations, all of which are a vital part of the effort to end violence against women and girls.

Today’s Executive Order and new strategy to prevent and respond to gender-based violence globally provide a blueprint to guide our next steps in working towards this goal.

Together, we can help protect more women and girls like Eqlima from senseless violence, and give them the opportunity to advance and thrive, living without fear.

Valerie Jarrett is a Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama.

Photo of the Week: Secretary Clinton visits Malawi

Secretary Clinton With the Lumbadzi Milk Bulking Group in Malawi Dairy farmer Margaret Chinkwende explains her work to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Martin Banda of USAID in Lilongwe, Malawi, August 5, 2012. Photo Credit: State Department

Secretary of State Clinton visits farmers at Malawi’s Lumbadzi Milk Bulking Group. Dressed in locally produced “chitenge”, she joined the farmers in a dance to celebrate successful growth in the dairy sector. Chitenge are highly valued cultural depictions of special events in Malawi.

During her visit, the Secretary noted that with U.S. support, Malawi’s dairy sector has grown, with milk production up 500 percent, and announced ongoing commitment to support agriculture in Malawi. Through Feed the Future, President Obama’s global hunger and food security initiative, the U.S. is supporting growth in the agricultural sector to help reduce poverty and undernutrition.

Read more about Secretary Clinton’s visit to Malawi.

USAID in the News

Weekly Briefing (7/30/2012 – 8/3/2012)

July 31: In a Huffington Post blog entry, Josh Harris of International Medical Corps UK discussed a collaborative project with USAID in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the organizations are using soccer to teach teen girls lessons about peace and change attitudes on violence. In a region at the center of one of Africa’s most brutal conflicts, girls are at particular risk for sexual and gender-based violence, and the soccer camps are an opportunity to build community and reach a wide audience with information about women’s rights and resources.

August 2: The Gadling travel blog featured an interview with USAID Foreign Service Officer David Thompson. In the interview, Thompson discussed his career in the Foreign Service and what it’s like to live in eight countries in 15 years, including Albania, Honduras, and Afghanistan. “It’s an incredible life,” he said of his career with USAID. “If you’re going to be in international development, being with AID is a home. … I’m constantly learning and that’s really exciting.”

August 2: The Hartford Guardian ran an article about the Global Diaspora Forum, which took place in Washington, D.C., on July 25 and 26. The forum, hosted by USAID and the State Department, convened more than 500 U.S. residents representing 50 countries, creating an environment for engagement and collaboration among diaspora groups. The event brought together leaders of diaspora communities, U.S. government officials, and private-sector stakeholders, among many others, with a focus on increasing diaspora philanthropy, volunteerism, and entrepreneurship.

Major League Soccer Envoys Bring Olympic-size Excitement to Camp in Eastern Ethiopia

Aug. 12 is International Youth Day, and this year’s theme is “Building a Better World by Partnering with Youth.” As an intern with USAID’s Outreach Program in Ethiopia, I recently spent a week working with 560 young people between ages 13 and 20 doing just that. I helped the U.S. Embassy’s Cultural Affairs Team run a weeklong soccer camp co-sponsored by Sports United and featuring two sports envoys from Major League Soccer: Tony Sanneh and Kate Markgraf.

The State Department’s sports diplomacy program sends American athletes around the world to transcend differences by engaging people with a shared passion for a sport. Forty-four percent of Ethiopia’s population is under the age of 15, so youth development is an integral part of Ethiopia’s development. When asked why he does sports diplomacy, Sanneh, a retired Los Angeles Galaxy player, said, “If kids can learn to stand in line, learn the rules of the game, it translates to the classroom and society.”

Growing up in the United States, I went to summer camp with that American notion of “roughing it.” At this camp however, the participants, coaches and volunteers came from Harar, Dire Dawa and Jijiga, areas of eastern Ethiopia that are susceptible to ethnic and religious tensions. Three hundred and fifty campers were Muslim, and 210 were Christian.

As world attention turns to the London 2012 Summer Olympics, Ethiopian girls were coached and inspired on a daily basis by Markgraf, a three-time Olympian with two gold medals and one silver.  Markgraf remarked on her experience at the camp, saying, “The great thing about soccer is that it doesn’t matter where you come from, what color you are, what gender you are, it brings us all together.”

After the soccer clinics, the Embassy’s cultural attaché, Jason Martin, and staff led daily discussions on social values, peer pressure, American history and good environmental practices. At night the kids would compete as much as they did on the field during the day, dancing to popular Ethiopian music.

On the last day, I asked a girl from Harar named Leyman Jirb Mume if she had had fun, and she said: “I am so happy that I was able to come to this camp and make friends from Jijiga and Dire Dawa. I would never have been able to do that without this program; it makes me so happy.”

For my part, I learned what “roughing it” really means. In addition to braving the scorching heat, many at this camp were very poor, but that didn’t dampen their enthusiastic participation: Some boys and girls even played in flip-flops or barefoot. Markgraf marveled at the level of excitement over soccer balls donated by USAID, saying:  “I think my most memorable experience has been seeing the excitement of the kids when they come off the bus and they each have a soccer ball to play with. We take that for granted in the U.S., but [here] it is something to have an inflated ball that is brand new; that excitement is something I have never seen.”

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