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How USAID’s Partners are Transitioning to E-payments

This originally appeared on Devex

This spring I had the opportunity to speak to 170 participants around the world in an interactive webinar the USAID/IDEA Mobile Solutions team organized, called “Demystifying Electronic Payments: Lessons Learned from Pathfinder on Transitioning Away From Cash.” I’m excited about this, because I think it’s a great example of the next step we’re taking towards transforming our Agency.

Our Mobile Solutions at USAID team is young – we started two years ago with no budget and 1.5 people. What we set out to do is really a change-management program within our agency. We’re working to make mobile technology a core part of how we do our work, including transitioning our programs from cash to e-payments.

A neighborhood shopkeeper writes down transaction details after processing a mobile money transfer. Photo: Manpreet Romana/AFP, USAID.

A neighborhood shopkeeper writes down transaction details after processing a mobile money transfer. Photo: Manpreet Romana/AFP, USAID.

With colleagues at organizations like CGAP, the Gates Foundation, and Mercy Corps, we’ve done a lot of work to help people understand what mobile money is and why it’s worth working on. It has been such a rich experience because we’ve had both grassroots support as well as that of our leadership. There’s no way we could have gotten where we are without our CFO, General Council, procurement team, and especially our field staff.

While working with these incredible champions, we’ve received many requests for tools, resources, and trainings. As our team and our experience grow, we’re helping them move from supporting the idea of mobile money to the nitty gritty of implementation. A strong demand for real world examples was the inspiration for the webinar, almost a “Mobile Money 201” course. We wanted to take a deep look at how an organization that’s committed to going from cash to almost all electronic payments gets there.

We also really wanted to hear from the field, so we were lucky to have Mustafa Kudrati and Peter Mihayo of Pathfinder Tanzania speak to their lessons learned, challenges, and successes in transitioning from cash to electronic payments.

They answered questions such as: What are recommended standard operating procedures for payment disbursement and reconciliation? What are key considerations for others exploring the transition? Some of the things they shared really got me thinking about how all this works in the field, including:

  • Reducing cash payments: Pathfinder Tanzania went from making 30-50 percent of payments in cash to writing only 3-5 checks per month. This statistic is just stunning to me.
  • Increasing transparency and efficiency: Pathfinder could ensure that all funding for training participants went to registered accounts they could trace, making the program more transparent. This is a recurring theme we hear from our partners.
  • Reaching scale: Mustafa reminds me there was no way the program would have reached so many participants without transitioning to e-payments. Between June and December  Pathfinder trained more than 4,000 people scattered throughout 40 districts. Without mobile money, they estimate it would have taken 18 months to do this. And now, they have a vision for serving even more people with these new payment tools.

That’s amazing, and that’s what we want to see – successful projects at USAID quickly scale approaches that they’ve seen enhance people’s lives. It’s a powerful story, and it shows that mobile payments change our work in a very fundamental way.

Explore related content: 

Learn more about USAID’s mobile solutions

Photo of the Week: Securing Water for Food

Securing Water For Food: A Grand Challenge For Development

On September 2, USAID and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) announced a new program “Securing Water for Food: A Grand Challenge for Development” to address water scarcity, one of the most pressing global challenges. Through this Grand Challenge, we will identify and accelerate science and technology innovations and market-driven approaches that improve water sustainability to boost food security and alleviate poverty.

To advance meeting this goal, USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures announced last week that it will invest stage 1 funding in mWater’s mobile tech and open data solution to clean drinking water.

Learn more about the “Securing Water for Food” Grand Challenge.

Read more about mWater’s project, and learn about USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures program.

Like USAID on Facebook and follow @USAID on Twitter for factoids, photos and interesting stories during World Water Week with hashtag #WWWeek

No Longer Just Food: Communities Create Assets to Build Food Security in South Sudan

As USAID’s Food for Peace Officer assigned to South Sudan since October 2011, I have seen firsthand how U.S. government food assistance programs are simultaneously supporting communities’ efforts to create assets that strengthen their food security while providing vital timely assistance to food insecure South Sudanese.

A little over two years since declaring independence following more than 20 years of civil war, South Sudan is still struggling to build infrastructure and institutions to function as a sovereign state. Pockets of continuing civil conflict and erratic weather patterns plus a massive influx of refugees from Sudan and the return of thousands of people of South Sudanese origin after years of living in Sudan have strained food security in this new nation struggling to find its footing. Disputes with Sudan continue to threaten landlocked South Sudan’s ability to export oil through Sudan’s pipeline—and generate revenue South Sudan needs to finance its development. All these factors contribute to a continued need for substantial food assistance in South Sudan.

Women construct a water pond in South Sudan

Women constructing a water pond in South Sudan. Water ponds are built where there is a natural depression and water traditionally collects during the rainy season. The women are deepening and enlarging the area so that they will have water for a longer period of time during the dry season. Photo credit: Elizabeth Chambers, USAID

Poor, vulnerable communities are often risk averse, but in areas of South Sudan where peace has taken hold, citizens have embraced an innovative approach called “Food-for-Assets.” They build a critically needed asset in their community and receive remuneration in sorghum, pulses and vegetable oil, in lieu of cash. This reduces their susceptibility to shocks to their food security and contributes to the development of the community. As these activities are undertaken during the year when such commodities are scarce, this approach frees participants from the daily worry about accessing food for their families. To ensure sustainability, the participants themselves identify their key community needs and the resources required to implement the asset-building projects.

So why is this innovative? As a result of chronic food insecurity and conflict, South Sudan has received widespread free food distributions for years. By focusing on a Food-for-Assets approach, we are fostering a shift from dependency on food aid to sustainable livelihoods. By empowering communities to build or improve local assets, we improve their resilience to shocks, such as floods, so that one day these communities will no longer need food assistance.

Woman in South Sudan observes the construction of a water pond

Woman in South Sudan observes the construction of a water pond. Photo credit: Elizabeth Chambers, USAID

For example, in Warrap State, I visited a community benefiting from one of our food assistance programs supported by the UN World Food Program (WFP). The community had built a bridge over a marshland to connect 5,000 people in 24 isolated villages to main roads, thereby improving access to local markets, health centers and other services. The value of the bridge is incalculable as it not only drastically reduced transport costs for commercial produce and other goods, but also facilitated access to life-saving health care. More importantly, it brought the communities on either side of the bridge together to work on a common goal, become better neighbors and reduce tensions. Local authorities realized the powerful impact of this activity and provided the culverts needed for part of the construction, while USAID provided 48 metric tons of food through WFP to approximately 100 participants in return for their labor. Construction began in November 2012 and was completed in April 2013. When I visited in May 2013 to check on progress of the project, the pride of participants from the communities on each side of the bridge was palpable.

In Northern Bahr el Ghazal State, I visited an access road and cattle pond that a community built—more Food-for-Assets activities USAID implemented with WFP. Local participants provided labor for the road and water point, while WFP distributed 170 metric tons of food contributed by USAID in exchange for their work. WFP also provided hand tools, training and technical support. The road now connects 6,800 people in 48 rural villages to main roads as well as markets, health centers and social services, and the waterhole provides drinking water for their cattle.  As I drove down the new road, I saw new development activities along the way, including the opening of new agricultural lands and building of new markets and classrooms.

Through Food-for-Assets, WFP assisted 445,000 residents in South Sudan between April and December 2012, and plans to reach about one million people in South Sudan through Food-for-Assets activities in 2013. USAID, through its partnership with WFP, provides commodities for Food-for-Assets programs which not only support the construction of roads and bridges, but also rehabilitate farmland, plant vegetable gardens to improve nutrition, dig irrigation ponds, and train farmers on practical skills to improve crop and vegetable production. USAID is the largest provider of food assistance to South Sudan, contributing 41 percent of WFP’s funding.

Learn more about the Office of Food for Peace‘s work to reduce hunger and malnutrition, and ensure that all people at all times have access to sufficient food for a healthy and productive life.

Photos of the Week: AID in Action: Delivering on Results

Driving human progress is at the core of USAID’s mission, but what do development results look like?

USAID is measuring our leadership in results — not dollars spent — implementing innovative, cost-effective strategies to save lives. Through investments in science, technology and innovation, USAID is harnessing new partners and young minds to transform more lives than ever before. Our new model for development embraces game-changing partnerships that leverage resources, expertise, and science and technology to maximize our impact and deliver real results.

Take a look at the Agency’s top recent and historical achievements in promoting better health; food security; democracy and good governance; education; economic growth, and in providing a helping hand to communities in need around the globe.

Read the stories behind the results in the special edition of FrontLines: Aid in Action: Delivering on Results.

Follow @USAID and @USAIDpubs for ongoing updates on the best of our results!

Video of the Week: Empowering Women Through Horticultural Innovations

The USAID Horticulture Project in Bangladesh aims to educate and train local farmers on innovative agricultural technologies that help diversify crops to increase nutritional value. With our partners the International Potato Center, AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center, BRAC and Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), we are working with local farmers to diversify diets and agricultural production systems with potato, orange-fleshed sweet potato, summer tomato, and nutritious indigenous vegetables. Meet some of the women farmers that have benefited from training in grafting tomato and producing sweet potato seedlings.

Learn more about our Mission of the Month: USAID Bangladesh.

Like USAID Bangladesh on Facebook and follow @USAID_BD and #MissionofMonth on Twitter for ongoing updates!

USAID in the News

The Huffington Post reports that The United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) initiative just announced its investment in mWater. A non-profit tech startup, mWater has created an app for mobile phone users to instantly test and analyze water quality from local sources and share this information on their global, open-source water monitoring database.

The Nation reported that The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will help expand the U.S.-Asean Business Council’s training programs for small and medium-sized enterprises. The council’s and USAID’s new ASEAN connectivity through trade and investment programs will partner to expand the resources, scope and diversity of SME training in the run-up to the creation of the Asean Economic Community in 2015.

AP reported that Nancy Lindborg, a USAID assistant administrator for democracy, conflict, and humanitarian assistance, said Washington had allocated $45 million out of $1 billion in aid for Syrian refugees in Iraq and “we’re looking at how we can contribute more.”

Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) reported that Nancy Lindborg, Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance (USAID) announced on Tuesday it was to provide USD 2.4 million worth of food aid to societies in Jordan, which are suffering from food insecurity.

USAID in the News

Devex reported with the launch of the USAID Forward reform effort, the U.S. Agency for International Development has taken steps to ensure local governments, civil society and people are not just recipients and implementers of U.S.-funded development programs but the drivers behind them. This, after all, is the only way to ensure long-term, sustainable change. But while the agency has made progress in integrating local ownership into its work, there is still room for improvement.

The AP reports that in the mountains of northeast Afghanistan, a village was recently quarantined after cholera made its presence known approximately three days ago. The disease “has infected 1,492 people, killed a young woman and left another 100 in critical condition” in Chappa. The town’s drinking water is said to be the “source of the infection.” The article also notes that just “12 percent” of Afghans in rural communities have “access to clean drinking water, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.”

The results of the American doctors' visit were given to Alan Gross's wife, Judy, seen here, and the rest of his family. Photo credit: CNN

The results of the American doctors’ visit were given to Alan Gross’s wife, Judy, seen here, and the rest of his family. Photo credit: CNN

CNN reports that an American medical team visited a former USAID subcontractor imprisoned on the island of Cuba in “early July.” According to Alan Gross’ attorney, the 64-year-old’s “family has received the results and, at least at this time, does not have any plans to release them to the public.” Meanwhile, Cuba maintains that Gross is receiving adequate care in the “military hospital” where he is serving a 15-year sentence for “bringing banned communications equipment to Cuba as part of a State Department” democratization “program to increase access to the internet.”

A piece published on the Forbes website says that despite “vast differences” between Nepal and the U.S., both nations “have a lot to learn from one another about the underserved, health and decreasing disparities in access and outcomes.” Indeed, Nepal is heavily reliant upon “foreign assistance” and continues receiving “poor health rankings,” but the “U.S. could learn a lot about a return to local or ‘community care.” With that said, the ‘Nepalese are looking to their allies from the States to help facilitate safe and fair democratic elections by the end of 2013.” In the meantime, “both the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are working diligently in the capital of Kathmandu to create sustainable health care programs that foster education, improve health outcomes and promote financial independence,” the blog points out.

Radio Australia reported a research team from the University of Melbourne has been awarded a USAID grant for their work on pneumonia in Papua New Guinea. Their project will assist newly born babies with oxygen to help prevent deaths from pneumonia – the leading cause of mortality for children under five years. Dr. Bryn Sobott, a Post Doctoral Fellow in Xray and Synchrotron science, from the University of Melbourne says their electricity-free oxygen concentrator is the first of it’s kind.

In continuing coverage, Devex “caught up with agency officials and industry experts on the sidelines of the 2013 USAID Education Summit.” In his “keynote address to close the meeting, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah reminded participants what they have been tasked to overcome: dismally low records of educational performance in crisis-afflicted countries, 57 million children out of school worldwide, and the fact that a child in Africa still has a 40 percent chance of being illiterate after five years of school.” Such “conditions have led the agency, explained Shah, to focus on areas where its resources can have the most impact – in particular, leveraging technology for development.”

USAID Fosters Grassroots Innovation in Zambia

What happens when you bring together a fish farmer from Zambia, an entrepreneur from India, a design engineer from Germany, an MBA student from Colorado, and a group of 42 other similarly diverse individuals, and send them to work together with rural Zambian communities to create technologies that will improve the lives of those living in poverty? The answer, as I witnessed at the International Development Design Summit earlier this month, is innovation.

The International Development Design Summit (IDDS) is an intense, month-long workshop that brings together people from all walks of life and a variety of disciplines to create solutions to development challenges faced by impoverished communities around the world. The IDDS summit, now in its seventh year, is organized by a consortium of U.S.-based and international universities led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Reflecting USAID’s deep commitment to greater collaboration with the global science, technology, university, business, and entrepreneur  communities to solve development challenges, USAID/Zambia and USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) provided direct support to the summit for the first time this year.

Samenjo (Karl) Tondo from Cameroon and Oscar Manyara from Tanzania show off the improved design of an aluminum furnace that is safer and more efficient that the makeshift furnaces used by foundry workers. Photo credit: Amit Mistry, USAID

Samenjo (Karl) Tondo from Cameroon and Oscar Manyara from Tanzania show off the improved design of an aluminum furnace that is safer and more efficient that the makeshift furnaces used by foundry workers. Photo credit: Amit Mistry, USAID

At this year’s Summit, 46 individuals, the majority of them from developing countries, came together in Lusaka, Zambia with one thing in common: a desire to improve lives through technology and innovation. After orientation in Lusaka, the group traveled to rural areas of the country to understand the development challenges faced by these communities. After arriving back in Lusaka, the innovators designed and built prototypes to address those challenges, and later returned to the field to get feedback from the local communities they collaborated with. Their prototypes were presented in a closing ceremony on July 29 to a full house of Zambian Government officials, local organizations, USAID and Peace Corps staff, and many other aspiring entrepreneurs.

The IDDS aluminum team went to Chazanga village on the outskirts of Lusaka and learned that foundry workers there face several challenges producing aluminum pots in makeshift furnaces made out of oil drums – challenges which affect their health and livelihoods. Using locally available materials, the team improved the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the furnace design by enabling pre-heating of aluminum, which reduces the amount of fuel required. They also made the entire structure mobile so that multiple users can work with the same furnace and a worker can move the furnace to take advantage of wind flow and improve efficiency. Most importantly, the new design includes a chimney-style vent, which keeps harmful fumes from being inhaled. Without this innovation, workers end up inhaling large volumes of the fumes and then drink several quarts of milk afterwards in an attempt to remove the toxins from their systems. The new design is safer, more efficient, more functional, and produces higher quality aluminum pots than the traditional oil drum furnace, providing opportunities for workers to earn more income and improve their quality of life.

Another IDDS team worked with communities in Kamphelo village in the Eastern Province and learned that women were putting their health at risk due to cultural taboos surrounding menstrual hygiene. Women in Kamphelo, as well as in many other areas in the world, are not able to speak freely with each other or to the men in their communities about menstruation and would often reuse old and unclean cloths as pads. The taboos are so strong that women are not able to clean and hang the cloths out to dry, increasing the risk of infection. The team designed an inexpensive, disposable pad that women could produce and sell themselves. The two men on the IDDS team became vocal advocates for hygienic menstrual practices, with one becoming more comfortable talking with his wife and daughter in Zambia about the issue and the other proudly discussing the issue with women’s groups in the village.

Loveness Mwanawasa from Zambia and Chole Underdwon from the United Kingdom practice designing menstrual pad prototypes in Kamphelo village. Photo credit: Amy Smith/MIT

Loveness Mwanawasa from Zambia and Chole Underdwon from the United Kingdom practice designing menstrual pad prototypes in Kamphelo village. Photo credit: Amy Smith/MIT

These were just two of the eight design teams participating in IDDS 2013. In every case, impoverished Zambian communities benefited from the technology itself as well as the sense of empowerment they gained by engaging with the IDDS participants. The participants also came away from the experience with a new perspective on international development and a powerful new capacity to find solutions to the problems affecting people living in poverty.

With this additional support from HESN, the IDDS consortium is creating the International Development Innovation Network to grow its network of innovators and establish permanent innovation centers after the summits so that local innovators can continue to have access to tools, resources, and mentorship to turn their ideas into prototypes and turn their prototypes into sustainable enterprises.

“At USAID, we are taking an approach to development based on the fundamental belief that harnessing the power of science and technology – coupled with an open approach to solving problems that engages traditional and nontraditional development communities – are the keys to addressing the world’s greatest development challenges,” said Alex Dehgan, Science Adviser to USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah, “and we are excited to have supported a summit that reflects this approach. These scientists, engineers, students, innovators, and entrepreneurs who came to devote their skills and their time to creating better and more sustainable solutions to key global challenges  are in the vanguard of a new ‘solver movement’ that will help drive global economic growth and prosperity and improve the lives of millions.”

To learn more about USAID programs that support science, technology, and innovation, please visit:

Opening the Door to USAID: A Conversation with InsideNGO

On Aug. 1, Angelique Crumbly, assistant administrator to the Bureau for Management, Susan Reichle, counselor to the Agency, and I spoke before hundreds of InsideNGO community members in a plenary session at the InsideNGO Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. For us, having an in-person, live discussion where we engage our partners directly was of the utmost importance. This venue allowed our community of development professionals the chance to engage on current topics and learn about each other’s practices and concerns for the future.

Alison  N. Smith (left), executive director of the advocacy group InsideNGO, asks questions of the USAID panel. From left: Aman Djahanbani, senior procurement executive and director of the Office of Acquisition & Assistance; Angelique Crumbly, assistant administrator for the Bureau for Management; and Susan Reichle, counselor to the Agency. Photo credit: USAID

Alison N. Smith (left), executive director of the advocacy group InsideNGO, asks questions of the USAID panel. From left: Aman Djahanbani, senior procurement executive and director of the Office of Acquisition & Assistance; Angelique Crumbly, assistant administrator for the Bureau for Management; and Susan Reichle, counselor to the Agency. Photo credit: USAID

We started the session by discussing exciting changes happening within USAID, including our USAID Forward agenda, strategic management reforms and changes to Acquisition and Assistance policies. The current USAID Forward model focuses on collaboration and expanding our range of partners, and we discussed how this approach is more inclusive, transparent and results-based.

After the brief overview, we listened to firsthand accounts from our partners about their concerns, including a sense of inconsistency and the level of customer service inside the Agency. USAID has recognized these issues, and is working hard to ensure that the problems are corrected. I was pleased to announce that a new Acquisition and Assistance (A&A) Ombudsman will be joining the Agency soon. The A&A Ombudsman is a neutral Agency official responsible for managing external concerns and making recommendations for change, and I encouraged our partners to utilize this resource to the fullest.

Susan also invited the community to join the USAID Learning Lab. Already, there are thousands of members from different community sectors that come together here virtually to share feedback and best practices.

Another central topic of concern was the impact of budget sequestration (PDF) on the Agency and the community. To that end, USAID has established a sequestration leadership team to look at the potential impacts of these budget decisions. In the spirit of open dialogue we committed to keep them informed as soon as it is practical to do so.

Many audience members told us how much they appreciated our willingness to answer questions. We are committed to an open dialogue and believe it will allow us to focus on win-win opportunities. Together we can produce sustainable approaches to development, share resources, risks and results, and achieve the highest scale of impact – not only for the countries we serve, but also for the American taxpayer.

From the Field in Afghanistan: Children Teaching Their Elders

Last summer, my sister was surprised when my 7-year-old son Abdullah told her, “Don’t throw that on the street,” referring to an empty ice-cream container.

After the Taliban regime ended in 2001, many Afghan refugees returned home from Pakistan and Iran, where almost 5 million people had fled during three decades of war. Most of those who returned came to the city of Kabul, where it was easier to find jobs and earn a living. As a result, Kabul’s population has increased by 4 million in 12 years. In 2012, there were more than 5.5 million living in the city.

Kabul was originally built for 1.5 million people, so that many more people meant more traffic — and more trash. Most people were not helping to keep the city clean. They threw garbage on everywhere, it seemed, but in the trash cans. Kabul became very dirty.

Shir Sultan has introduced the “Green and Clean” campaign to 175,000 schoolchildren in 125 schools throughout the city. Above, Shir Sultan and Malika sing Afghan poems with children at Allaudin School. Photo credit: USAID Kabul City Initiative

Shir Sultan has introduced the “Green and Clean” campaign to 175,000 schoolchildren in 125 schools throughout the city. Above, Shir Sultan and Malika sing Afghan poems with children at Allaudin School. Photo credit: USAID Kabul City Initiative

To help overcome this challenge, USAID — together with the municipal government of Kabul and the Afghan Ministry of Education — launched the “Clean and Green” campaign. The campaign focuses on schoolchildren, using visual materials and live performances to share key messages. Two Afghan artists, acting as Shir Sultan (Kabul’s “Lion King”) and Malika (his queen), put on live shows for the children. Through Shir Sultan’s campaign of coloring books, billboards, posters and live theater, schoolchildren are learning how to plant trees, what to do with their garbage, and how to keep their city clean for many years to come.

When I was at school, we didn’t have practical campaigns like these to teach us about our social responsibilities. I am proud to work with USAID, which is supporting the development of countries such as Afghanistan. My son is one of the children who has learned from Shir Sultan’s performance at his school, and from the campaign billboards and coloring books, that he should not litter. He is also stopping others from littering — even his own aunt — and encouraging them to throw their garbage in trashcans.

Shir Sultan reads his storybook to children at Amani School in Kabul. Photo credit: USAID Kabul City Initiative

Shir Sultan reads his storybook to children at Amani School in Kabul. Photo credit: USAID Kabul City Initiative

“I am very proud of my little nephew,” my sister told me, “who understands his responsibility toward society and is even teaching me. I hope we will have a prosperous country and a bright future with children like him.”

“I hope that Abdullah and other children like him who grow up in this time will build this country. I hope with the support of American people and the international community, Afghanistan will come out of these problems,” my sister added.

Like USAID Afghanistan on Facebook and follow @USAIDAfghan on Twitter  for ongoing updates in the region. 

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