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Tracking Rumors to Contain Disease: The Case of DeySay in Liberia’s Ebola Outbreak

Ambulances at the site of an Ebola flare-up in Margibi County, Liberia. /Kate Thomas

Ambulances at the site of an Ebola flare-up in Margibi County, Liberia. /Kate Thomas

Rumors spread misinformation, fuel mistrust, cause panic and sometimes even prompt irrational behaviors. This is particularly true in the context of a health emergency when accurate information about a disease—how to prevent, detect, contain and treat it—can mean the difference between staying healthy or becoming infected and, in the worst case scenario, dying from it.

When the Ebola epidemic began to rapidly spread in West Africa, some people thought that the bleach sprayed by health workers to sanitize the environment was the actual cause of the disease. Others believed Ebola was the result of black magic. Suspicion and fear grew fast across Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, the three most affected countries, sometimes leading to horrible incidents like the murder of a group of health workers, local officials and journalists in Guinea in September 2014.

Responders who were on the frontlines in the three hardest hit Ebola countries soon became aware that the epidemic was driven as much by misinformation as it was by weak health systems.

To address the rumors and lack of accurate information, USAID’s Health Communication Capacity Collaborative (HC3) initiative was designed to bring in-depth expertise in social and behavior change communication to manage the epidemic.

A sign informs people about the dangers of Ebola. /Ida Jooste, Internews

A sign informs people about the dangers of Ebola. /Ida Jooste, Internews

“Rumors often started far away from the capital and would grow out of control very quickly, generally through word of mouth, SMS and social media,” says Anahi Ayala Iacucci, former team leader for Internews in Liberia, an HC3 implementing partner.

Infection prevention and control, isolation of patients, contact tracing, and safe burials were critical practices for stopping the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa. Yet most of these required people to change their behaviors significantly when caring for sick family members.

“This chaotic information landscape consisted mainly of information ‘going out,’ with little opportunity for community dialogue,” says Iacucci.

Not surprisingly, local people struggled to understand why they needed to stop doing what they were used to doing and started to question information they were receiving. Information dissemination thus resulted in a plethora of poorly targeted and coordinated messages. The lack of dialogue fueled rumors and increased suspicion toward all first responders, including local and national governments.

“This chaotic information landscape consisted mainly of information ‘going out,’ with little opportunity for community dialogue.”

That is when the USAID-funded Information Saves Lives program in Liberia took off. Its goals were to investigate and respond to public rumors about Ebola, train and empower journalists to report accurately about health issues, and stimulate the exchange of information during the Ebola crisis. With technical support from UNICEF, HC3 developed the DeySay SMS system, which used text messages to monitor, track and report rumors about Ebola across different counties in Liberia.

“The DeySay rumor tracker was successful in responding to the information gaps that fed the rumors circulating, providing an opportunity to determine more localized communication responses,” says Anna Helland, HC3 country director in Liberia. “This, along with an increased emphasis on community engagement and community-led responses, provided needed vehicles for two-way rather than one-way communication as the situation continued to change and evolve.”

A radio host prepares to go live on an Ebola-related talk show. /Ida Jooste, Internews

A radio host prepares to go live on an Ebola-related talk show. /Ida Jooste, Internews

Another important aspect of this program was working with those who were already trusted sources of information like journalists, community leaders, and local health workers as a more effective way to foster dialogue and two-way conversations.

Rumors mapped through the tracker were addressed through a variety of outreach channels, including local radio stations where audiences had a chance to call in and share their concerns.

“Tracking rumors is pretty central to understanding public concern around these flare-ups and all health issues,” says Kate Thomas, an Information Saves Lives adviser with HC3 in Liberia.

With the goal of building long-term capacity for quality health reporting, this activity also provided small grants, training and mentoring opportunities to the most committed journalists. While the first phase of the project focused on delivering accurate information by identifying information gaps, the second phase will focus on capacity strengthening, according to Helland.

Although the DeySay Ebola rumor tracker is no longer in use, it has paved the way for innovative tools in a post-Ebola scenario.

Community engagement and social mobilization have been included as core components of USAID’s response strategy to Zika in Latin America. Because if there is one thing the Ebola outbreak taught us, it is that two-way engagement with affected communities is essential for sustainable behavior change. And blasting messages out without engaging in an ongoing dialogue will invariably fail.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Beatrice M. Spadacini is a senior communications adviser in USAID’s Bureau for Global Health.


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How Vocational Training Is Changing the Destinies of Morocco’s Youth

Youth participate in a morning sewing class at the Chifae Association, a USAID-supported NGO providing vocational training to local youth in an impoverished urban neighborhood in Tangiers. /USAID

Youth participate in a morning sewing class at the Chifae Association, a USAID-supported NGO providing vocational training to local youth in an impoverished urban neighborhood in Tangiers. /USAID

Moroccan youth, who make up a third of their country’s population, represent a massive pool of untapped talent and potential. However, with 40 percent of Morocco’s youth out of school or out of work, many feel lost and unsupported by their communities. These youth can become susceptible to the world of crime, drugs and radicalization.

To help provide them with an alternative, USAID and its partners in Morocco are working together to provide sustainable opportunities for youth. I recently had the chance to visit USAID activities in Morocco that provide young people with the skills they need to enter the workforce, and connect them to jobs in high-demand sectors.

USAID’s Favorable Opportunities to Reinforce Self-Advancement for Today’s Youth activity works with at-risk youth in underprivileged neighborhoods in the north of Morocco. Since 2012, the activity has improved the lives of over 12,000 at-risk youth in the cities of Tangiers and Tetouan by increasing confidence and community engagement, and providing professional skills training, academic support and tutoring.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Maria Longi witnesses the signing of a partnership agreement between the Nova Moda 2 clothing company and the Chifae Association to increase youth employability. / USAID Morocco

Deputy Assistant Administrator Maria Longi witnesses the signing of a partnership agreement between the Nova Moda 2 clothing company and the Chifae Association to increase youth employability. /USAID

Working with local civil society organizations, this USAID project addresses the challenges that push young Moroccans down hazardous paths. It improves their access to quality education and job opportunities and increases their community involvement through vocational training and career services—giving young people more positive options for their future.

I saw this firsthand when I visited the Chifae Association, a USAID-supported NGO providing vocational training to local youth in an impoverished urban neighborhood in Tangiers. I had the opportunity to observe a morning sewing class, where young men and women sat at rows of sewing machines testing stitches on colorful fabric scraps.

The students I spoke to at the Chifae Association told me how the USAID project is helping them find themselves. I was moved by their sense of ambition as we talked about their personal challenges and aspirations. They are learning new skills that will help them get a job and become excited about their future. One student told me that if it wasn’t for this program, he would most certainly be on the street selling drugs.

From the Chifae Association, we headed straight to Nova Moda 2, a clothing factory where many of the graduates from USAID-supported vocational training centers like the Chifae Association become interns or employees. Nova Moda 2 provides these graduates with good salaries that allow them to support themselves and their families. With this new sense of purpose, Moroccan youth gain self-esteem and feel more respected in their neighborhoods.

Nova Moda 2, a clothing factory where many graduates from USAID-supported vocational training centers like the Chifae Association become interns or employees. /USAID

Nova Moda 2, a clothing factory where many graduates from USAID-supported vocational training centers like the Chifae Association become interns or employees. /USAID

I also attended the signing of a partnership agreement between the Nova Moda 2 clothing company and the Chifae Association. This agreement made official what was already apparent: Everyone participating in this program—students, teachers and company managers—is committed to working toward a common goal of youth employability.

Through dedicated partnerships like this, students who complete the vocational training program have a clear vision of how their newly acquired skills can be applied in a viable profession, and with that, a hope for their future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maria Longi is the deputy assistant administrator for USAID’s Middle East Bureau.


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How USAID and the Military Are Building Resilience in the Asia-Pacific

As part of the Groundwater Modeling Workshop, participants visited the Batheay district of Kampong Cham province in Cambodia, where they examined groundwater pumping wells, like the one pictured, and discussed methods for determining groundwater flow direction. /Cambodian Ministry of Environment

As part of the Groundwater Modeling Workshop, participants visited the Batheay district of Kampong Cham province in Cambodia, where they examined groundwater pumping wells, like the one pictured, and discussed methods for determining groundwater flow direction. /Cambodian Ministry of Environment

‘A’ohe hana nui ke alu ‘ia. (No task is too big when done together by all.)—Hawaiian saying

As members of the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress gather in Hawaii this week to shape the direction of conservation and sustainable development, USAID celebrates its partnership with U.S. Pacific Command and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect the livelihoods of families in the Asia-Pacific.

Collaboration between USAID and the Department of Defense (DOD) is decades strong. While both organizations have very different missions, we often find ourselves in the same spaces, in places where the most vulnerable live, and during times of complex crises that require a “whole-of-government” approach to save more lives, end extreme poverty around the globe, and build resilient democratic societies.

Richard Byess, program officer at USAID/Cambodia; Natalie Freeman, USAID senior development adviser at U.S. Pacific Command; and John Daley, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers liaison officer in USAID’s Office of Civilian-Military Cooperation, offer their on-the-ground perspectives on what can be achieved when a spirit of civilian-military cooperation thrives in places like Cambodia and Bangladesh.

Q: Why is the Asia-Pacific region a natural space for cooperation and collaboration between USAID and the Department of Defense?

Freeman: The Asia-Pacific is home to more than 50 percent of the world’s population and composed of countries and thousands of islands that take up half of the earth’s surface. For the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), Asia is an exciting and pivotal time for U.S. policy in the region. In the past 30 years, we’ve seen a boost in prosperity, propelling hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty, and a growing middle class.

But despite this, there is a possibility that the region’s prosperity may be derailed because we have yet to address complex development challenges, such as governance in certain countries that inhibit marginalized societies from reaching their full potential, which impact not only our partner nations, but also PACOM, and U.S. national security. This is why USAID is working with PACOM and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to ensure that the progress we gain together will be sustained for the long term.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Cambodian Ministry of Environment study tools that could be used to evaluate the effects of climate change on groundwater resources in Cambodia, August 2016. /Cambodian Ministry of Environment

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Cambodian Ministry of Environment study tools that could be used to evaluate the effects of climate change on groundwater resources in Cambodia, August 2016. /Cambodian Ministry of Environment

Q: What does civilian-military cooperation look like “on the ground”?

Byess: In the past five years in Cambodia, USAID has worked with the Office of Defense Cooperation (ODC) on some 58 civilian-military activities, most of which have improved learning conditions for children and have provided access to health services for local residents. Together, USAID and ODC have also rehabilitated schools and health clinics, much of which was possible through the State Partnership Program with the Idaho National Guard.

There are also numerous water programs that USAID, PACOM and USACE have collaborated on throughout the Asia-Pacific that have helped people adopt more resourceful and efficient ways of accessing and managing groundwater resources.

 

Q: How is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers working with USAID to help families in the Asia-Pacific, especially in the face of climate change?

Daley: A recent example of collaborative USAID/DOD programs in the Asia-Pacific is the Groundwater Modeling Workshop, held in August 2016 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for multiple ministries and local civil society organizations. The workshop was requested by the Cambodian Ministry of Environment to explore the effects of climate change on the depletion of groundwater sources in Cambodia. USACE provided groundwater modeling instruction, and at the workshop’s end, participants walked away with tools and concepts to better understand the impacts of climate change, and other influences, on Cambodia’s rivers and waterways. The workshop was funded by PACOM and supported by USAID’s Office of Civilian-Military Cooperation.

Freeman: Climate change is one of those areas that make sense to work together on because it impacts all of us. In Bangladesh, for example, USAID and USACE have been working together since 2011 as partners in a $40.5 million multipurpose cyclone shelter project to help prepare Bangladeshis for future tropical cyclones. So far, 60 to 70 cyclone shelters have been constructed, and the project is anticipated to be completed in December 2017, with a goal of constructing 100 safe havens for up to 180,000 people.

Q: What advice would you give to other USAID mission staff when working with the military?

Byess: It is USAID’s policy to cooperate with DOD in order to support the Agency’s mission and advance development objectives. Our interagency partners can be most effectively brought in when we avoid duplication of effort and resources.

Freeman: Cooperation is necessary at the policy level. At USAID, we are working to institutionalize the sharing of USAID country development cooperation strategies with DOD while in draft. We also encourage DOD to welcome USAID input into DOD policies, strategies and plans that impact our shared space. This exchange is critical for our partnership and allows it to have lasting impact.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kristen Byrne is a strategic communications and outreach specialist with USAID’s Office of Civilian-Military Cooperation.

 

Giving Birth in Ukraine: So Different From My Parents’ Experience

Getting ready to become a mom. /Olya Myrtsalo, USAID/Christian Kitschenberg

Getting ready to become a mom. /Olya Myrtsalo, USAID/Christian Kitschenberg

In my 13 years working in outreach and communications for the USAID mission in Ukraine, I’ve had a chance to visit many USAID projects and to hear and write many success stories on how what we do has impacted people’s lives. But one project made my heart beat especially fast.

Every time I visited the maternity wards of hospitals cooperating with the USAID Maternal and Infant Health Project, no matter whether in Simferopol or Luhansk, Lviv or Lutsk, I always experienced a warm feeling of happiness for families that had taken advantage of a unique opportunity to experience the birth of their child in an individual family-friendly room, forming a lifelong connection by sharing an important moment.

My parents were not so lucky. Back in Soviet times, my mother delivered me in a very different environment. She shared the birth of her child in a common room with another woman in labor, in a cold, bare, spouse-free environment, on a proletarian Rakhmanov delivery chair while in labor for 24 hours.

When I was finally born, I was immediately whisked away to a separate nursery for newborns. A nurse brought me to my mother on schedule to be fed and then immediately taken away, ostensibly to prevent infections. Visitors were forbidden, including my father.

Standing outside the hospital on a cold winter day, my father tried to get a glimpse of his newborn daughter by looking at a bundle of humanity my mom was holding at the window on a fifth-floor delivery room, some 50 meters away. Hearing my parents recount this story, I felt so sorry for my lonely and scared mother, for my distanced and confused father, and for myself—for being separated from my family at such a critical, early hour of my life.

Thinking about having my own children, I often thought: “I better hurry up and find a maternity hospital before the USAID project ends.”

Father-son bonding. Levko is warmed on his father’s chest for two hours to prevent hypothermia as his mother recovers from a C-section. /Olya Myrtsalo, USAID/Christian Kitschenberg

Father-son bonding. Levko is warmed on his father’s chest for two hours to prevent hypothermia as his mother recovers from a C-section. /Olya Myrtsalo, USAID/Christian Kitschenberg

My son decided to come into this world three years after the project ended. Nevertheless, when it came to choosing a delivery hospital, I turned to maternity staff and wards that had worked with USAID.

The Zhytomyr Oblast Perinatal Center was among the first to join the USAID Maternal and Infant Health Project and was dubbed a project “champion.” It was among the leaders in breaking from Soviet practices and embracing World Health Organization-endorsed, evidence-based prenatal practices.

Headed by the dedicated Dr. Yuriy Vaisberg, the Zhytomyr maternity hospital quickly earned numerous quality awards. More importantly, it became a hospital where women and their families from neighboring cities and oblasts chose to deliver their babies, despite the distance they had to travel.

While I saw the benefit of giving birth at this facility, it took Christian, my partner and father of our child, longer to come around. He couldn’t understand why I decided to travel 100 kilometers outside of Kyiv to check out a maternity hospital.

When we arrived for a visit in April 2015, I found the hospital as I remembered it. The walls still displayed the project posters explaining all the stages of labor, the multiple delivery positions to choose from, the benefits of breastfeeding, and the danger and causes of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. It also continued to provide courses on breastfeeding and antenatal and postpartum counseling to women and their families.

Our little Levko came into this world on a beautiful sunny day on June 18 at a sturdy 9 pounds, 5 ounces, and 22.4 inches in length. As I had undergone a C-section, Levko was put on his father’s chest for two hours to prevent hypothermia. Whoever came up with this procedure should receive a great prize because it creates an incredible bond between the parent and child. As Christian explained, he felt a strong bond with Levko from the first touch.

After two hours of this, Levko was medically examined and then brought back to me for his first breastfeeding. The three of us spent the next five days together in a hospital room which looked more like a room in any home rather than a hospital ward. I could see and hold my son whenever I wanted and feed him whenever he was hungry or needed comfort. Christian helped change Levko’s diapers, held and calmed him whenever he was cranky, and cared for me as I recovered from the C-section.

Getting ready to go home. /Olya Myrtsalo, USAID/Christian Kitschenberg

Getting ready to go home. /Olya Myrtsalo, USAID/Christian Kitschenberg

As we left the hospital, I couldn’t help but compare how different our delivery experience was from that of my parents. I am grateful to the Center for valuing the importance of these necessary new practices recommended by the USAID project and continuing to offer them. The training and equipment that USAID provided made it possible for these dedicated nurses and doctors to continue to help women give birth safely and comfortably. I hope that, in the not too distant future, all of Ukraine’s maternity hospitals will adopt similar practices.

USAID’s Maternal and Infant Health Project, which ran from 2003 to 2012, provided technical assistance for maternal and child care to 20 regions in Ukraine. More than 50 percent of births in the country today directly benefit from those perinatal technologies.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Olya Myrtsalo is a senior development and communication officer in USAID’s regional mission for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.

If Fighting Hunger Were an Olympic Event

Emmanuel Ngulube visits programs in the field. /USAID

Emmanuel Ngulube visits programs in the field. /USAID

It’s been a bad two-year stretch in Malawi: The southeast African nation has suffered back-to-back devastating natural disasters. In 2015, record-breaking flooding left tens of thousands stranded in southern Malawi, and this year El Niño brought historic drought and widespread crop failures, pushing 6.5 million people into dangerous levels of food insecurity.

One of USAID’s best weapons for fighting hunger in Malawi is Emmanuel Ngulube, an officer with the Agency’s Office of Food for Peace who has dedicated his entire career to fighting hunger across Africa.

Emmanuel grew up in Zambia and remembers the effects of drought in the 1980s. “We were lucky,” he said, “My father worked for the mines and he could afford to buy food imported by the government, but others relied on emergency food assistance.”

Before beginning his career with USAID 10 years ago, Emmanuel was already heavily involved in food security issues as a planner in the Office of the Minister of Agriculture in Zambia, as well as a manager in Zambia’s Food Reserve Agency.

As a program specialist for Food for Peace in the USAID mission in Zambia, Emmanuel spent four years deepening his passion for helping rural communities find long-term solutions to hunger. That fervor traveled with him when he relocated to Malawi to help communities recover from crises and develop lasting food security.

On the banks of Shire River in Nsanje district, Malawi /Emmanuel Ngulube

On the banks of Shire River in Nsanje district, Malawi /Emmanuel Ngulube

Reflecting on his career, Emmanuel said, “The more years I work in food security, the deeper my roots grow and I become more passionate about it.”

Emmanuel’s favorite part of his job is getting out into the rural communities to meet with people, work together and see the fruits of his work flourish. He says he’s always impressed at how many ideas the communities contribute to become more resilient and break the chronic cycle of hunger and poverty.

One woman’s innovative idea in particular stands out to Emmanuel: Ezelyn Kazamira participated in a USAID-funded Village Savings and Loan group and used her dividend to purchase and rent out a motorized pump to farmers in her village to assist with irrigation.

According to Emmanuel, “Not letting development gains be eroded by recurrent floods and drought or climate change is the biggest challenge [to USAID’s efforts to improve food security].”

He’s referring to disasters such as the historic floods in 2015, during which Emmanuel helped USAID and the U.N. World Food Program successfully preposition stocks of food in order to reach the communities hit hardest. Or regional disasters like the Ebola outbreak—Emmanuel’s most memorable and biggest emergency to date. He, alongside others in USAID’s disaster assistance response team, made sure families could still access food, despite closed borders, limited movement and depleted markets.


In the midst of the Ebola crisis, another less visible crisis arose–a food crisis. / USAID

Despite these food security challenges, food insecure families are in good hands with Emmanuel on the ground. For the last 10 years, he has been championing both emergency and development food assistance efforts. And if food assistance were an Olympic event, Emmanuel Ngulube would win a gold medal.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Emma Fredieu is an information officer for USAID’s Office of Food For Peace. Follow FFP’s tweets @USAIDFFP.

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at What It Takes to Deploy with the World’s Only International Volcano Response Team

On Christmas Eve 2008, I got a phone call that turned into a professional and personal opportunity of a lifetime. On the other end of the line: the acting director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).

The Ol Dionyo Lengai Volcano in Tanzania had been erupting explosively since 2007, and the Government of Tanzania was requesting assistance from the U.S. to determine how much of a threat “the Mountain of God”—in local Maasai language—posed to people living nearby.

Standing in Target, in the midst of last-minute shopping, my first thought was “Can this wait for a few days?” But I knew all too well that the approximately 1,500 potentially active volcanoes around the world never take a vacation.

Ol Dionyo Lengai Volcano means “Mountain of God” in local Maasia language. Photo taken February 4, 2008/ George Seielstad

Ol Dionyo Lengai Volcano means “Mountain of God” in local Maasia language. Photo taken February 4, 2008/ George Seielstad

USAID’s Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP) has responded either in-country or remotely to hundreds of potential volcanic events, trained scientists and others in 23 countries to respond to potential eruptions, and helped partner organizations save tens of thousands of lives.

It is the only international response team that deploys around the world to help prevent eruptions from becoming disasters. And this year, we’re celebrating 30 years.

The program began in 1986 in response to the tragic eruption of Nevado del Ruiz Volcano in Colombia, which killed more than 23,000 people from volcanic mudflows. Today, at the request of affected governments, VDAP teams help fellow scientists monitor volcanic activity, assess hazards, generate eruption forecasts, and develop early warning capabilities to get people out of harm’s way.

I work for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), but for the past 12 years I’ve been on loan to OFDA, where one of my duties is monitoring the latest reports of volcanic activity to evaluate the risks they pose and make recommendations on how we should respond.

Gari Mayberry (right) with a guide in front of Ol Dionyo Lengai Volcano in January 2009. / Thomas Casadevall, USGS

Gari Mayberry (right) with a guide in front of Ol Dionyo Lengai Volcano in January 2009. / Thomas Casadevall, USGS

And shortly after that New Year’s Day in 2009, I got on a plane to Tanzania with two other members of the VDAP team—putting those skills to use on the ground.

VDAP team and scientists from the Geological Survey of Tanzania respond to Ol Dionyo Lengai Volcano in Tanzania. / Gari Mayberry, USAID/USGS

VDAP team and scientists from the Geological Survey of Tanzania respond to Ol Dionyo Lengai Volcano in Tanzania. / Gari Mayberry, USAID/USGS

My first VDAP deployment was an incredible experience. Ol Dionyo Lengai is a one-of-a-kind volcano that spews a unique natrocarbonatite lava that erupts black but turns white when it cools and has a much lower temperature than other types of lava.

Naiyobi village, located about 15 km west of Ol Dionyo Lengai, had been most affected by eruptions with ash falling repeatedly in the village. / Gari Mayberry, USAID/USGS

Naiyobi village, located about 15 km west of Ol Dionyo Lengai, had been most affected by eruptions with ash falling repeatedly in the village. / Gari Mayberry, USAID/USGS

But is the volcano safe? To figure that out, we worked with geologists from the Geological Survey of Tanzania and the University of Dar es Salaam to conduct hazard assessments.

It may sound mundane, but it was hands-on work. Scientists dug into ash deposits to get an idea of how much volcanic material had erupted and could impact populated areas. We hiked for miles around the volcano looking at past deposits to try to piece together the mystery of its previous eruptions, to give us a better idea of what it is capable of doing in the future.

Our research found that the location of the village, up on a ledge, in full view of the volcano, would provide protection from pyroclastic flows—fast-moving currents of hot gas and rock— and other deadly hazards should an eruption occur.

A VDAP team member consults with scientists from the Geological Survey of Tanzania while children observe. / Thomas Casadevall, USGS

A VDAP team member consults with scientists from the Geological Survey of Tanzania while children observe. / Thomas Casadevall, USGS

I love this volcano. It’s very off the beaten path, usually dwarfed in popularity by neighboring Mt. Kilimanjaro, and immersed in amazing wildlife. Working among the people who live around the volcano and make it part of their lives was magical.

After assessing hazards at Ol Dionyo Lengai Volcano in Tanzania as part of a VDAP team, geologist Gari Mayberry briefed Tanzanian President Kikwete at the President’s Office in 2009. / Embassy staff

After assessing hazards at Ol Dionyo Lengai Volcano in Tanzania as part of a VDAP team, geologist Gari Mayberry briefed Tanzanian President Kikwete at the President’s Office in 2009. / Embassy staff

You might think: Who would want to live near a volcano? But traveling to the villages and seeing the stunning contrast between the dry, bareness of the volcano against the lush, green land of nearby Naiyobi village, you could see why people make their homes there. It’s simply beautiful.

I feel really proud working with this amazing VDAP team. As an African-American scientist, I know that while volcanology is fairly well represented by women, there aren’t that many minorities working in the field. It’s probably why Tanzanians found it interesting that someone who looked like them was coming from America to work with their scientists.

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Working side-by-side with local scientists helps VDAP further its unofficial mission: Make connections and build relationships worldwide, which are integral to the work we do. It’s what we like to call science diplomacy.

It has been nearly eight years since that incredible experience, and I continue to work as the liaison between USGS and USAID, and to focus on reducing the risk from geological hazards, including evaluating the risk from volcanoes.

One thing has changed however. Now I am a mother to two young children. I hope I get the opportunity to take them to Tanzania to see my favorite volcano someday and meet the amazing scientists who deal with its threats.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

U.S. Army War College Students See International Development in Action to Rebuild Haiti

An international development class at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. Photo by Mark White, USAID

An international development class at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. (Mark White / USAID)

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

Those were my exact sentiments when I escorted 16 graduate students from the U.S. Army War College to Port-au-Prince, Haiti , earlier this year. These students had signed up for an international development class under the Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute (PKSOI) at the War College, a course I lead as USAID’s assigned faculty to the college. This trip allowed these students an opportunity to witness on-the-ground, whole-of-government coordination to rebuild the lives of Haitian families affected by the 2010 earthquake.

Why Haiti? The United States has supported the strengthening of democracy in Haiti for several decades. Even prior to the earthquake, Haiti faced a variety of challenges, including being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

The country is a priority for the U.S. Government and other donor nations following the 2010 earthquake that shattered economic stability in the country. To aid those affected by the quake, the United States committed $4.2 billion in assistance to help Haiti transition from disaster relief to a long-term development plan. Key advancements have been made in such areas as health services, economic growth, and investments in the agriculture sector.

Yet much of Haiti remains fragile and gains in some areas have been difficult to sustain. Obstacles to Haiti’s progress include lack of government capacity and vulnerability to natural disasters as well as challenges related to Haitians’ access to many basic services.

Haiti is one of the most illustrative examples of the possibilities and challenges of development assistance. I took my students to Haiti because I wanted them to see where and how international assistance makes positive impacts. The trip also encouraged dialogue among the students and with the people of Haiti so we could together discuss areas where assistance efforts could be improved.

“The trip brought international development to life. It took the learning from the classroom into a multidimensional opportunity to see defense, diplomacy and development in action,” said Rebecca VanNess, a student in my class.

USAID partners with Department of Defense (DOD) academic institutions, such as PKSOI, to educate DOD staff on USAID’s mission and to encourage open dialogue on how best we can work together to build a more secure and peaceful world. The international development course at PKSOI is part of USAID’s long-term training program that sends USAID staff to DOD academic institutions to foster mutual learning between the two agencies.

“For the first time, I understood why the Army spends its time and money to send its best senior leaders to the War College. Haiti provides a microcosm of all the facets of the [international development course] curriculum,” said Kim Colton of USAID.

I am a firm believer that learning through immersion is one of the greatest tools we can use when educating students about a place with a different culture and language than our own. My goal for organizing the trip was to allow students to get out of their comfort zones, to take what they have learned in an academic setting and see the realities in Haiti, and to come up with plausible solutions that incorporate a development perspective.

During the visit, the students had a chance to meet with representatives of local NGOs and members of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). The students also participated in discussions at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince with U.S. Ambassador Peter F. Mulrean, who offered frank discussions on the complexities of working in Haiti.

I was honored to have Professor Grace Stettenbauer, a senior Foreign Service Officer from the Department of State, accompany the class to Haiti. Stettenbauer shared her perspectives on applications of the U.S. national security policy and strategy to the real-world situations students encountered in Haiti.

My students departed Haiti feeling optimistic about its future, agreeing with the commonly repeated expression  that “Haiti is too rich (in resources) to be considered poor.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark White was the former deputy mission director of USAID/Haiti and is currently assigned as the USAID representative and professor at the Peacekeeping & Stability Operations Institute at the U.S. Army War College.

Family Planning for the World’s Youth Promotes Peace, Health and Prosperity

A mother with her child at the Nhamatanda Health Center in Mozambique. / Arturo Sanabria, Photoshare

With close to 600 million girls growing up in developing countries, achieving global prosperity starts with educating and empowering these young women so they can be healthy, productive members of their communities and become agents of change.

This year’s World Population Day encourages us to “Invest in Teenage Girls.” Voluntary family planning is one tool that can both educate and empower young women worldwide.

Access to voluntary family planning and reproductive health services for everyone, including youth, is vital to the future of our planet. About half of pregnancies among adolescent women in the developing world are unintended, with about 23 million young women wishing to avoid pregnancy, but not using modern contraception. This puts them at high risk of unintended pregnancy.

As we observe World Population Day on July 11, we acknowledge that young people hold the key to determining the future of our planet and to ensuring we meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)17 goals focused on ending all forms of poverty, achieving social justice for all, and tackling climate change by 2030.

Voluntary family planning is an important intervention that cuts across the five themes of the SDGS: people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership.

A nurse shows a client an implant rod, and explains how it works during a family planning outreach at a Nairobi informal settlement. / Tobin Jones, Jhpiego

Voluntary family planning affects people. It supports adolescents’ rights to information, and the rights of girls to remain unmarried and childless until they they are ready and desire to bear children.

Family planning saves lives. Today, pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death for adolescent women. By helping young women time and space their pregnancies, family planning helps reduce the number of high-risk pregnancies, and allows women to properly feed, clothe and educate the children they decide to have. Studies show that by 2020, family planning could help avert approximately 7 million under-5 deaths and prevent 450,000 maternal deaths in USAID’s priority countries.

A poster in a Sare Bilaly health hut in the region of Kolda, Senegal. / Amy Fowler, USAID

Family planning impacts the planet. Access to family planning can slow global climate change and improve the health and environment of households and communities worldwide, and research shows that it already has. A 2013 report warns: “poor reproductive health outcomes and population growth exist hand-in-hand with poverty and unsustainable natural resource use.”

Family planning helps reduce poverty and contributes to economic growth and prosperity. Nearly 21 percent of the world’s population—some 1.5 billion people—still live on less than $1.25 per day. By slowing rapid population growth, family planning can help to decrease the sheer number of poor people.

Reducing adolescent fertility can contribute to a “demographic dividend” of rapid economic growth. Having fewer children per family leads to more household savings and increased investments in each child. In Korea and Thailand, governments aligned population policy and family planning services with human capital development policies, particularly girls’ education, to accelerate economic growth.

Voluntary family planning can contribute to peace. Studies show that a large “youth bulge” (defined as a high number of 15- to 29-year-olds) is associated with a high risk of civil conflict. The political impact of fertility decline is measureable: Research shows as a country’s population ages, the probability of attaining and maintaining a liberal democracy is increased.

Worldwide, more than 30 million adolescent women are not in school. Early and unintended pregnancy can be both a cause and a consequence of dropping out of school, so family planning can help women and girls stay in school, become literate, and achieve their educational and employment aspirations. All of these outcomes lead to more peaceful communities and societies.

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Health workers in Mali. / Jane Silcock, USAID

Family planning partnerships at the global and country level will be critical to achieving success as we work toward reaching a grand convergence between the developed and developing world in the next 15 years. As the largest bilateral donor for family planning assistance, USAID has played a crucial role in increasing access to modern contraception. And through our youth policy, USAID strives to integrate youth reproductive and sexual health needs into all of our programs and partnerships.

Young people today will decide our future. We need them to participate in the social, economic, political and cultural life of their communities to eliminate poverty and achieve our collective goals. We also need to recognize the diversity of need and experience of this age group when developing reproductive and sexual health programs and services. As we help youth to succeed, voluntary family planning will be an essential element of our long-term development strategies.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ellen H. Starbird is the director of the Office of Population and Reproductive Health at USAID. Get updates about USAID’s Family Planning work via @USAIDGH.


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Resilient Health Systems Can Prevent and Contain Pandemics

Capt. John Whiteside of the U.S. Public Health Service dons Personal Protective Equipment as he prepares for a new potential Ebola case at the Monrovia Medical Unit in Liberia. USAID led and coordinated the U.S. Government's relief efforts in West Africa for the Ebola response. / Neil Brandvold, USAID

Capt. John Whiteside of the U.S. Public Health Service dons Personal Protective Equipment as he prepares for a new potential Ebola case at the Monrovia Medical Unit in Liberia. USAID led and coordinated the U.S. Government’s relief efforts in West Africa for the Ebola response. / Neil Brandvold, USAID

Resilience is one of those buzzwords that every so often captures the hearts and minds of development practitioners. The importance of this particular term, though, becomes all too clear as the world faces an increasing number of humanitarian crises, including outbreaks that can turn into pandemics.

Did you know, for instance, that every year, up to 500,000 people die from the flu? And in years when pandemic flu occurs, millions of people can lose their lives. The 1918 pandemic flu is a good case in point, as it infected up to 40 percent of the populations of some countries and killed up to 100 million people.

As a result of global warming, more pathogens with pandemic potential continue to emerge, many of which originate in animals (zoonotic). They include Ebola, H5N1 avian flu, H7N9 avian flu, HIV/AIDS, and two kinds of coronavirus: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

In this scenario, resilience is about detecting potential pandemic threats, and then mitigating and containing them. This concept came to the forefront during the 2014 Ebola outbreak when already stretched and under-resourced health systems in West Africa were confronted with a surge of patients, a contagious virus, overall lack of preparedness and minimal resources.

A technician swabs the throat of a duck at Bangkok’s Klongtoey Market during an avian influenza survey. / Richard Nyberg, USAID

A technician swabs the throat of a duck at Bangkok’s Klongtoey Market during an avian influenza survey. / Richard Nyberg, USAID

And to be fair, Ebola caught us by surprise also in North America where health personnel initially felt inadequately trained and hospitals struggled to put in place a rapid plan of action.

The point is that resilience in the health sector is not static but rather an ongoing and evolving state of affairs. Much of the work that USAID does in the global health space is focused on strengthening health systems, so they perform well and are resilient.

Well-performing health systems provide sustained, equitable access to essential services for all without financial hardship. They are better able to bounce back when adversity strikes; are prepared to detect and respond to emerging disease threats; are able to adapt to adverse conditions; address a wide range of health challenges; and offer innovative solutions by leveraging diverse skills and views.

USAID invests in health system strengthening by partnering with countries to better manage financial resources, to ensure the right health workers and medicines are available where and when needed, and to inform and strengthen governance for effective service delivery.

And, yes, we all know that pathogens do not wait patiently in line to get their passport stamped. Contagious diseases will continue to threaten humanity because of the globalized nature of the world we live in and the impact of climate change.

Our work on emerging pandemic threats is meant to prevent, or at the very least, to contain a humanitarian crisis and minimize the impact of disease outbreaks on human health and the economic and social stability of countries. We do this by building the capacity of countries to prevent the emergence of new zoonotic diseases, to detect them early and to control them in a timely and effective manner.

Health innovations can strengthen health systems and save lives during a disease outbreak by quickly leveraging collective expertise and delivering practical and cost-effective solutions. Last year, USAID in partnership with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Defense launched Fighting Ebola: A Grand Challenge for Development.

The initiative was to help frontline workers provide better care and stop the spread of Ebola in West Africa. Global innovators generated close to 1,500 ideas. Half of the funded innovations are either in use or available for purchase today.

This past April, the Agency launched the Combating Zika and Future Threats Grand Challenge. Through this effort, the Agency will invest up to $30 million in groundbreaking innovations and interventions that enhance our ability to prevent, detect and respond to the Zika virus and other future infectious disease outbreaks—in both the short and long-term.

This latest Grand Challenge specifically calls for solutions that improve and enhance vector control (methods that eliminate the transmission of pathogens from animals to humans), personal and household protection, surveillance, diagnostics and community engagement.

We are also enhancing preparedness and response by creating university networks across the U.S., Africa and Southeast Asia to train graduates in a variety of sectors and disciplines.

As the world becomes increasingly connected, we must ensure that health professionals are able to address the complex, multi-sectoral disease detection, response, prevention, and control challenges in their countries and regions.

In this context, resilience is about helping other countries be more well-rounded and prepared to create a safer, healthier world for all.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Irene Koek is the Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Global Health.

Even Amid a Humanitarian Crisis, Education Cannot Wait

Nepalese children attend school in a temporary learning center following the April 2015 earthquake / Derek Brown for USAID/Nepal

Nepalese children attend school in a temporary learning center following the April 2015 earthquake / Derek Brown for USAID/Nepal

Education is a core component of a humanitarian response. However, too often education remains severely underfunded given competing priorities. But without it, children — and girls in particular — are at increased risk of abuse, exploitation, disempowerment or worse.

While working in international education for more than 30 years, I’ve seen how natural disasters, famines and wars can sideline education.

And yet we know from research — and our own life experiences — that going to school and learning is critical; it provides children with a sense of normalcy and helps prepare them for the future. An extra year of secondary school for girls can increase their future earnings by 10 to 20 percent. Research even shows that investing in women and girls can boost an entire country’s GDP.

Children attend a morning assembly at a temporary learning center in Nepal / Kashish Das Shrestha for USAID/Nepal

Children attend a morning assembly at a temporary learning center in Nepal / Kashish Das Shrestha for USAID/Nepal

However, over the past decade, we have seen greater consideration of the long-term need of children affected by crisis and conflict. Education in these contexts is prioritized by the U.S. Government — we know it’s critical to the global effort to end extreme poverty and build peaceful democratic societies.

Providing access to quality education for children and youth in crisis and conflict is one of USAID’s priorities for education. Between 2011 and 2015, we provided millions of out-of-school children and youth in 20 countries with access to education.

That’s good progress, but it’s not enough. As a result of the conflict in Syria, the world is experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. Syria is among 35 crisis-affected countries where 476 million children are in desperate need of educational support.

Aminata, 16, teaches her younger siblings while schools in Liberia were closed during the height of the Ebola epidemic / Neil Brandvold for USAID

Aminata, 16, teaches her younger siblings while schools in Liberia were closed during the height of the Ebola epidemic / Neil Brandvold for USAID

A shift in USAID education response

For decades, humanitarian and development assistance were often partitioned, and this sometimes led to not focusing on returning many displaced children and youth to school until after a crisis or conflict had ended. Education has always been a key focus in the international refugee response; but this at times has not been true in the case of natural disasters or even in the case of internally displaced children.

As crises have become longer — families are displaced for 20 years on average — children may spend their entire childhood exiled from their homes. Without education, a new generation grows up without the basic skills needed to contribute to their community and society.

The U.S. Government is now committed to ensuring that whenever a crisis or conflict hits, education is not disrupted. Prioritizing the continuity of education reaps long term rewards, and contributes to a smooth transition from humanitarian assistance to sustainable development.

Victoria Cole, 12, hasn’t let the Ebola crisis interrupt her education. Here she participates in in an outdoor classroom while schools in Liberia were closed during the height of the Ebola epidemic / Neil Brandvold for USAID

Victoria Cole, 12, hasn’t let the Ebola crisis interrupt her education. Here she participates in in an outdoor classroom while schools in Liberia were closed during the height of the Ebola epidemic / Neil Brandvold for USAID

In the past year, the United States has responded to the education needs of children living in a range of crises, including violent conflict in South Sudan, gang violence in El Salvador and Guatemala, the Syrian refugee crisis, earthquakes in Nepal, and the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.

  • Nepal: On April 25, 2015, Nepal was shaken by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that claimed lives, destroyed homes, and reduced thousands of schools and classrooms to rubble. USAID and partners sprang into action by building more than 1,000 temporary learning centers to ensure children could continue their education while the rest of the communities were rebuilt around them.
  • Liberia: In August 2014, at the height of the worst Ebola outbreak in history, all schools were closed, leaving 1.5 million children at home and unable to learn. Crises like Ebola don’t only affect the health of communities, but also their ability to continue working and learning. In response, USAID worked with the Liberian Government to integrate basic Ebola prevention and treatment information into the curriculum, supply classrooms with prevention supplies, and prepare for future suspected cases. These measures allowed schools to reopen six months later.
  • Syrian refugee crisis: Since the start of the conflict in Syria, the Department of State has worked with international and nongovernmental organizations to open and refurbish schools, provide educational materials, pay school fees, and offer accelerated learning programs for refugees and host communities in neighboring countries where 2.4 million Syrian refugee children now reside. These same partners provide protective family care and reunification, protect distressed children from violence and abuse, provide counseling and psychological support, and meet other critical needs of children both inside Syria and in neighboring countries.
  • Nigeria: Since 2009, a violent insurgency has gripped much of northeastern Nigeria and displaced more than 1 million children and youth, greatly diminishing their education and job prospects. Since 2014, USAID has worked with local partners and officials to ensure their education can continue by establishing about 600 nonformal learning centers in communities where displaced children and youth have relocated – temporary shelters, markets, churches, mosques and under the shade of trees. The international community is far from reaching all of those children in need, however. We must do more.

Bridging the humanitarian and development divide

No one donor can do this alone — we must work together with countries affected by these crises and a range of education experts. That is why the U.S. Government is enthusiastically supporting Education Cannot Wait: A Fund for Education in Emergencies.

The fund is championed by the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Education Gordon Brown, Chair of the Global Partnership for Education’s Board of Directors Julia Gillard, UNICEF’s Executive Director Anthony Lake, the U.S. Government and other donors.

Education Cannot Wait, managed by UNICEF, will help transform the global education sector and bridge the humanitarian and development divide by collaborating with non-traditional actors for a more agile and rapid response to education in emergencies. Ultimately, the fund will increase safe and quality education so that all children have the opportunity to learn, amid emergency and protracted situations.

With 75 million girls and boys most directly affected by crises globally, we know that solving this problem requires collective action. This is why we call on the private sector, host country governments, civil society, and traditional and non-traditional donors to all come together.

Education Cannot Wait must engage new actors — non-traditional donors, the private sector, foundations and philanthropists — to contribute to financing the platform. They can make education as much a priority as food security, shelter and health. New actors can unlock new funds, and their participation can help the international community create transformative and long-lasting change in the lives of the world’s most vulnerable young people.

It’s a challenge that must be addressed through strong political will and financial support.

As a veteran development worker and education specialist, I’ve seen firsthand what happens when children and youth are given an education–how going to school and continuously learning allows them to heal and grow.

These children and youth, when provided with an education are given a new hope for a better future and a chance to succeed — they become self-sufficient, are better able to earn a decent living, and contribute to their societies in a productive way. We all benefit.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Evelyn Rodriguez-Perez is the Director of USAID’s Office of Education in Washington, D.C. Ms. Rodriguez-Perez is a veteran educator of 30 years and a Foreign Service Officer previously stationed in Peru, Egypt and Honduras.
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