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Building the Next Generation of Business-Minded Global Health Leaders

Graduate students from all over the world joined partners GlaxoSmithKline, Northwestern University and USAID to apply their business and private sector expertise to global health challenges. Sherif Hassane of GSK, far left, and David Milestone of USAID, far right, flank the first-place winners of the competition, from left: Teertha Arora of Harvard University’s School of Public Health, Lamia Mamooon of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, Babatunde Ajayi of Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, and Jennifer Jarboe of University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. / Tom Whipps, GlaxoSmithKline

If we are to achieve the targets set out in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we need to prioritize new ways of thinking, cutting-edge innovation, and different  partnerships. In global health, we must continue to apply a business mindset to find lasting solutions. Skills like those involved with strategic planning, finance and marketing are becoming more relevant as traditional development assistance (i.e., USAID funding) is leveling off and new sources of funding are on the rise.

Furthermore, since Africa and Southeast Asia are among the fastest growing health care markets in the world, private sector companies are eager to hire people who can seamlessly bridge global health and business. Doing good and doing it well is no longer a “plus.” It is a business imperative for breaking into new markets.

For these reasons, USAID joined forces with the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in 2018 to launch the GSK | Kellogg | USAID Global Health Case Competition.

Students in the competition spent up to 36 hours preparing proposed methods to tackle a case study from Northwestern University on childhood pneumonia in Uganda. / Tom Whipps, GlaxoSmithKline

By targeting top business and public health graduate students across Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States, USAID and partners sought to build business-minded global health capacity across a vast network of universities to inspire more students to consider global health as a viable career option.

When the competition was launched in January, the response was overwhelming. Nearly 600 students from around the world applied, but only 20 made the final selection. Some of the finalists have been advisers to ministries of health in sub-Saharan Africa, while others have private sector experience.

Finalists came from prestigious schools such as the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, the Lagos Business School at Pan-Atlantic University, the School of Management at Yale University, the Harvard School of Public Health, the post-graduate program in management at the Indian School of Business, and the School of Business at the University of Nairobi.

When students were asked what motivated them to apply, Adaobi Ejike, a student from the Lagos Business School at Pan-Atlantic University, explained, “This competition is a platform to integrate my experience and education in the field of management with those of diverse team members and partners to develop lasting strategies that address critical global health challenges. This will, in no small measure, provide an invaluable learning experience for me.”

In April, the 20 selected students came together at GlaxoSmithKline’s headquarters in London and were given 36 hours to tackle a case study provided by Northwestern University on childhood pneumonia, the largest infectious disease killer for children under 5 worldwide. Although illustrative, the case study was based on a real-life problem that the global health community faces. It is indeed challenging  to prevent, diagnose and treat childhood pneumonia in high-burden countries like Uganda, where the case study was based.

Students leveraged their diverse backgrounds and applied a business mindset to identify transformative solutions to a frequent global health problem. The purpose of this group exercise was to create a hands-on learning experience for the students and, more importantly, to test the practicality of the solutions generated.

As part of the learning, students also met with representatives of both the public and private sectors in the global health field, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, IDEO, the Boston Consulting Group, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Girl Effect. During the site visits, the students learned how to apply private sector approaches such as design to global health to increase cost-effectiveness and sustainability of investments.

When asked what made the competition special, Zoe Li from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management replied, “With most case competitions, you work on a team with students from your university and therefore have a lot of commonalities. [At this competition], my team ended up being from all different countries. It changes the way you think about diversity.”

Ultimately, the GSK | Kellogg | USAID Global Health Case Competition is a real-world example of how we harness ideas from all sectors to accelerate and expand critical interventions in global health. This model offered a select group of emerging global leaders with business and health backgrounds to build the skills, network and understanding necessary to create greater development impact.

Looking forward, USAID will continue to partner with the likes of GlaxoSmithKline and Northwestern University to engage future global health leaders, build in-country capacity, tap into university talent, and entice the private sector. These are the types of partnerships where private sector expertise can amplify social impact.

And these are the types of partnerships that can best support countries on their journey toward self-reliance.


Rachel Fowler is a program analyst in USAID’s Center for Innovation and Impact in the Bureau for Global Health.


In Belarus, Women Lead the Way

A woman sits with a microphone in front of a USAID banner

Margot Ellis speaking at Venture Day Minsk 2018. / Imaguru

One thing I’ve learned from working at USAID is no matter what the data says, you need to see what’s happening on the ground, too. This proved to be the case in Belarus, where USAID is transforming the business and social landscapes for women.

Last month, our Belarus Country Office Director Victoria Mitchell Avdiu was asked to speak on a panel about women’s representation in entrepreneurship. Current data suggests that gender equality is relatively high in the country. However, at Victoria’s presentation, the room was unexpectedly packed.

On a Tuesday evening in Minsk, nearly 100 young women came to hear guidance about how they could break through the barriers that too often hold working women back. They wanted to know how to build confidence, where to find mentors, and how to pursue meaningful professional paths when there may be few female role models ahead of them.

A combined image of women speaking into a microphone

Victoria Mitchell Avdiu (right) and crowd during Q&A at a Women in Entrepreneurship event. / Imaguru

Do those questions sound familiar? I imagine every woman reading this, no matter what country they’re from, can relate. I certainly can.

During my career in business, I spent some time working in the automotive industry. Like so many women in male-dominated fields, I assumed that I should hide my skills more traditionally associated with women. I had no one around to tell me otherwise. I quickly realized, though, that those very skills – empathy, observation, cooperation, sensitive communication, humor – were actually some of my strongest assets. My instinct was to build relationships.

I learned that embracing my skills and instincts as a woman offered a new perspective in my workplace and demonstrated that I could be an effective leader.

This is an area where the data and on-the-ground experience perfectly align: numerous studies indicate that the participation of women leads to better development outcomes. It’s the reason that one of USAID’s global objectives is empowering women and girls. We need to make sure women have the support they need to not just be included, but to succeed.

In Belarus, USAID provides strong support for women as they gain new opportunities and work to become leaders. New startups in Belarus’s tech and business fields usually have male-dominated teams, with women making up less than 10 percent. In contrast, at USAID-supported startups, women make up more than 30 percent of the teams. In fact, last year more than half of the beneficiaries of our business finance programs were women.

In USAID’s Community Connections Exchange Program, interested Belarusians undergo a rigorous selection process to participate in a short-term exchange to the United States, where they learn about best practices in a variety of professional fields and take part in programs including innovative entrepreneurship, teaching business to youth, and empowering women to resolve community issues. This past year, close to 60 percent of participants were women. In the past decade, over 400 women have benefited from this exchange, gaining new skills from America and returning to become leaders within their home communities in Belarus.

I’m proud of the data coming out of Belarus. But, of course, what often matters most is not just numbers but what’s happening on the ground. That’s why I’m especially proud of who is delivering USAID support in Belarus because we lead by example.

Our Belarus office is unique in that every one of our staff members is a woman – from the director who leads meetings with diplomats and government officials, to the private sector development specialist who supports a better environment for women entrepreneurs, to the administrative assistant who keeps the office organized and helps us accomplish our work.

Regardless of who benefits from USAID’s assistance to Belarus, women have had a hand in that powerful support.

For USAID to fulfill its promise to empower women and girls around the world, we have to look at not just the numbers but also the experience. If Belarus teaches us anything, it’s that women can lead the way.


Margot Ellis is the Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator in USAID’s Bureau for Europe and Eurasia.

The Next Generation of Scientists

For young scientists, going to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) feels like a trip to the Olympics. These bright kids are filled with pride at the opportunity to represent their country. Some students dress up in cultural attire and others carry signs to represent their community. The students are excited to showcase their projects and meet other people from around the world that share their passion for science and learning.

At the Intel ISEF fair this May, close to 1,800 high school students from more than 75 countries traveled to Pittsburgh to showcase their projects and compete for prizes.

USAID attends as a Special Award Organization to recognize students with innovative projects that could advance USAID’s ability to meet current and future development challenges. Over the last five years, USAID has provided honorable mention and monetary awards to 61 students.

USAID recognized 12 winning projects at Intel ISEF 2018 across four categories. The first place winners of the Science for Development Award in these four categories include:

Access to Clean Drinking Water: Pranav Shikarpur and Siddharth Viswanath (India)

Two young men face the camera, smiling and holding certificates

Siddharth Viswanath and Pranav Shikarpur, both from India, won First Place in USAID’s Science for Development Award in the category of Access to Clean Water. Photo Credit: Sara Cardelle, USAID

Pranav and Siddharth’s inspiration for their project came from Bangalore’s historical nickname, the “city of lakes.” In the 1960s, Bangalore had 262 bodies of water, but that number has dwindled to 81 today, and only 34 are recognized as live lakes due in part to pollution and untreated sewage that has been dumped in the lakes. Pranav and Siddharth built a portable self-propelled flotation device, called FloBot, to monitor the pollution levels of lakes in real time. The device transmits GPS-tagged pH and dissolved oxygen data virtually to a phone, creating a heatmap of pollution levels. The FloBot is cheaper and more portable than commercial devices, and provides data for the community to see the status of their lakes. Pranav and Siddharth used FloBot to figure out that low dissolved oxygen, as a result of illegal sewage dumping, was killing fish in their local lake. The team has tested the device in eight of Bangalore’s lakes and is working to improve their design and partner with more communities in the future.

Healthy Mothers and Babies: Eden Sheinin (New York, USA)

A young woman stands in front of a display booth entitled "Inhibiting the Effects of Fetuin-B Upregulation Using TAK-242"

Eden Sheinin from Yorktown Heights, New York won 1st place in USAID’s Science for Development Award in the category of Healthy Mothers and Babies. Photo Credit: Kelly Tucker, USAID

Inspired by the fact that roughly 80 percent of patients waiting for an organ transplant are in need of a kidney, Eden wanted to address kidney damage and regeneration in mothers and babies. Studies show that malnourishment of a mother can lead to low birth weight babies, and low birth weight is linked to long-term kidney damage in the baby. Eden tested the ability of a protein called TAK-242 to reverse the effects low birth weight in the kidneys of mice. She found that TAK-242 can reduce kidney damage significantly. This protein is already an active ingredient in a drug being used to treat sepsis, which brings its potential market realization one step closer to reality. Eden hopes that her research can progress to the development of a treatment intervention that can be given to malnourished pregnant mothers to help prevent future kidney damage to their babies.

Agriculture and Food Security: Kaushik Singh (India)

A young man stands facing the camera, smiling and holding certificates

Kaushik Singh from India won First Place in USAID’s Science for Development Award in the category of Agriculture and Food Security. Photo Credit: Sara Cardelle, USAID

In India, approximately 35 percent of crops are lost due to plant disease, making it a major problem for the environment and economy. Farmers often rely on pesticides, increasing their exposure to toxic chemicals and driving a rising mortality rate among farmers related to improper pesticide use. Kaushik created the “Plant Doctor,” a mobile app offering real-time diagnosis and solutions for 60 plant diseases. The app compares a picture uploaded by the farmer to a neural network trained on pictures of many plant diseases, and has an accuracy rate of around 95 percent. If the app cannot identify the disease, the image is sent to a local agricultural extension specialist to diagnose the plant remotely. Kaushik hopes that the Plant Doctor can help farmers by easily diagnosing plant diseases and improve livelihoods.

Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Mitigation: Chidchanok Inkaew, Pattadon Namwongnao, and Kasidet Sukkwai (Thailand)

Three young people stand in front of a display booth

Chidchanok Inkaew, Kasidet Sukkwai, and Pattadon Namwongnao from Thailand won First place in USAID’s Science for Development Award in the category of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Mitigation. Photo Credit: Kelly Tucker, USAID

Mangrove forests are extremely valuable resources in coastal regions in Thailand and beyond; the root systems of these trees stabilize the coastline and promote biodiversity, and can mitigate the destruction caused by a typhoon or tsunami. This team volunteers each year to replant mangrove seedlings. After replanting in the same area multiple years in a row, they decided to find a longer-term solution. They designed a cone structure to install during planting, providing the nutrients and protection a seedling needs to grow to a size that can withstand the force of waves. Each cone costs only 50 cents to construct, and will biodegrade by the time the mangrove is strong enough to grow on its own.

The world has pressing challenges that require rigorous scientific efforts, and you can bet that these young scientists are up for the challenge.


Sara Cardelle is a Communications Analyst in USAID’s U.S. Global Development Lab.

Communities on the Road to Recovery and Healing In Post-Ebola Sierra Leone

A group of women and men

Bintu Sandy explains how the CHD group helped pay her daughter’s school fee – Photo: Abdul Samba Brima

I’ve lived in Sierra Leone all my life, including during the Ebola outbreak in 2014 that left communities battered and hopelessness. Today people here are finding a way to heal and to address community issues, which is leading to resiliency, and, ultimately, stronger community-based systems that meet people’s needs.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa had the same psychological effects on individuals as war.

Not only did many people lose family and friends, but many survivors experienced stigmatization and discrimination once they were able to return to their communities. These stresses increased mental health problems in Sierra Leone, where there are very few mental health providers and little information about psychological pain.


Nearly 30 kilometers from the district headquarters of Kailahun, in the heart of Kissi Teng Chiefdom, sits Koindu town, on the Sierra Leone border with Guinea. Before the civil war began in 1991, Koindu was a vibrant business hub, but was set ablaze by the rebels during the conflict.

People had barely recovered when Ebola struck. As the epicenter of the virus, the city was gripped with fear as families were obliterated and community relations shattered.

Recognizing the stigma Ebola survivors faced, the USAID Advancing Partners & Communities project introduced community healing dialogues (CHDs) to help communities hardest hit, like Kailahun, to address their problems head-on.

As part of the National Mental Health Strategy, CHDs offer psychosocial support that is having a positive effect on the lives of survivors as well as their communities.

A group sits outdoors, listening to a speaker

CHD sessions attract more people because of the impact on the ground. Photo: Abdul Samba Brima

The CHDs were readily received because so many people had ongoing frustrations and were ready for solutions. When I visited, I spoke to 25-year-old Taiwa, who spoke of her multiple traumas and how the CHDs helped her.

“When my husband died of Ebola, my children and I were thrown out of the house because everybody thought we carried Ebola,” Taiwa told me. “When I returned to my own family, they too shunned us, fearing we would spread the virus to them. We could not share anything, let alone eat together; it was a difficult situation for my children and me.”

Community healing dialogues are led by trained facilitators who bring community members together to air concerns and think of ways to settle them. The facilitators also refer community members to higher-level mental health or social welfare services as needed. Through these efforts, Ebola survivors who were stigmatized and ostracized are now being accepted back into their communities again.

In Koindu, the discussion groups gave Taiwa a chance to explain her concerns in front of other family members and the community as a whole. With the community group’s support and counseling, they found a solution. Today, Taiwa is reunited with her family. “My children and I are back in my husband’s house, getting along very well with his family. We work his farmland and are happy to carry on his legacy.”

After Koindu, I visited neighboring Kondeboithu, where community members use the CHD sessions to raise awareness about serious problems affecting group members—like economic and livelihood challenges—and find solutions within the community. A woman named Bintu explained how a small microenterprise group came together and helped pay her daughter’s school fee.

“My daughter passed the Basic Education Certificate Examination and was to progress to high school. But my husband had died during Ebola and I had no money,” she said. “I explained the situation to this group and they helped me.”

She said that other members have also benefited from the microenterprise group through different interventions.

To date, more than 705 community members in 45 communities have benefitted from this psychosocial intervention.

I could only admire the spirit and perseverance of this community—once a hot spot of war and Ebola—as it finds answers to the numerous mental health challenges and broader community issues.

I am encouraged to see communities recovering and demonstrating so much resilience in the aftermath of Ebola. With USAID support, communities are being transformed and poised for a better future.


Abdul Samba Brima is a communications coordinator at John Snow, Inc./Advancing Partners & Communities Project.

Closing the Gender Digital Divide: WomenConnect Challenge Brings 20 Semi-Finalists to DC for Solver Symposium

A woman speaks from a podium

Michelle Bekkering, USAID’s Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, speaks at the Solver Symposium where aspiring innovators gathered to network and strengthen ideas to bridge the gender digital divide. Credit: Kevin Koski for USAID

If you are reading this, you are likely doing so on a smartphone, tablet or computer. Today, many of us take for granted how easy it is to stay connected, learn, network or even watch our favorite show, anytime and anywhere. Everything is at our fingertips.

We can take classes online, register our kids for school, make doctor’s appointments, buy groceries and even sell items from the comfort of our homes to destinations all over the world.

Unfortunately, while this is my reality, technology is not readily accessible to millions of women around the world, resulting in a growing gender digital divide.

Almost 2 billion women in low- and middle-income countries still do not own mobile phones. The number of women without access to a computer is even higher.

Barriers such as cost, lack of network coverage, fear on harassment or lack of digital literacy all contribute to the fact that women in developing countries are nearly 25 percent less likely to be online than men—and that number is closer to 50 percent in some countries.

This isn’t just about entertainment or social connections. We need to reduce this divide, so half the world’s population can benefit from life-enhancing information, and commercial networks and financial services which can reduce poverty and drive inclusive economic growth.

At USAID, we are leading efforts to close the gender digital divide and empower women and girls to access and use digital technology to drive improvements in health, and education and economic opportunities for themselves and their families.

Earlier this year, Advisor to the President Ivanka Trump and USAID Administrator Mark Green launched the WomenConnect Challenge to identify and accelerate comprehensive solutions to closing this critical gender digital divide.

The response was amazing. We received more than 500 applications from almost 90 countries in every corner of the world.

This week, we are welcoming the 20 WomenConnect project semi-finalists to Washington, D.C. at a Solver Symposium to hear their ideas for how to bridge this divide. These participants will benefit from the expertise of USAID and our partners in digital solutions as they focus on innovations that can advance women’s access to digital tools in the most underserved regions of the world.

USAID welcomed 20 WomenConnect project semi-finalists to Washington at the Solver Symposium to help them shape proposals for innovative ideas to help bridge the gender digital divide. Credit: Kevin Koski for USAID

The innovative solutions that Solver Symposium participants are proposing will shape the future of women’s empowerment in their respective countries. Their solutions aim to tackle deep-rooted social norms; teach crowdmapping skills; address women’s and girls’ safety on- and off-line; and increase women’s financial knowledge and inclusion through digital financial services and expanded markets.

Participants will learn to make their solutions the strongest possible in hopes of becoming one of 10 finalists that are funded to pilot their projects.

The workshop has another intangible bonus: it provides a platform to build goodwill among the United States and our partners around the world—solvers like these WomenConnect semi-finalists—leading to collective action around some of the world’s toughest problems. It’s about changing the relationship from benefactor and beneficiary, to recognizing we are partners on their development journey to self-reliance. And through WomenConnect, we are poised to get there even faster.

If you would like to join this effort or receive email updates from the WomenConnect team, please visit the WomenConnect Challenge website.


Michelle Bekkering is the USAID Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Economic Growth, Education and Environment Bureau and USAID’s Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. Follow her @USAIDMBekkering.

Diving with Decapods: the Smithsonian-Indonesia PEER Partnership

A woman examines a piece of coral on a lab table, while an outstretched arm holds the coral

Angka Mahardini from Diponegoro University, sampling a dead coral head from Bali

If you are one of the 7 million people who visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History each year in Washington, D.C., then you may have seen a coral reef exhibit in the Sant Ocean Hall.

This exhibit shows the dazzling array of different species you can find in a dead coral head, just one small section (about a cubic foot) of these vast reef systems. The data for this exhibit came from Indonesia’s Diponegoro University to tackle the immense diversity of the country’s coral reefs, explain why they are so diverse and help determine how to best manage and sustain these incredible ecosystems. The work is supported by USAID’s Partnership for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) program.

The PEER program funds scientists and engineers in developing countries who partner with U.S. Government-funded researchers to address global development challenges, in this case, using decapods found in coral reefs to assess reef health and help determine management units.

Decapods are crustaceans, which consist of different types of crabs, lobsters and shrimp, and play a critical role in maintenance of coral ecosystems. Christopher Meyer, the U.S. partner for the PEER project from the Smithsonian Institution, has been studying marine life for 30 years. The ocean, and especially reefs, still have many fundamental unknown qualities, which drove Meyer to pursue his career exploring marine life. This PEER program gives him an opportunity to pursue questions in this biological hotspot that haven’t been asked before.

Meyer and his Indonesian research partner, Ambariyanto, who uses one name, are working with multiple universities, government partners and foundations in Indonesia to analyze local coral reefs in order to better understand how to prioritize critical coral reef conservation units in the region.

A woman looks into a microscope in a lab

Coral reefs are essential for healthy ocean ecosystems.

One third of all saltwater fish depend on coral reefs at some stage in their life. Fish make up an estimated 40 percent of all animal protein in the Indonesian diet, making healthy reefs critical to regional food security.

Fish are also an important component of the Indonesian economy exporting close to $4 billion worth of fish in 2012. Meyer says that marine conservation can be harder to promote, because anything covered by water is out of sight. If you can’t see what lies beneath, you are less likely to appreciate the full impact humans are having.

Current estimates predict that by 2050, nearly all coral reefs on Earth will be at a highly threatened status. Causes for the endangerment of coral reefs include pollution, overfishing, natural disasters and climate change.

Meyer’s attraction to Indonesia stems from the intricacy and pure spectacle offered by its coral reefs. “To have the most impact in sustaining coral reefs, you have to focus on countries like Indonesia, due to both the uniqueness of their ecosystems and the heavy dependence on fish in the local diet,” he explained.

During his research with Ambariyanto, they found that one coral head alone can serve as host to almost a hundred decapod species. Twenty-five coral heads from Bali alone contained over 300 species. Coral heads in Indonesia contain more than twice the number of species than those from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. All this from a ‘dead’ piece of coral, now used as a barometer to measure ocean conditions.

Funds for developing country researchers can be few and far between. Meyer said that “PEER helps international researchers have an equal partnership with U.S. researchers, which builds and sustains relationships after the project.”

A large component of this PEER project helps Indonesia become a more self-reliant country by building research capacity. “The most important thing I can do is to help create the next generation of scientists in Indonesia,” Meyer says. “Decisions about how to manage marine resources are up to Indonesians. We can work together to develop tools to help make good decisions.”

A man stands in front of a white board, while people sit around him

Chris Meyer teaching in Bali

Two Indonesian students got a chance to work with Meyer for a few months at the National Museum of Natural History. Both learned new research skills in museum curation and genomic analyses. It is currently cheaper to bring samples for DNA work to the United States than it is to do the work in Indonesia. However, it is becoming more difficult to send DNA from one country to another, so gaining knowledge in DNA approaches will contribute to future research efforts in Indonesia.

The PEER project will be disseminating the researchers’ results in Indonesia this summer to government and fisheries representatives. Meyer says, “We aim to provide a standardized method for collecting data for coral reef assessment and sustainability, helping to provide guidelines on fishery management, which in turn helps preserve food security.”

A lot is still unknown about coral reefs, but you can bet that Meyer is ready and willing to dive in and explore coral reefs for years to come.


Sara Cardelle is a Communications Analyst in USAID’s U.S. Global Development Lab.

Where It’s Risky to Tell the Truth: Press Freedom Declines in Too Many Countries

A low angle of a man in a colorful shirt, with his arms out, as if he is dancing

Youth energize the crowd in attendance for the National Elections Commission’s USAID-supported “Elections and You” radio broadcast, in Bong County, Liberia in July 2017. / Jessica Benton Cooney, USAID

At the turn of the century, improved internet access, greater mobile phone ownership and easy-to-use digital media platforms transformed social participation in urgent issues of the day. These tools promised to lift the voices of previously silenced citizens and journalists in a new digital landscape—even in some of the more repressive corners of the world where access to information had been limited and freedom of expression curtailed.

Around the world, USAID’s programs work with local civil societies, media and governments to develop media laws and regulatory systems that seek to take into account best practices and international covenants around freedom of expression.

As a media specialist, I have spent the last two years advising on USAID programming to support the development of a free and vibrant press sector and a free and open internet.

I was captivated by independent and citizen journalists, who in the new millenium have shown their fellow citizens and the world popular protests in Burma, Russia, Egypt and other countries. Along with many, I believed these movements were ushering in a great era of democracy and freedom of expression.

Instead, today, I see the opposite. There is currently a global democratic decline in 129 developing countries.

USAID partner Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom of the Press report cites only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a free press—a media environment where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.

Media, according to Freedom House, is in the line of fire of authoritarian leaders.

Even in democracies, we have seen unprecedented threats to journalists and media. Countries where just years back I saw vibrant, pluralistic media playing important roles in creating democracy, checking government power, exposing corruption, and bringing marginalized voices to the fore are now muted, even silenced.

A man in a white t-shirt holds up a small portable radio

A minicab driver listens to VDO broadcast in Abeche market, April 2009

Clamp down on a free press

Recently, I saw one of the more dismaying cases of the loss of freedom of speech.

This country experimented with democracy in the recent past until a democratically-elected leader sought to keep his grip on power. He set up a system of patronage and mechanisms to divert state resources for his own personal gain, undermining the checks and balances designed to hold the executive accountable—including journalists.

The country’s free market served as a convenient mask—he and his family bought nearly all of the country’s newspaper, radio and TV outlets.

In such a country, on whose shoulders rests the traditional “watchdog” functions of the media?

It is journalists and citizens who publish on social media—using their voice to demand transparency and accountability. Worldwide, authoritarian-leaning governments, including the country I speak of, are reacting to the impact of citizen’s voices on social media. Here, that includes mobilizing a pro-government troll army that targets people who criticize the government and acquiring sophisticated technology to better surveil or shut down dissent online. Cruder methods include stealing laptops and phones from activists, using cheap keystroke-loggers to hack into their targets’ accounts, and compelling telecom providers to turn over their data.

The stakes are high. Checks on power are only within the hands of citizens. And those too may slip away. On top of that, this government has said it will propose new regulations that could further chill public discourse.

Already, citizens said they were more afraid to be active online than usual, and are less likely to post their comments, “like,” or share on Facebook. Some even told me that if you “liked” the page of the activist who raised the issue of government corruption, family and friends might ask, “Why did you do that? It’s dangerous.”

Making their voices heard

However, there were some inspiring moments that I saw; as always, it’s the youth.

While their parents attended protests when they were younger to make their voices heard, the new generation does so online. “I grew up with social media as the way I express myself. I’m not about to give it up,” one activist told me.

And they’re not about to give up their freedom without a fight.

A man in a red shirt sits on the floor of a TV studio, while two people sit at a news anchor desk in front of him.

To help media in Georgia stay ahead of changing trends and technology, the USAID-supported New Media Initiative is working with media organizations like the Information Center of Kakheti to build TV studios for streaming news programming online. /Gela Mtivlishvili

They take to social media to hold discussions online, make and share satirical videos, raise attention to the issue in the media, and organize and hold rallies before parliament. This may possibly be the entry point through which they engage more broadly in protecting their country’s democracy.

I am energized by how USAID programs and interventions are working to strengthen news coverage, bolster the professionalism and safety of journalists, create an enabling environment (through legislation if necessary), and restructure media companies’ business models so that they can flourish, even under the harshest of conditions. In some countries, media is the only institution in society that keeps power in check, and we need to support it.


Josh Machleder is the Advisor for Media, Technology, and Internet Freedom in USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance

Keeping the Peace: Her Work Helps Prevent Crises Around the World

A woman stands on an airplane tarmac, smiling, with a plane behind her.

Alexa arrives in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria where her team embedded with NERI and interviewed a number of local civil society organizations (CSOs), academics, and members of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) as part of Frontier’s broader research on organizational adaptation as a means to counter violent extremist organizations (VEOs).

Running her own business is liberating for Alexa Courtney, the founder and CEO of Frontier Design Group, which is based in Arlington, Va. and is a USAID implementing partner.

However, she did not start out on a traditional entrepreneurial path.

She began her career as a federal civil servant — including time at USAID and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) as a conflict specialist and civil-military advisor — but yearned for something different.

When she returned from an assignment at USAID’s Afghanistan mission, Alexa says a senior leader at the U.S. State Department asked her how the Agency was adapting the way it does business to environments like Afghanistan and Pakistan. “I quickly realized that I needed to cultivate new knowledge and skill sets to answer that question effectively, ” she said.

She left the federal government for the private sector, consulting for U.S. Special Operations Command and honing the skills she gained during her field experiences in Afghanistan. But life took a different turn where she could be her own boss.

On Sept. 21, 2015, International Peace Day, Alexa took the plunge and started Frontier, a human security strategy and design firm that builds new collaborative approaches to help USAID, DoD and U.S. Department of State engage more effectively in conflict-affected countries to prevent crisis and terrorism.

Today Frontier works on some of the most critical national security questions: How do you design government entities that can innovate and adapt faster than ISIS? How do you prioritize investment in fragile states? What are the metrics of cost effective CVE programs?

“Frontier believes that everyone has a fundamental right to live free from violence and the fear of insecurity,” says Alexa, who believes the nation’s development strategy must evolve just as the threats to national security are evolving.

A group of three people poses for the camera

Alexa and Justin with a member of the NERI team in Maiduguri.

Small Businesses, Big Impact
USAID continues to prioritize support to scores of entrepreneurs and small businesses like this one. While the Agency highlighted these efforts work at last year’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad, India, this work has been happening for decades.

In fiscal year 2017, the Agency awarded a record 13.12 percent, or over $634.3 million, of total acquisition dollars to U.S. small businesses, exceeding the Agency’s goal of 11.5 percent. USAID awarded $184.5 million awarded to women-owned small businesses. Additionally, in 2017, USAID issued 12.69 percent of its total prime contract dollars to small businesses. Not only has the Agency focused on meeting its worldwide small business goal for all small business categories, it also works towards increasing prime and subcontract opportunities for women-owned small businesses.

For Alexa, being an entrepreneur is fulfilling and inspiring. “It was a game changer for me to learn about a new sole source authority for woman-owned small businesses that promised to help level the competitive playing field. Now, all of a sudden, women-owned and economically disadvantaged women-owned businesses can be awarded federal contracts on a sole source basis up to $4 million, leveraging their special status much like 8a, Veteran Owned and Service Disabled Veteran Owned small businesses.”

Frontier has worked with USAID’s Global Development Lab and conducted a case study on the Office of Transition Initiatives’ countering violent extremism (CVE) programming in northeast Nigeria. The study aimed to observe, assess and document organizations that operate in complex and insecure environments. The company has also worked with the Army Special Operations Forces CVE organizations, the National Counterterrorism Center on new assessment approaches, and Silicon Valley organizations.

Endless Possibilities, Long Hours
Alexa describes her business as thriving in a constant state of creativity and possibility; if workers there can dream up an idea and get it funded, they can do it. The endless possibilities are incredibly energizing, but also come with hard work and long hours.

“Fortunately, everyone here is having fun together and learning from each other. We are alums from USAID, State, USIP and industry. We’re an eclectic crew but we are deeply motivated by the meaningful work of our clients and partners,” Alexa said.

Alexa’s advice for prospective women entrepreneurs who want to follow her lead is: “Go for it! But be realistic about the commitment and be prepared for total immersion—60-plus hour work weeks over several years. If you have the right clients and team, it won’t always feel like work but it will take up most of your time and attention.”


Scott Hochenberg is a Program Analyst in USAID’s Bureau for Legislative and Public Affairs.

Generating Trade With — and Within — East Africa

Kenyan flowers are about to become more prevalent in the U.S. market with new direct flights from Nairobi to New York. Here, a Kenyan flower worker prepares roses for export. / Riccardo Gangale

Where does your morning coffee come from and how many jobs did it create? You may be surprised to learn just what it takes to get that cup of joe into your hands.

East Africa — the source of some of the world’s best coffee — is poised for robust growth in agriculture, financial services, medicine, textiles and apparel. In fact, sub-Saharan Africa is home to six of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world.

So what does it take to get that cup of coffee to you? From efficient farm management to the transport system of trucks, planes and cargo ships that ride on the backbone of roads, weigh stations, ports and efficient border crossings, an entire infrastructure is necessary to ensure that the coffee crop meets your cup. But there’s much more to the story.

A Kenyan coffee farmer holds a coffee cherry from the high-altitude fields near Mount Kenya, where farmers have been producing coffee for over 100 years. / Joe Mwihia

The infrastructure in Africa was built to extract Africa’s natural resources and export them abroad. It wasn’t designed to move goods across and within the continent, impeding the ability of African countries to trade with their neighbors. This in turn created trade policies that slowed trade across borders and increased its cost to prohibitive levels. The cost of most goods in the region is nearly 40 percent above retail because it costs that much to get it to consumers.

Only 13 percent of trade in East Africa is within the region, compared to 60 percent in the European Union and 40 percent in Asia. In 2017, the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa determined that adequate transportation infrastructure and harmonized border systems are necessary for American companies to grow and thrive in Africa. In fact, the council determined that “unhindered import/export networks are a basic operating need for all global business.”

USAID works to remove trade barriers in Africa through partnerships with government, civil society, and private sector regional institutions such as the Common Market for East and Southern Africa, the East African Community, TradeMark East Africa, and the East Africa Grain Council. We are reducing the cost of doing business in Africa, leveling the playing field, reducing the risk, and cutting through red tape to make trade freer and fairer for everyone.

Sub-Saharan Africa is establishing itself as the next sourcing destination for global apparel buyers. Here, a United Aryan Ltd. textile worker prepares garments destined for the U.S market via the African Growth and Opportunity Act. / Riccardo Gangale

USAID Trade and Investment Hubs work on the ground to boost trade and investment opportunities in Africa. To date, the hubs have created investment opportunities across the continent worth close to $600 million and growing; and for every $1 of public money spent, the hubs leverage $9 in private sector investment.

For example, through the East Africa Trade and Investment Hub, USAID has facilitated $98 million in private sector investments since 2015.

The USAID East Africa Trade and Investment Hub works on the ground to reduce the cost of doing business in Africa — a win-win for the United States and our African partners. / East Africa Trade and Investment Hub

Trade and investment are also critical to food security, which is vital to Africa’s long-term development. Even though East Africa grows enough food to feed its entire population, over 27 million people still go to bed hungry and 46 million live in poverty. Getting food to the people who need it most remains a challenge that regional trade integration should help to solve.

The free flow of goods across Africa’s borders should ultimately reduce the need for financial and food aid, empowering the African people on their journey to prosperity and self-reliance.

These approaches, in combination with promoting two-way trade with the United States under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, are seeing promising results. In recent years, the cost of importing or exporting a shipping container in East Africa has been cut in half, and almost all goods entering the region clear customs only once.

Since 2011, U.S. businesses have exported $37 billion dollars worth of goods to East Africa, which support nearly 13,000 American jobs every year.

In partnership with the Initiative for Global Development, USAID is on the road with the Africa Investment Rising Roadshow, visiting U.S. businesses and investors in Des Moines, Houston, New York City, and Washington, D.C. As we tour the United States, we’re reminded that African-driven solutions continue to be on the rise and U.S. private and public sectors are an important part of the picture.

There’s a lot of work left to do, but we have come a long way. East Africa is truly rising, and with just a sip of coffee, you can be part of our growing trade partnership, too.


Scott Cameron is office chief of the USAID/Kenya and East Africa Office of Economic Growth and Integration.


On the Road to Self Reliance

A graphic display commemorating USAID's 10 years in Kosovo, with a hashtag #kosovo10 printed on the base.

Kosovo marked 10 years of independence on February 17, 2018. Credit: Nazmije Bajrami/USAID

During my first official trip to Pristina in the fall of 2002, I remember how long it took to maneuver streets marked with potholes and blocked off with barricades and armored cars. A very visible NATO-led international peacekeeping force patrolled the streets, a holdover from the Kosovo war. Because power was unreliable, small generators dotted the sidewalks along the busy main streets; their noisy engines pierced the air with fumes that made it hard to breathe. It was a stark picture of a dark time.

Fast forward to 2018. Kosovo welcomed me for yet another first official trip, this time as the recently confirmed Assistant Administrator for Europe and Eurasia, the same bureau at USAID where I had previously served as Chief of Staff in 2002.

Today, Pristina is a bustling metropolitan city with a modern airport and paved roads. The ride from the airport to my hotel was smoother than traveling the 26-mile journey from Dulles International Airport to Washington, D.C. As my car made its way through the main streets of Pristina, I couldn’t help but notice the incredible changes.

A view of Pristina, Kosovo from atop a building

Signs of progress in Kosovo’s capital city Pristina: the view from the famous Bell Tower; new roads in downtown Pristina; the impressive National Library. Credit: Nazmije Bajrami/USAID

While 2002 was a depressed time for Pristina, Kosovo is now an independent nation moving toward European integration, and a shining example of successful development.

Our work in Kosovo is not done, but positive and concrete changes have taken hold in this new nation, and the country now has a clear path ahead.

My visit marked Kosovo’s 10th anniversary of independence. I met with government leaders, young business entrepreneurs, members of Parliament, and civil society advocates to talk about the progress achieved in that short time. They all shared a similar message: We’ve come a long way, but we still need your help.

Kosovo exemplifies the journey to self-reliance. USAID’s work evolved from a post-conflict humanitarian assistance program in 1999 to a robust program that strengthens governance, catalyzes reform, leverages resources, and enhances economic potential. We are working to end the need for foreign assistance by focusing on European integration, building local ownership, and creating conditions for American and other foreign investment.

USAID supports programs in Kosovo that strengthen democracy and governance, increase investment and private sector employment, and expand access to quality education. One program in particular helps farmers identify new crops that increase their produce yields by more than 10-fold while also opening new markets. Another program ensures more women claim the property rights they are entitled to, greatly expanding their access to credit and opportunities as small-business owners. These are just two examples of inclusive development taking root in Kosovo.

From overhead, a large group of people stand in a circle around a circular compass design in the floor.

Brock Bierman meets with recent graduates of USAID’s Transformational Leadership Program to discuss the role of young leaders in Kosovo’s development journey. Credit: Nazmije Bajrami/USAID

Signs of progress are also visible in the public sector. I met with five impressive members of Parliament who are part of the 38-member Women Caucus. The caucus, a key partner of our Political Process and Parliamentary Support program, works on common issues across political parties, a potentially bright opportunity to address fractious issues that deter Kosovo’s further development.

I also met with the mayor of Pristina, who is a strong ally in our effort to promote government transparency and to combat corruption. Our meeting included young NGO leaders who provide a watchdog function to the municipality. It was impressive to see these NGO leaders sitting next to the mayor as we held our meeting and talked about the need for open government.

But despite the real progress I witnessed, Kosovo faces serious challenges and while I was on the ground I could see that ethnic tensions remain at the heart of its move ahead.

This was especially evident in the northern town of Mitrovica, where a bridge connects ethnic minority communities otherwise living separate lives, flying their own flags, and speaking different languages. Mitrovica illustrates how differences can be exploited, leaving its people in a state of uncertainty and vulnerability. But even here we are making inroads with minority business leaders, young political leaders and judges from both ethnicities who are finding ways to work together and break the gridlock between cultures.

Regardless of ethnicity, perhaps my greatest source of optimism is Kosovo’s young people. This huge segment of the population yearns to move past today’s challenges and create a better future for Kosovo. USAID’s programs have laid the foundation for these future entrepreneurs, opinion leaders and potential reformers in government to lead the way forward.

A group of people wearing lab coats and hair nets, examines a product produced in the factory the group is visiting

Brock Bierman visits USAID-supported factory to see how USAID generates economic expansion in Kosovo. Credit: Nazmije Bajrami/USAID

My biggest takeaway from this trip was that Kosovars understand that their country cannot accomplish meaningful progress unless they are willing to take on their own challenges. The government leaders, civil society representatives, business owners and citizens I met highlighted U.S. expertise, investment and engagement as critical factors for helping overcome these challenges. We can help build their infrastructure, build their capacity and build consensus, but without self-reliance, nothing is sustainable.

Sixteen years ago I thought it would be some time in coming before Kosovo would pick itself up from a terrible time in its history. Fortunately, Kosovars have done a remarkable job in a short period of time, and I am certain that it won’t take another 16 years before Kosovo is joining our efforts to help others in need.


Brock Bierman is Assistant Administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Europe and Eurasia. Follow him @BBiermanUSAID
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