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Interview with NASA Astronaut Colonel Ronald J. Garan: Working with USAID to bring Global Development to the Next Frontier

Beginning June 2013, USAID will begin a Q&A interview series on our Impact Blog. The first in this series is an interview with NASA astronaut, Colonel Ronald J. Garan, who is temporarily assigned to USAID in the Office of Science and Technology.

In this interview, Colonel Garan discusses his journey to becoming a NASA astronaut and his interest in international development.

Astronaut Ronald J. Garan Photo Credit: NASA

Q: When did you decide you wanted to be an astronaut?

A: On July 20, 1969. That was the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I was seven. I was only a little kid, so I never would have thought to put it this way, but even then I knew that this meant something big. Humanity had changed. Something exciting was happening, and I wanted to be a part of it. So after serving in the Air Force as a test pilot, I finally realized my dream and became a part of the space program in 2000.

Q: What got you interested in international development?

A: Well, I’ve had two passions in my career. First, I wanted to fly in space and contribute to the space program. And secondly, I’ve always been passionate about making life on Earth a little bit better. When you’re looking at the earth from space, it re-shapes your perspective. You can’t help but appreciate the sobering contradiction between the beauty of our planet and the unfortunate realities of life on our planet for a significant number of its inhabitants. I wanted to make a difference.

Q: So now that you are on detail with USAID, what exactly are you working on?

A: As I became more involved with international development and humanitarian work, I saw firsthand just how much duplication of effort exists in the field. We could make development progress much more rapidly by collaborating more efficiently. So I spend a lot of time and energy working on a universal open source platform for collaboration. My dream is to be a part of a collaborative platform that allows international organizations, governments, NGOs, socially-oriented businesses, and entrepreneurs to all collaborate together, speaking the same “language” to achieve common development goals.

Q: What do you see as the most promising new technology in the international development field?

A: Without question, the exponential increase in the ability of computers to solve problems. I can’t say what form that will take in fifty years, or even five years. But the rapid and low-cost diffusion of computing power will ultimately have profound impacts on global health, food security, conflict mitigation… few aspects of USAID’s work will remain untouched by these profound changes.

DRC Making Great Strides in Child Survival

This week, the Congolese Government’s National Steering Committee for Health  is meeting to officially launch the National A Promised Renewed (APR)’s acceleration framework to reduce infant and maternal mortality in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  Following the Minister of Health’s participation in the Child Survival Call to Action in Washington June 2012 and at the African Leadership for Child Survival in Addis Ababa in January 2013, the DRC Government has made great strides in developing a strategic country-specific plan to move towards accelerated reduction of maternal and child deaths. This Action Framework aims to reduce under-five mortality by 48 percent and maternal mortality by 31 percent, saving the lives of 430,000 children and 7,900 mothers by 2015.

Part of the action framework includes a national scorecard which will serve as a monitoring tool to better track successes at the provincial level.

"Birth - Growth - Progress" for every woman and child. Photo Credit: UNICEF

USAID’s current health portfolio directly aligns with the objectives of the Ministry of Health’s APR plan and efforts to intensify the reduction of maternal and child deaths. USAID has worked with the DRC to improve access, availability and quality of health services in 80 health zones through the Integrated Health Project, led by Management Sciences for Health. This $144 million five-year project spans the spectrum of essential health services and provides support to the government’s Health Systems Strengthening Strategy (SRSS) and the National Health Development Plan (PNDS).

In support of A Promise Renewed, USAID and UNICEF are collaborating to promote essential maternal and child health services through a package of high impact interventions in 27 health zones, where access to health centers faces the greatest barriers and the risk of child mortality is highest. A thorough LiST (Lives Saved Tool) analysis identified these interventions, which will target children under five and pregnant women with vouchers that subsidize care. Some of the key activities will focus on pre-packaged family kits that will be distributed to prevent, diagnose and treat malaria, diarrhea, and respiratory infections and to provide basic emergency obstetrical and neonatal care in health centers. If this approach is successful, there are plans to scale it up nationwide, impacting those most at risk throughout the DRC.

This is an exciting time for the DRC, and the USAID Mission here in Kinshasa is committed to working closely with UNICEF to support the DRC Ministry of Health on implementing the country plan to drastically improve child survival.

How Rap Music is Saving Lives in the Caribbean

Hurricane Preparedness Week is May 26 through June 1, following the release of the official forecast for the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season. This week, USAID is highlighting the work we do to help disaster-prone countries prepare for and recover from hurricanes.

The Caribbean is one of the most hurricane-prone regions in the world, killing people every year and making communities more vulnerable with each and every storm that hits. But it wasn’t a hurricane that put Yen Carlos Reyes at risk.

Reyes’s father dealt drugs in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Dominican Republic and rival gang members routinely raided his home. His mother abandoned Reyes, leaving him to bounce around from one relative’s house to another. At age 17, he was a street fighter in the Dominican Republic, headed for jail—or worse.

Members of the St. Patrick’s Rangers, a voluntary youth club in Jamaica, engage in a map reading session through a disaster preparedness program led by USAID’s partner, Catholic Relief Services. Photo credit: Catholic Relief Services

Reyes’ story is one that resonates with many youth across the islands, where a lack of opportunities leads teens to partake in the crime and violence that plagues their communities. But now, in some of the toughest neighborhoods across the Caribbean, the energy and creativity of at-risk youth are being channeled to help them make the leap from neighborhood trouble-maker to community life saver.

The Youth Emergency Action Committees (YEAC) program led by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) with support from USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) is one that transforms teens like Reyes into disaster-preparedness leaders. It teaches young people how to plan for and respond to hurricanes, administer first aid, map out evacuation routes and set up emergency shelters. In dedicating himself to the program, Reyes just may have saved his own life.

Started in September 2009 in four of the most hazard-prone and marginalized neighborhoods of inner-city Kingston, Jamaica, CRS began engaging youth through an ‘edutainment’ approach—education plus entertainment. Teens write music, create skits, and perform them to raise community awareness about disaster preparedness while simultaneously learning life-saving skills. Rap music, in particular, has been a big hit, with the group  coming up with lyrics such as, “Send in the broom and the shovel. Don’t bring the violence, please leave the trouble.” Because the program was so successful, CRS expanded it to the Dominican Republic, St. Lucia and Grenada.

Reyes says his priorities shifted and his life changed when he joined YEAC. With his teammates, Reyes helped build new homes and rehabilitate old ones for families whose houses were not able to withstand natural disasters. When Hurricane Sandy hit Puerto Plata, Reyes and the others on his committee—named El Esquadron, or the Squadron—were ready, helping to relocate 80 families to emergency shelter and implementing a disaster response plan for their community. Reyes says he has a whole new set of goals including going back to school, thanks to the confidence YEAC has given him.

“Little by little, I started to see that I had value and that the other kids weren’t judging me. The work we did within the communities made me feel like I had something to offer and I started to see that my neighbors were looking at me different too,” said Reyes.

Watch this video for an in-depth look on how the program made a positive impact in Jamaica.


Helping Others During Hurricane Season

Hurricane Preparedness Week is May 26 through June 1, following the release of the official forecast for the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season. This week, USAID is highlighting the work we do to help disaster-prone countries prepare for and recover from hurricanes.

The 2013 Atlantic Hurricane Season officially begins on June 1 and is expected to be very active. Preparing your family and home for hurricanes is important.  But what about preparing yourself to assist others–do you know how to effectively help those who are impacted by disasters? The best way to help is easier than you think and works 100% of the time.

The simplest disaster readiness activity is also the most cost-effective and the least time-consuming for donors–monetary donations to credible relief organizations working on-site. Each disaster is unique and affects people and infrastructure differently. Monetary donations enable relief workers to respond to evolving needs as those affected migrate to safety, resettle, and eventually rebuild their communities.

Unsolicited donations delivered to Samoa after the 2009 earthquake and tsunami took up space needed by relief organizations to sort and deliver vital emergency supplies. Photo credit: Richard Muffley, USAID CIDI

Most people react to disaster events overseas by collecting clothing, canned food and bottled water for survivors. While well-intended, many of these items actually remain in the U.S. because of the high fees and cost required to transport the donated goods to a foreign country.  Others items are turned away at their destination because they are not tied to a response organization or are deemed inappropriate. For example, thirty-four countries have banned the importation of used clothing and may decline collections that arrive. In reality, needs of disaster-affected people are carefully assessed by relief professionals on-site, who provide the right goods in sufficient quantities at the right time.

USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information recently rolled out a Greatest Good Donations Calculator, created by the Colleges of Engineering and Business Administration at the University of Rhode Island. This calculator illustrates the costs of sending unsolicited donations. For example, let’s say someone purchases a teddy bear for $19.99 in Washington, D.C., intending to send it to Apia, the capital city of Samoa. According to the calculator, the total cost to send this bear (including transportation and other fees) would be a whopping $273.43! By contrast, the same amount of money could be used by a relief organization to purchase 54,686 liters of clean water locally, helping more than 27,300 people.

Monetary contributions to established relief agencies in affected areas purchase exactly what survivors need when they need it. They support local merchants and local economies, and ensure that beneficiaries receive supplies that are fresh, familiar, and culturally, nutritionally and environmentally appropriate.

For more information on effective donations, visit USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information.

Contraceptives Save and Improve Lives

Each year an estimated 74.4 million unintended pregnancies occur in the developing world; primarily among women who had an unmet need for effective contraception. Family planning programs, which provide counseling, services and contraceptive supplies, empower couples to make important decisions about the timing and spacing of their children. By choosing the healthiest times for childbirth, mothers give themselves and their children a better chance to live long, healthy lives. This week at the Women Deliver conference, I join public health professionals from around the world who are discussing family planning as one of the core strategies to save women’s lives.

A woman and her children after a family planning consultation at Kalingalinga Clinic in Lusaka, Zambia, 2009. Photo Credit: Arturo Sanabria

When we think about who plays a role in improving access to family planning, we often think of the nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers who administer contraceptives. Warehouse managers and truck drivers, on the other hand, might not immediately spring to mind. However, these individuals play a vital role in ensuring contraceptive security, which exists when every person is able to choose, obtain, and use quality contraceptives and condoms whenever he or she needs them.

On the USAID | DELIVER PROJECT we work alongside USAID and other partners every day to strengthen health programs by improving the supply chains in-country. In our work we often say “No Product. No Program.” What we mean by that is ensuring an adequate supply of contraceptives is critical to the success of family planning programs. These programs are most effective when healthcare providers have commodities on hand for women who want and need them.

In fiscal year 2012, on behalf of USAID, the project supplied a range of contraceptive methods to 45 countries, including over—

  • 751 million male condoms
  • 64.6 million oral contraceptives, and
  • 36.3 million injectables
  • 1.6 million IUD’s
  • 1 million implants

Coupled with comprehensive counseling and services, these commodities prevented an estimated 15,000 maternal deaths and 230,000 infant deaths.

Despite major gains, we know that 222 million women still have an unmet need for family planning, meaning they want to delay or avoid pregnancy but aren’t using a modern method of family planning. Meeting this need for modern contraceptives will save 79,000 mothers and 1.1 million infants. Ensuring and sustaining contraceptive availability at this scale is a substantial task that requires more effective and efficient supply chains, coordination among the public, private and NGO sectors, engagement of civil society organizations, a willingness to go beyond ‘business as usual,’ and leadership and commitment on the part of national and international partners.

Staff load family planning and other health commodities into a truck as part of the Delivery Team Topping Up system in Zimbabwe. 2009. Photo Credit: USAID | DELIVER PROJECT.

While meeting the family planning needs of women around the world happens one woman at a time, making contraceptives available to each of those women requires the concerted and coordinated efforts of individuals and organizations around the world.

View a new infographic by the USAID | DELIVER PROJECT on the important role contraceptives play in saving and improving women’s lives.

Using Science to Warn Countries About Deadly Flash Floods

Hurricane Preparedness Week is May 26 through June 1, following the release of the official forecast for the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season. This week, USAID is highlighting the work we do to help disaster-prone countries prepare for and recover from hurricanes.

Flash floods are the number one weather-related killer and the most fatal side effect of hurricanes. They kill thousands of people every year and cause millions of dollars in damage by destroying buildings and bridges, uprooting trees and overflowing rivers within mere minutes.

Flash floods occur when excess water caused by heavy and rapid rainfall from tropical storms or hurricanes cannot be quickly absorbed into the earth. This fast-moving water can be extremely powerful, reaching heights of more than 30 feet. But it takes only six inches of water to knock a person to the ground or 18 inches to float a moving car.

USAID responds to more floods than any other type of natural disaster, like this one in Trinidad, Bolivia in 2003. Photo credit: USAID

USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance recognizes that while flash floods are deadly in even the most developed countries, they can really wreak havoc in densely populated regions around the world that lack strong infrastructure. Hurricane-prone regions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean are especially vulnerable, which is why USAID works with host countries year-round to help them prepare.

Even though the onset of flash floods is almost immediate, it is possible to give up to a six hour window of advanced notice—just enough time to save lives.

The advanced warning is given through the Flash Flood Guidance System, a scientific method of accumulating rainfall data and analyzing the rate at which the ground absorbs it. USAID works closely with meteorological experts in hurricane-prone countries, training them on how this system works so that they can be on the lookout for potential flash floods. Using the system gives disaster-prone countries the opportunity to use those crucial six hours before a flash flood hits to implement emergency plans and move as many people out of harm’s way.

Six hours may seem like a lot of lead time, but it’s actually not when you’re rushing to alert remote and heavily populated villages—with limited communication—about an approaching disaster. Flash floods can’t be prevented, but USAID is committed to helping people better prepare for and recover from them. Because when it comes to saving lives and alleviating suffering, every minute counts.

Women Deliver Conference Focuses Attention to Women’s Health and Rights

During the month of May, IMPACT will be highlighting USAID’s work in Global HealthThis week we will be focusing on Family Planning. 

This week leaders and advocates from nearly 150 countries are gathering in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for Women Deliver 2013, one of the largest conferences of the decade focused on the health and wellbeing of girls and women. USAID is proud to participate in Women Deliver 2013 and highlight the Agency’s strong support and dedication to improving the health and status of women and girls across the globe. A number of our technical experts are presenting at the conference on topics covering family planning, maternal, newborn and child health, and other programming that address the needs of women and girls.

With support from USAID, Masreshah delivers reproductive health information and services to households in the Amhara region of Ethiopia. Photo Credit: Pathfinder International

The discussions in Kuala Lumpur are sparking a larger global conversation on how and why we all must work together to improve access to reproductive and maternal health.  Last night, USAID participated in the launch of WomenDeliver+Social Good, a movement that brings together social entrepreneurs and new media connectors around the world with the leaders who are shaping policies and programmes around women’s health and economic empowerment.  Watch USAID’s Health Development Officer, Judy Manning, present at the launch event where she spoke about the development of new contraceptive technologies as a solution to saving women’s and children’s lives.

Coinciding with the Women Deliver conference, USAID is highlighting our work in family planning this week on IMPACT as part of our Global Health blog series this month.  Family planning plays a critical role in meeting our goals of ending preventable child and maternal deaths and creating an AIDS Free Generation, and is crucial to improving people’s lives across the globe.  We know that family planning enables women and couples to choose the timing and spacing of their pregnancies, resulting in incredible health and economic benefits for families.  A USAID analysis found that, by preventing closely spaced births, family planning could save the lives of more than 1.6 million children under five annually.  Satisfying the global unmet need for family planning could reduce maternal deaths by 30 percent. And enabling young women and girls to avoid early pregnancy allows them to stay in school longer, increasing their economic opportunities.

Check back here all week as we highlight the importance of Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 5b, Universal Access to Reproductive Health.  Keep up with USAID’s participation at Women Deliver by following USAID for Global Health on Twitter for live updates and visit our webpage dedicated to the conference.

Follow USAID for Global Health (@USAIDGH) on Twitter and use #GHMatters to join in the conversation.


Photo of the Week: 2013 Hurricane Preparedness Week

As America saw with Hurricane Sandy, it takes just one bad storm to wreak havoc, kill and injure hundreds and inflict billions of dollars of damages. If one hurricane can do so much damage in the U.S., imagine the impact of similar storms on less developed countries.

Forecasters are predicting an active 2013 Atlantic hurricane season. During this week, we will be highlighting USAID’s work—through its Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance—to prepare disaster-prone countries and communities in Latin America and the Caribbean for hurricanes.

The photo above is of children playing in the streets of a camp for internally displaced people in Port-au-Prince, Haiti after Hurricane Tomas made landfall in November 2010. Photo is from Kendra Helmer/USAID.

Wall of Wind’ Helps USAID Test Shelters for Hurricane Relief

Hurricane Preparedness Week is May 26 through June 1, following the release of the official forecast for the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season. This week, USAID is highlighting the work we do to help disaster-prone countries prepare for and recover from hurricanes.

There is a place in Miami, Florida, where deadly, hurricane force winds can be felt year-round without the threat of destruction.  In fact, it’s a place that’s being used to help save lives.

It’s called the Wall of Wind, a cutting-edge lab at Florida International University (FIU) that can simulate hurricane conditions using 12 giant fans, stacked two high, capable of generating winds with speeds exceeding 150 miles per hour, packing the punch of a Category Five storm.


USAID built temporary shelters in Chile, using a combination of durable plastic sheeting and wood boards, to meet humanitarian needs in 2010. Photo credit: USAID

USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance is working with FIU to harness these hurricane force winds to test the strength and design of transitional shelters. Transitional shelters are not tents, but they’re not quite houses, either. They are a mix of the two, constructed using new and salvaged building materials to safely house people who’ve been hit hard by disasters until they secure a permanent home.

Hurricanes can be catastrophic, uprooting communities, taking out entire coastlines, and killing thousands of people in the process. Flying debris—often from pieces of roofs and homes—contributes to being one of the most deadly and destructive side effects of these storms.

This is why it’s crucial that transitional shelters are strong enough to withstand nature’s worst, and that is where the Wall of Wind comes into play. Take a look at the video, and see for yourself if a transitional shelter constructed with USAID-identified best practices could really stand up to a hurricane.

See video clip here:

The transitional shelter was blasted by wind speeds of more than 100 miles per hour—well in excess of a Category One hurricane—and remained standing.  USAID’s work with the Wall of Wind not only helps improve the quality of emergency shelters, it can also have a real impact on the way future homes and businesses are built in hurricane-prone areas.

USAID Prepares for Hurricane Season in Latin America and the Caribbean

Hurricane Preparedness Week is May 26 through June 1, following the release of the official forecast for the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season. This week, USAID is highlighting the work we do to help disaster-prone countries prepare for and recover from hurricanes.

Top forecasters are saying it could be an extremely active 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, with the National Hurricane Center on May 23 predicting that up to 20 named storms will develop this year, with between seven to 11 of the systems expected to become hurricanes.

Plastic sheeting provided by USAID helps give much needed shelter to a family in Nicaragua following Hurricane Felix in 2007. Photo Credit: Alejandro Torres/USAID

No matter how accurate the forecast turns out to be, Hurricane Sandy taught us that it only takes one major storm to kill more than 70 people in this country, injure hundreds of others, and inflict billions of dollars in damages. If one hurricane could do so much damage in the U.S., imagine the impact of similar storms on less developed countries.

USAID is prepared to meet the demands of an active hurricane season. All year, experts with USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) have been working closely with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to make sure emergency and evacuation plans are in place. USAID has emergency stockpiles in Miami, including medical supplies, hygiene kits, shelter materials, and water purification equipment. We have the ability to charter planes in eight different countries to deliver these life-saving items quickly to countries hit hard by hurricanes. When we know a storm is coming, we can pre-position staff and relief supplies to provide immediate assistance.

But arguably, the most vital resource USAID has is its people. In addition to the 25 disaster experts USAID/OFDA has in the region, there are also about 350 consultants in 28 countries who can immediately jump into the action when a hurricane makes landfall. These consultants live in the region, so they know the country, culture and local officials and can quickly report the conditions on the ground and help USAID prioritize humanitarian needs.

USAID airlifted emergency relief supplies to the Bahamas when Hurricane Irene made landfall in 2011. Photo credit: USAID

“They are our eyes and ears, and they allow USAID to be fast, aggressive and robust in a disaster response,” said Tim Callaghan, USAID/OFDA’s Principal Regional Advisor in Latin America and the Caribbean.  “They work to save lives and alleviate suffering.”

All this week, we will be highlighting what USAID and its partners are doing in preparation for the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, from protecting people from deadly flash floods to teaching children in Jamaica to become the next generation of disaster experts.

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