Tag Archives: USAID

FEWS NET: A Famine Early Warning System

Ever since the Indian Ocean tsunami in December of 2004, there has been a push for early warning systems of all types. One system in place even before this natural disaster is FEWS NET, or Famine Early Warning System Network. According to their website, FEWS NET was developed in 1985 by USAID. They saw a need for an early warning system to detect food insecurity after famines in East and West Africa. Now, FEWS NET allows agencies to plan for and respond to food insecurity disasters.

Check out this video about FEWS NET. Jim Verdin from USGS says that FEWS NET is “an activity that boils down to simply paying attention”. He further explains that FEWS NET is in place to ensure that devastating famine no longer occurs in the developing world.

One current example of how FEWS NET functions as an early warning system involves the drought in Haiti. Because FEWS NET tracks the weather patterns, agricultural production, and food prices in Haiti, Haiti was able to offset the effects of the drought and the spread of the drought by arranging for food rations from sources such as the United Nations’ World Food Programme.


Is Social Media a New Foreign Policy Tool?

Last week the Associated Press published findings about a now defunct social media platform, called ZunZuneo, designed to undermine the Cuban government. ZunZuneo was created by two private contractors: Creative Associates International (CAI) from Washington DC and the Denver-based company Mobile Accord. Both companies have a prior history of undertaking contracts for U.S. government democracy initiatives in developing countries. The AP reporters also uncovered details showing that funding for ZunZuneo was provided by USAID. 

The USAID has vehemently defended the program. The head of USAID told Congress,  “Working on creating platforms to improve communication in Cuba and in many other parts of the world is a core part of what USAID has done for some time and continues to do.” However, the AP article quotes USAID documents that specifically say ZunZuneo was created to “push (Cuba) out of a stalemate through tactical and temporary initiatives, and get the transition process going again.”

Supporters of the project noted the important role that social media has played in politics across the world, explaining how “text messaging had mobilized smart mobs and political uprisings in Moldova and the Philippines, among others.” The AP article also mentioned Iran and the fact that “USAID noted social media’s role following the disputed election of then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009 — and saw it as an important foreign policy tool.” As more and more of the world’s population is connecting to social media everyday, its not surprising to see it being used by governments and organizations to instigate and support political change.


Predict: USAID’s disease mapping tool

In class this week, we have talked a lot about how mapping technology can be used in disasters, such as the Mission 4636 project in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. However, mapping technology can also be very useful in other areas of development, such as health. Online maps can track serious disease outbreaks and therefore help governments and scientists manage these outbreaks. For example, a few years ago the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) launched a mapping tool known as “Predict” that tracks animal diseases. While this might not sounds important, it is actually essential to international development because many of the most serious human disease outbreaks of the last several decades originated in animals. The virus that caused the SARS outbreak and Ebola, for example, are both thought to have come from bats. The USAID mapping project emerged specifically as a response to the H1N1 virus (more commonly known as swine flu), which contained a mixture of genes from both North American and European pigs. Interestingly, the H1N1 virus was never actually detected in pigs before it was detected in humans in Veracruz, Mexico. This is significant because it reflects a serious knowledge gap in the international health community. The goal of USAID’s mapping project is to track animal disease outbreaks that could eventually transform into threats to human public health.

Here is how the “Predict” works: it monitors data from over 50,000 websites, among them the alerts that the World Health Organization sends out, online discussions from experts, local news, and wildlife reports. The system then sorts through all of this information to find the most relevant data and put points on the map. The pin points on the global map are color-coded based on activity level, with yellow being low and red being high. The map can also easily be divided to focus on different regions or priority diseases. It is very user-friendly and open to the public, something that Damien Joly, an associate director for wildlife health monitoring in one of the map’s partner associations, says is essential to the mission of the project.

In my opinion, the “Predict” tool represents an efficient use of mapping technology to track disease and it is important because it focuses on animal disease that could pose a threat to human health, which is often overlooked in international development. The question now is how people will begin to use “Predict,” and whether it will become a tool for the general public, or will mainly stay in the realm of scientists and public health experts. You can read more about the launch of this mapping tool here.


The Impasse of Afghanistan’s ICT Strategy

2011_0316_kabul_tower

In a recent report, the USAID praises the progress Afghanistan’s telecommunications networks which, after billions in investment from foreign donors–mainly the United States government, grew from non-existence in 2002 to 64% Tele-density and 85% population coverage in 2012, with over 17.4 millions telephone subscribers. These appreciable improvements are part of Kabul’s effort to transition Afghanistan into an information society, and, officially:

To make affordable communication services available in every district and village of Afghanistan through enabling market economy, so that all Afghans, men and women alike, can use ICT to expeditiously improve government, social services, foster the rebuilding process, increase employment, create a vibrant private sector, reduce poverty and support underprivileged groups and to make Afghanistan a forefront member of the E- global society

Forgoing the details and challenges of building an adequate telecommunications infrastructure in what is widely considered the most politically and geographically treacherous region in the world, Afghanistan’s ICT sector development is very limited and crumbling.

Building a network that provides 85% population coverage–note: not service–was made possible by foreign aid and a Coalition post-war restructuring initiative with the hopes that private sector communication providers would buy-in and take over service operations once a skeletal infrastructure was set up. It was a “top-down” development strategy aimed at creating a private investment opportunity. In theory, one would think this could work; Coalition organizations and the Afghan government working together to clear the barriers-to-entry and increase the economies of scale in a tumultuous region. Initially, it did: telecom companies like MTN, Rashan and Wasel Telecom bought portions of the market-share from Afghan Telecom, the government set-up provider. But, as we often discuss in class, the “If you build it, they will come” approach is flawed; and as the report makes clear–albeit, in its footnotes–the telecom providers stopped short in their investments due to lack of potential growth.

The low demand for mobile and internet technologies is influenced by the usual suspects: they’re new and unfamiliar to the majority of the population, they’re too expensive, there’s an utter-lack of local/applicable content, etc. But the largest deterrent is the available services’ poor quality–something that is not likely to be improved unless there’s potential market growth. The skeletal infrastructure is prone electrical blackouts and generally weak/slow service. That is where the private telecom companies and ISPs were supposed to come in and improve off of the government’s initial efforts. The problem is that Afghans are seemingly unwilling or unable to pay for better services that would be provided by private companies. The report states,

Due to the absence of consumer interest reports, companies will often deliver the lowest costing level of service at the highest price that the market is willing to pay. If telecom companies had market data indicating that consumers were willing to pay for better service delivery, the ICT environment would undergo a further improvement in the quality of service on par with international consumer standards….The lack of reliable infrastructure and the fact that the majority of ISPs’ rely on expensive satellite communications has forced prices for high speed Internet connectivity to remain steep. The prohibitive cost of connectivity, along with other factors such as poor literacy levels, lack of computer and network access, and limited production of local content, keeps Internet services out of reach for the majority of Afghans.

Simply put, private service providers aren’t investing more in the ICT infrastructure because they no longer expect future financial benefit. The private providers don’t have billions in aid to cover their losses and continue infrastructure development, so they stopped improving and growing. Thus, the Afghani people are stuck with sub-standard ICT services, preventing the majority from wanting to take advantage of such an amenity because of its inadequacy. It has become a perpetual cycle.

The answer to this developmental gridlock may be more effort and money from multilateral organizations to further increase the economies of scale; the World Bank is in the midst of $130 million improvement of fiber optic cables project, connecting the 23 provincial capitals. The good news is that it seems Kabul is taking ICT very seriously–the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology has released a myriad of reports that outline the goals and challenges ahead–and they are many. Building a proper ICT network from scratch in the midst of conflict is rather challenging. From these reports, one gets a sense that in order for ICT networks to work and grow effectively, everything else in the country needs to be in order, from energy supply to private sector readiness and health, education to political stability. For Afghanistan, only time will tell.


Going to the Market? Check Your Phone First!

USAID is using mobile phones to heighten market awareness in rural Malawi. This particular article centers around the success story of Sara Maunda, a village farmer in Malawi who used USAID technology to maximize profitability of her products in the regional market. The provision of relevant economic data to farmers represents an increase in access to information, and a general shift toward a information society relevant to city and rural people alike.

Maunda adopted the technology in June 2011, and witnessed results almost immediately. That summer, a traveling salesman approached her and offered to buy Maunda’s shelled groundnuts at a price of  K30 per kilogram. Before completing the transaction, Maunda used her mobile phones to check commodity prices in other local markets. What she found: the same groundnuts had sold for K120 per kilogram the previous day in Lilongwe, a nearby village. Realizing the disparity, Maunda took her product to Lilongwe and earned approximately $130, as opposed to $27 offered by the traveling salesman.

Esoko, the Ghanian company which operates the mobile market initiative, is relatively cheap to purchase and operate, and has enormous potential to lift rural farmers out of poverty. Middlemen, such as the traveling salesman in the story, are notorious for approaching rural markets with unfair prices. Often, these transactions occur with no reaction or consequence, because the individual selling the product is not informed of the value of their product. I think that this product is extremely promising as a means for farmers and artisans to maximize their profitability. The software shows where the demand is high, and users can exploit these markets. Every individual deserves fair and realistic compensation for their efforts, and this technology is an important step in poverty alleviation.

Sara Maunda using her mobile phone to check market commodity prices.

I have a couple questions/comments about the overall effectiveness of this program as a cure-all, however. Here are some reasons why the project might fail to be embraced by the target population:

1) This project only helps individuals who have the ability to reach other markets. it makes commodity prices in local markets more transparent, but does not offer a mode of transport TO these markets. Often, rural farmers do not have the ability to reach the more lucrative, urban markets and are, rather, forced to settle for less compensation in their home villages.

2) This project is effective for maximizing profitability of non-perishable items, such as the groundnuts from the story. These items can undergo the often strenuous transport to other markets, or they can survive in storage until commodity prices rise to desirable levels. Such is not the case for perishable items.

Overall, I think that this project is very valuable, and should continue to empower the rural power. However, for it to truly lift individuals out, it must work in coordination with other development efforts, that would provide storage and transportation opportunities for these individuals.

Read the article here.


Social Media for ICT4D

Today, while I was browsing Twitter, I noticed a tweet by USAID:

Screen Shot 2013-02-08 at 4.57.09 PM

Clicking on that link will lead you to a USAID blog post where they are asking for video submissions for their event #Popcorn + International Development as a part of Social Media Week in Washington D,C.  Social Media Week is a “worldwide event exploring the social, cultural and economic impact of social media” (About Us, socialmediaweek.org) and takes place in several cities.  USAID is asking its development partners to submit videos to be considered for viewing to  “highlight how we rely on technology for a multitude of reasons, including program management and reporting, and general educational purposes for a range of projects, funded by USAID.” (USAID Impact Blog, 2013)

Like the video we watched in class, USAID is looking to use video and social media to communicate and improve ICT4D initiatives and projects.  I think this is an interesting and worthy idea, provided that the videos are seen and used, because by creating and distributing these videos, it allows a greater audience to learn from current and past project’s mistakes and successes in a tangible and cost-efficient way.  These videos can also be a great tool for updating stakeholders of progress and for attracting potential donors and supporters (a la Invisible Children’s KONY2012.)

The only thing that worries me is that because these videos are being created from within the organization, it can be too easy to edit and manipulate what is shown.  Videos cannot tell the whole picture and we must be critical of bias and the objective of the creator.

If you are interested in viewing submission sent to USAID, they can be viewed on USAID’s Youtube channel.


Coal Discovery in Mozambique Leaves the Poor Behind, Enhancing the “Digital Divide”

An article in the NY Times demonstrates just how difficult it is for those living in rural areas of an already extremely impoverished country to improve their standards of living. The article discusses the recent discovery of coal in Mozambique and how such a discovery will provide a massive economic boom for the country. However, the money that would flow in from the mega-project ($6 billion) will hardly help improve the livelihood of its residents, according to a report by USAID that was addressed in the article.

The untapped coal was discovered in an area where already many people were living. In order to extract the coal, all of the people living there had to move. Most of the villagers thought this project would bring jobs and a brighter future. Instead they were moved 25 miles away and are faring worse than they were before.

While I was reading the article, I kept wondering how people who live so far below the poverty line in countries rich with resources can use ICTs to their benefit. In the case of Mozambique, it seemed almost intangible for many communities to ever reach a point in which they could seriously benefit from ICTs. It also begged the question of how we can exploit the natural riches of a country and then channel the resources derived from such in order to benefit those who most deserve it – something that seems is taking a very long time to actually happen.

Even though the article didn’t directly address ICTs, it was nonetheless a serious indicator of some of the obstacles facing ICT4D, especially in the “bottom billion” countries. After having discussed the digital divide in class, it was clear that there are still so many places not even close to being able to close the gap – especially the rural and marginalized.