Africa: Partnerships, Technology Spark Development Solutions

Washington — Public-private partnerships, technology-based solutions and independent evaluations of international development programs spark progress toward eliminating extreme poverty, says the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"If the old model of development was American institutions like USAID hiring contractors to build roads, the new model is partnering with the engines of innovation," USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah told students of the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas April 4.

Speaking of the practical impact of international aid and development, Shah pointed to some of USAID's business partnerships.

In Kenya, USAID workers negotiated with local cellphone companies to get phones to people housed in a refugee camp located in the country. They also asked the agribusiness giant Cargill, which had a ship nearby, to donate food for those people who had fled famine and conflict. The workers then distributed vouchers by phone to camp residents and monitored food prices in 60 area markets.

When the USAID workers saw that prices were decreasing, signaling that more families could buy food, "all of a sudden, the famine and child death challenge plummeted," Shah said.

"That was a moment when American partnership and American values expressed through science, through technology and through a modern way of working ... saved hundreds of thousands of children's lives," Shah said. The USAID workers "brought a new way of thinking" to the challenge they faced, he added.

Another USAID partner is global retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which helps low-resource farmers in Guatemala and Honduras grow vegetables that the company buys at fair prices and sells in local and regional markets. As a result of the partnership, in which USAID has negotiated $2 in investment from Wal-Mart for every $1 it spends, the farmers' children are getting better nutrition and are going to school.

In 2012, USAID negotiated $3.5 billion in private investments for agriculture projects, Shah said.

He said that to help unleash local resources, USAID deploys its Development Credit Authority to offer credit guarantees to local banks so they can lend to job-creating small businesses, entrepreneurs and agricultural enterprises. "This capital will empower more than 1 million entrepreneurs around the world, from a print shop in Dar El Salam to a mango farm in Haiti that now partners with Coca-Cola to produce the Hope [fruit] juice," he said.

In all, private-sector investment in low-income countries has grown to be as much as 14 times greater than government spending, Shah said.

USAID has taken an instructive approach to program review by introducing non-agency evaluators who use strict criteria to examine projects, he explained. The agency then posts the evaluations online. "Not all of them document success," he said. "But if you're not willing to learn what works and what doesn't, you can't manage."

Shah emphasized that the new development model will be shaped by youth. To facilitate that, USAID started the Higher Education Solutions Network to encourage student and faculty researchers to find innovative solutions to development challenges.

At the University of California at Berkeley, for instance, medical and engineering students developed a tool called a cellscope that is an iPhone attached to a microscope. "It can take a photograph of a slide of blood and without sending a sample to a laboratory, can run an internal algorithm and diagnose malaria," Shah explained.

"If we are going to end extreme poverty, tackle preventable child death and end hunger, it's going to be done by young people who have passion and commitment," he said.

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