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Economic Security

READ THE STORIES: Increasing Egyptian Farmers’ Incomes with Climate-smart Practices | Building Integrated Community-level Resilience in Uganda | Equipping U.S. Communities for Climate Resiliency Planning | Identifying Solutions for Emergency Housing in California | Strengthening Evidence for Innovation in Education

Increasing Egyptian Farmers’ Incomes with Climate-smart Practices

“Change is not easy,” admits Mohamed Farag, an Egyptian mango farmer from Kom Ombo, Aswan. “I needed a lot of convincing to take the first step, roll my sleeves, and start implementing.”

Farag knew he had to do something: Climate change was devastating the quality and quantity of his harvest. He decided to attend a farmer field school provided by Riad El Saleheen Community Development Association in partnership with the Feed the Future Egypt Rural Agribusiness Strengthening Project (ERAS), funded by USAID and implemented by Abt Global.

Now he prunes his mango trees to allow more sunlight to filter through. And he convinced his father that they needed to uproot 12 old trees. The trees represented many years of investment but were no longer very productive. “You can imagine this was no easy task,” Farag says.

The trainings taught Farag and other farmers to implement a balanced fertilization program, use irrigation management techniques to conserve water during very high or low temperatures, and protect plants during sandstorms and heavy rains. The training proved fruitful for Farag, who doubled his orchard’s revenue from EGP 7,000 ($227) to EGP 15,000 ($487) in a year. “Results speak for themselves,” he says, “and I am only getting started.”

Farag is not alone. More than 43,000 farmers for 11 value chain crops have applied improved management practices and technologies to a total of 31,000 hectares. The impact has been significant. For example, average mango yields increased from 7.24 metric tons per hectare in fiscal year 2018 to 13.75 in fiscal year 2022, an increase of nearly 90 percent. And this has translated to sales as well, with the average sales for a mango farmer increasing from $1,192 to $3,701 over the same period.

The primary goal of the project is to help the horticulture industry in Upper Egypt and the Delta establish connections to domestic and international high-end markets, gain access to finance, and adhere to food safety practices. But an additional and critical benefit has been addressing the effects of climate change through a tailored and customized technical support program for the targeted crops in the different regions.

ERAS has introduced a number of low-cost, climate-resilient technologies and practices:

  • We introduced a solar drying greenhouse for tomatoes and herbs in Luxor and trained 45 female producer organization members to use it. The technology enhances product quality and minimizes losses by protecting against climate change effects such as unexpected rain and dust. Producers delivered the first shipment of commercially-produced tomatoes to a five-star hotel in Luxor in March 2023.
  • We showed farmers a low-cost, climate-smart cold chain technology that can reduce post-harvest losses, maintain produce quality, extend shelf life, create jobs, and increase smallholder farmers’ incomes. The technology, CoolBot, “converts any off-the-shelf, window-type air-conditioning unit into a turbo-charged refrigeration machine, saving installation and repair costs and reducing electricity consumption,” said Atef Elansari, the project’s post-harvest lead. “It is also installed quickly in just one day and represents a sustainable low-cost solution to help us overcome several food safety and hygiene issues.”
  • The team also helped reduce post-harvest loss by designing a new hermetic bag to store wheat using a local material. The bags preserve the moisture content of stored grains and prevent them from being damaged by insects, fungi, rodents, or birds.
  • To address changing water levels, we expanded adoption of low-density polyethylene (Poly-Pipe) drip irrigation systems to improve water management on land used to grow tomatoes in Beheira. The components, connections, fittings, valves, and all required accessories are produced by local companies in Al-Sadat, Menoufia. “I already witnessed huge savings in the cultivated land” says Samy El Demiry, an Alexandria farmer who switched to the Poly-Pipe irrigation system. “I saved between EGP 5,000 ($162) and EGP 6,000 ($194) at a minimum.”

In addition to introducing technology, we taught environmentally friendly farming techniques. We used the messaging app WhatsApp to show farmers of mango, artichoke, onion, and other crops how to counter heavy rains by spraying aspirin, adding humic acid and balanced fertilizers such as potassium silicate, and controlling irrigation. Farmers received regular weekly weather forecasts and recommended practices for crop protection from pests such as aphids and diseases such as rust.

Conscious of farmers’ limited resources, we promoted production and use of compost as a low-cost and environmentally friendly alternative to chemical fertilizer. The project launched a vermicompost training program to empower women, introduced initially to 307 female and 77 male smallholder farmers in six governorates. Red wiggler worms transform organic household and field waste into an excellent soil amendment and conditioner called vermicompost: over one year, 5 kg of red wiggler worms can produce 75 kg of worms and 1,000 kg of vermicompost. The vermicompost production program will enable women in a household to earn an annual economic return 15 times their initial investment.

Even techniques as seemingly simple as shifting planting dates can have a major impact by avoiding crop damage in increasingly severe winters. For example, instead of planting fennel in mid-November in Assiut, we recommended planting in mid-October to avoid slow growth and damage from low temperatures during the initial stages of plant germination and growth. This resulted in well-developed plant growth and branching before waves of low temperatures in December and January. Farmers who planted as usual in mid-November had weakened plants by comparison. Among the 3,280 fennel farmers surveyed during the 2022 season, average productivity rose from 1.28 tons per feddan to 2.34 tons after applying climate change resilience and good agricultural practices, and average income nearly doubled from EGP 21,375 ($694) to EGP 42,156 ($1,369) per feddan.

Like Farag, many Egyptian farmers—both men and women—are taking concrete steps that increase production, reduce costs, and protect the environment at the same time. ERAS is helping them start a new era in Egyptian farming for Upper Egypt and the Delta.

LEARN MORE: Feed the Future Egypt Rural Agribusiness Strengthening Project
PROJECT: Feed the Future Egypt Rural Agribusiness Strengthening Project
CLIENT: U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

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Building Integrated Community-level Resilience in Uganda

In Uganda, many households lack access to financial resources, markets, and social capital, as well as the ability to advocate for their needs in local government. Among children under five, 29 percent are stunted as a result of chronic or recurrent malnutrition. Ugandans also face additional challenges specific to where they live, such as droughts, wildfires, or human-wildlife conflict near game parks. Communities and households need to be able to mitigate, adapt to, and recover from such shocks and stresses, but many lack this resilience.

The Abt-led USAID Integrated Community Agriculture and Nutrition (ICAN) Activity focused on community-level resilience in eight districts that have some of the country’s highest levels of poverty, malnutrition, and vulnerability to natural disasters. Since 2018, USAID ICAN reached more than 200,000 people through activities that improve incomes, nutrition and food security, water and sanitation, school enrollment and retention, and natural resource management.

The project took a localized, multi-sectoral approach that put local communities front and center. Our local team worked hand-in-hand with trusted local partners across government institutions, the private sector, and civil society. These community structures included village health teams, business service providers, governance champions, and cultural leaders. The project especially focused on addressing gender and power imbalances that undermine the economic opportunities and community influence of women and youth. As agents of behavior change, USAID ICAN’s partners spearheaded local commitment to inclusive resilience actions across sectors. By embedding this work within existing structures, we ensured the work will continue even after project activities ended.

To improve economic livelihoods, we helped create jobs and market opportunities to boost farmers’ income and make food available in the household and marketplace. Over the course of the project, 142,627 people—74 percent of whom are women—received support to increase their incomes, including skills training and linkages to markets. For example, from 2018 to 2023, we connected over 60,000 farmers with formal agricultural markets to help them grow nutritious, climate-resilient crops. We also helped activity participants access formal financial services: A survey found that participants accessing those services increased from 650 in 2019 to 21,000 in 2022. And we worked with about 6,300 adolescent girls and young women who had dropped out of school. We enabled them to build their confidence and entrepreneurial skills, learn how to advocate for themselves in their families, establish businesses and group enterprises, and, in some cases, return to school.

To improve nutrition for women and children, we worked through business service providers to connect local firms to community groups and offer nutrition-sensitive training. Our nutrition initiatives also worked through village health teams, reaching 14,115 pregnant women, 52,467 lactating women, and 12,378 care takers over the last five years of the project. And they helped assess the nutritional status of 272,907 children under five (163 percent of our 2022 target), referring 7,604 who were moderately or severely malnourished to nearby health facilities for care. Good nutrition is critical for children to reach their educational and economic potential.

Strengthening local and community governance was a pillar of the project, especially in ensuring that governance structures engaged vulnerable populations. Overall, 102,202 participants engaged in community governance forums. We also helped communities develop Resilience Committees, which typically include representatives from local government, local leaders, village health teams, business service providers, and other community members, especially women. Through these committees, we collaborated with district local leaders to preserve hills in Kigezi, conserve soil and water in remote and arid Karamoja, and control wildfires by encouraging live fencing in Karamoja.

USAID ICAN’s multi-sectoral approach has been critical to helping a generation of Ugandans to not only better survive shocks and stresses, but also seize economic opportunities and contribute to the country’s socioeconomic development priorities.

PROJECT: Integrated Community Agriculture and Nutrition (ICAN) Activity
CLIENT: U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

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Equipping U.S. Communities for Climate Resiliency Planning

If you live in U.S. states like California or Louisiana, or so many coastal areas around the world, you know from all-too-personal experience the horror of natural disasters like floods. Community leaders try to prepare for them—how to prevent them and how to develop resilience plans to respond to them. Nature all too often outsmarts those plans. 

But now communities far from the coast also feel climate change’s impact and its economic disruption far more frequently. In the United States, inland flooding and wildfires affect communities across the country. Low- and moderate-income communities disproportionately bear the brunt, as do communities of color. Their homes are more likely to be in harm’s way and in areas with inadequate infrastructure. They’re more likely to have limited financial resources to prepare for, respond to, or recover from the impacts of extreme events and natural hazards. And they’re more likely to have health conditions, such as respiratory disease, that magnify the impact of extreme weather events. 

An interdisciplinary team of Abt housing and environmental experts has worked with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to develop tools for community planners to identify resources to help them increase their climate resilience. HUD asked Abt to examine climate hazards such as drought, flooding, and rising sea levels, explain the risk factors, and then suggest initiatives that can help communities increase their resilience to these hazards. Many of these initiatives may be eligible for HUD or other federal funding.   

The suggested initiatives include housing and community development policies designed to enhance resilience. Requiring homes to be on stilts is already fairly common in flood-prone areas in the U.S., especially for beachfront property. Other measures to address a variety of climate risks include: 

  • Raising building infrastructure above ground level to avoid flooding 
  • Installing cool roofs, which decrease heat from the roof’s surface and surrounding air 
  • Removing flammable vegetation around structures to reduce wildfire risk   
  • Encouraging water conservation and reuse measures to alleviate drought conditions  
  • Assessing how natural hazards may affect creation or improvement of public facilities and infrastructure in low- and moderate-income areas 
  • Relocating residents living in at-risk areas 
  • Using resilient building materials for new construction or rehabilitation.    

Abt created a Community Resilience Toolkit that details these natural hazard risks and corresponding resilience actions. The toolkit has been available to the public through the HUD Exchange since 2020.  

Then in 2022, we developed a series of step-by-step guides to implementing climate resilience actions. These implementation guides include a list of possible interventions, HUD and other funding options, and resources with more information. More recently, we’ve launched accompanying videos that include interviews with community leaders who have implemented these resilience actions. 

The primary audience for the toolkit and implementation guides is community leaders and their partners who receive or are eligible for HUD grant funding. Funding can be used for housing and broader public services and infrastructure, such as parks and recreation facilities: One funding source, the $5 billion Community Development Block Grant program (CDBG), includes more than two dozen eligible activities. Grantees are already required to spend at least 70 percent of their CDBG funding in low- and moderate-income communities. If they integrate climate resilience into their work, they will strengthen the resilience and economic security of the communities most affected by climate change and environmental injustice. 

Some local planning agencies in the U.S. haven’t thought about using the HUD resources they already get for activities related to climate resilience. But they can no longer escape climate-related hazards—or the need to plan for how they’ll respond to them. Now they have tools to help address the effects of climate change and make their communities stronger and more resilient.    

LEARN MORE: Increasing Climate Change Resilience Among HUD Grantees | Why Is a Housing Agency Focused on Climate Change?
PROJECT: Community Resilience Toolkit
CLIENT: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

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Identifying Solutions for Emergency Housing in California

California had 161,548 people experiencing homelessness when COVID-19 broke out in 2020—the largest unsheltered population in the United States. People experiencing homelessness both in crowded shelters and living unsheltered on the streets faced extreme health risks, especially if they were already medically vulnerable due to chronic health conditions.  

In March 2020, California’s Health and Human Services Agency leaders, public health experts, and health clinicians came together to develop Project Roomkey (PRK) as a response to COVID-19. The program provided people experiencing homelessness an alternative to staying on the street or in congregate shelters. Instead, PRK placed people temporarily in hotel or motel rooms or groups of trailers accompanied by limited supportive services.  

Congregate shelter, also known as emergency shelter, traditionally congregates people in one space with the use of cots and bunk beds. This type of shelter was especially problematic during COVID-19 because the disease was transmitted by close proximity to another person. Communities across California used motels and hotels as non-congregate shelter options where individuals and couples would be sheltered in individual rooms with individual bathrooms.

Abt is evaluating the program to understand its successes and challenges across the state and the experiences and outcomes of PRK participants. The evaluation focuses on housing, healthcare, and supportive services provided to PRK participants. It also examines the coordination needed at multiple levels of state and local governments to implement such a large-scale and time-sensitive program. The speed of the PRK response, and the multiple partners convened, brought substantial benefits, but the evaluation is also identifying lessons that communities can apply going forward.   

Due to stay-at-home orders across California, the tourism industry was at a standstill early in the pandemic, leaving hotels and motels unoccupied. State and local leaders quickly repurposed as many of these rooms as possible for PRK. There was some initial resistance, however, from both hotel/motel owners and communities. Some owners feared that housing people experiencing homelessness could harm their brand. Others worried about staffing and wear and tear on the rooms. Some interested owners could not participate because their insurers would not cover involvement in the program. In one instance, a city even said it would shut off utilities if a hotel became a PRK site. One notable exception to this resistance was the motel chain Motel 6, which agreed to a mass leasing agreement across the state.

In addition to offering non-congregate shelter, PRK provided short-term wraparound services that could include 24/7 staffing, three daily meals, sanitation and janitorial services, basic supplies, personal protective equipment, and laundry services. State leaders recommended that all PRK sites have onsite medical services, including nurses for daily medication, temperature monitoring, and symptom checks (though not all sites were able to implement all of these). 

Most communities across the state prioritized people experiencing sheltered or unsheltered homelessness and who were at high risk of mortality or suffering medical complications if they contracted COVID-19 (e.g., age 65 years or older, with underlying health conditions). Community leaders in the homeless service and health systems knew that PRK participants would have high medical and behavioral needs. However, leaders in several communities stated that participants were more medically vulnerable than anticipated. PRK sites responded to this need in a variety of ways, including referring participants to skilled nursing facilities and creating specific PRK sites for clients with higher needs. Some participants needed help with daily living activities, and some sites struggled to find funding or providers to support those needs.  

Abt’s evaluation found that numerous system leaders and homeless service providers thought PRK broke new ground for how emergency shelter and interim housing should be offered in California. For many people experiencing homelessness, PRK had benefits not found in other programs. It offered features often unavailable in other emergency shelter or interim housing settings, including individual rooms where people could keep their possessions and did not have to be separated from their partners or pets. This gave people autonomy, privacy, and safety as well as protection from COVID-19’s spread.  

With the pandemic lasting longer than anyone anticipated, implementation challenges predictably cropped up. No one knew how long PRK would be needed or how long reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would last. Communities often needed to braid together funding from federal, state, and local sources.  

However, communities with available resources were able to take what started as a medical emergency program and turn it into a bridge to permanent housing. Some communities and sites allowed participants to stay in PRK as long as they needed or until the site closed. If a participant exited the program or the site was closing, program staff worked to transition that person to another hotel/motel, another form of emergency or temporary housing, or permanent housing.  

Across California, helping PRK residents move into permanent housing was challenging because of the lack of affordable, available housing units. Many communities cited the high cost of housing and low vacancy rates as barriers to helping people move from PRK to stable housing, even when rent subsidies were available. PRK has unlocked some options for policymakers trying to address the homelessness crisis across California, especially for people living unsheltered. Abt’s evaluation will provide lessons about successful approaches and insights into how to address challenges.  

LEARN MORE: Evaluating California’s Project Roomkey
PROJECT: Project Roomkey Evaluation
CLIENT: California Health Care Foundation (CHCF) and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation

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Strengthening Evidence for Innovation in U.S. Education

There are persistent gaps in academic achievement in the U.S. Students with low economic status lag three academic years behind their peers in higher socioeconomic status communities, according to a 2022 National Bureau of Economic research paper. And the U.S. doesn’t fare well when compared with other countries, either: In 2018, American 15-year-olds ranked 37th in math and 18th in science out of the 78 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment.

To address these gaps, three consecutive federal administrations have spent a combined $2.4 billion on grants to fund innovative strategies for improving educational outcomes, particularly for high-need students, in what’s now known as the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program. It’s critical to know if these innovations actually work to help students. Recognizing this need, EIR requires grantees to carry out independent evaluations of the effectiveness of their strategies. But the evaluations can only really help if they determine whether it was the innovations, and not other factors, that caused students to improve. How else can we know whether an initiative actually improved student learning and should be scaled up?   

When the program began in 2010, few evaluations in education used methods that could identify whether innovations were effective for students, teachers, and schools. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) turned to Abt to provide technical assistance to EIR grantees to strengthen their evaluation methods. As a group, the evaluations that Abt supported are stronger than others in the field. ED’s What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) establishes standards for strength of evidence and reviews evaluations in education against those standards. Twice the percentage of Abt-supported grants met WWC evidence standards compared with those that did not receive Abt’s support.

How did we do it? In partnership with ED’s Institute of Education Sciences, EIR contracted Abt and invested in strengthening the independent evaluations. Abt designed a multi-faceted program that included just-in-time, individualized assistance from a senior evaluation expert; tools, templates, and guidance to support the design and implementation of the evaluations; and small and large group workshops, webinars, and presentations. Since 2010, we’ve conducted over 20,000 monthly calls with evaluation teams and reviewed over 1,300 evaluation plans. We’ve convened more than 150 group technical assistance sessions to tackle common challenges. And we alerted the EIR team to over 1,000 issues threatening the success of the evaluations so that they could be addressed and mitigated. Through this intensive relationship with evaluators and grantees, our team anticipated and solved problems as they happened. 

“Asking educators to try out innovative ideas without testing whether they work is not enough. Abt has worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. Department of Education to learn what innovations do work and are worthy of being expanded across the country,” says Abt’s Barbara Goodson, principal investigator for the project.

We now have a substantial evidence base to inform efforts to improve educational outcomes. The independent evaluations we supported help educators and policymakers understand what worked, what didn't, and why. They help identify which ideas to continue investing in—and which ideas to abandon. And unlike a decade ago, ED can provide lessons to the entire U.S. education sector and help close the country's intractable education gaps.  

LEARN MORE: Technical Assistance for Education Innovation and Research Evaluations | The National Evaluation of Investing in Innovation (I3) | Abt's Evaluation Technical Assistance
PROJECT: Technical Assistance for Education Innovation and Research Evaluations
CLIENT: U.S. Department of Education (ED)

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