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Economic Security

READ THE STORIES: What Works: Evidence for Reemployment in the U.S. | Thirst for Change: Safe Drinking Water in Bangladesh | Cocoa for Improved Livelihoods in Bougainville


What Works: Evidence for Reemployment in the U.S. 

Few things are more unsettling to individuals and their families than the loss of a job. Widespread unemployment can also destabilize the U.S. economy. Thankfully, the Unemployment Insurance (UI) Program financially supports people who lose their job through no fault of their own as long as they meet certain eligibility requirements. As a joint state-federal program, each state runs its own UI program under guidance from the Department of Labor (DOL). People who meet the requirements receive monthly financial support, at about 50 percent of their previous wages, for around six months after a job loss.

In 2018, Congress authorized the Reemployment Services and Eligibility Assessment (RESEA) program to go beyond financial support for those experiencing job loss by providing workers with opportunities to improve their job search skills. The program included provisions for ensuring workers meet ongoing requirements for receiving financial and job search assistance. The challenge for DOL is knowing if what individual states are doing is working to enforce eligibility requirements and get people back to work quickly. To that end, DOL turned to Abt to support increased evaluation of RESEA, deepen states’ evaluation capacities, and lay the groundwork for a culture of evidence-building in RESEA programs.

Abt delivers ongoing and extensive technical assistance on behalf of DOL to support states to meet RESEA evidence requirements and ensure that new insights are used to improve services and outcomes for participants. The RESEA program itself also prioritizes evidence generation and use through “tiered evidence” requirements produced through state-level evaluations to promote ongoing improvement nationwide in efforts to reemploy individuals receiving UI.

The same year Congress enacted RESEA, they also passed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 (or the Evidence Act) to bolster efforts to integrate evidence building into federal policies and programs. The DOL worked to build states’ capacity in conducting high quality evaluations that produced that evidence of effectiveness, reflecting its commitment to bringing the Evidence Act to life through learning and improvements. When RESEA launched, only a limited number of high-quality evaluations were conducted and only in a few states. So, among the biggest challenges for the Abt team was to build the capacity and culture needed to implement and sustain state-led evidence building.

At the outset of the project in 2018, the Abt team developed a list of options for how DOL could synthesize evidence gathered from states and also reviewed available studies and identified gaps in available research. The team also created a multi-faceted strategy to build complementary types of evidence to fill those gaps. The team developed webinars, a toolkit, a helpline where states can receive customized assistance, and other resources to strengthen states’ capacities to create their own rigorous evaluations of their RESEA programs.

To date, thousands of state and local staff have attended the more than a dozen webinars conducted by the team. Nearly all states have notified DOL that they are developing or implementing plans to conduct evaluations. In early 2023, 20 states had evaluation data collection underway while another 14 states were preparing to begin. And there are strong signs that a culture of evidence-use is growing: In a striking finding from Abt’s 2023 annual surveys of RESEA programs, 38 percent of states reported using available data “a lot” to understand the program compared to only 19 percent of states three years ago.

Among the lessons learned thus far in RESEA evidence-building efforts: Abt found adapting and responding to states’ needs in evaluation and planning and implementation shifted over time. Early on, states needed help understanding what legislation required of them to conduct research. The states then needed support learning about different types of evaluations and identifying an appropriate design for their context. Next, states needed guidance selecting an independent evaluator and developing a cycle of learning about their RESEA program and using study findings to improve it.  

The implementation of RESEA and its accompanying evaluation activities is one of the most prominent examples of large-scale evidence-building initiatives in the federal government. It provides critical information for similar efforts by agencies across the federal government. Abt Global is making an impact, leading efforts to build and use evidence to improve public programs and policies—something increasingly being made a priority by the federal government and required by law.  

LEARN MORE: RESEA: Building Evidence for Reemployment Services
PROJECT: Reemployment Services and Eligibility Assessments (RESEA)
CLIENT: U.S. Department of Labor

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Thirst for Change: Safe Drinking Water in Bangladesh 

Iron. Arsenic. Salt. E. coli. Impurities in drinking water are a daily reality for millions of Bangladeshis. “We suffered from waterborne illnesses,” says 31-year-old textile factory operator Hasan from Saltha Upzila in the Faridpur District. He experienced stomach aches and diarrhea from a combination of iron and arsenic. His doctor urged him to buy bottled water, but he couldn’t afford it

Bangladesh faces enormous hurdles in achieving universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water. Bore wells serve as the primary source of drinking water in most homes, but widespread groundwater contamination and aquifer depletion pose significant health challenges and water insecurity. The country has ensured access to basic water services to 98 percent of households, yet 57 percent don’t have safe drinking water. There aren’t enough access points, treatment facilities, or storage. Floods and droughts aggravate matters. Only 34 percent of urban households and four percent of rural households have access to piped water. And many solutions established by the Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE) often can’t function after a year or two due to poor maintenance. In addition, inappropriate water storage systems and poor handwashing practices expose drinking water stored in households to contamination.

All of which raises some key questions. What is the value of safe, reliable drinking water? And how can private companies support the provision of services often perceived as free public goods?

Taking into account the local context and political economy, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Abt-led Feed the Future Bangladesh Nutrition Activity team is working to tackle this issue. The team works with partners to improve dietary practices; water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH); and the social and economic status of women and adolescents in targeted areas. The Activity collaborates with the public and private sectors to ensure sustainable food and water markets and expand climate-smart approaches.

One example of our work to improve access to and use of safe drinking water is a partnership with Drinkwell, a private enterprise with certified water treatment plants in Bangladesh’s Faridpur District. Our collaboration with Drinkwell applied market system development and social behavior change approaches to improve access to safe drinking water, combat malnutrition and waterborne diseases, and improve public health through sustainable, market-based solutions.

Abt designed a behavior change campaign aimed at educating the local community about the risks of locally-contaminated water sources and the low-cost opportunity for safe drinking water. The campaign distilled messaging to visual aids to reach a low-literacy audience. It focused on individuals’ perceived benefits and barriers to behavior change. Before the campaign’s launch, Abt’s local team conducted rigorous market testing on the materials, including one-on-one interviews and focus group discussions with male and female respondents.

We held campaign activities where they could have the most reach: in courtyard and school sessions and awareness initiatives in local bazaars, mosques, and health facilities. Collaborating with local leaders to promote understanding and trust was critical to acceptance and adoption of safe drinking water consumption.

Market testing indicated over 90 percent of respondents had a solid understanding and expressed motivation to access safe drinking water. But building a new market requires not just a quality product, but also support to overcome ingrained habits and behaviors. We knew from community efforts that households were content with their bore wells, which they had used for decades to access ‘free’ water. But widespread groundwater contamination and aquifer depletion pose significant health challenges and water insecurity in the areas. In Faridpur District, challenges also include waterlogging, arsenic contamination, and other water pollution. So, the challenge lay in establishing a value for safe drinking water.

Drinkwell launched ATM cards to enable households to use an efficient payment system to access its water, purified using modern reverse osmosis technology. Our team raised awareness of the long-term risks of contaminated water to create demand for the ATM cards, but the community proved resistant to paying for them. For Drinkwell, which shouldered the cost of creating safe water access, this was unsustainable.

The solution: We used our knowledge about a strong demand for door-step delivery of water in these communities and acted on it. Drinkwell added a delivery service for its 20-liter blue jars of drinking water, which led to a spike in demand that made the business model viable. The team supported Drinkwell in navigating requirements from the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution to allow the program to expand quickly.

Since it launched in September 2022, Drinkwell's water treatment plants have provided 345,000 liters of safe drinking water. The Activity continues to contribute to demand creation for these water treatment plants through social and behavior change-led awareness creation. And the project will continue its efforts towards ensuring safe drinking water for rural communities.

The Activity’s focus on safe water has generated important results as of March 2024:

  • 62,000 people gained access to safe drinking water 
  • 500 users of Drinkwell water ATMs 
  • 700 customers received delivery of jar water.

Drinkwell customers, who pay BDT 0.75 a liter compared with the BDT 2.50 average water jar price of other drinking water suppliers, are grateful for access to safe water. Hasan is one. “Now we have access to clean water, improving our health outcomes,” he says. “I hope more rural communities can benefit from such initiatives.

In addition to the Drinkwell collaboration, the Activity works with other water partners to expand access to clean water in water-scarce regions with market potential. The Activity supports interventions to increase communities’ access to safe water and facilitating continuous water supplies for households through solutions like household rainwater harvesting and supporting piped water installed by the public sector and development partners. We amplify collaboration between private partners and local governments to gain local endorsement and community acceptance, critical for long-term sustainability.

The Feed the Future Bangladesh Nutrition Activity’s overall goals reach well beyond safe water. In the Activity’s fifth year, our strategic partnerships in nutrition, empowerment, and WASH reached ​​almost 786,000 people. Collaboration with the government and a $647,636 investment from the private sector strengthened the Activity’s success in dietary diversity, women's empowerment, and WASH practices. We partnered with the Department of Agricultural Extension and seven private sector companies to promote consumption of balanced, diverse, and nutritious diets through homestead gardening. We supported 164,292 individuals in implementing improved management and climate-smart practices, exceeding our target by 46 percent.

We have empowered women by providing access to resources and opportunities to adopt improved nutrition and hygiene behavior to enhance their overall health and well-being. We provided 8,123 women micro-entrepreneurs, including food vendors and members of micro-finance institutions, with increased access to economic resources through entrepreneurship training and linkages with buyers, suppliers, and service providers. The result: improved businesses and economic well-being.

47,197 adolescent girls and boys reported an increased self-efficacy and our data show that dietary diversity among school adolescents and their families increased.

The breakthrough realization of the market for doorstep drinking water delivery services underscores the value of customer-centric innovation and responsiveness to market demands.

Successful models like this one are ways that Abt collaborates and innovates to catalyze sustainable change—for improved access to water, women’s empowerment or improved nutrition—in communities in Bangladesh, creating impact now and for years to come.

LEARN MORE: Empowering Women and Catalyzing Markets to Improve Nutrition
PROJECT: Feed the Future Bangladesh Nutrition Activity
CLIENT: U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

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Cocoa for Improved Livelihoods in Bougainville

For over a century, cocoa has been a huge part of Bougainville, an autonomous region in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Before the civil conflict that stretched from 1988 to 1998, Bougainville was the largest cocoa producing region in PNG, and cocoa plantations dotted much of the landscape. This year, with support from Australia and New Zealand, Bougainville has regained the crown as the leading cocoa producer in PNG, producing nearly 17,000 tons of cocoa a year, almost as much as the 18,000 tons before the Bougainville crisis. Bougainville cocoa won a Gold Standard award at the International Cocoa of Excellence Award in Rome. And the Bougainville Chocolate Festival, held in September every year, continues to grow, bringing together farmers, traders, exporters, industry regulators and chocolate lovers.

Funded by the Australian and New Zealand governments and implemented by Abt, the Bougainville Partnership together with the Department of Primary Industries and Marine Resources of the Autonomous Bougainville Government, has been supporting the cocoa industry in Bougainville since 2016. The Bougainville Partnership established the Commodity Support Facility to support a broad range of supply-chain activities, from seedling to export assistance and everything in between. It supports cocoa production by village-based farming families, encouraging industry-wide participation of women and youth. It initiates research and development and develops a strong regulatory environment with technical facilities to boost quality and production. And it provides promotional support through the Bougainville Chocolate Festival to bring the quality of Bougainville cocoa to the attention of the global industry. The partnership with the Bougainville people is generating meaningful change for farmers and communities.

A Family Business. Many of those involved in the growth of cocoa have life-long connections to the crop. When Geraldine Paul was growing up, her father owned a 12-hectare farm where he grew cocoa. The enterprise was very much a family business.

“In primary school, my father put me in charge of the fermenting and drying of our cocoa,” said Geraldine. From that beginning, Geraldine worked her way up through the system in both private enterprise and the public sector. Now, she is the Minister for Primary Industries and Marine Resources in the ABG. Cocoa is still close to her heart, and she is particularly focused on the people side of the industry.

“The missing thing was always the investment in human beings. This is why I was so supportive of the Commodity Support Facility. It did not concentrate on increasing the number of farmers. It was an investment about quality, and quantity—supporting the households and investing in the families,” she said.

Quality Improvement. Dr. James Butubu can remember in the 1970s and 1980s, when, as a kid growing up in Buin, he saw the small-holder farmers start to overtake the large plantations. His career as a compliance officer and in cocoa research and development, has culminated in his current role as the Chief Compliance Officer under the Bougainville Agricultural Commodity Regulatory Authority (BACRA). He oversees the BACRA lab, a recently opened facility which the Bougainville Partnership funded, and which is vital to the future of the industry.

“The buyers of our cocoa need to know the level of flavour and quality parameters, and to some extent the nutrient content of our beans,” he said. “Farmers can supply beans for the lab to test and get reports on the flavour and bean quality. They can adjust a bit or maintain what they are doing in terms of quality improvement.”

They Rely on Cocoa for their Livelihood. One of the farmers who took advantage of the testing at the BACRA lab was the winner of the top prize, a Silver Medal, at the 2023 Bougainville Chocolate Festival. Mr. Lucas Bierepi from Kereaka in Kunua in North Bougainville had his cocoa tested several times at the BACRA lab to produce the highest quality product. He won a cocoa dryer and a fermenting unit. “I am very happy and could not ask for a better prize than this—this is every cocoa farmer’s dream,” said Mr Bierepi.

He had been using a fermenter from a neighboring farm. He said he was not able to get the most out of this arrangement. “With the new dryer and fermenting unit, I will be able to do the fermenting process for my cocoa beans the way I want and produce the results I want for my beans.” Steven Tangepara from the Mudemeio Cooperative Society in Bana, said he has seen the cocoa farming in his region improve considerably, thanks to the development of the industry. “Families are continuing to sustain their livelihood as well as managing their local businesses,” he said.

Indeed, as the Secretary of the Department of Primary Industries and Marine Resources, Mr Kenneth Dovaro, pointed out, most people in Bougainville depend on cocoa. “They rely on cocoa for their livelihood, and a lot of business houses and entrepreneurs exist because of cocoa,” he said.

From Small-Holder Farms to the International Market. The development of the smallholder farms is recognized as a key factor by one of the biggest cocoa buyers in Bougainville. Salome Rihatta, Bougainville Manager for Agmark, a diversified agribusiness and largest buyer and exporter of Bougainvillean cocoa, said the donor support for farmers has unlocked the potential of the industry. “The success of the growth in the cocoa industry in Bougainville can be largely attributed to donor funded projects. They have improved the livelihoods of smallholder cocoa farmers in Bougainville by improving the performance and sustainability of value chains in cocoa producing areas,” she said.

The final piece of the puzzle is ensuring there is an international market. Li Peng Monroe from Jasper and Myrtle Chocolates in Canberra has been using Bougainville cocoa since she first tasted it at the 2016 Chocolate Festival. Since then, she has exclusively used Bougainville cocoa and, while there is room for improvement, she cannot see that changing. “I will continue to use Bougainville cocoa beans. All our chocolates are made from Bougainville cocoa, and we believe that will continue, and we believe that Bougainville has a good future in the cocoa beans in Australia,” she said. 

LEARN MORE: Bolstering Governance in Papua New Guinea
PROJECT: PNG–Australia Governance Partnership: The Bougainville Partnership
CLIENT: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)

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