In November 2023, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) launched its first-ever Geospatial Strategy, which seeks to institutionalize the use of geospatial data and technology to achieve greater efficiency in programs, operations, and development outcomes. Trajectory recently spoke with Carrie Stokes, chief geographer and GeoCenter director, about the strategy, how it can support national security, and more.
Trajectory: This is USAID’s first ever geospatial strategy? What was the impetus for the strategy and why now?
Carrie Stokes: The development of this strategy was catalyzed by the Geospatial Data Act of 2018, which emphasizes the critical importance of geospatial data and services for the U.S. government. Our experience in the USAID GeoCenter, which I lead, also motivated us. The GeoCenter is an internal team of geographers and data analysts who work with our bureaus in Washington, D.C., where USAID headquarters is based, and also with our overseas field missions to provide mapping and geospatial insights for decision-making. USAID is the U.S. government lead for international development and humanitarian assistance, and we work in nearly 100 countries around the world to reduce poverty, strengthen democratic governance, save lives in response to disasters, and help people progress beyond the need for assistance. With the many complex challenges we’re facing in the world right now, we need every tool in the toolbox. And this strategy was needed to strengthen the capacity of our entire agency to access—and benefit from—the many advancements in geospatial data tools and technology that we’ve all seen over the past five to 10 years.
How can geospatial data and technology affect the delivery of international humanitarian programs? Can you share some specific examples?
Where we work shapes how we work. We use geographic, economic, and demographic data, along with satellite imagery, to generate custom analyses for our USAID colleagues around the world. These analyses, which can look at challenges outside of the traditional development sector silos—agriculture and food security, health, conflict prevention and stabilization, democracy and governance, economic growth, education, environment, humanitarian assistance, and more—help us target our resources more effectively and improve the impact of our investments.
Some examples of how we use geospatial technology include:
Helping our overseas Missions with strategic planning and the design, monitoring, and evaluation of development programs. We analyze subnational areas within USAID countries and have uncovered cross-sectoral linkages between household food security and female literacy in Uganda, as well as health outcomes related to forest canopy cover in India.
In sub-Saharan Africa, we have mapped communities vulnerable to malaria, to inform the spray campaigns about the number and location of homes that need insecticide to eliminate mosquitoes. Malaria is one of the biggest killers of children under age 5 in sub-Saharan Africa.
We have used high resolution satellite imagery to track forest loss and illegal mining in the Amazon, verify installation of solar panels for rural electrification in Kenya, and identify remote settlements in Colombia from refugees leaving Venezuela.
And to better understand the drivers of migration from Central America, we have adopted a geo-targeting approach in Honduras to concentrate our local programs in the 40 municipalities where more than 60% of irregular migrants originate.
What are the four primary objectives of the strategy and how were they selected?
The process of designing our strategy involved a lot of people from 12 bureaus and 20 different field missions. We had so much input, so the four strategic objectives that came out of it were a result of that very consultative process.
The first of these objectives is focusing on the IT environment. We want to increase our government workforce’s access to geospatial data and tools. That’s an area of growth for us right now, and I’m sure we’re not the only government agency in this boat.
The second one is to strengthen the capacity of our workforce to use these geospatial data technologies. Because really, access is great, but ultimately, it’s about generating insights for better decision making.
The third objective is focused on advancing our existing and new USAID policies and practices by applying geographic information. We have so many different policies already, and we’ve got to ensure that we’re integrating the geographic approach throughout.
The fourth objective is more external facing. If we’re serving as the premier development agency in the world, then we need to also provide global leadership and apply geospatial solutions for development and humanitarian assistance. We’re working in a digital world now, so we’ve got to figure out how to be good leaders in empowering our partners abroad to be able to use these digital tools.
How does this strategy support U.S. national security, specifically from a geospatial intelligence perspective?
USAID is one of what we call “The Three Ds” of foreign affairs: defense, diplomacy, and development. The national security strategy today, “The Three Ds,” has been in place for over 20 years, in terms of being part of the national security apparatus of our government. But today’s national security strategy continues to underscore this critical importance of international development cooperation as an element of our national power. So as USAID increases the use of geospatial data and technology as part of the strategy, we’re strengthening the planning and the implementation of our development and humanitarian assistance, which means we’re improving the U.S. government’s global impact. Global stability is at stake right now, you just have to read the headlines to see what’s happening in the world. The national security strategy recognizes this instability from authoritarianism, climate change, food insecurity, and communicable diseases—there are challenges that require international cooperation. So geospatial data and technology are helping us at USAID to generate critical insights that inform how we address these challenges in our work.
What does the future look like once this strategy is successful?
We plan to monitor the implementation of the strategy through formal metrics. But success is really going to be when our nation’s leading international development agency can truly apply this geographic approach more effectively, to design and target our development and humanitarian assistance programs.
For more information on USAID’s Geospatial Strategy, visit: https://www.usaid.gov/geospatial-strategy
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