Pursuing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security
This past year, the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on minority populations and the injustices against George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, among others, shed a harsh light on long-standing systemic inequalities in the United States. As the agency coordinating government efforts to reduce hunger, poverty and malnutrition abroad, USAID’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security (RFS) needs a diverse network of government employees, public and private sector partners and global development experts to accelerate development progress. To better address systemic inequality through its programs, RFS has elevated diversity, equity and inclusion to one of its top priorities. This includes expanding programmatic and partner diversity and enhancing sustainability and accountability both within the bureau and externally with our implementing partners.
To address this challenge, RFS established the agency's first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) Council in September 2020. The council, composed of twelve RFS staff members representing various backgrounds and expertise, aims to promote respect, representation and equity throughout the bureau. While recognizing there is still significant progress to be made, in the six months since its inception, the DE&I council has accomplished several key milestones.
One notable accomplishment was launching a formal partnership with Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS), a national society that promotes the academic and professional advancement of historically underrepresented groups. Through this partnership, USAID’s agricultural and development experts will foster young talent to address global challenges including poverty, hunger and malnutrition. USAID experts and MANRRS members will participate in webinars, workshops and mentorship programs to build a pipeline of diverse talent equipped to apply their skills to key development challenges.
Another priority of the council was to establish a formal mentorship program for RFS staff. The RFS Mentorship Pilot Program, the first bureau-specific mentorship program at USAID, officially launched in March 2021. In this six-month program, senior members of RFS serve as mentors to current RFS staff. These mentor-mentee relationships are intended to build and retain a well-rounded, diverse group of RFS staff. Mentors will guide mentees by supporting professional development; strengthening communication, trust and employee engagement; and building the technical and leadership skills necessary for career advancement.
RFS’ commitment to change cannot be accomplished without support from USAID implementing partners. The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety (FSIL) is one example of an implementing partner which has prioritized DE&I. Launched in 2019, FSIL is one of more than 20 innovation labs funded by USAID as part of Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative. FSIL’s mandate is to support research to reduce the burden of foodborne illness in developing nations, and FSIL committed, from the outset, to engage minority serving institutions (MSIs) in this endeavor.
A recent report, commissioned by the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University, indicated that although MSIs have a strong track record in global food, agriculture and rural community issues, MSIs currently lead a limited portfolio of USAID-funded programs, including Feed the Future Innovation Lab projects. However, MSIs were awarded more than 20% of the total research funds in the projects supported by FSIL’s first round of competitive funding. Their expertise is currently helping identify the root causes of foodborne disease in the fish and chicken sectors in Bangladesh (Texas State University) and the rapidly expanding dairy sector in Senegal (Tuskegee University).
This spring, FSIL anticipates the release of a new funding opportunity for global food safety research at MSIs. The request for applications (RFA) under FSIL plans to fund projects in three areas: food safety economics; baseline foodborne disease data and their correlation with malnutrition; and characterization and mitigation of chemical food hazards. Food safety economics projects will inform better investment strategies for managing and mitigating risks, including analysis of barriers to implementing preventions and controls, stakeholder perceptions and the cost of chronic disease. Research on microbial foodborne diseases will inform strategies to disrupt endemic disease cycles and can include partnerships with in-country institutions to conduct disease surveillance and extensive desktop reviews of foodborne illness, causative agents and mitigation strategies. Projects addressing chemical food hazards can focus on baseline mycotoxin, pesticide or heavy metal levels in foods and upstream analyses to develop more effective mitigation strategies, including incentivizing actors along the value chain. These priority research areas can be approached from a broad range of disciplines outside of food science, including agricultural economics, agricultural education, animal science, family and consumer sciences, gender studies, epidemiology, public health, human nutrition and international relations and affairs.
The opportunity is open to all MSIs, and early career faculty and researchers with limited experience in global development projects are encouraged to apply, with the goal of increasing overall U.S. capacity for research for global development. A strategic three-stage RFA process is designed to facilitate new MSI research partnerships and strengthen the overall competitiveness of MSIs for future Feed the Future Innovation Lab projects. To encourage the creation of new research partnerships among MSIs, the initial stage will include a facilitated, non-competitive ideation session, where attendees can discuss research areas and identify potential partners. Participants will then be eligible to form project teams — with MSIs, non-MSIs and in-country partners — to submit a brief concept note for the competitive review process. Selected teams will be invited to submit full proposals, with additional guidance from FSIL management and technical experts prior to submission. A successful RFA process will not only expand FSIL’s research portfolio, but it will also promote the formation of dynamic, new MSI-led teams and deepen the pool of U.S.-based researchers who can creatively address global food safety challenges.
USAID’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security and our partners, including the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety, are committed to fostering the growth and professional development for minorities and others who have been historically underrepresented in international development. Through initiatives like the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council and the RFA for global food safety research at MSIs, USAID and our partners will work to address inequalities within the international development community.