2014 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Jill Boezwinkle

Guided a U.S. initiative to provide safe drinking water to 5 million people in Kenya and Uganda, saving lives and preventing illnesses for thousands of individuals.

Contaminated drinking water poses a severe threat in developing countries, resulting in illnesses like cholera, typhoid and diarrhea, and causing an estimated 1 million deaths a year among children under the age of five.

To make inroads into this serious health problem, Jill Boezwinkle of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is overseeing an innovative, $5.5 million grant to bring safe drinking water to some 5 million people in Kenya and Uganda. USAID estimates the program will avert 3.3 million cases of diarrhea and save 3,200 children’s lives in the first three years alone.

The Dispensers for Safe Water program, developed by the nonprofit Innovations for Poverty Action, uses chlorine dispensers that are installed next to communal water sources and supported by community education activities. To treat their water, community members simply turn the valve to release a metered dose of chlorine, then fill their container as they normally would with water from the source. The chlorine disinfects the water and provides ongoing protection from recontamination for up to 72 hours.

“Jill’s work to bring the Dispensers for Safe Water to millions of people is an especially significant breakthrough for the movement in USAID to support evidence-based decision-making, which in this case is guaranteed to save lives,” said Kristen Gendron, a USAID business development specialist.

An initial randomized trial in western Kenya found that 50 to 61 percent of households in the chosen group adopted the water treatment amenities. The program has been able to maintain high usage, seeing overall adoption rates of 43 percent. Many communities seek solutions through protected communal water sources or, if they can afford it, water pipeline systems. But these systems without chlorine are ineffective when clean water at the source is stored in the household and contaminated with a dirty cup or an unwashed hand.

The project, which so far has reached 1 million people, is part of USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) portfolio, under which the agency takes innovative ideas, provides seed funding for pilot projects and scales them up if they are successful.

The model is designed to help the agency advance projects that work while avoiding less-successful long-term investments. And instead of having a small group of employees make decisions on contracts, DIV holds a year-round grant competition to crowd source innovative ideas from a large group of people, often online, to see if they can do it more effectively.

“Jill is regarded as the nuts and bolts as well as the brains behind the DIV initiative,” said Gendron. “In many ways, she has led DIV from a scrappy start-up three years ago to a sustained force today that is finding and supporting new development solutions.”

Boezwinkle is also working on several other projects not yet as far along as the Dispensers for Safe Water program. One supports community health workers in Zambia by studying how they can do their jobs better, while another tests different ways of providing medicine to patients with tuberculosis in India.

For the drinking water initiative, Boezwinkle helped evaluate and choose the program and is working to spread it to Malawi and possibly Tanzania. She contacted water experts within the agency to have them review the project plan so they could later visit sites in the field and report recommendations back to her office. And she continually monitors the progress of the project and works with Innovations for Poverty Action to solve problems and make sure they are meeting the grant requirements.

“Because of Jill’s experience and knowledge of global public health issues, she is able to go beyond the traditional role of grants manager and provide technical advice on milestones and scaling issues, and make connections to other organizations to develop funding partnerships designed for longer-term sustainability after the grant ends,” said DIV Special Advisor Brittney Bailey.

Ricardo Michel, a director in USAID’s new Global Development Lab, said Boezwinkle has a great ability to get buy-in for the innovation initiatives from all players involved in the grant process.

“She has been key to getting people across the organizations to understand how the open innovation model can be applied across USAID and to taking ideas to scale,” said Michel. “She is a model public servant, hardworking, solutions-focused and a good steward of public resources.”

Boezwinkle said the drinking water program and other projects under the DIV portfolio shows her that “change is possible, even though many challenges of the developing world seem so complex.”