Author Archive

HPC Fellow: Mich Rakotomalala, Operation Smile, Madagascar

Mich Rakotomalala is a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow with Operation Smile in Madagascar. Her fellowship consists of work as a program coordinator in charge of cleft lip and cleft palate international surgical missions and  trainings in Basic Life Support (BLS) and Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS) for in-country volunteers. In this post, Mich provides a glimpse of the type of hazards faced by staff in the field that can impact their operations and the communities they serve.

Plague Hits Madagascar Before Operation Smile Medical Mission
by Mich Rakotomalala

Madagascar, my country, is a large island in the Indian Ocean located at the east coast of southern Africa. Due to the political and economic environment in August 2017, it was expected that a plague epidemic would spread at a catastrophic speed, and it would be difficult for the government to control the disease in the beginning. High rates of illiteracy and promiscuity within the population of the capital, Antananarivo, were major factors in the lack of awareness on the disease and the way it would spread.

In fact, the plague is a disease, an epidemic which does not belong to yesterday but is still found today, mostly in poor countries. As is the case in Madagascar, the plague is endemic to the central high plateau, manifesting every year as a seasonal upsurge during the rainy season. Between mid-August and April there is bubonic plague (transmitted by sting of a flea) and so-called pulmonary plague, which is the most serious, transmitted through contact with simple saliva from a distance of less than two meters. It is obvious to see why the disease would affect mainly the population of the big city of Madagascar. The plague outbreak that began in August 2017 killed 202 people, and 2,384 cases were reported all over the country. The Malagasy capital was the most affected, with more than 400 cases, as well as Tamatave on the east coast of the country.

As a program coordinator based in Antananarivo, I experienced how the August 2017 Plague affected Operation Smile Madagascar in many ways. We had scheduled our International Mission for November 2017 in Tamatave Hospital, but all of a sudden everything had to be postponed. CHU Analakininina (Tamatave Hospital), which was Operation Smile’s local mission site, admitted several patients and gave them the care they needed. A few doctors and nurses from the hospital became infected and were quarantined and given the same treatment as all patients. At this time, the Ministry Of Health issued a directive that everyone must wear a mouth cover once they go out of their homes. Schools were even closed for three weeks, and all big meetings and shows were canceled. By that point, people were scared to go out; children could not even play outside.

As you might not know, Operation Smile offers free surgery for cleft lip/palate patients. In Madagascar, we do annual registration by running an awareness campaign all over the country and calling patients on the phone. Due to the plague epidemic, the mission scheduled for November had to be postponed, and we needed to call the patients again to notify them of the change.

In the beginning of November our team went down to Tamatave and reached out to patients at the hospital who couldn’t be reached by phone and still thought the mission was happening. We had to explain to them that the mission was being postponed, and why. Many patients who live far from the big cities wouldn’t know what plague is exactly about. You can imagine their reaction to this news, how sad these parents were, when we informed them that their kid unfortunately wouldn’t get surgery this time, and that they would have to wait for the next mission in 2018.

We had to explain to them about the risk of exposing a patient or a team member to the plague, who could then infect the rest of the team. It was very difficult for them to understand the situation. “Can you promise us that my son will get surgery next year? We have been away from our village hoping that when we go back people will look at him differently,” said Rayan’s mother. The mother of Maimona, a girl born with a cleft lip, cried. “Oh my God, I am going back home with my kid not healed yet. People will keep judging us by saying the curse our family got is not gone yet.” These were the kinds of questions and reactions we heard from everyone, and we really took the time to counsel each parent present.

You should know that most of those patients come from a very rural area, from villages far from the city. Sometimes they have to walk for hours to reach their home, passing red dirt roads or crossing rivers. But it’s worth it. Patients with a cleft lip or palate here in Madagascar are always looked at differently—sometimes people who meet them on the road get really scared or think that it’s a curse on the family.

You can imagine the hope these families have in mind while going to the hospital, thinking that the time has finally come for their child to be healed. As I put myself in their shoes, I completely understand the feeling that they cannot wait for that moment when their kid comes out from the operating room with that very new smile, a moment that they will never forget. So many parents wait for years for that moment. Looking up, then closing her eyes with tears, Maimona’s mother continued to pray for her daughter’s life to change forever.

Surveillance and treatment of patients suspected of plague continued, then by end of November, the Malagasy authorities managed to put an end to the plague epidemic which was raging Madagascar.

Throughout this period of the plague, I did not do much, could not heal any plague patient, but my Hilton Prize Coalition fellowship with Operation Smile gave me the opportunity to counsel families, guiding them and sharing their feelings, which I believe was just as important. I cannot wait to see the new smile these children will get when the mission reinstates next April.

(All photos courtesy of Operation Smile)

About The Hilton Prize Coalition
The Hilton Prize Coalition is an independent alliance of the 22 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, working together to achieve collective impact. Through three signature programs—the Fellows Program, the Collaborative Models Program and the Storytelling Program—the Coalition leverages the resources, talents and expertise of each of its members to innovate and establish best practices that can be shared with the global NGO and donor communities. Working in more than 170 countries, the Coalition is governed by a board comprised of the leaders of the Prize-winning organizations led by an Executive Committee and a Secretariat, Global Impact.

To learn more about the Hilton Prize Coalition, visit, or contact Follow the Hilton Prize Coalition on Twitter and LinkedIn, and “Like” us on Facebook.

Coalition Member Spotlight: Tostan

February 6 is the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) designated by the United Nations to bring awareness to the dangers of FGM and “promote the sanctity of a woman's autonomy over her body and health.” The World Health Organization estimates that more than 200 million women and girls alive today have been subjected to FGM.  On this day, the Hilton Prize Coalition shines a spotlight on member Tostan, a global organization contributing to the abandonment of FGM as a component of its work to empower rural communities with sustainable development and human rights based education.

“Tostan” means “breakthrough” in the Senegalese language of Wolof. Awarded the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 2007, the organization was founded in 1991 by Molly Melching, who had already spent more than a decade living and working in Senegal. Tostan’s flagship offering is the Community Empowerment Program, a three-year, human rights-based educational program offered in local languages that teaches literacy as well as values-deliberation and collective action for community led development. By empowering communities to lead their own development, Tostan has catalyzed a grassroots movement in West Africa for the promotion of human rights and the abandonment of harmful practices, including female genital cutting and child marriage. Tostan’s mission is to empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on respect for human rights, and to ensure every person—woman, man, girl, and boy—is able to live a life of dignity. As a result of this respectful, holistic approach, more than 20,000 women have been selected into leadership positions in their communities. More than 4.8 million people live in more than 8000 communities that have publicly declared an end to female genital cutting and child marriage.

Tostan’s unique approach to addressing deeply entrenched social norms and its method of organized diffusion relies on allying with religious leaders and former ritual cutters to speak out publicly about harmful practices and the need to respect the human right to health. The impact has been captured in this video, in which local imam Demba Dwara and cutter Oureye Sall share about their work helping to build the Tostan movement of dignity for all.

Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program is innovative in the following ways. First, it recognizes participants as the agents and architects of community change. Next, it provides a proven strategy for addressing deeply entrenched social norms. It strengthens community members dignity and individual and collective agency. It teaches, reinforces and formalizes leadership and governance skills through Community Management Committees, which are comprised of 17 people (nine of which are women), who often continue managing community issues following the formal program.

The Tostan Training Center, which was launched in 2015, shares Tostan’s model for replicability and regional and global systems change. Since opening to external trainings in March 2015, the Tostan Training Center has served more than 210 participants, representing 81 organizations from 34 countries, including 59 religious leaders. The Tostan Training Center supports grassroots movement builders and activists from which civil society leaders have been trained in Tostan's content, participatory methodology, human rights approach and movement-building strategies.

By providing high-quality human rights based education and dignity-enhancing leadership skills that advance women and girls and whole communities, Tostan has supported the original and new leaders of the Breakthrough Generation, as well as their historic and brave decisions. This recent video, New Leaders of the Breakthrough Generation, showcases how they are bravely shaping the communities of the future.

(Photos courtesy of Tostan)

Op-Ed: From Big Data to Humanitarian In The Loop Algorithms

This article was written by Miguel Luengo Oroz, Chief Data Scientist at United Nations Global Pulse, an innovation initiative of the Executive Office of the United Nations Secretary General with a mission to harness Big Data and Artificial Intelligence safely and responsibly as a public good. Here, Luengo Oroz describes an ongoing project which focuses on understanding how social media data can inform the perceptions of host communities on refugees and migrants fleeing conflict-affected areas across international borders. This op-ed was initially published in the UNHCR Year in Review 2017. Views are the author's own.

From Big Data to Humanitarian 'In-The-Loop' Algorithms
By Miguel Luengo Oroz

The Data Revolution is no longer a new topic but a reality trying to catch up with the expectations it has generated. The private sector is investing billions in new start-ups and technology companies that can ingest the vast amounts of data generated by citizens and which use artificial intelligence algorithms to predict when, how and what people are more likely to buy. In contrast, humanitarian organisations today have just begun exploiting the potential of big data to improve decision-making. Measuring the impact of these data-driven decisions will help make the case for further investment in big data innovations. Once humanitarian practitioners understand the return on investment of big data innovations, we can start measuring the costs (financial and human) of not using these data, and we can begin to streamline scaling and adoption mechanisms.

One of the factors contributing to the slow institutional uptake of big data and analytics within the humanitarian sector is a lack of knowledge and capacity to apply these instruments in operational settings. In general, humanitarian and data experts do not speak the same language; they do not share a common vocabulary or context, and often cannot align their goals. This challenge is not a new one. And for me has become a sort of “déjà vu.” Fifteen years ago I started working in development biology, where AI and data experts were helping to “revolutionise” the field the same way data scientists are trying to impact sustainable and humanitarian efforts today. New microscopes taking high-resolution images of tissues and organs were viewed the same way satellite imaging showing the impact and recovery from natural disaster is viewed today. Similarly, the same way that fluorescent markers allowed tracking of millions of cells migrating in the body, today we can track the movements of people fleeing conflict using aggregated mobile phone data. It took years for the field to mature while a new generation of researchers, technicians and biologists mutated into multidisciplinary profiles. This is also the case with humanitarian organisations that need to create hybrid profiles, i.e. data translators who can both understand the operational humanitarian contexts and have data intuition. They know what can and cannot be done with data and how to interpret and visualise data and algorithms to provide information for real impact.

At the beginning of this year, UN Global Pulse worked with UNHCR on a project to use realtime information on human perceptions to identify opportunities that can inform the organisation’s efforts on the ground, and more largely, its humanitarian strategy. The project combined UNHCR’s expertise in the field of humanitarian action, and the years of innovation work leveraging big data for social good from UN Global Pulse, to understand how social media data can inform the perceptions of host communities on refugees and migrants fleeing conflict-affected areas across international borders.

Using new data for insights into humanitarian contexts is a multifold process. Before we can test any innovation project in an ongoing emergency, we need to select a retrospective realistic scenario, or a simulation, to understand the value of the data. This is exactly what we did together with UNHCR, where we explored the viability and validity of Twitter data in the Europe Refugee Emergency crisis. Our goal was to see how we can bring more data-driven evidence into decision-making processes and advocacy efforts, particularly to help UNHCR develop an institutional policy against xenophobia, discrimination and racism towards migrants and refugees. For that purpose, we partnered with Crimson Hexagon, an analytics tool provider, and used their tools to access and analyse social media posts. The findings of the exploration can be accessed in the paper “Social Media and Forced Displacement: Big Data Analytics & Machine Learning.” The project has now entered a second phase, in which the aim is to create a real-time situation awareness tool. It will require finding the right balance to introduce a new approach into existing workflows and operations, respecting the unique strains on staff and responders during an emergency. The cocreation of prototypes with users on the ground is key to generating useful tools. This is why identifying the right partner, with the right complementary skills, is important.

Once you have created the right team and identified the right questions, the next step is data access and analysis. From UN Global Pulse’s experience working with many sources of data from social media, to radio feeds, to mobile surveys, to vessel tracks, postal traffic and so on, we have learned that clear and proven algorithms, and analysis methodologies are crucial to distilling insights from raw data. There is no silver bullet; and recent hype oversimplifies what can and cannot be done with big data and artificial intelligence. Data characteristics including sampling, demographics, completeness or inherent bias have different properties, hence analysis must always be put into context sooner rather than later.

When talking about machine learning and the new neural network architectures that have revolutionised AI in the past few years - aka deep learning- it is important to remember that the machine will be as biased as the data that is used to train it. Though current real-world applications are mostly limited to internet business, digital marketing, playing board games or self-driving cars, there is a wealth of opportunities for AI methods to perform tasks where certain patterns are repeated. One of the critical issues is the need for ethical principles that can govern how artificial intelligence methods are developed and used- and how and to which extent AI should be regulated. The use of autonomous weapons or viruses targeted to individuals with a particular trait in their DNA are clear examples of data driven threats. We also need to develop privacy protection principles on the use of data and agree on frameworks for the way in which these data are processed by algorithms. The principles of responsibility, explainability, accuracy, auditability, and fairness can guide how algorithms and AI programmes work. And although one size won’t fit all, especially in humanitarian situations, we can ask what expectations we should have in critical humanitarian scenarios where the well-being of vulnerable populations is at stake. Certainly, the benefits will depend on the nature of the crisis - a medical emergency is not the same as a natural disaster or a conflict-affected area - as will the potential risks and harms. If in certain situations the harm comes from not using the available data, in others, insights distilled from these data could be used to target populations and cause more damage than good.

So what will the future of big data analysis and AI bring for the humanitarian field? In my view, we should imagine a future where we have understood how to augment (and not replace) the human condition by leveraging technology. Data-driven benefits can certainly help reduce inequality. This will require a new research agenda where scientists and technology companies work to solve problems that apply to a wider range of social groups and that include the 17 global goals we have vowed to achieve by 2030. To serve humanitarian practitioners, the current deep learning revolution should pay increased attention to methodologies that can work in data-scarce environments, that can learn quickly with few examples and in unknown crisis scenarios, and that are able to work with incomplete or missing data (eg. “one-shot-learning”).

In humanitarian contexts, we could consider an extension of the “society-in-the-loop” algorithm concept - embedding the general will into an algorithmic social contract-, where both humanitarian responders and affected populations understand and oversee algorithmic decision-making that affect them. Before 2030, technology should allow us to know everything from everyone to ensure no one is left behind. For example, there will be nanosatellites imaging every corner of the earth allowing us to generate almost immediate insights into humanitarian crises. Progress will just depend on our actions and political will. What I also foresee is a not too distant future where data and AI can be used to empower citizens and affected communities in humanitarian crises. The digital revolution can help refugees protect their rights and their identities and even create jobs. Imagine a future where refugees could be granted digital asylum in other countries for which they can do digital work and contribute to the growth of that economy. From both public and private sector perspectives, we are living a unique moment in history with regards to shaping how algorithms and AI will impact society. What we need to make sure is that the data we produce is ultimately used to benefit all of us.

Read the UNHCR Year in Review 2017 at:

(Photo courtesy of UN Global Pulse)

5 Tips for a Successful Internship Program

This article on Devex features Hilton Prize Coalition Fellows Program with insights from program supervisors Katharine Kreis at PATH and Colleen O'Holleran at Landesa

5 Tips for a Successful Internship Program
By Emma Smith

Internships are almost a right of passage for anyone starting out their career in global development, and these experiences should be beneficial for all parties involved. For the employer, it is an opportunity to nurture emerging talent and gain new perspectives while benefiting from additional support for their teams and projects. For the intern, it is an opportunity to explore areas of interests, develop skills, gain exposure to different aspects of development work, and learn from professionals experienced in the sector.

An internship that is of real value to both the employer and the intern doesn’t just happen, however. Here, staff from Landesa and PATH, having both recently hosted young professionals as part of the Hilton Prize Coalition Fellows program, share their tips for hosting an intern. Keep reading to find out their tips for success.

Define the role.
The intern’s role should be clearly defined and ideally involve them working on a long-term project where they can see how this is contributing to the overall mission of the organization. Katharine Kreis, head of the nutrition innovation team at PATH says she is not interested in bringing people in to “file and organize,” or in just finding things for them to do as they go. “This doesn’t make for the best experience for the intern,” she adds. Think about the new skills that a recent graduate or early-career professional could bring to your team, and plan for them to take ownership of meaningful and challenging projects that utilize these. Kreis says it is important to have a “very tight scope of work” and be clear how that person’s skill set fits that scope.

Read the full article at


(Photo: Interns at International Atomic Energy Agency. Photo by: Dean Calma / IAEA / CC BY-SA)

Devex Features the Hilton Prize Coalition Fellows Program

The Hilton Prize Coalition Fellows Program is the focus of this article originally published in Devex.

How the Hilton Prize Coalition Is Building Future Humanitarian Leaders
By Emma Smith

Building the next generation of humanitarian leaders is a top priority for the Hilton Prize Coalition. The coalition, an independent alliance of the 22 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, came about very “organically” as several of the winning organizations started looking for ways they could work together for collective impact, says Samantha Ducey, director of partner solutions at Global Impact, the organization that supports and serves as the Secretariat for the Coalition.

From this, its three signature programs evolved: the Fellows program, the Collaborative Models program, and the Storytelling program, which were established with the aim of leveraging the resources, talents, and expertise of each of its members. “The role of the coalition and the three programs is to create an environment where they can work together,” says Ducey, and “where each coalition member can identify what they can contribute and what they can learn and gain from one another.”

Now approaching its third year, the coalition’s Fellows program works with member organizations to identify and develop the sector’s future leaders. Here’s how the coalition is helping these organizations invest in new skillsets and create opportunities for early-career professionals, while fostering partnerships in the sector.

Read the full article at


Operation Smile's Founders Reflect on How Life Is a Contact Sport

For inspiration in the new year, it helps to remember that "sometimes the strongest bonds of friendship get forged in the service of others." In this clip from the Hilton Prize Coalition's "Leading Thoughts" Storytelling Program series, Kathleen Magee and Bill Magee, co-founders of Operation Smile, describe how a whole new model of emergency response emerged out of a simple question from fellow Coalition member Partners in Health, with whom they had been partnering in Haiti when the devastating earthquake of 2010 hit.


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