The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has a lofty goal for the next five years: save the lives of 15 million kids and 600,000 mothers, many of whom die shortly after birth, by 2020.
This year alone, more than 6 million children under age five will die shortly after birth from preventable diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea. Over 70% of those deaths will occur in just 24 countries, including Bangladesh, Ethiopia and South Sudan, among others. Thus, USAID’s new plan, unveiled Wednesday, focuses its aid efforts in those 24 countries.
“We’ve made this whole effort an effort to focus the world’s attention and resources and capacity to save lives of the poorest kids in country after country,” USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah told TIME.
USAID’s new plan includes working in partnership with host countries, non-governmental and faith based organizations. Each of its proposed actions is grounded in data and tailored to the needs of individual countries.
Carolyn Miles, president of international charity organization Save the Children, says one way to help many communities is to increase the number of health care professionals available in remote areas. She says that in many countries and communities, residents’ nearest health clinics are miles away from their village, or the working doctor shows up once once a month.
“We work with governments, we work with local partners and look at why kids are dying—a lot of times they do not have access to basic health care,” Miles says.
Her organization, along with other USAID partners like UNICEF, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and World Vision, are pledging to train 500,000 community health workers in the 24 target countries over the next several years.
“These are local women who live in the communities, generally with pretty low education, but those women can learn how to do the basics,” Miles says.
Community health workers can end up doing anything from counseling pregnant moms to treating pneumonia with basic antibiotics. In Ethiopia, for example, USAID says the child death rate has fallen 27% since 2012 thanks in part to 35,000 community health workers who provide basic health services and medication to rural Ethiopians. In Bangladesh, tools including NeoNatalie, a doll that teaches health workers how to resuscitate babies who can’t breathe at birth, have helped reduce the child mortality rate by 72% between 1990 and 2012.
For USAID’s Rajiv Shah, the work his agency does goes beyond simply delivering food or medical aid.
“Saving the world’s poor children from dying from simple diseases is genuinely the morally right thing to do, but it is also critical to our national security,” says Shah. “We know that countries are more stable and grow faster when rates of child death go down and countries invest more in educating children. That’s the driving motivation for our work.”