USAID Urban Champion: Jeremy Gustafson

Jeremy Gustafson - bio photo

Jeremy Gustafson manages the Environment Office at the USAID Mission in Manila, which consists of a large bilateral program in the Philippines that covers water, forestry, clean energy, and biodiversity. The office is also responsible for a regional program covering 12 Pacific island countries that is building resilience to droughts, typhoons, and other natural disasters. Jeremy joined USAID in 2005 with an urban planning background, and is USAID/Philippines’ Coordinator for the Cities Development Initiative (CDI).

What is the Cities Development Initiative?

CDI seeks to increase the competitiveness and growth prospects of secondary and tertiary cities across the Philippines. Currently, 62 percent of the country’s economic growth is concentrated around metro Manila, where 38 percent of the population resides – a significant geographic skew. CDI’s basic premise is to help foster and disperse growth through numerous hubs across the country and to strengthen linkages between urban and rural areas, so that the economic benefits are more inclusive. The Mission views CDI as a long-term commitment. It was launched back in 2012 and initially focused on three cities – Iloilo, Cagayan de Oro, and Batangas. Since then, we expanded it to eight cities.

Something that is unique and ideal about CDI is that it is truly whole-of-mission, covering all of the sectors in which USAID engages – health, education, economic growth, democracy and governance, and environmental resilience. A Mission-wide portfolio of more than two dozen contracts and grants is engaged in the eight CDI cities. As such, USAID capitalizes on the breadth and diversity of all of these mechanisms to tailor development assistance significantly and responds to the most pressing development needs in each city. In other words, it is very much a team effort.

What is the programming like under CDI?

One of the leading activities under CDI is our Strengthening Urban Resilience for Growth with Equity (SURGE) program. This large technical assistance program is implemented by the International City/County Management Association. One of the most important aspects of the program is its coordination role:  it places “City Coordinators” in each of the eight cities the program focuses on. All of the coordinators are embedded in the respective City Halls and work closely with mayors and city council members to identify needs, help ensure that information is flowing, and assist all of the CDI partners to connect with the right people in each city. Programmatically, SURGE has a wide scope, ranging from economic growth, to water, to energy, to resilience. The program will be completing its second year in August.

As an illustration of how CDI is facilitating greater linkages between secondary cities and rural areas, SURGE worked with cassava growers from the village of Lubigan near Zamboanga City in Mindanao to process their cassava harvest into cassava chips for a new market. Through market studies, SURGE found that at least five metric tons of cassava chips could be supplied to San Miguel Foods’ feed mill plant, located in the city’s economic zone, through market linkages established by USAID between the city’s cassava growers and the company’s network of assemblers.  The project is now assisting rural producers to directly access lucrative markets in the city through organizational development, partnerships with established buyers, value-added processing, quality improvement, and more efficient logistic services.

What do you see as important trends shaping the future of urbanization? What will USAID’s role be moving forward?

By 2030, more than 60 percent of people across the world are projected to live in cities and towns. In fact, many of the Agency’s programs are urban in nature, even if they don’t self-identify as such. That naturally stems from the fact that USAID pursues development issues where they are most acute.

Over the years, I’ve learned that one of the most vital inputs for urban growth is reliable electricity. Without electricity, you don’t have growth. Yet many cities struggle with this issue, whether it be from a perspective of cost, reliability, or adequacy. In the Philippines, the issue is further exacerbated by the fact that the country is one of the world’s most disaster-prone, with an average of 20 major typhoons striking every year. These storms wreak havoc on infrastructure, particularly power infrastructure, for which the Philippines’ Department of Energy allocates a large budget for repairs each year.

One of the most exciting innovations in the energy sector is the “smart grid” which uses information technology to manage power grids in a much more efficient way. This enables utility managers to immediately identify problems, rapidly troubleshoot systems, and better manage grids to minimize or altogether avoid outages. Another benefit is that the technology enables more renewable energy to be incorporated into power grids, with obvious health benefits. Altogether, this means that power grids are much more reliable, which is good for cities and good for growth.

USAID is a leader in working with countries to adopt this type of technology, supporting technical studies and mobilizing technical expertise to demonstrate that smart grids work in various country contexts. The Agency has been working on it for years in India, and in partnership with the U.S. Pacific Command, we’re about to begin piloting it in two CDI cities in the Philippines. At the national level, USAID is also working with the Philippines’ Department of Energy to develop its first energy resilience policy, which includes developing a plan to adopt smart grid technology more widely.

Final thoughts?

All of my long-term assignments with USAID have been in so-called megacities (with populations well over 10 million people) – Cairo, New Delhi, and Manila. In each of these places, USAID has supported programs in some of the most impoverished urban slums to make peoples’ lives better. They have ranged from income generating projects for the Zebbaleen, a community of garbage collectors in Cairo; to improving health care for residents of Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums in Mumbai; to savings programs for women in Baseco, one slum among hundreds, which are scattered across Manila, housing  four million people. It’s an understatement to say that there are no easy answers to resolving urban development issues, but they merit more attention from the Agency, and I’m glad that our team in Manila is leading by example to address them through CDI. In fact, what appealed to me most about the USAID program in the Philippines was the fact that the Mission has such a clear and explicit focus on urban programming.


Learn more about how USAID’s Cities Development Initiative is improving the business enabling environment by streamlining regulations and supporting urban land reforms.

USAID’s Land and Urban Office is looking to feature Urban Champions throughout the Agency who recognize the impact urbanization has on global development today and into the future.

You can nominate anyone (or yourself!) who:

  • Has a project with an urban focus in their portfolio
  • Has worked on project design that includes interventions in urban areas
  • Has an academic or research background in urbanization
  • Is passionate about the challenges urbanization presents.

To nominate someone, email and let us briefly know why your nominee deserves to be featured.

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