Rajiv Shah: A new face of US foreign aid

Rajiv Shah: A new face of US foreign aid

Giving a new lease of life: Dr Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the Unites States Agency for International Development, at the Borlaug Dialogue, part of the World Food Prize Conference in Des Moines, Iowa recently. NYT

A few days after Rajiv Shah was sworn in as the head of the United States Agency for International Development, he stopped by to see its rapid response centre, a high-tech command post for disaster relief, which on that day stood empty and still.

Twelve hours later, an earthquake devastated Haiti, and for the next two months the centre became Shah’s round-the-clock home. A brainy, 37-year-old physician with little government experience, Shah suddenly found himself coordinating a desperate emergency relief effort under the gaze of President Obama.

The pace has barely let up since: catastrophic floods in Pakistan, the surge of aid workers into Afghanistan, a top-to-bottom review of American foreign assistance — all have heavily involved Shah, turning him into one of the administration’s most visible foreign policy players.

But for this politically astute son of Indian immigrants from Ann Arbor, Michgan, who is now the highest-ranking Indian-American in the administration, it is his ambitious campaign to rebuild Usaid that will ultimately determine his success or failure in Washington.

“He’s inherited leadership of an agency that was nearly broken over the last two decades,” said Richard C Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan who has testified alongside him on Capitol Hill. While Holbrooke said Shah had a “limitless future,” he added, “He’s going to be tested like few others are in government.”
Several Usaid employees suggest that Shah has begun to re-energise the agency in the last 10 months. His efforts recently got a major lift from the White House, which issued a new development policy that pledges to restore Usaid as the premier American aid agency.

“The initial reaction was ‘Oh my God, he’s so young’,” said Pamela White, a 29-year veteran of Usaid who just completed a tour as mission director in Liberia. “But that never bothered me. We desperately need to look up to someone who can put us in a position to be a worldwide leader in development.”

The heyday of Usaid dates back to before Shah was born. In 1968, it had 18,000 workers running programmes in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa — a vibrant legacy of John F Kennedy’s call for the US to reach beyond its borders. But after years of debilitating budget cuts that drove away many talented people, the agency now has fewer than 9,000 employees.

During the Bush administration, it lost its policy-making role to the state department. Defence secretary Robert M Gates, who has pushed for a bigger civilian role in war zones, lamented recently that Usaid had become a glorified contracting agency.

As the agency has withered, wealthy private philanthropies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have taken its place as leaders in development. So it is perhaps no accident that Shah is an alumnus of the Gates Foundation, where he ran its agriculture programme and developed a $1.5 billion fund to finance vaccinations.

“There were things we were able to do at the Gates Foundation that were super-exciting,” Shah said. “You could actually say, ‘OK, my goal is to solve AIDS, and how would you solve AIDS analytically?’ You didn’t have to worry about the politics.”

Active in politics

At the same time, Shah acknowledges he was always drawn to the political arena. The son of an engineer for Ford Motor Company and a school administrator, he graduated from the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania medical school, but soon became a health-policy adviser to Al Gore’s presidential campaign.

A staunch supporter of Obama’s candidacy, he said he viewed his election as a Kennedy moment — worth trading weekend hikes in Washington state for the Beltway slog of Washington. His wife, Shivam Mallick Shah, has a senior post in the department of education.

“I’m a chronic complainer when we’re not in power,” Shah said of his decision to join the government. “I believe that these moments in history, when you have this kind of president, are rare.”

A soft-spoken man with a toothy but almost bashful smile, Shah can be deferential in public appearances with higher-level officials. But he is not shy about his plans, saying he seeks to bring better monitoring and analytical rigour to the agency. Some programmes, he noted, get financed year after year, even if they are failing.

He wants to implant Gates-style entrepreneurialism, championing ideas that come from beyond its usual circle of contractors. At town-hall meetings, Shah is equal parts evangelist and wonk, talking about Usaid’s future while larding his vocabulary with corporate-speak words like ‘metrics’.

“He’s very dynamic and very smart,” said Martin J Fisher, the chief executive of KickStart, a nonprofit organisation that makes a low-cost pump to irrigate farmers’ fields. “But he’s got a huge bureaucracy he’s fighting against, and a lot of vested interests.”

Shah also has to contend with a boss, secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has a deep interest in development and has largely won an internal administration debate over whether Usaid should be more independent or stay under the influence of the state department.

Holbrooke, for example, still signs off on aid for Afghanistan and Pakistan — an authority he picked up because Usaid was leaderless for months and because, he said, the programmes there were a mess. The state department has almost finished an exhaustive, year-long review of diplomacy and development. The review will reinforce Usaid’s expanded role but lash it even more firmly to the state department.

“To the extent that state maintains firm control over Usaid, it can make it difficult for any agency to revitalise itself,” said Connie Veillette, director of the programme for rethinking foreign assistance at the Centre for Global Development, an independent research group. “Usaid needs to have a stronger voice.”

But there are advantages to being so closely aligned with Hilary Clinton. Usaid is seeking funds to hire an additional 1,200 foreign service officers, and few people have as much clout on Capitol Hill.

Shah said critics in development circles were too focused on organisational charts; what matters is that he is in sync with Hilary Clinton and Holbrooke. Hilary Clinton has become his strongest champion, according to one of her senior advisers, Philippe Reines.
The agency has also managed to wrest back some control, setting up its own policy-planning shop and a small budget office.

With Usaid engaged in so many places, many of Shah’s headaches stem from being too much in demand. The agency has nearly 400 Americans in Afghanistan, which has made it difficult to fill jobs in Africa.

Shah himself spends a quarter of his time on Afghanistan, but like other senior officials he plays down expectations. “We have to be honest with ourselves about what is the goal of different programmes,” he said.

As he learns the ropes, Shah has other influential backers, not least Obama, who got to know him during meetings about the Haiti crisis in the White House situation room and announced the new development policy himself at the United Nations.

“As a government, we have a coherent strategy for the first time since JFK,” said David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, which advocates for aid to alleviate hunger and poverty. “The only good thing that came out of the Haiti earthquake,” he added, “is that it raised Raj Shah to be a partner of the president.”

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