A few days after Rajiv Shah was sworn in as the head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), he stopped by to see its rapid response center, a high-tech command post for disaster relief, which on that day stood empty and still.
Twelve hours later, an earthquake hit Haiti, and for the next two months the center became Shah’s round-the-clock home. Shah, a 37-year-old physician with little government experience, suddenly found himself coordinating a desperate emergency relief effort under the gaze of US President Barack 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 US foreign assistance — all have heavily involved Shah, turning him into one of the administration’s most visible foreign policy players.
However, for this politically astute son of Indian immigrants from Ann Arbor, Michigan, now the highest-ranking Indian--American in the administration, it is Shah’s 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 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.”
Interviews with several USAID employees suggest that Shah has begun to re-energize the agency over the past 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 US 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 to before Shah was born. In 1968, it had 18,000 workers running -programs in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa — a vibrant legacy of former US president John Kennedy’s call for the US to reach beyond its borders. However, after years of debilitating budget cuts that drove away many talented people, the agency now has fewer than 9,000 employees.
During former US president George W. Bush’s administration, it lost its policy-making role to the US State Department. US Secretary of Defense Robert 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 philanthropic organizations 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 program and developed a US$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 in an interview. “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.”
At the same time, Shah acknowledges he was always drawn to the political arena.
The son of an engineer for Ford Motor Co and a school administrator, he graduated from the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania medical school, but he soon became a health policy adviser to former US vice president Al Gore’s presidential campaign.
A staunch supporter of Obama’s candidacy, Shah 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 rigor to the agency. Some programs, 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, but he’s got a huge bureaucracy he’s fighting against, and a lot of vested interests,” said Martin Fisher, the chief executive of KickStart, a nonprofit organization that makes a low-cost pump to irrigate fields.
Shah also has to contend with a boss, US 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 US 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 programs there were a mess.
The US 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 US State Department.
“To the extent that State maintains firm control over USAID, it can make it difficult for any agency to revitalize itself,” said Connie Veillette, director of the program for rethinking foreign assistance at the Center for Global Development, an independent research group.
“USAID needs to have a stronger voice,” she said.
However, there are advantages to being so closely aligned with Clinton. USAID is seeking funds to hire an additional 1,200 Foreign Service officers and few people have as much clout on Capitol Hill as Clinton.
Shah said critics in development circles were too focused on organizational charts; what matters is that he is in sync with Clinton and Holbrooke. 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 US personnel 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 programs,” 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 UN.
“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 is that it raised Raj Shah to be a partner of the president.”
Taiwan’s status in the world community is experiencing something really different; it’s being treated like a normal country. And not just a “normal” country, more like a valuable, constructive, democratic and generous country. This is not simply an artifact of Taiwan’s successes in combatting the novel coronavirus. It is a new attitude, weighing Taiwan’s democracy against China’s lack of it. Before I continue, I should apologize to the readers of the Taipei Times. I have not visited Taipei since the opening of the American Institute in Taiwan’s new chancery building in Neihu last year, so I was unprepared for the photograph
On Sept. 27, 2002, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (East Timor) joined the UN to become its 191st member. Since then, two other nations have joined, Montenegro on June 28, 2006, and South Sudan on July 14, 2011. The combined total of the populations of these three nations is just more than half that of Taiwan’s 23.7 million people. East Timor has 1.3 million, Montenegro has slightly more than half a million and South Sudan has 10.9 million. They all are members of the UN, yet much more populous Taiwan is denied membership. Of the three, East Timor, as a Southeast Asian
At a June 12 news conference held by the Talent Circulation Alliance to announce the release of its white paper for this year, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) emphasized that, in this era of globalization, Taiwan should focus on improving foreign language and digital abilities when cultivating talent, so that it stands out from global competitors. I suggest the government should consider building a professional translation industry. If the public believes that there is a relationship between learning English and national competitiveness, then the nation must consider the social cost of language education. This should be assessed to maximise educational effectiveness: Is
There have been media reports that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) plans to hold military exercises in August to simulate seizing the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) in the South China Sea. In the past, only Coast Guard Administration (CGA) personnel have been stationed there, but the Ministry of National Defense has dispatched the Republic of China Marine Corps to the islands, nominally for “ex-situ training,” to prevent a Chinese attack under the guise of military drills. The move is only a temporary measure and not sufficiently proactive. Instead, the government should officially declare sovereignty over the islands and station troops