Mon, Oct 25, 2010 - Page 9 News List

USAID and the global promotion of US development policy

By Mark Landler  /  NY Times News Service, WASHINGTON

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.

This story has been viewed 1549 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top