The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

New USAID Chief Faces Internal Skepticism

President Obama tapped Rajiv Shah, a 36-year old undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture and medical doctor with extensive experience in food security and public heath, to head the agency.

Tyrese Griffin
News
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Nov 12, 2009

Rajiv Shah and USAID (Department of Agriculture, USAID)
Rajiv Shah and USAID (Department of Agriculture, USAID)

After nearly 11 months of allowing the top U.S. foreign-development bureau go without permanent leadership, the Obama administration decided Tuesday afternoon on the unconventional choice of Rajiv Shah, a 36-year old undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture and medical doctor with extensive experience in food security and public heath, to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will be Shah’s boss if the Senate confirms him, gushed. “He has a record of delivering results in both the private and public sectors, forging partnerships around the world, especially in Africa and Asia, and developing innovative solutions in global health, agriculture, and financial services for the poor,” she said in a statement heralding Shah’s nomination.

But some USAID program managers and contractors, the people whom Obama tapped Shah to oversee as USAID’s next administrator, aren’t happy. In a series of emails forwarded to The Washington Independent on condition of anonymity by a USAID contractor concerned about the Shah nomination, those within the agency who focus on its core mission of helping impoverished countries improve their governance and foster economic growth wondered whether Shah’s background makes him the best fit person to lead the troubled development agency.

[Security1]“Looks as though food security and agriculture are the key new directions for both AID and DFID,” said a USAID contract employee, referring to Britain’s development agency, which works closely with USAID, in a forwarded email. “This is a huge pendulum swing from the past 20 years, which were dominated by democracy and economic growth.” The contractor worried that a White House statement heralding “fresh ideas” for the agency meant that “there is concern the decision will be unpopular among the ‘career men and women of the agency,’ since the President has chosen someone who has never worked for AID and is so very young.”

In another of the emails, another USAID contractor who works on development and governance said that unless Shah can transcend his background, it will signal “that other areas are less important.”

Shah was not the Obama administration’s first choice to head USAID. That was Paul Farmer, the founder of the global public-health organization Partners In Health and well-respected figure in the development community. But for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery, Farmer did not make it through the administration’s vetting process. At a visit to USAID’s headquarters in July, Clinton cryptically called the laborious vetting a “nightmare” and “frustrating beyond words.”

As a result, read another email, “the lead on this story was the need to propose a candidate who would easily be confirmed by the Senate,” according to its author, another USAID contractor. “The vetting process may be depriving the Agency of the seasoned professional, senior leadership it needs during this crisis.”

USAID faces no shortage of problems. Despite a requested boost in funding from the Obama administration, the agency had a budget of barely $1.25 billion this past fiscal year, compared to over a half-trillion for the Pentagon. It remains without a planning bureau, which the Bush administration folded into the State Department. And the organization is largely reliant on contractors to supplement its relatively small staff in fulfilling its diverse mandate of development, public-health, governance and agricultural programs: it had 1,759 employees in 2006, compared to millions employed by the Pentagon. “AID is never going to have the depth of knowledge on health, education, agriculture, microenterprise,” said George Ingram, a former senior USAID official, rattling off some of the tasks of the agency, “or the number of people required to carry them out.” Additionally, an emerging proposal to create an office for managing U.S. civilian tasks in war zones may cut into bureaucratic territory that USAID sees as its own.

But Shah himself has his own series of credentials. A fairly recent Agriculture Department hire, Shah manages a staff of more than 10,000 and a budget of over $2 billion. (The Obama administration’s funding request, currently before Congress, would give USAID about $1.7 billion next year.) Before arriving at the department to work on food security, he directed agricultural-development research for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the leading private development organizations that have emerged in recent years to reshape the international development landscape. Partnering with those non-governmental organizations is a driving focus of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, according to Anne-Marie Slaughter, the State Department director of policy planning.

One public-health expert who contracts with USAID, and who declined to speak on the record with TWI, said that Shah’s rapid ascent “tends to confirm” a rumor going around USAID circles that “Hillary Clinton was holding up the confirmation process because she wanted a USAID administrator she could control.” But the expert added that Shah’s credentials and experience made him “probably the best compromise we’re going to get.”

A different USAID contract employee worried that development and governance issues would be “pushed aside” in countries where the U.S. “has few strategic interests and there are overwhelming economic and public health issues to contend with.” The employee, in an email interview with TWI, anticipated “less governance work in the Papua New Guineas of the world” under Shah.

Ingram, now the co-chair of the Modernize Foreign Assistance Network, a nonpartisan group urging foreign-assistance reform, considered the early criticism of Shah to be premature and unfair. “The guy brings expertise in health [and] agriculture, but that does not neccarily tell us how he’d lead the agency,” he said. “I can see why people are saying that, but they’re making presumptions that may or may not be correct.”

One private development organization, the International Center for Research on Women, hailed Shah’s nomination. Shah “brings to USAID the powerful voice and vision required to elevate development’s role in U.S. foreign policy,” the center’s president, Geeta Rao Gupta, said in a statement. “He will provide the leadership and insight crucial for the agency at this pivotal time in its history.”

Another USAID contractor, in an email forwarded to TWI, had a mixed reaction. The contractor said it was “exciting to see a relatively young, brilliant man take the reigns and perhaps steer [government] aid in a revised direction” and praised the nominee’s management experience. But the contractor, reflecting a sentiment expressed in several of the emails, said Shah’s nomination was “yet another (or maybe a stronger) indication that Obama is shifting from nation building/good governance to heath care and food security initiatives. This may not bode well for D&G,” a shorthand for development and governance.

A statement released yesterday from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that will vet Shah, praised the Obama administration for belatedly producing a USAID nominee but did not pledge any support for Shah. Kerry expressed his concern about the vacancy, saying a new administrator would “bring significant momentum to foreign aid reform,” and pledged a “thorough nomination process.” Lugar looked forward to a discussion with Shah of the ways “to improve and support the development mission that benefits our long-term security as we proceed with the confirmation process.”

That was Ingram’s main concern for Shah’s confirmation hearings as well. Ingram said he had heard largely positive things about Shah from emails with his friends in the development community, and hoped Kerry and Lugar would “ask questions on revitalizing AID” with a “bipartisan recognition that the dramatic reduction in staffing in AID over the last 20 years has been a mistake.”

Tyrese Griffin | Tyrese started her education in the performing arts at the prestigious Alexander Hamilton Academy in Los Angeles. She returned to civilian life after serving in the United States Army as a tracked vehicle operator, and started writing short stories and screenplays, as well as directing short films and music videos. She has published six novels, which have sold over 200,000 copies, as well as audiobooks and short stories for anthologies, and has earned several awards.

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