Rajiv Shah: The man Obama wants to revitalize USAID

USAID has been without an administrator since Obama took office. Rajiv Shah could bring innovative thinking to USAID, but he probably will not have the gravitas to make USAID more of a force in Washington.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    This undated photo shows Rajiv Shah. The Obama administration will nominate Shah, a former executive with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to run America's top foreign assistance program.
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President Obama is turning to Rajiv Shah, a medical doctor who served on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation before joining the Department of Agriculture, to head up the US Agency for International Development.

Mr. Shah's appointment Tuesday, which is subject to Senate confirmation, comes after a 10-month vacancy at the helm of the agency. That vacancy belied comments by Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who have spoken of the growing importance of development in US foreign policy and national security. Both have said they wish to expand the role of the agency, which administers $20 billion in annual assistance.

That figure is set to more than double during the next half-decade as development efforts grow in areas of strategic importance to the US.

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But many development experts, while relieved that USAID is finally getting a new chief, caution that Shah must first put the US foreign aid and development house in order. Only then could the agency think of "elevating" its role in US foreign policy.

"USAID is a damaged agency that must take on institutional strengthening as a first order of business," says Thomas Carothers, director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace in Washington.

He notes that USAID lost its policy division when the agency was integrated into the State Department in 2006. "So we have a development agency responsible for billions of dollars a year in foreign aid with no policy division," Mr. Carothers says.

As a result, USAID "needs strong leadership to reassert its role and define its purpose."

USAID's purpose had become increasingly "diffuse" as "the Pentagon and more than 20 other federal agencies increasingly engaged in development activities," said Raymond Offenheiser, president of the international organization Oxfam, in a statement.

Given the growing nexus between foreign aid and national security in the post-9/11 era, some development experts have called for the USAID chief to be elevated to cabinet status or to a seat on the National Security Council.

Secretary Clinton said in a statement that Shah will "bring an impressive record of accomplishment and a deep understanding of what works in development" to USAID – attributes she said would "advance the president's agenda and ... elevate and integrate development in our foreign policy."

But his appointment does not suggest that either Obama or Secretary Clinton intend to "upgrade" the status of the USAID chief, Mr. Carothers says. Shah is in his 30s, and his first federal appointment was to the post of undersecretary for research, education, and economics at the Department of Agriculture. This suggests Shah might bring "interesting ideas" to his new post, Carothers says, "but does not have the gravitas to suggest the president intends to upgrade USAID to a cabinet-level agency."

The growing correlation between development and national-security interests places a burden on Shah to resist having USAID deployed solely for political or strategic purposes, says Carothers. "We're a big enough nation to promote poverty reduction and things like global health and prosperity as desirable in their own right."

See also:

Afghanistan's 'civilian surge' fizzles

Development: What Afghanistan can learn from the Taliban

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