Rajiv Shah takes helm of USAID as foreign aid is set to expand

Senate confirms Rajiv Shah, a food security expert, to head USAID, a key development agency. One task: help devise a strategy for infusion of new foreign aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Rajiv Shah testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on Dec. 1. The Senate confirmed him as head of USAID on Thursday.

America’s top international aid and development agency got a Christmas present Thursday when the Senate confirmed President Obama’s nomination of Rajiv Shah, a medical doctor and food security expert, to head the US Agency for International Development.

The Senate, although focused on its landmark healthcare overhaul vote, underscored the importance of getting the nation’s foreign aid house in order by taking time on Christmas Eve day to confirm Dr. Shah. Unlike the healthcare legislation, which received a strictly party-line vote, confirmation of the Department of Agriculture official won bipartisan support.

Shah takes the helm of USAID, which has been without a chief since the outset of the Obama administration, at a crucial moment. US foreign assistance is expected to double to more than $50 billion a year over the next half-decade, in particular with boosts in development outlays to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But at the same time, USAID enters the period of growth a weakened agency, having lost its independence and having been incorporated into the State Department in a post-cold-war reorganization of foreign aid.

As USAID lost influence during the past decade, US development assistance policy and dollars were dispersed to dozens of other agencies, in particular the Department of Defense. Multiple agencies were sometimes found to be working at identical tasks – or even occasionally at cross purposes, government and private-sector investigations determined.

A roadmap for US aid needed

Aid experts welcome Shah’s confirmation but generally acknowledge the difficult task before him.

“As he moves into this new position, Shah’s challenges are great,” said Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, in a statement. Saying Shah will need to reassert the leadership role of USAID, rebuild its staff, and strengthen its ability to deliver concrete results, he added, “Most importantly, there is a need for a national global development strategy to guide the US government’s” development and antipoverty efforts.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton – to whom Shah will report – said in a recent speech that Shah would “have a seat at the table” as US development policy is revamped, and she went so far as to pledge that “together, we will ensure that USAID is once again the premier development agency in the world.”

On-the-job training

But some development experts worry that Shah’s relative lack of experience in government affairs and the weakness of the agency will make it difficult for him to assert his influence. Others say crucial decisions on major new development programs are to be made soon, when Shah will still be learning the ropes.

For example, some development advocates note that a major conference on Afghanistan is set for January in London, and they worry that the proceedings, without strong leadership in the development field, will focus instead on security issues and demands for rooting out corruption.

But other experts highlight Shah’s expertise in food security, noting that issue is also an Obama administration priority.


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