Q and A with outgoing USAID Administrator Dr Rajiv Shah

March / April 2015 | Volume 14, Issue 2

Headshot of Dr Rajiv Shah

Rajiv Shah, M.D., M.B.A.

Dr. Rajiv Shah stepped down as USAID Administrator in February 2015, having led for five years nearly 10,000 staff in more than 70 countries to advance USAID's mission of ending extreme poverty and promoting democratic societies. Previously, he served as Undersecretary and Chief Scientist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Prior to that, he spent eight years at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where he managed efforts in global health, agriculture and financial services. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the Wharton School of Business.

What are your thoughts as you leave USAID?

I am really proud to have had the opportunity to reflect, and represent, the best of what America is about - enterprises that started in the fight against the earthquake and the recovery of Haiti, to the more immediate effort to stop Ebola in its tracks in West Africa. I am deeply proud of efforts that so many of you have partnered with myself and our teams on in the past years to build bold new public-private partnerships to end hunger, to eliminate preventable child death, to deliver electricity to hundreds of millions of people who still live in the dark, and to create an opportunity for justice and basic human aspirations.

There are so many people around the world that still, incredibly, live and subsist in conditions that - despite our thoughtfulness - we can hardly empathize with, and hardly experience ourselves. Taken together, my experience over these past years has really taught me that when we pursue this mission with humility, respect, and a focus on partnership with results, we can build the kind of political support that is required for America to really lead the charge to end extreme poverty in the coming decade-and-a-half.

How have you changed how the agency operates?

We've embraced transparency, demanded new standards of rigor and efficiency, and made tough trade-offs in our projects and our programs - including shutting down 38 percent of our total program activities. That includes shutting down 30 global health programs in countries around the world, and about that many agriculture programs as well. Those were tough cuts to make - because I know that, even in their least effective form, those are good projects and programs that make a difference in the lives of the poor. But we made those trade-offs so we could invest in where we thought we could get the greatest value for our investment, we could operate at scale, and we could really transform the face of global hunger, of child death, of access to water, of access to education.

We made those tough calls in order to convince Congress to help us recapture our budget authority (which they supported), rebuild our staff (which we have accomplished), and diversify our community of partners so we are working with more local organizations and private sector partners in particular. Taken together, these efforts have formed the foundation of a new model of development that tries to harness the power of business, investment, and innovation to end extreme poverty. Instead of just hiring a contractor to build a road or write a check to deliver health services, we built the U.S. Global Development Lab, to have an entity that would connect us to the brightest minds and best new technologies that can achieve our objectives faster, cheaper and more efficiently. With partners like Cargill and Coca-Cola, Texas A&M and Duke, the Lab's investing in high-impact innovations - from a low-cost infant resuscitation device to new protective suits for health care workers.

What lessons have you learned?

First, I believe we must celebrate the people who do this work as national heroes. They do not often wear uniforms or win medals, but they do risk their lives in service of our country and our mission of helping those in need. Second, we know that achieving this mission requires not only celebrating exceptional people with great hearts and strong minds, but also a strong, empowered and accountable development agency. Third, as part of that commitment, we do have to enshrine some of these recent successes into law through legislation. Fourth, we will always have to balance competing legislative and Administration priorities. But our commitment to the values that underlie America's success and American assistance can never waver. And that's why - across all of our work and all of our programs - we should have strong and capable democracy, rights and governance programming. Fifth, while it's understandable that American global leadership is not going to touch or transform every part of the world, there is at least one area where we fall far short of our capabilities. In infrastructure, there is a more than $1 trillion deficit annually in just Africa alone, and it remains the single greatest barrier to creating true, broad-based growth.

This article is based on Dr. Shah's final speech as USAID Administrator. Access the complete text of remarks by Administrator Shah on February 12, 2015.

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