After leaving the position unfilled for 10 months, President Barack Obama has finally appointed a head for the United States Agency on International Development: Rajiv Shah, a 36-year-old medical doctor and health economist whose main experience is with large non-governmental organizations and big government agencies.
William Duggan, a Columbia business professor and the co-author of The Aid Trap: Hard Truths About Ending Poverty, promotes businesses instead of government and NGOs as the main catalyst behind development. He believes Shah will not take that same point of view given his experience: "It's very clear that his view seems to be that government agencies and NGOs are the agents of development."
Last February, in reference to a $90 million Gates Foundation grant to help farmers grow cashews and cocoa, Shah praised "creative partnerships" that "bring together the knowledge of locally based NGOs and governments with the technical know-how and market expertise of private-sector firms."
Shah worked seven years for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, beginning in 2001, where he served as director of agricultural development. Since June he has worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as under secretary for research, education, and economics and as chief scientist. He also has some political connections, having campaigned for Obama, worked on healthcare policy with the Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, and helped with the Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell's transition committee on health.
In his previous positions, Shah has managed colossal budgets. At the Gates Foundation, he oversaw the $1.5 billion vaccine fund, and at the USDA, he was responsible for more than 10,000 staff worldwide and a $2.6 billion budget. As USAID director he will manage a requested $36.7 billion budget for fiscal year 2010, an 8 percent increase over the previous year's total.
In the past, small, faith-based NGOs have been competitive when it comes to applying for USAID grants since they are grassroots organizations, use volunteers, and can often complete projects in a cost-effective way. These smaller faith-based groups hope that Shah, given his experience with large NGOs and big government programs, will continue to deal with them as the past administration did. Andrea Kauffman, spokesperson for faith-based NGO World Relief, said that her organization has not seen any dramatic changes in the past year regarding policy toward groups such as hers: "Generally I don't think people are anticipating dramatic changes."
Other NGOs took the opportunity to lobby for more USAID clout. Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, welcomed Shah and warned that USAID "has been under-resourced and politically marginalized." Samuel A. Worthington, president and CEO of InterAction, praised Shah's previous work as "highly regarded" but urged him to take a leading role on the 2011 budget, the U.S. State Department's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, and development in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Politicians were simply relieved that Obama finally picked someone. The vetting process, according to a frustrated Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in July, was a "nightmare"-one that Shah had already endured in his previous nomination to the USDA. Clinton praised Shah as a leader in the development world and an innovative manager.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., and ranking member Dick Lugar, R-Ind., also welcomed Shah's appointment in a statement but did not promise to support him.
Kerry said he has been "very concerned about the lack of political leadership at USAID" and that he looks forward to "a thorough nomination process." Committee member Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., was also not effusive, merely saying that he looked forward to meeting Shah and discussing "his vision of how USAID can regain its position as the primary development agency of the U.S. government."