TOPICS > Politics

White House Nominates New Leader to Revive USAID

BY Talea Miller  November 12, 2009 at 4:37 PM EDT

Sec. of State Clinton; USAID image

President Barack Obama has chosen Rajiv Shah, 36, a doctor and recently-appointed senior official at the Department of Agriculture. In October, Shah helped launch the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a scientific initiative created to focus on global food security, nutrition and climate change.

Shah previously worked in senior roles on agricultural and vaccine issues with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He managed a $1.5 billion commitment to vaccine development for the foundation, which is one of the biggest players in the global health field and provides funding support for the NewsHour’s global health reporting. Shah also served as a health care policy adviser for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.

Clinton backed the nomination Tuesday in a statement, saying Shah “has a record of delivering results in both the private and public sectors…and developing innovative solutions in global health, agriculture and financial services for the poor.”

The nomination process for the post was hit with delay after delay this year. At a town hall meeting with employees of USAID in July, Clinton said several people had declined the position because of the “ridiculous” vetting requirements. The well-known global health pioneer Paul Farmer reportedly withdrew his name because of the intrusive nature of the process.

While Shah still needs to be confirmed by the Senate, there has been high anticipation for a successor to be named. There is broad consensus in the government and aid community that the agency, which was effectively folded into the State Department and lost policy-planning and budget power under former Secretary Condoleezza Rice, is in need of realignment.

President Obama has said he wants USAID to play a bigger role in U.S. foreign policy, and during his campaign said he intended to make USAID a “modern development agency.”

Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America said the organization was “delighted” with the nomination and that Shah is known as someone committed to making partnerships in the developing world, but that he faces steep challenges.

“[USAID] has lost its luster, it’s lost its leadership in the global community,” said Offenheiser. “It really needs to be re-staffed and reinvigorated.”

One of the biggest issues, said Offenheiser, is the “dysfunctional” and fragmented network of U.S. agencies, including the Department of Defense and USDA, all working on aid and development without a unified strategy.

“We’ve had a dispersion of responsibilities and mandates that have been spread out over a wide variety of agencies,” he said, with only about 40 percent of foreign aid financing going through USAID.

Andrew Natsios, who led USAID from 2001 to 2006 agreed that USAID’s leadership needs to be reasserted under Shah and said the agency needs to regain control over its budget, policy and appointments from the State Department.

“I hope he got agreements from the administration, the president and the secretary of state, before he accepted the position,” he said. If those steps are not taken, said Natsios, Shah will be in an “untenable situation.”

“The more [US]AID is absorbed into the business system of State … the more it will look like a diplomatic institution, not a development institution,” said Natsios.

Both Offenheiser and Natsios also agreed that rebuilding USAID’s staff should be a top priority for Shah. The permanent staff for USAID has been cut nearly in half over the past few decades, to 2,200 in 2008, according to a report published in Foreign Affairs in last December, written by Natsios and two fellow former USAID heads.

“The agency is grossly understaffed for the demands that are being made on it,” said Natsios.

Some of the questions swirling about USAID’s future independence and powers will likely be answered in the Presidential Study Directive on Global Development Policy due out later this year or the State Department’s Diplomacy and Development Review expected out next year.

At the announcement of the DDDR in July, Clinton said it would provide a framework and priorities for the State Department and USAID.

“Our development and diplomatic goals are best achieved when we’re coordinated and we’re integrated,” she said.

Offenhesier said Shah’s nomination comes at an “opportune moment,” because the U.S. is in the process of reexamining its approach to aid and development.

“This is a very critical moment for the United States to be rethinking its role in the world,” he said.