Thursday, January 07, 2010

Dr. Rajiv Shah Sworn In As Director of USAID

In a ceremony at the State Department this morning, Dr. Rajiv Shah was sworn in as the new director of the United States Agency for International Development, by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Shah was confirmed on Christmas Eve, and is now in charge of USAID's vast mission to combat global hunger, as well as a multi-billion dollar budget.

Shah, a grauduate of Penn/Wharton and the London School of Economics, was previously in charge of Ag operations in Sub-Saharan Africa, for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, s well as an advisor for Gore 2000. In the Obama administration, he served as USDA's Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics for less than six months before Sec. Clinton nominated him to lead USAID.

In her remarks, Sec. Clinton lauded Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for being willing to let Shah move to USAID:

I have a fellow Cabinet colleague whom I must thank and acknowledge because I had to make a phone call to him a few months ago. And he’s a dear, dear friend of mine, and it was early in the morning, and it was to ask Secretary Vilsack if he would mind if I nominated Raj Shah to be the USAID Administrator. And there was this long silence on the other end because some of you know that Raj was serving as an Under Secretary in the Department of Agriculture, but Secretary Vilsack gave us, if not his blessing, his understanding. And for that, we are very grateful. And Tom Vilsack is one of the great leaders of our country, and I’m so grateful to you.

Read Sec. Clinton and Administrator Shah's full remarks from the ceremony here. In the afternoon, Shah joined Sec. Vilsack and Richard Holbrooke, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, at a news conference to discuss upcoming travel plans to Afghanistan. A Civilian Surge of Ag specialists is planned for the region, to help restore the agricultural infrastructure, among other food security initiatives.

For more on Shah's background, read the posts below:

Nov. 10, 2009

A critical appointment for agriculture and global food security...and an agency in need of housekeeping
Today President Obama nominated Dr. Rajiv Shah as Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), subject to Senate confirmation. Dr. Shah has worked at USDA for less than six months as Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics, though given his experience working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he's well qualified to lead USAID (read the original post, below; Shah is both an economist and a medical doctor, with experience in both agriculture and public health initiatives, such as vax campaigns). Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have discussed the growing importance of development in US foreign policy and national security, and the annual funding for USAID is set to more than double in the next five years, as development efforts grow in areas that are strategically important to US interests.
The Administrator is a critical position that will have a wide-reaching policy impact, especially in agriculture. President Obama's statement today:

“The mission of USAID is to advance America’s interests by strengthening our relationships abroad. Rajiv brings fresh ideas and the dedication and impressive background necessary to help guide USAID as it works to achieve this important goal. I am grateful for all that USAID has accomplished under the leadership of Acting Administrator Alonzo Fulgham, and the thousands of career men and women who fulfill USAID’s mission day in and day out – particularly their hard work in jumpstarting a landmark initiative to bring more than $20 billion for agriculture development to the world's most food-insecure countries. I look forward to working with Rajiv in the months and years ahead.”

Secretary Clinton's statement on Shah's appointment to head USAID: "Rajiv 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." Sec. Clinton also noted that “...he has a record of delivering results in both the private and public sectors, forging partnerships around the world, especially in Africa and Asia, and developing innovative solutions in global health, agriculture, and financial services for the poor.”

But USAID has something of a troubled past as an agency, with multiple, often competing policy goals, and there has been no one leading the agency for ten months.

From foreign pol expert Laura Rozen at Politico:

Given a major development review under way at the State Department, and an interagency, National Security Council-led U.S. assistance review, development officials said whoever accepted the [USAID] job would have to be willing to put up with a degree of uncertainty about how the USAID administrator post would shake out in the evolving org chart. They also noted that the administrator will most immediately feed into the larger administration chain of command through Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew.

Rozen also notes that reaction from the Hill has been "extremely positive."

Raymond Offenheiser
, president of the American branch of the international aid organization Oxfam, welcomed Shah's appointment in a statement issued today, but he also pointed out that "Shah's challenges are great. He must work within a legal framework that is almost half a century old." Offenheiser added that USAID's purpose has become increasingly "diffuse" as "the Pentagon and more than 20 other federal agencies increasingly engaged in development activities."

It seems clear that cleaning up USAID will be the first order of business for Shah, though this will have to be done on the fly, so to speak. Some policy makers have suggested that with the growing role of USAID, and President Obama's goals for security married to development, the head of USAID should be promoted to Cabinet status. But Shah's appointment to USDA was his first federal position, and although he manages a huge budget there and thousands of employees, USAID is an entirely different proposition; his nom to lead USAID does not necessarily indicate that the position will change into Cabinet Secretary any time soon. Below, the original post about Shah's nom to undersecretary at USDA.
*Update to the USAID nom: Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent writes that Shah was not the first choice to lead USAID, but that he was confirmable, and thus got nommed (there are a series of "insider" e mails in Ackerman's post on the subject). It seems just as likely, however, that the admin's goals changed over the last six months since Shah went to work for USDA, and switching him out of there to lead USAID, where his talents would be better used, made sense.

The original Shah backgrounder post:

New USDA Appointee: The President and Agriculture
Secretary Tom Vilsack have nominated Dr. Rajiv J. Shah for Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics. He'll also be the "chief scientist" at USDA. From USDA's presser:

"Dr. Rajiv Shah is a globally recognized leader in science, health and economics ... disciplines that are critical to the missions of this department," said Vilsack. "As Director of the Agricultural Development Program at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rajiv has a profound influence on helping the world's poor lead healthy and productive lives. With his extensive background, Rajiv will help guide advances in food safety, nutrition, energy and climate, agricultural productivity, and global food security-to name a few of USDA's challenges."

Mr. Shah is a product of both the medical school and the Wharton School at Penn, as well as a graduate of University of Michigan and London School of Economics; he's big on economic theory but also has a hard science background. He was an advisor for Gore 2000. He's an interesting and potentially controversial choice for USDA, given his work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent billions of dollars promoting technological solutions for food crises in Africa. This has had much criticism from food and justice activists for potential bad outcomes, such as environmental destruction, robbing indigenous farmers of their lands, creating unsustainable ag economies. Mr. Shah has publicly advocated the use of genetically modified seeds and bio-technologies, and these are historically part of USDA's portfolio, but this could also potentially mitigate any gains in sustainable agriculture in the US that the appointment of Kathleen Merrigan as Deputy Secretary seems to indicate. On the other hand, Shah is a brilliant fellow, and Secretary Vilsack is surrounding himself with Big Thinkers. Shah is one of these. And in addition to being a thinker, he's actually had experince in the filed, so to speak.

The Race Card, The Gender Card--also worth mentioning: Before the Obama Era, the USDA had a long history of primarily hiring white people, and failing to promote any people of color that actually worked in the Department. Mr. Shah's nomination is a high profile way of addressing this, particulalry given that Secretary Vilsack has pledged to change the Department internally, while at the same time trying to provide redress to non-white farmers who have been discriminated against for decades (among these, black farmers and Native American farmers, who have large, outtanding legal cases against USDA). Mr. Shah is the first very high-profile nominee to USDA who is not white. So now we have one person of color at the top level of USDA, and one woman (No, Ron Hicks, an African American fellow who is currently the acting head of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, doesn't count. He's an accountant who was popped into the position as a place holder during the transition).

*A profile of Mr. Shah is in the October 2008 Food Fight! issue of the New York Times magazine, the issue that also contained Michael Pollan's "Farmer in Chief?" --that holy grail open-letter to the next president.

UPDATE: May 20, 2009: Shah goes on the record here, as he's about to begin work within the Obama administration.

*Photo of Dr. Shah with sunglasses by Guillaume Bonn/NYT; other photo is his "official" admin photo...