5 parting thoughts from Rajiv Shah

Rajiv Shah, outgoing administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Photo by: CSIS / CC BY-NC-SA

Outgoing U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah delivered what were billed as his last public remarks Thursday, a “farewell conversation” with leaders from around Washington’s development community.

In an exclusive Devex feature, Shah’s peers, critics and partners weighed in on what the youngest-ever administrator has accomplished during his five years at USAID, and what kind of agency Shah leaves in his wake as he moves on to — still undisclosed — new things.

Thursday’s discussion granted Shah an opportunity to reflect on his legacy and to leave behind some parting words for the leaders who will follow in his shoes after he leaves USAID on Wednesday.

In the short term, Deputy Administrator Alfonso Lenhardt will fill in for Shah. Many suspect Lenhardt will, as acting administrator, prioritize maintaining, managing and institutionalizing the changes Shah sought to affect rather than introducing significantly new agenda items. And, seeing as it took roughly a year for the Obama administration to nominate and confirm Shah into his post five years ago, it seems unlikely that a high-profile nominee will surface after Shah’s departure.

Still, the ambitious outgoing aid chief has presided over a tumultuous and transformative era of U.S. foreign assistance, and Shah undoubtedly has a few words of wisdom to share. Here are five of them, gleaned from his Thursday address at the American Enterprise Institute.

1. Development professionals are national heroes.

One of the USAID administrator’s jobs is to combat public opinion about U.S. foreign assistance spending that is wildly out of touch with reality. Americans consistently overestimate the amount that is spent on development programs by many times, and a large segment of them arrive at the conclusion the government is throwing untold billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars at problems beyond its own concern.

One way to combat public ambivalence about aid? Treat global development professionals as national heroes.

“From the Haiti earthquake to the ebola epidemic, their courage and commitment represents our nation at its best,” Shah said Thursday, adding that we should spend more time “celebrating their successes.”

2. We need a strong, empowered and accountable U.S. development agency.

President Barack Obama’s last three State of the Union addresses have acknowledged the importance of ending extreme poverty. The 2015 National Security Strategy places development programs far more centrally than its 2010 predecessor, which, Shah remembered, folded development in between points on trade and deficit reduction as “one of many things on a list of issues we need to consider.”

In light of these and other signs of support, we might be tempted to take an elevated role for development in U.S. foreign policy for granted.

“Well, we shouldn’t,” Shah said.

As recently as 2007, USAID’s operating expenses allowance clung to a “shockingly meager” 4 percent of the agency’s programmatic budget, meaning the vast majority of the agency’s work was done outside its walls by nongovernmental organizations and contractors paid to do it. USAID seems to have emerged from a long identity crisis, and recapture at least some its autonomy from the Department of State and its own implementing partners.

But Shah warns against complacency.

“To those of you in this room that have to do this going forward, please keep fighting for having a strong, singular leadership entity that can take accountability for this mission,” he said.

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3. Enshrine recent successes into law through legislation.

As Shah leaves office, he does so with a number of loose ends still dangling in legislative limbo. Feed the Future, the U.S. Global Development Lab, Food Aid Reform, and Power Africa all seek legislative authorization to secure their futures beyond the current administration and prevent backsliding under a Republican-led Congress.

On Thursday, Shah appealed to his supporters to fight to get remaining pieces of legislation passed, “in this Congress, at this time.” His remarks gave the impression the window for action might be limited, with champions and momentum in place now, which could fade without a sustained effort behind them.

Of particularly immediate importance, Shah said, is passing legislation to reform U.S. food aid policy — a long-sought set of changes to build more flexibility and efficiency into food emergency and food insecurity relief efforts — which is “politically achievable this year.”

Shah spoke of the hard work done to forge relationships with American shippers and “agricultural interests,” who have obstructed past attempts to reform the food aid delivery system — with help from some political fumbling by the current administration.

4. Reinvest in democracy, rights, and governance — but show results.

Funding for democracy, governance and human rights programs have declined “sharply” under Shah’s watch, a trend some critics lay at the feet of the administrator, claiming he put his own weight behind new initiatives, instead of behind the less-flashy work of institution building.

In the waning days of his leadership, Shah said this downward trajectory is due for a course correction. Obama’s 2016 budget request calls for a 20 percent increase in funding to democracy and governance programs, and Shah urged Congress to support them.

But the aid chief also challenged professionals in the democracy-building field to do a better job of demonstrating their results and impact. While Shah loves to point to numbers— billions of private sector dollars leveraged in public-private partnerships, for example — democracy, governance and rights programs have not lent themselves so neatly to quantifiable impacts, he argued, noting that leaders in these sectors should, “do more to embrace innovation and document results.”

5. A huge opportunity for sidelined capital.

A $1 trillion infrastructure deficit is the “single greatest barrier to growth across the developing world,” according to Shah, and U.S. development efforts have “not even come close to meeting needs.” Presented with financing options from China and elsewhere, developing countries are increasingly likely to find investors lining up to fund infrastructure projects with little concern for “Western” norms like transparency and level playing fields, Shah said.

And yet huge pools of available capital wait on the sidelines, seeking yields that they could get in emerging markets in the infrastructure sector, and under favorable interest rates, the administrator explained.

Sovereign wealth funds and pension funds offer untapped financing potential for emerging economy infrastructure, but, Shah explained, they lack a platform for investing confidently in enterprises still considered risky.

“I hope that the most creative of you will come up with ways of bridging this divide,” he said.

What lessons would you impart to the next USAID administrator? Share your views by commenting below.

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.