Rajiv Shah, the outgoing administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Photo by: Benedikt von Loebell / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

Examining the work of Rajiv Shah, it’s hard not to be struck by the wide variance in opinion on the man’s legacy as the youngest-ever U.S. aid chief in history.

On one side of the spectrum, close confidantes and supporters of Shah, like his former deputy Donald Steinberg, claim the transformation he led was “as fundamental as anything that has occurred in the history of the agency.”

Then there are observers like Brookings Institution Senior Fellow George Ingram who point to the difficulty of reorienting an institution as massive as the U.S. Agency for International Development. Its administrator is, at once, “the most important person in the agency to influence the culture,” and yet he’s endowed with “limited influence and impact.” Change takes time.

Skeptics wonder whether perceived changes of the last half decade at USAID have more to do with forces well beyond the administrator’s control — the increasing role of the private sector in global development, for example. Shah, these skeptics may say, has merely acknowledged these trends and taken some of the credit for shifts already underway.

After all, some of the things often attributed to Shah, such as staff increases, a new model for investing in agriculture programs and a greater focus on science and innovation were in the works before his arrival — and pushed by peers like the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — even if they matured during his tenure. Would they have done so the same way without him? Of course, it’s impossible to know.

In a slow and contested process like development, tied to such complex and global forces as poverty, population growth and climate change, how much does one leader actually matter? Where does their impact most noticeably accrue?

One point of agreement among people my colleagues and I have spoken with over the past few years on Shah’s impact is that he has been successful in raising USAID’s public and political stature during his time in office. Even critics allow that Shah rebuilt the agency’s profile from a low point of previous decades, returned a sense of “intellectual leadership” to Washington’s Ronald Reagan Building, where USAID is headquartered, and relieved the immediate threat that the agency’s mission would fold even farther into the overarching structure of the State Department.

But the importance placed on the political and public relations side of the administrator job speaks to a larger challenge, which Shah himself has sought — and struggled — to confront: constituency. Ask yourself: Where did USAID’s public image problem come from in the first place; was it the agency’s own doing or did it reflect popular opinion about foreign aid?

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Shah may be judged on whether he has made U.S. foreign assistance programs more effective, or on his ability to convince lawmakers that they should support an agency whose mission is to eradicate poverty abroad, not at home. His challenge has been complex, to say the least: to carry out overseas missions effectively while defending their practical and moral justification at every turn.

Perhaps more than a referendum on his own achievements, the variance in opinions on Shah’s legacy speaks to a deep ambiguity concerning the nature of leadership itself.

As long as U.S. foreign assistance programs are so poorly understood by most Americans, who regularly overestimate the amount we spend on them by a factor of 20, the next USAID chief will have to continue to juggle a mandate to improve development impact and the necessity of explaining why U.S. taxpayers and their elected representatives should lend support.

What makes for a successful foreign aid leader, and how would you rate Rajiv Shah’s performance as USAID chief? Chime in by leaving a comment below.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • 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.