In Haiti quake response, Rajiv Shah offers steady leadership

Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Photo by: Center for Strategic & International Studies

Rajiv Shah was hunkered down in the White House Situation Room. He had barely slept in days.

The president of the United States was seated just a few chairs away, but all eyes were on Shah, the young administrator of USAID, who had just been chosen to lead the U.S. government’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Haiti.

It was Shah’s fifth day on the job.

The earthquake in Haiti became the ultimate trial by fire for Shah, nominated by President Barack Obama as a reformer with “fresh ideas” to breathe new life into USAID. And though Shah was forced to temporarily reshuffle the agency’s priorities and resources in light of Haiti, he won praise for his calm, steady leadership during a critical moment for global aid. One senior State Department official described Shah to the Washington Post as “a superstar waiting to be discovered.”

But those familiar with Shah expected nothing less. A medical doctor who earned his M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and his Master of Science in health economics from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Shah has been acutely aware of the global poverty crisis since a trip to India when he was a child.

“I clearly remember my uncle insisting on showing my sister and me the full reality of that multifaceted country,” Shah recounted in his confirmation testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Not just the historic landmarks and vibrant urban communities, but also the vast slums that were home to millions and continue to be. This early experience opened my eyes to a type of human suffering I had not previously witnessed and have not since forgotten.”

The experience steered Shah toward a career in public service. His entry into politics came during the 2000 presidential campaign, when he served as Vice-President Al Gore’s health policy adviser. Afterward, he served a seven-year tenure at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he helped launch the Global Development Program, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and the International Finance Facility for Immunization. Before his move to USAID, Shah was undersecretary for research, education and economics and chief scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The moment President Barack Obama nominated Shah, 37, to lead USAID, Shah became the leading voice of the development community’s new generation. He understands the challenge of meshing the old with the new within the agency, saying, “Our aspiration is to bring innovation and fresh thinking while also respecting that development is a discipline and we want to learn from the expertise that exists at this agency.”

So far, the results are encouraging. The just-released “USAID Forward” plan sets an ambitious agenda to reform the agency and elevate its role as a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy and indeed, the world’s prime aid agency. Among his priorities are rebuilding the agency’s internal capacity and reforming procurement, strengthening monitoring and evaluation, and utilizing innovative technology to deliver aid.

None of this will be easy. But if his first months on the job are an indication, Rajiv Shah is up to the challenge.

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