Obama Nominates Rajiv Shah to Lead USAID

After a long wait, President Barack Obama on Tuesday nominated an administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Rajiv Shah, current undersecretary for research, education and economics and chief scientist at the Department of Agriculture, may soon have his hands full - leading an agency faced with various challenges that, by many accounts, has been underfunded and demoralized for years.

In a White House release, Obama said: "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."

Of course he needs to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, but this may not be a big issue. Lawmakers have urged Obama to nominate someone already vetted by the Senate, and Shah fits this bill: He was unanimously confirmed by the body for his current position at the agriculture department.

Shah's nomination comes a day after the Senate urged Obama, in a resolution sponsored by Democrats Chris Dodd (CT), Dick Durbin (IL) and Ben Cardin (MD), to nominate a USAID chief swiftly.

Brian Atwood, former USAID administrator, current chair of the Devex board of advisors and dean of the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, suggested that Shah may not be able to answer some of the questions senators would pose during his confirmation hearing. Atwood said the lawmakers would likely question how much authority and autonomy he would have as USAID chief - an issue that may still be up in the air given that the administration is in the midst of drafting two major reviews of its foreign assistance strategy.

Is Obama's choice the right one for USAID?

Although only 36 years old, Shah has considerable development experience under his belt. In his current post, he manages more than 10,000 staff around the world and leads the ag department's participation in Obama's global food security initiative. He has served as director for agricultural development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for which he created and supervised a multi-billion portfolio of investments and grants geared towards helping rural economies and poor families in the developing world. He also helped to launch the foundation's Global Development Program.

Shah was on the board of directors of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, an organization he helped create. He assisted in recruiting the alliance's leadership, which includes former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Global health is another area where Shah's experience has weight. He worked on health care policy for Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000 and was the Gates Foundation's deputy director for policy and finance. In the latter post, he figured in the creation of the International Finance Facility for Immunization. Shah was also involved with the World Health Organization during the early days of his career.

The next USAID chief surely faces a set of tough questions.

"Rebuilding an agency that's been really devastated, that's the most important job in the next few years," Atwood said. "Establishing aid as a force in government again, that's going to be very difficult to do, considering that he's starting a bit late in the process."

He noted that more challenges are to come, from "Afghanistan to food security to climate change and how development plays a role in that discussion."

Devex reported in the past that anti-hunger advocates have urged USAID to consider investing more in agricultural development and budget support instead of focusing on in-kind food donations, especially in Africa. It remains to be seen whether the next USAID administrator will take on the powerful U.S. farmers and maritime lobbies and reform the country's food aid strategy.

Another issue that Shah would likely face if confirmed by the Senate is calls for internal reforms as well as a realignment of U.S. strategies on development, diplomacy and defense.

In a statement, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said today: "By nominating Raj to lead the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), President Obama has reaffirmed that development must be a core pillar of American foreign policy."

The aid community's initial response to Shah's nomination was positive.

David Lane, president and CEO of One, for instance, highlighted the candidate's "sharp intellect, creativity and experience designing and managing innovative development programs."

"I know Raj believes strongly in the critical role of USAID and I'm certain he will carry forward the agency's mission with strong leadership and integrity," Lane said. "This agency is a lifeline for many people living in extreme poverty and critical to the implementation of smart American investments. USAID's dedicated staff have been without an Administrator for too long. I hope the Senate - who unanimously confirmed Dr. Shah for his current position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture - will again move quickly to confirm him for his new role as USAID Administrator so he and his colleagues can get to work."

Rolf Rosenkranz contributed to this report.

About the author

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    Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.