U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah. Photo by: sanwatforall / CC BY-NC-SA

If the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s annual tribute dinner is considered Washington, D.C.’s “smart power prom,” as some have reportedly dubbed it, then U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah is this year’s “smart power prom king.”

But Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham from South Carolina — even in honoring the USAID chief — gave Shah a run for his money.

USGLC convenes a broad spectrum of advocates for U.S. overseas engagement, from the armed forces, to faith groups, to government officials, to athletes and celebrities — or as United Nations Foundation CEO Kathy Calvin put it, “from bishops to basketball players.”

Wednesday’s event gave them all an opportunity to rally around a robust foreign affairs agenda — and budget — for 2015 and pay homage to senators Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire, and Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine in addition to Shah.

Graham, who will soon take over as chair of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations subcommittee, which negotiates funding for U.S. aid and diplomacy programs, made a joke during his tribute speech on Shah’s behalf.

“So we’ve had an oil company, the U.N. and a member of Congress. The three most unpopular organizations you can imagine,” he said. “I don’t know who’s next. I guess Raj — somebody who works for [U.S. President Barack] Obama.”

Graham noted his personal goal for the next legislative session is to make the perennially embattled “150 account” — which funds U.S. international affairs programs — “the cool place to be” in Congress.

“If you don’t support this account you are the ultimate political loser,” Graham challenged, “and,” he added in a facetious appeal to his colleagues from the religious right, “you’re going to hell.”

Turning his attention to Shah, the senator said: “What can you say about Raj? He gave me a bunch of ideas … and I rejected them all.”

During his tribute, Graham appealed to lawmakers and taxpayers who see aid spending as wasteful and unnecessary during a time of domestic budgetary stress.

“I challenge any other part of the American government to prove a better return on investment than USAID,” Graham said.

Despite the senator’s optimism and desire to defend U.S. foreign assistance spending in 2015, it remains to be seen how much leeway Graham will actually have to defend programs that many conservatives in Congress are often quick to disregard as expendable.

After accepting the USGLC tribute, Shah announced that the Global Food Security Act of 2014, a bill which aims to secure the future of the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative as a congressionally-authorized program, passed through the House of Representatives on Wednesday evening just minutes before he took the podium.

Many aid advocates have wondered if long-sought pieces of development-related legislation might be attached to the current budget deal that is likely to be voted on in Congress this week. The Global Food Security Act is the only one of them that appears close to the finish line so far.

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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.