Rajiv Shah nominated to head USAID
After months of delays because of tangled vetting procedures, the Obama administration on Tuesday named a former executive with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to run its main foreign aid arm, the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The official, Rajiv J Shah, a medical doctor and health economist now at the Agriculture Department, would take over an agency whose power and profile have eroded in recent years, but which is enmeshed in some of the administration’s toughest challenges, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Shah’s appointment, if confirmed by the Senate, would bring an end to 10 months of leadership drift at the agency that has deeply frustrated Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Clinton placed development at the heart of her diplomatic agenda, but she has struggled to find a candidate who could navigate the exhaustive confirmation process.
Paul Farmer, a renowned physician and anthropologist who has run public health programs in Rwanda and Haiti, was one of several candidates who withdrew his name for the post, citing the intrusiveness of the process. In July, Clinton publicly vented her anger, saying the confirmation process was “ridiculous” and “frustrating beyond words.”
The leadership vacuum at the agency has become especially acute as the Obama administration has stepped up the deployment of civilian personnel to Afghanistan. The Agriculture Department has taken the lead in one of the most ambitious efforts: sending agricultural economists to advise farmers on how to wean themselves off poppies and move into legal crops.
Shah, 36, served as the director of agricultural development and managed a $1.5 billion investment in a vaccine fund for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. At the Agriculture Department, he is the chief scientist and under secretary for research, education and economics. He is also active in the administration’s global food security initiative.
“He’s an extraordinary talent,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. “He’s brilliant, but has not lost his common touch in his capacity to reach people.”
In a statement from Singapore, where she was traveling, Clinton said Shah would bring “an impressive record of accomplishment and a deep understanding of what works in development.”
Shah, whose family immigrated to the United States from India, also has political connections, having campaigned for President Barack Obama and served as a health policy adviser to former Vice President Al Gore during Gore’s presidential campaign.
Development experts said they were pleased by Shah’s appointment, but even more pleased that the administration had finally found someone to fill the job. Because Shah has already been confirmed by the Senate once before, the administration is hopeful that he will be approved quickly.
“This administration has inherited a very weak and fragmented USAID and aid infrastructure,” said David Beckmann, the president of Bread for the World, a Christian group that advocates for hunger relief. “By getting someone in that position, Mrs. Clinton has taken a step forward.”
Beckmann called for Obama to restore the agency’s profile by giving Shah a seat on the National Security Council, and for Clinton to give back its independent budget and policymaking authority, which had been subsumed by the State Department.