Clinton: Aid Agency Central To U.S. Foreign Policy

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton swears in a new administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development Thursday. However, Rajiv Shah's job description is still up in the air. The Obama administration and members of Congress are reviewing U.S. aid programs, and some complain that USAID has been weakened by cut backs, and is now incapable of doing the kind of work that is needed in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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If you want a sign of the importance of American aid abroad, look no further than Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In all those countries, the United States has struggled to improve the economy or the standard of living as a way to bring stability. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says development needs to be just as important as defense and diplomacy. But only today, one year into the Obama presidency, is she swearing in somebody to run the U.S. government's foreign assistance agency. And Rajiv Shah has a tough job ahead, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton once complained that the vetting process was a nightmare for the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. She even put off the speech on development until she had someone in place to swear in.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (State Department): We are so pleased that day has come. It's been a long wait to find the right person, but Raj was worth the months that we spent thinking about how best to build and strengthen USAID.

KELEMEN: Rajiv Shah is just 36 years old. Clinton says he has the passion and commitment to revitalize an institution she says is central to U.S. foreign policy. In a speech to the Center for Global Development, Clinton talked about the need to make sure U.S. aid programs are based on partnership, not patronage.

Sec. CLINTON: In the past, we have sometimes dictated solutions from afar, often missing our mark on the ground. Our new approach is to work in partnership with developing countries that take the lead in designing and implementing evidence-based strategies with clear goals.

KELEMEN: She says the U.S. will pay particular attention to food security, as well as women and girls. She also talked about how technological advances and health and agriculture have helped saved lives, a topic the USAID administrator Rajiv Shah addressed in a conference call.

Mr. RAJIV SHAH (USAID Administrator): We will look very carefully at how we can use our core social skills in the area of technology development of science and of doing things in more innovative ways - often with the private sector, private companies or private foundations - to really bring a higher level of innovation to the area of development and to bring that creativity and risk-taking that often does lead to some of the most important breakthroughs on behalf of the world's poorest population.

KELEMEN: A medical doctor by training, Shah used to run health and agriculture programs at the Gates Foundation. He has a huge job ahead running the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to Congressman Howard Berman, a Democrat from California.

Representative HOWARD BERMAN (Democrat, California): A very big job, but he seems like the person who just might be able to pull it off.

KELEMEN: Berman chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and has taken a lead in reform efforts of U.S. foreign assistance programs. He's worried that USAID has lost too many technical experts over the years - so many that the agency can't even monitor contracts that well.

Rep. BERMAN: When you don't have enough engineers or agronomists to know whether a building program or a food program is achieving its results, how do you evaluate whether that contract made sense, whether it should be renewed, whether someone else should be found? You have to have some expertise. Inside the staff of the USAID, we've lost too much of it.

KELEMEN: And accountability matters more than ever, Berman adds.

Rep. BERMAN: If the American taxpayers think that foreign assistance money is going down the drain, pretty soon, we in Congress will quit supporting it. That would be a terrible mistake, I think, from a national security point of view, from an economic interest point of view, and from a humanitarian point of view.

KELEMEN: The U.S. is tripling its non-military aid to Pakistan. It's also boosting assistance to Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, which is facing civil strife and trying to contain al-Qaida militants. A top State Department official said it may not be easy to work on poverty reduction programs in that environment, but without development, the official said, you'll ever have security. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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