New USAID Head Offers His Take On Development

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton swore in Thursday the new administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which handles foreign aid. Rajiv Shah, 36, is the son of Indian immigrants and a medical doctor who worked on agricultural development at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Shah tells NPR's Melissa Block his views on development, its intersection with national security and some of the projects the agency will tackle.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton often talks about a 3-D approach to national security: defense, diplomacy and development. And today, she swore in a man who will be in charge of that last D: the new administrator of USAID, the Agency for International Development, which handles foreign aid. His name is Rajiv Shah. He is young, 36-years-old, the son of Indian immigrants. He has only recently come to government work. He is a medical doctor by training, worked on agricultural development with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And now, he is heading an agency that's been terribly neglected and depleted in recent years. Rajiv Shah joins us to talk about his new assignment. Welcome to the program.

Dr. RAJIV SHAH (Administrator, United States Agency for International Development): Thank you. Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And what do you see the intersection being between development aid to foreign countries and national security here at home?

Dr. SHAH: Well, I think it's important to recognize we do development for two reasons. We both do it because it's the right thing to do. When we are able to help everyone on this planet or as many people as we can live up to their God-given potential, that's an extension of American values and that helps improve our world. And it's important for us to do. But we also do it because it's in our self interest, that it is important to our national security and a vital aspect of our foreign policy.

BLOCK: I can imagine though that there would be lots of times when those three pillars of national security, the 3-Ds - defense, diplomacy and development -might be in opposition to each other, not necessarily working in tandem, that a defense goal might be in direct contrast to what you might want to do for development in a country.

Dr. SHAH: Well, actually our development aspect of foreign policy is about creating the very conditions, the stable societies, economic growth opportunities, ensuring that women and girls have access to health and education and the ability to lead productive lives. Those are the types of conditions that should allow us to not need more foreign assistance, and hopefully not need military intervention.

BLOCK: But let's think of an example. For instance, in Afghanistan: I mean, you and Secretary Clinton have both talked about integrating development with defense and diplomatic efforts in the field. But, if you're an Afghan farmer and you're interested in learning how to grow a new crop, turning away from opium poppies, but if you also know that USAID is working in conjunction with U.S. military, isn't that a conflict? Isn't there a tension there?

Dr. SHAH: I think the opposite is the case, you know. That's a great example, because there are some parts of Afghanistan where there are many Afghani farmers trying to do exactly what you describe and move away from opium to other forms of high value production. And USAID is working together with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other civilian assistance agencies on the ground to make sure that we can create effective trade and market opportunities for those farmers. And it's in fact the security provided by our defense pillar and it's the security provided by the Afghan government themselves that allows for that development effort to be effective and successful.

BLOCK: You don't think that it might also dissuade some farmers from cooperating if they were afraid of being seen as working in tandem with U.S. military?

Dr. SHAH: Well - and that's why there is something else the secretary has highlighted that becomes very important. And that is doing our work in deep partnership with the people we serve and their country government, their country leadership. No country has ever developed itself and no community has developed itself from the outside. Those are decisions that have to be made locally and pursued locally. And then we can work in partnership with those local leaders and local efforts to help them be more successful.

BLOCK: When you think about the countries that become the focus of our development aid, I wonder how you try to sort through places that might be politically important, strategically important to the United States and focus on those, but at the same time, not neglecting countries that really may have no geopolitical importance to the United States, but are in dire need of help?

Dr. SHAH: Well, I would just offer some examples. We are pursuing and the president has committed to a three and half billion dollar commitment to a food security initiative because for the first time in decades, there are now more than a billion people that go to bed every night hungry because they haven't gotten enough food to meet their basic calorie needs. We know we have a set of solutions to that problem that are based primarily in agricultural development and human nutrition and better program and resource delivery to poor rural communities.

And we are pursuing that effort in places where it's most appropriate and where we can be most effective at reducing the numbers of the hungry and the malnourished at large scale. These are all parts of a very broad and important USAID mission of activities. And so, we're excited to be executing all of these things. And really do believe that the core theme of results and accountability and doing this work in deep partnership applies as much to those efforts as it does to the way we might work in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Yemen.

BLOCK: I've been wondering about your role coming from your work with the Gates Foundation, where I'm assuming you had a fair amount of nimbleness. If you came up with an idea on Tuesday, maybe by the next week, you could have that sort of up and running, I'm guessing. I'm not sure it would work that way in a big government bureaucracy that you're coming into and I wonder if you think there might be a bit of a cultural shock for you here.

Dr. SHAH: Well, I have had a few months now of getting to know and meet some of the great leaders here at USAID. They bring a lot of talent and a lot of capacity to solve problems. We are also going to do things a little bit differently: bring in outside expertise and become more of a coordinating platform so that we can work with private sector innovators, like the Gates Foundation, or work with other foreign entities that are involved in development and bring their ideas in house and partner better and coordinate better with them, all for the purpose of delivering better results for the people we serve. So, that people standing in line for immunizations in a health clinic outside of a city in Mali can actually get immunizations for their kids. Or, so that women farmers trying to make - grow enough food for their family and their community can do that in places like Kenya or Senegal or Rwanda.

BLOCK: What do you think your training as a doctor brings to your new role as head of AID?

Dr. SHAH: That's a great question. I haven't practiced medicine a lot very recently. But, you know, you go into medicine because you want to serve individuals. And I went into medicine because there is something deeply gratifying about being able to help a patient who is in a situation where they really are needing that technical help and doing that in a way that demonstrates compassion and that is respectful to patients. You know, in the same way, I think that the ability to be at an agency that's fundamentally about improving the human condition for hundreds of millions or billions of people around the world, and an agency that has a history of having saved millions of lives so that - you know, those are millions of families where mothers don't have to bury children. And that's deeply, deeply meaningful. And so this is just a great opportunity. I'm very excited and I'm very honored to be able to be here.

BLOCK: Rajiv Shah is the new administrator for USAID, the agency for international development. Dr. Shah, thanks for talking with us.

Dr. SHAH: Thank you, Melissa.

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