Posted by: davidjolson | 01/08/2010

Are Dr. Shah’s elbows sharp enough to succeed at USAID?

This post was written by Legislative Associate Chris Bennett.

With the ascension of Dr. Rajiv Shah to the top job at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the obvious next question is how effective will he be? For months the development community has been clamoring for a nominee to lead the struggling agency and now they have their administrator. By all accounts Dr. Shah, seems to be an impressive individual with an impressive resume. For more on Dr. Shah, see his testimony before the  Senate Foreign Relations Committee or his speech following his swearing-in ceremony.

My first impressions of Dr. Shah were made when I attended his Senate confirmation hearing last month. As I walked into 419 Dirksen on that cold December morning, I felt energy in the room that I had not expected. The recognition that “development is a discipline” as Dr. Shah put it in his testimony, struck me as I saw the genuine interest and intrigue that his confirmation hearing had generated. When you combine that observation with Secretary of State Clinton’s announcement that she wanted “USAID to be the premiere development agency in the world” and Secretary of Defense Gates’ emphasis on diplomacy and development as tools of U.S. foreign policy, it seems that the “Discipline of Development” has strong support in Washington.

As the hearing began, I noticed there were at least 10 senators in attendance, a fact that more than one senator saw fit to point out. To these veterans of hundreds of confirmation hearings, the interest in development — and USAID — was palpable. As the questioning began, each senator led by Chairman John Kerry and followed by Ranking Member Richard Lugar, reiterated their support for the agency and stressed their belief that development is an integral and vital aspect of our foreign policy. It was clear from that Congress supports the idea of a strong USAID with a powerful administrator.

Which brings me to my final point: What happens next? The Global Health Council and civil society in general have long emphasized the important role that development plays in achieving our foreign policy objectives. This idea seems to be gaining momentum both on the hill and within the administration. But differences remain on how to accomplish this goal. Currently, there seems to be debate within the administration as to whether the development activities should be housed in the State Department under an OGAC-like process or whether a stronger USAID is needed. Congress, it seems, prefers the latter. But, like many things in Washington, it may be more complicated. Vested interests, interagency squabbles and a fight for scarce resources may have more of an impact on Dr. Shah’s success than his undeniable competence or IQ.

Not only will Dr. Shah have to be impressive, commanding and knowledgeable, he must have “sharp elbows.” He must find a way to advocate for USAID’s mission and importance within a crowded and unforgiving bureaucracy. He will have to fight for more resources in a time when resources seem to be increasingly scarce. He has to, as more than one senator inquired, be able to report directly to Secretary Clinton.

Senator Lugar opened up his questioning of Dr. Shah with the observation that “Even as the important role of foreign assistance has come into sharper focus, policy makers have under-resourced USAID to such an extent that other agencies have stepped in to fill the gap.” The real question then, is not whether Dr. Shah is qualified, but whether he will be an effective USAID advocate within the bureaucracy. After all, we all know that government agencies don’t just give up the resources and power they have acquired over the years without a fight.

Let’s hope Dr. Shah’s real strength is his “sharp elbows.”

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