New International Anti-Poverty Strategy Came from Seattle

by | November 18, 2014

By Kyung M. Song

When Alan Mulally _ the Boeing-honcho-turned-savior at Ford Motor Co. _ spoke at a U.S. Agency for International Development town hall last year, he gave Rajiv Shah one piece of inspiration.

"He said, 'You guys have the greatest mission in the world,' " recalled Shah, the former Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation official who now leads USAID, the nation's chief dispenser of humanitarian relief and foreign aid. The famously ebullient Mulally urged Shah to put the agency's goal in writing and "walk around with it and look at it day to day and just feel good."

Six months later, Shah had done exactly that.

In January, USAID began distributing small cards with its 17-word statement of purpose, to "partner to end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies."

The cards attest to Shah's admiration for Mulally and his management methods, including rigorous business reviews to confront and solve problems _ a tactic Shah, the son of a Ford engineer, has also adopted.

More significantly, however, the new mission statement embodies the Obama administration's approach to international development _ stretching American aid dollars by tapping corporations, private foundations, academia and foreign governments for money and ingenuity.

It's a philosophy Shah has advanced during his five years at the helm of the $21 billion agency. An arm of the State Department, USAID has diverse missions that span the globe, from teaching children to read in rural Ghana and feeding refugees in South Sudan to working to prevent HIV/AIDS, childbirth complications and other preventable conditions that kill millions of people each year.

At the same time, Shah has elevated scientific and technological innovations and continuous evaluation as development tools, a mindset he honed during his seven years working for the Gates Foundation in Seattle. Last month, Shah, a trained physician, came to Seattle to announce USAID would put up $5 million in grants to quickly help develop cooler, more-breathable protective suits for health care workers responding to Ebola outbreaks in West Africa. Shah modeled his agency's Grand Challenges for Development after the Gates Foundation's decade-old Grand Challenges, a global incubator for promising solutions to eradicate diseases, improve health and reduce poverty.

The Ebola challenge drew 1,000 submissions in four weeks, USAID's most ever.

Shah's vision and execution have won him high-powered admirers, among them corporate titans, lawmakers on Capitol Hill and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Yet USAID's new strategy has sown controversy, too. Some large American contractors have complained about the loss of business after USAID tightened financial oversight and spread more work to smaller firms and to local groups overseas.

Shah has set an ambitious target _ one he is unlikely to hit _ of directing 30 percent of USAID's direct awards to local organizations by fiscal 2015, up from 9.7 percent in fiscal 2010.

Critics also have been leery of USAID's embrace of big business. The agency has partnered with Wal-Mart _ the retail behemoth often criticized for the number of its low-wage employees who rely on food stamps and other public assistance _ to help farmers in Central America sell their crops as part of an initiative to enhance food security.

And in 2011, USAID announced a pilot program with Monsanto, the St. Louis-based agricultural chemicals and genetically modified seeds company, to distribute higher-yield hybrid maize seeds in Nepal. The news triggered protests in Katmandu, partly amid fears it would make local farmers dependent on imported seeds.

Protests also broke out in Haiti after the earthquake-devastated nation received some 500 tons of Monsanto hybrid seeds, which require new seed purchases annually, in a USAID-brokered donation.

Shah defends such partnerships as essential to a more entrepreneurial approach to development. A standard line in his speeches is that USAID's goal is to "work ourselves out of business."

The United States, he says, can't simply keep writing checks in order to combat global poverty and strife that impinge on its national security. Only large-scale, sustainable solutions may break the cycle of crises that strike sub-Saharan African nations and other poor countries that receive the bulk of global aid.

Ever since then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tapped him in November 2009 to head USAID, Shah has maintained a whirlwind pace. He has taken more than 170 trips to 44 countries and nearly half the states.

He makes regular forays into the world's poorest spots. His schedule is so packed that after he finished a speech recently at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., he was ferried one block back to USAID headquarters by car.

Affable and trim, Shah retains a collegiate air despite his 41 years. He is a Detroit native and first-generation Indian-American. Shah admits his hectic work life is a challenge for him and his wife, Shivam Mallick Shah, a former U.S. Department of Education official who now is senior adviser at America Achieves, an education-reform group whose funders include the Gates Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The couple met as graduate students at the London School of Economics. They married in May 2000, after Shah flew to India to propose at the Taj Mahal.

They live in Washington, D.C.'s Cleveland Park neighborhood along with their three young children, including a 4-year-old son so rambunctious Rajiv Shah once described him as "quasi violent."

Shah said his experience at the Gates Foundation was formative. He started there in December 2001, when he was 28. The following year, he earned his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, as well as an MBA from the Wharton School. His wife subsequently jointed him at the Gates Foundation, working on education issues for five years.

Rajiv Shah held four titles in seven years, including director of agricultural development and director of strategic opportunities.

"I learned at lot from Bill and Melinda about solving problems," he said. At the Gates Foundation, Shah's other bosses included Sylvia Mathews Burwell, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and former president of the Walmart Foundation, and Patty Stonesifer, now president and chief executive of Martha's Table, a Washington, D.C., food bank and family services charity.

Shah left the Gates Foundation in 2009 after being appointed an undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Six months later, Clinton called to offer him the top post at USAID, which had been vacant during the first year of Obama's presidency.

Shah inherited an agency buffeted by a leadership vacuum and loss of autonomy, and taxed by huge rebuilding responsibilities in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Under the George W. Bush administration, USAID's policymaking and budget authority was usurped by the State Department. The agency's worldwide personnel numbered some 8,000, little more than half its size in 1970. Since then, Shah has added more than 1,000 employees, some of them financial experts plucked from Wall Street after the Great Recession.

Shah oversees an agency with a $20.9 billion budget for fiscal 2013.

USAID committed $17.1 billion of that to various projects. By comparison, the Gates Foundation, the world's richest philanthropy, in 2013 gave out $3.6 billion in grants.

(c)2014 The Seattle Times