Almost four months to the day after taking the helm of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Administrator Rajiv Shah Wednesday articulated his vision for the organization he hopes to restore as the global leader in development.
The town hall event, sponsored by MFAN partner U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, marked Shah’s first major speech to the development community, and followed his own town-hall session with USAID employees earlier in the day. Shah set the stage by underscoring that the time for reform was upon us. “Back when I was sworn in, I talked about my belief that we have a narrow window of opportunity to elevate development,” he said. “To capture the moment, we have to actively seize this opportunity. We have to act quickly, and differently, or we risk losing our chance.”
Shah led off with a recounting of his experience overseeing the U.S. government’s disaster response in Haiti, which consumed him barely five days after being sworn in. He spoke frankly about how “development fell short in building sustainable markets or strong local institutions capable of protecting Haitians from such devastation.” Upon setting foot in Haiti and witnessing the devastation, he vowed to make the U.S. intervention there the most successful Haiti had ever seen and “hopefully the last.”
He went on to laud the skills and efforts of USAID staff, and how, at their best, he saw them as aspirational “development entrepreneurs.” “We need to bring this sense of urgency, sense of focus, and ability to innovate to all of our work,” Shah urged. He even recalled the tough love he received recently from Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, when he appeared before the panel to defend the President’s FY11 budget request for USAID: “So it’s been made pretty clear to me – our time to change is now, and our time to change is short.”
Shah reinforced the uniqueness of this opportunity for reform by pointing to the strong commitment to elevate development from President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and Secretary of Defense Gates: “That opportunity is built on a newfound knowledge of what leads to successful development, new levels of political support at the highest levels of this government, and a unity of purpose amongst many powerful partners both across and outside of government.” He highlighted the expansiveness of today’s development community, which is no longer limited to the walls of USAID and now includes “the church groups who advocate for humanitarian relief, the Baby Boomers who forego a comfortable retirement to join the Peace Corps, and the college students who oversubscribe courses on development.” He went on to say, “This inspiring level of engagement, this new generation of change, is exactly what we need to tap into.”
He then explained that he would be taking a “distinctively American approach to development,” including traditional hallmarks of dedication, innovation, risk taking, and entrepreneurship. This comparative advantage will entail focusing on individual empowerment at USAID and abroad, promoting private enterprise, and demanding good governance, performance, and accountability.
Shah referenced the soon-to-be-completed Presidential Study Directive on U.S. Global Development Policy (PSD-7), which “for the first time ever, will focus our development efforts around a limited number of goals.” He then laid out his own priorities for USAID: 1) a commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, with the President’s Global Hunger and Food Security and Global Health Initiatives as examples of this; 2) an investment in country-owned models of inclusive growth and development success; 3) finding new ways to leverage science and technology to develop and deliver tools and innovations that can lead to exponential growth and transformational change; and 4) bringing USAID’s longstanding development expertise to bear in conflict situations and complex emergencies.
In closing, Shah announced he would be introducing a new policy bureau at USAID along with budget reforms this month, followed by procurement reforms and HR management systems this summer, and substantial monitoring, evaluation, and transparency improvements in the fall. “Restoring these core capacities is essential to rebuilding our reputation as development innovators,” he said.
He also pledged to strengthen relations with Congress, noting that “for USAID, that means being responsive, candid, and humble when addressing Capitol Hill… The bargain, I hope, will be more trust and flexibility to allow our professionals to do what they do best.”
During the question and answer session, Shah touched on several reform principles: the need for transparency regarding information and the budget, establishing an open and ongoing dialogue with key stakeholders in Congress, deepening coordination and strengthening the civilian-military relationship in conflict zones, and committing to long-term investments for long-term growth.
For more details, watch the video of Shah’s speech here.