A Difficult Job Done Well

By Rosa Whitaker

Outgoing US Agency for International Development administrator Rajiv Shah has been receiving richly deserved plaudits in a round of farewells over the past few weeks.  I regret I could not be there to thank and congratulate him in person at the celebration on Wednesday hosted by, among others, Bono’s The ONE Campaign and Cargill & Partners in Food Solutions.  I asked Simon Barber, who’s helping us out on the communications front, to sub for me and he says it was quite an evening — even though Bono himself also had to send his regrets (via video) because of a recent bicycling accident in New York’s Central Park.

For the past six years, Raj, as he’s widely known, held down one of the toughest jobs in Washington with real distinction.

There’s a strain of thought in the American body politic which holds  that if we just stopped wasting taxpayer dollars on mendicant foreigners in Africa, Latin America, South Asia and other distant places we would balance our budget in no time.  That’s nonsense, of course. What America spends on development assistance is less than one per cent of the federal budget.  But some myths are hard to dispel and dispelling this one is a big part of the USAID administrator’s unwritten job description.

Another huge challenge is making sure that what little money there is — relatively speaking — is spent wisely and effectively in ways that really do make a sustained difference in the lives of otherwise marginalised people.   That takes real political skill. The allocation of resources, aka the taxpayer’s money, is basically what politics is all about; the scarcer the resources and the greater the array of competing claims on them, the tougher the politics.

Raj  has made a difference because, in his irrepressibly passionate way, he has been able to transcend Washington’s often brutal political battle lines. As Foreign Policy reported last December:

Shah managed to maintain a glowing reputation on Capitol Hill, even among the most ardently conservative Republicans. “What I like most about Raj is he makes it easy for people of different political backgrounds to support him,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a hawkish Republican from South Carolina, said last week. Speaking at a dinner organized by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC), a group that advocates for a strong foreign aid budget, Graham marveled at Shah’s ability to defend USAID’s budget at time of heightened partisanship and ever-tightening fiscal constraints. “If you can convince Tom Coburn [that foreign aid] is a good deal, you should open up your own shop,” Graham said, referring to the famously conservative Oklahoma senator.

At Wednesday’s event, Simon tells me, USAID’s COO and my former colleague at USTR, Margie Sullivan said (and I absolutely concur):

…at a personal level, what I was really struck by was just your natural ability to work across the aisle, to bond with Republicans, bond with faith leaders — it was really a sweet spot.

Margie then shared an anecdote:

I will always remember the day he came into my office, his eyes were so wide, and he says, “You know I’m a Hindu, what do you know about Jesus Christ?” That conversation turned out to be what was the beginning of  one of the most effective national prayer breakfast speeches ever delivered — for all of us.

You can read the full speech by clicking on this link,  and I think you’ll agree with Margie’s assessment. Here’s a flavor:

This morning, I want to share an overarching purpose worthy of this room that has come together to follow the teachings of Jesus: Let us work together to end extreme poverty in our lifetime.

Because this is now achievable, but only if all of us—from science, business, government, and faith—come together for the poor.

We can end extreme poverty for the 1.1 billion people who live on a dollar-and-a-quarter a day.

We can end it for the 860 million people who will go to sleep hungry tonight.

And we can end it for the 6.6 million children who will die this year before their 5th birthday.

As terrible as these numbers are, they do not adequately describe what poverty is—and what poverty does.

It drains our basic human dignity.

And if we’re being honest, it sometimes drains our compassion for those who suffer.

But there is good news of a practical nature to report.

On continent after continent, a smaller share of people live this way than at any other time in our history.

And today, we know that a condition that defined the state of humanity when Jesus walked the earth and only started getting better in the last 200 years can actually be nearly eliminated in the next 20.

Jesus’s teachings—like those of so many faiths—clearly call on us to practice our faith the hard way by serving the least fortunate.  

Governments can’t do this by themselves. Businesses can’t do this alone. Faith communities and charitable efforts alone are not enough.

But together, we are making astonishing progress—thanks to the leadership of President Obama, the presidents of both parties before him, and so many of you in this room.

And I believe that the spirit of this prayer breakfast is essential to strengthening our hearts and uniting our efforts to finish this mission.

What Raj also believed was that if USAID was to a truly effective partner in fulfilling this mission, it was going to have to change many of the ways in which it did business. He pushed through many imaginative and badly needed reforms on his watch.  There’s a lot left still to do.

Sadly, too much money still going to  Washington insiders who know how to game the system  without being held accountable via tangible performance measures.

Let’s start by barring former USAID employees from benefitting from or managing USAID money for five years after they leave the agency. That would to end the cycle of shameless nepotism that poisons the aid contracting system.

If we are going to preach transparency and crusade against corruption in Africa,  we should exemplify the changes we want to see in Africa.  We would never tolerate US tax dollars being circulated opaquely among the same few insiders under the guise  of development the way it is in the USAID  world.  Aid should be demand and performance driven.  More resources should be disbursed on the ground and less inside the aid bureaucracy.

USAID’s primary goal should be to work itself out of business.  And when farmers say that they need more irrigation for rice production rather than education through lectures from Western millennials, USAID should listen, learn and adjust its approach instead of investing in models that don’t deliver results.

Rajiv Shah, to his undying credit, understood that and made an excellent start. Washington has certainly not see the last of him.