The son of Indian immigrants from Ann Arbor, Mich., and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and the Wharton School of Business, Rajiv Shah began his career at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where he ran the organization's agriculture program and went on to serve as chief scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In December 2009, at the age of 37, he was sworn in as head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) -- only days before a devastating earthquake hit Haiti.
In an interview for Foreign Policy, Samuel Loewenberg spoke with Shah about how he is reinventing USAID, an often-embattled agency charged with helping the world's poorest countries develop, while at the same time dealing with crises around the globe.
Foreign Policy: Dr. Shah, you've hopscotched your way into running the U.S. foreign aid agency at a relatively young age after a career at the Gates Foundation. How does your Gates experience shape your approach?
Rajiv Shah: What was great about the opportunity to work with Bill and Melinda Gates and their very talented team was this insistence that when we were making financial commitments to address a problem, we were going to be business-like in ensuring that we literally solved that problem over time. Both at USDA and certainly at USAID, I've tried to bring that business-like rigor and the tendency to ask questions -- some would say I ask far too many questions -- to make sure that when we're spending taxpayer resources, we're doing it with that absolute focus that we are making an investment against generating a result.
FP: Fixing the world is a lot more complicated than fixing Microsoft Windows -- and even that usually doesn't go very well. Foreign aid -- and USAID in particular -- is frequently criticized as doing more harm than good. What did you find when you arrived at the agency?
RS: When I joined, we launched a strategy review of our areas of work. We looked at our education investments, for instance, and decided they were not generating as much results as they could. While we got 39 million additional kids into schools over the last 12 years in sub-Saharan Africa, literacy levels hadn't moved up. In some cases, they had even gone down, as schools got more crowded and the quality of instruction waned. So we built a data tool that allows us to, at a very low cost and very rapidly, assess literacy outcomes at grade level for primary school kids. That's why it is important to measure outcomes and develop strategies focused on results.
FP: The Republican-led House of Representatives has been trying to cut the foreign assistance budget. If I'm a congressman, tell me why it is in America's interest to help people overseas when we have so many problems at home?
RS: President Obama and Secretary [of State] Clinton are elevating development and crisis response as part of our foreign policy. At the end of the day, without stability, you cannot get economic development. At the same time, security is ultimately linked to economic stability. [Former Defense] Secretary Gates was right when he said development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers. Right now, Americans think that foreign aid is 20 percent of our federal budget, but in fact it is less than 1 percent. And for that 1 percent we are able to generate real concrete results.
FP: USAID frequently gets criticized for wasteful practices and spending millions on U.S. contractors without doing much to help the countries you are ostensibly trying to help.
RS: Under the prior administration we saw a 40 percent decline in our staffing coupled with a 300 percent increase in our programmatic responsibilities, especially in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. That led to the problem of outsourcing way too much work to contractors and doing it without enough oversight. We will shift $4 to $6 billion annually to local institutions and small-scale efforts that we can manage and document carefully. These efforts will strengthen the private sector and governments, and reduce the need for aid over time.