Leadership at USAID
President Obama's announcement this week of Dr. Rajiv Shah as his candidate to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has refocused attention on a critical policy question: What does America want from its development aid program? This question is of more than academic interest.
Its answer has much to do, first, with how the U.S. government should structure its foreign policy establishment. That is, what relative roles, in the 21st century should USAID, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the range of domestic departments with partial international mandates (Treasury, Commerce, Agriculture, Homeland Security, and others) play in driving events overseas? Second, the answer has important implications for America's geo-strategic relations and bilateral partners, especially close allies in Europe and Japan. For years, these partners which tend to rely more heavily than the United States on development aid as an implement of national policy have been seeking more clarity on the objectives of U.S. foreign assistance. To many of these partners, as indeed for many within the Beltway, U.S. development aid appears to be a complex, contradictory welter of special interest earmarks, with no unifying strategic theme. Third, and most important, "whither USAID and development aid?" is critically important for the "Bottom Billion," those impoverished men, women, and children in the developing world for whom decisions in far-off Washington and other world capitals have painfully direct impact on their chances for a decent life, and their degree of hopelessness. Indeed, the current PSD, QDDR and other examinations in Washington, while couched in terms of Washington policies and bureaucratic structures, are really about one central question: Will the U.S. government rebuild a center of excellence (a long-term development agency) that focuses on the systems changes required to eradicate poverty in the Third World, or will "foreign aid be linked to foreign policy?" shorthand for casting overboard the long-term, poverty-reduction paradigm. Naturally, with these policy issues in the balance, Washington policymakers are asking: Who is Dr. Rajiv Shah, President Obama's nominee to head USAID?
Given Dr. Shah's relative youth, and limited knowledge about him within the international development community, that question is natural, and interesting. But, in terms of the larger issue of how USAID and American development aid will evolve, I would argue that Dr. Shah's specific background and qualifications are of secondary interest. The really big questions are about where the USAID Administrator will sit, and with whom he will speak. As has been widely reported, USAID's relative policy influence has declined in recent years and, along with it, the long-term, systems change perspective. Much of that decline emanates from the period in the 1990s when former Senator Jesse Helms, in what some would consider a quintessential moment of strategic blindness, drove legislation eliminating the U.S. Information Agency and forcing USAID's Administrator to report to the Secretary of State. Since that time, senior-most U.S. policymakers, from the President on down, have not had direct access to a long-term-perspective, international development voice when considering foreign policy issues. At Cabinet meetings, at senior OMB budget meetings, at senior National Security Council meetings, the focus on the Bottom Billion has been missing. The President hears about long-term investment in the Developing World through the filter of the Secretary of State, ensuring that analyses will be colored by immediate political/military imperatives. The absence of senior USAID officials from the current White House discussion on Afghanistan policy is but the latest manifestation of this arrangement. So, in short, the real issue of leadership at USAID has only something to do with Dr. Rajiv Shah's background and management skills.
I, for one, wish him the very best, if he is confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The real question is whether President Obama is paying attention, and if he wants to hear, in his senior-most councils, a clearly enunciated voice for the Bottom Billion and for a long-term change perspective. Given the obvious relationship between world poverty, hopelessness, lack of democratic opportunities, and illiteracy, on the one hand, and instability and extremism on the other, one would expect that the President would insist on inviting Dr. Shah to relevant Cabinet meetings, NSC "Principals" sessions, and senior OMB reviews. A clearly enunciated long-term development perspective might make some such meetings more contentious, and would certainly challenge the currently prevailing geostrategic logic. But, it might just make U.S. foreign policy a bit more effective, and more focused on the real drivers of conflict in the planet's tortured realms.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.