Obama picks agriculture expert Rajiv Shah to lead USAID

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

President Obama on Tuesday named a 36-year-old doctor and agriculture expert to head the U.S. Agency for International Development, filling what lawmakers and aid experts had called a glaring vacancy on a key foreign-policy front.

The nominee, Rajiv Shah, had been undersecretary of agriculture since June and previously worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest private charity.

Development experts praised the young doctor but said he would need increased authority to revive the beleaguered agency, known as USAID. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are working to rebuild the agency, whose full-time staff has shrunk by about 40 percent over two decades.

Shah "has very impressive credentials and knows many of the sectors we work in, in development, agriculture and health," said J. Brian Atwood, who led USAID in the 1990s. But he and other development veterans say the agency has been weakened in recent years as its budget and policy functions have been folded into the State Department.

"I hope he has assurances he'll have the authorities he needs to get a very difficult job done," Atwood said.

Obama has laid out an ambitious agenda on foreign assistance: pledging to double it to $50 billion a year, make economic development a pillar of his strategy in Afghanistan and push for a $20 billion program in conjunction with other countries to fight hunger.

Shah's nomination, which must be approved by the Senate, comes as the White House and the State Department are studying how to redesign a U.S. aid system widely viewed as uncoordinated and wasteful. In addition, Congress is considering overhauling the 1960s-era legislation governing assistance.

"What you have, in the administration and in Congress, is a profound recognition that something needs to change," said Paul O'Brien, vice president for advocacy at Oxfam America. Shah, he said, "could be the architect" of those changes.

Shah, whose family emigrated from India, holds an MD and a master's in health economics and gained political experience advising Al Gore's presidential campaign on health-care policy. He was deeply involved with international vaccine efforts at the Gates Foundation and led Agriculture Department efforts on the Obama administration's food security initiative, part of a global campaign to help small farmers get more food to the hungry.

"He has a personal passion and commitment to this mission, and I think he's got a style that will allow him to energize people over at USAID," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a telephone interview.

The 10-month search for a USAID director was complicated by the Obama administration's strict vetting procedures, as well as uncertainty about how much authority the agency director would have, according to aid experts.

Clinton is deeply interested in development and wants to link it more to diplomacy. That worries some aid groups, which fear that projects with little short-term political payoff may be short-changed.

Aid experts said Shah had helped write a speech on food security that Clinton delivered in September, demonstrating her trust in him.

The secretary of state, who oversees USAID, said Tuesday that, if confirmed, Shah would "bring an impressive record of accomplishment and a deep understanding of what works in development to his role."

Staff writer Al Kamen contributed to this report.

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