Rajiv Shah, USAID director, on tackling global hunger and why women lead the way

Rajiv Shah, director of USAID, says Feed the Future will focus on improving the agricultural systems of at least 20 countries.
Rajiv Shah, director of USAID, says Feed the Future will focus on improving the agricultural systems of at least 20 countries. (Khalil Senosi/associated Press)
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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010

The number of people suffering from hunger has now topped 1 billion globally -- the highest since 1970, according to the United Nations. U.S. foreign-aid director Rajiv Shah, 37, recently presented the Obama administration's strategy to tackle the food crisis.

"Feed the Future" will focus on improving the agricultural systems of at least 20 countries. It's part of an international effort that could benefit 40 million poor people over a decade, officials say.

Shah, a medical doctor who heads the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, came to agriculture through a circuitous route. In a former job at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he analyzed high-impact ways to help the poor. That led him to focus on farming. He didn't just crunch numbers, though; he spent time working on a Montana farm "to get my boots dirty."

"I fell in love with it," he said.

Q: What's the main way in which Feed the Future differs from what the U.S. government did before?

A: Probably the most important is the level of political commitment and engagement across the entire federal government. In the past, we've done good projects but often small projects . . . that didn't really tie together and lead to a real transformation of that country's agriculture and its situation with respect to hunger.

Can you give an example of a country where you're introducing this?

I just got back from Bangladesh [where there are] 160 million people . . . about 40 million of whom suffer from chronic hunger. . . . We worked for many months at a high level with their government, civil society and the private sector, as well as international donors and partners who could really help focus on this program. . . . It's about following the lead of the countries we work in, as opposed to designing solutions from Washington or Rome or New York.

Farming sounds like something the U.S. government did back in the '60s and '70s. Why focus on it now?


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