Rajiv Shah served as the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development from January 2010 to February 2015. After leaving the organization, he joined the faculty of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service on March 1, where he currently serves as a distinguished fellow-in-residence, working primarily with the Global Human Development Program.
As part of his introduction to campus, Shah spoke on March 31 in Lohrfink Auditorium about the role of development in U.S. foreign policy, continuing the semester-long conversation about development on campus led by the Global Futures Initiative.
In an interview with The Hoya, Shah reflected on his term as USAID administrator and underlined the substantive role the university had to play in the global discussion on economic and humanitarian development.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Hoya: Why did you decide to leave USAID?
Shah: I think I’m the second longest-serving administrator in USAID history at almost five-and-a-half years of service, and I have greatly valued very single day of service, but I have three young kids and it was time to transition. I stayed longer than I had expected because we were in the midst of fighting back Ebola in West Africa and I was playing a key role in leading that effort, so I wanted to see that through. After the numbers got down to a more manageable level and I was confident that a system was in place to win the fight against Ebola, I made my transition.
Why did you select Georgetown? What do you hope to achieve here?
I think President [John J.] DeGioia and leaders like [Global Human Development Program Director and former USAID Chief Economist] Steve Radelet have a vision for Georgetown playing a unique and important role in contributing to the policy debate and creating the big new ideas that lead to change in how America projects power around the world. I am most excited about the chance to meet students who are just so excited to change the world and shape the world for good and are committed to that vision, whether it’s ending poverty or preventing conflict or protecting those who are vulnerable. I have found that students here in particular have a unique commitment to that goal and I just enjoy being able to be here and being inspired by being able to meet with them.
Do you plan to teach at Georgetown? How will you interact with students, and what do you bring to the university?
I have a series of regular lunches with students they have pulled together for me. I am teaching and guest lecturing in a variety of courses, delivering some larger policy speeches as part of the Global Futures Seminar, which has been an outstanding seminar in bringing in real talent and a really exciting space for thought on campus. I’m also planning on doing some writing while I’m here. We’ll see how long I plan to stay, hopefully a while.
The university recently launched the Global Futures program to engage with global issues, focusing this year on the question of development. In line with that, what role can the university play in the development mission?
The university is unique in that you have a phenomenal business school, you have a great School of Foreign Service, you have a large number of undergraduates with a uniquely global worldview in the heart of Washington, D.C. where so much happens in foreign policy and development. I also think the Jesuit nature and founding principles of the school lends itself to the service mission that is represented by development. What I have found by spending much of my career at the Gates Foundation and then USAID and [the U.S. Department of Agriculture], with a focus on helping the most vulnerable people in the world, that’s a very purposeful way to spend your career. It’s as personally rewarding as it is professionally engaging because you feel that your life has a sense of purpose, so I think this is a great purpose for Georgetown. I’d love to see more students commit themselves — whether they’re studying business or science or technology or humanities — to have a chance to touch and make life better for those who suffer around the world. It’s a deeply rewarding experience and I’m hopeful that my time here can make that happen a little bit.
How can students engage questions of poverty and inequality, both in the classroom and outside it?
No matter what discipline you are studying, you should know — if you’re a student here at Georgetown — that your work has the potential to improve the quality of life for people who are poor or vulnerable around the world.
As our world comes together and is increasingly interconnected, that gives you the power to shape how that world comes together over the next 10 or 15 years and much longer. I just think that finding opportunities to be exposed to the global fight against extreme poverty is probably one of the most rewarding things you can do as a student on this campus over the course of your tenure here and I hope more and more students will have that opportunity.
When you started at USAID, there were questions about the future of the organization, including whether it might be absorbed into the State Department. Now, it seems more stable and established. How did that transition take place?
USAID has an incredible mission, and the mission is to end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic society all around the world. Together with President Barack Obama, Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton and Secretary [of State John] Kerry, we all felt that we should elevate the role of development and of that mission in our foreign policy and that we would best do that by reinvesting in having the world’s best development enterprise in the United States government.
During my tenure, we significantly increased our staffing at USAID, hired in a large number of new foreign service officers. We grew our budgets significantly, and perhaps most importantly, we demanded accountability and results against our core mission. As a result, I think today USAID is on a much stronger footing, has tremendous bipartisan support, and America is poised to continue its leadership in development and humanitarian affairs, which has persisted now for more than six decades.
What was the biggest challenge facing USAID when you began, and how did you face it?
My first week on the job was the Haiti earthquake, and so the most immediate challenge we had was that President Obama had asked me to lead a whole of government, civilian and military efforts to help Haiti get back on its feet. In an instant, more than 250,000 people had died and we had to mount the largest and, in many respects, one of the most courageous humanitarian responses ever seen. I think we did so successfully over the course of the next three to four months. So that was my immediate challenge.
In a broader sense, USAID and America’s lead in development had really waned over the course of maybe several decades, and the task of rebuilding, reinvigorating, reestablishing USAID as a global leader of development policy and practice was the bigger task at hand.
USAID has a dual role directing humanitarian responses to crises and handling long-term development missions. When faced with crises such as Haiti, Syria, Ebola that were nearly impossible to predict, how did you prevent those immediate crises from distracting from and overwhelming the long-term development mission?
Partly by recognizing that increasingly, the mission is one and the same. There was a big earthquake in Chile right after the big earthquake in Haiti, but it didn’t destroy Chilean society because of preparedness and capacity and a higher income country being better able to respond. Similarly, had Ebola hit countries with more capable health systems, you would not have seen the explosive pandemic threat that emerged in three fragile West African states.
So one of the things we’ve done is bring together humanitarian and development efforts because we recognize that over the next 15 to 20 years, countries that are fragile — that have been characterized by a weak governance and high rates of poverty and human suffering — will likely be the places from which a lot of national security threats and global instability will emerge. We can protect ourselves and build a more prosperous world by investing in ending extreme poverty.
You have been focused on ending global poverty, and you have said it now appears possible. How did we get to this point where it is possible?
Extreme human deprivation has actually been with the world population since the beginning of time, and over the last 15 to 20 years, we’ve seen significant reductions in the number of people who die before the age of five and the number of people who live on basically $1.25 a day. So we have had the opportunity now to look forward.
Today there are about 1.1 to 1.2 billion people that live in extreme deprivation, and that number — if we make the right decisions, if we invest in development enterprise with a focus on results and accountability — could be under 200 million in 15 years, which is what most people define as ending extreme poverty.
What role does USAID play in the future to achieve this goal?
A central role: setting the goal and working with partners to create large partnerships so people can achieve the goal. America by definition leads on topics like health, food, agriculture, education. Those are all areas where American investment is far higher than any country in the world. As long as we stay determined to end extreme poverty and are willing to work in increasingly tougher environments such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Northern Nigeria and parts of Guatemala, we can be successful.
Every government organization seems famous for its bureaucracy and the difficulty of making rapid changes, but your administration seemed to endorse the idea that development requires innovation. How can a government organization be innovative when faced with that substantial bureaucracy?
It takes leadership, it takes a desire to get something done, a willingness to take risks and a team willing to hold hands and do some unique things together. In my case, we created the United States Global Development Lab which Secretary Clinton announced a couple of years ago in order to make sure the global development fight against poverty has a focus on technology, innovation, science and evidence. I think that’s just one of many examples how it is possible to innovate and be creative and be evidence-based and still be in government if you work hard at it and build support.
What do you see as the major challenges for USAID in its future?
I think maintaining a strong bipartisan base of support is always difficult in an environment where people will often look to cut foreign aid because it’s easy to scapegoat foreign aid as a large part of our expenditure. The truth is that for less than one percent of our federal budget, we achieve what Republicans such as Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and Democrats such as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) will say is often the best investment this country makes in protecting its own strength and security.
The truth is today, for Afghanistan to have an ability to have a safe transition and our ability for our troops to come home would simply not exist if we didn’t have 3.5 million girls in school and if we didn’t build out the road infrastructure and improve the economic environment that exists there. Things are still tough in West Africa, in Afghanistan, in Haiti, but if we had not stopped and fought Ebola, if we had not invested in girls in Afghanistan, if we had not invested in children in Central America, things would be much worse.