As the Administrator for the United States Agency for International Development, Rajiv Shah oversees the government’s efforts in improving the lives of those in need in the developing world. Since taking on the job in 2009, Shah has expanded the agency’s focus and changed some of its strategies, like pursuing public-private partnerships and sourcing food-aid locally rather than relying on imports. These new efforts, he says, are critical in providing countries a path toward true economic development.

Interview by Austin Bailey, World Ark senior editor
Photos by Stephen Bailey 

A display about maternal mortality rates catches the attention of Rajiv Shah, head of USAID, during his visit to Heifer Village in Little Rock, Ark.
A display about maternal mortality rates catches the attention of Rajiv Shah, head of USAID, during his visit to Heifer Village in Little Rock, Ark.

World Ark: Can you explain the purpose of USAID Forward?

Rajiv Shah: Our ultimate objective is to create the conditions where aid is no longer needed. To get there, we need to deliver clear, compelling and measurable results—and that’s where USAID Forward comes in. Specifically, USAID Forward is our effort to strengthen the agency by embracing new partnerships, investing in innovation and demanding a relentless focus on results. These reforms help create a new model for development that has the potential to not only produce dramatic results but strengthen USAID for decades to come while advancing the security and prosperity of Americans at home. Over the past two years, our reforms have touched upon every part of our work and have set important, evidence-based targets for us to meet.

Building public-private partnerships is a priority for you. Why is that? 

We believe these partnerships are essential for sustained investment and stable development. Instead of trying to deliver results with our dollars alone, we’re working directly with multinational and local companies to harness the private sector as an engine for growth and development. Private sector investment in developing countries is increasing rapidly and has far surpassed direct foreign government investment. By partnering with the private sector, we can leverage their efforts to produce tremendous results for the people we are working to help and increase our own security at home. 

A great example is the New Alliance for Food Security, which President Obama talked about during his trip to Africa in July. By partnering with the private sector, the New Alliance has been able to leverage more than $3.7 billion in African agriculture that has the ability to lift 50 million people out of poverty in 10 years. Today, development is not about providing short-term assistance but instead providing the basis for economic growth and development. Public-private partnerships are essential to this new model.

I think most people are familiar with USAID’s role in disaster relief. Can you talk about some of your longer-term projects?

I’ll start with Power Africa: Currently 70 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity, which presents a serious challenge to sustainable development. Launched by President Obama during his recent trip to Africa, starting with a set of six partner countries in the first phase, Power Africa will add more than 10,000 megawatts of cleaner, more efficient electricity generation capacity.

It will increase electricity access by at least 20 million new households and commercial entities with on-grid, mini-grid and off-grid solutions. Power Africa will also leverage private sector investments, beginning with more than $9 billion in initial commitments from private sector partners to support the development of more than 8,000 megawatts of new electricity generation in sub-Saharan Africa.

Another one of our new initiatives is a five-year program targeting the education, promotion and training of a new generation of Afghan women. Called Promote, the program’s goal is to increase women’s contributions to Afghanistan’s development by strengthening women’s rights groups, boosting female participation in the economy, increasing the number of women in decision-making positions within the Afghan government and helping women gain business and management skills.

Enormous progress has been made in advancing opportunities for women and girls in Afghanistan over the past 11 years. While there are challenges ahead, Promote underscores our commitment to ensuring that women and girls play a major role in determining Afghanistan's political and economic future.

When you spoke at the Clinton School of Public Service in April, you said, “It’s finally become profitable to end large-scale human suffering.” What did you mean by that?

It is clear that USAID, the United States Government, and the American people have always believed that ending extreme poverty and helping alleviate human suffering is, and always will be, the right and moral thing to do. However, if you have a new breakthrough idea to create clean water or help a baby breathe at birth, these scalable solutions not only have the potential to save millions of lives but also start new businesses that have the potential to be extremely successful.

Through our Development Innovation Ventures grants, we’ve seen the power of entrepreneurial thinking and how it’s literally changed lives around the world. It’s part of a new constellation of actors in the development world—you don't have to be a donor government to make a difference. If you have a great idea, you can change the world.

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah tests his strength by picking up buckets whose weights match the heft of water women and children in may parts of the world must carry daily.
USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah tests his strength by picking up buckets whose weights match the heft of water women and children in may parts of the world must carry daily.

Can you talk about the shift toward sourcing food aid locally rather than importing food from the United States? How often are you able to do this, and what are the challenges and drawbacks?

In President Obama’s budget request, he put forth a proposal to change the way we do our international food assistance. It recommits us to having the most efficient, effective, rapid and life-saving food aid program in the world and truly reflects the generosity and leadership of the American people.

The real question is about flexibility and making sure we are in a position to deliver food in the most rapid and efficient way possible depending on the circumstances. Rather than limiting the United States to a tied, commodities-only approach, we can enact reforms that will enable experts to select the right tool to most efficiently meet the needs of hungry and vulnerable people.

This would mean pairing in-kind food aid procurements from the United States with a more expansive use of interventions such as local and regional procurement from developing countries near crisis areas and food vouchers. About 20 percent of our current food assistance is conducted using those tools. Studies show that local and regional procurement of food and other cash-based programs can get food to people in critical need 11 to 14 weeks faster and at a savings of 25 to 50 percent. People from all across the political spectrum have come out to support this, from the National Farmers Union, Cargill, to editorial boards across the country.

USAID works with a number of large corporations, some of which are known for their less than stellar records on the environment and human rights. How do you handle skepticism about these partnerships?

It’s important to consider this question. Many in our community have memories of corporate activity in developing countries causing great harm, from sweatshops to infant formula to Bhopal.

And thus in the past, when development agencies engaged with the private sector, it’s typically centered around charity or corporate social responsibility. But I think many people have evolved from this position and understand that when we work together we can create dramatic positive results for the communities we are trying to help. It’s a well- established fact that foreign direct investment in developing countries is almost 10 times higher than all development assistance. Knowing this and putting an emphasis on accountability and transparency, our work with the private sector is truly critical to reaching our development goals around the world.

When you were interviewed for this magazine in 2009 while you served as director of agricultural development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, you talked about how spending a year in India inspired you to want to help the poor. How do you convey the importance of this work to people who haven’t had the opportunity to see poverty and suffering firsthand?

It’s true that my visit to India did serve to inspire me. However, I think people around the world share a deep sense of passion and humanity to help those in need—regardless of whether they have personally seen it or not. I think that’s why we saw such a tremendous public response to our efforts regarding child survival. When people think about the fact that children under the age of 5 are dying around the world of preventable causes every day, and you think about your family, kids, sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews, I think people quickly understand what's at stake; people stand up to volunteer their time and do something about it. 

How would you like USAID to look different at the end of your tenure than it did at the beginning?

Well, hopefully my tenure will continue for a while, but I believe that if we’re going to tackle our greatest challenges, then we have to employ a much bigger definition of development to get us there. I hope that people across the development spectrum, from recent college graduates to longtime development experts, will continue wanting to work with USAID and know that we will always be there to help turn their ideas into action. 

Learn more about USAID Forward, its new alliances and food aid reform at USAID.gov.