Rajiv Shah’s announcement on Wednesday morning that he will step down as U.S. Agency for International Development administrator in February did not exactly take the development community by surprise, but it did elicit some strong — and mostly laudatory — reactions.
Shah’s departure plans have been met with a predictable outpouring of thanks and admiration from his Obama administration contemporaries, but many other leaders within the wider international development community — even some who have been at odds with a few of the USAID chief’s decisions — voiced their support and admiration.
Devex community members still wonder what Shah, the youngest-ever USAID administrator, will do next, and we are eager to learn who will be his permanent replacement. But for now, we’ve taken the opportunity to solicit reactions from leaders in this field who have worked with Shah to reflect on his impact at what many consider the end of an era in U.S. foreign assistance.
Many remarked that Shah has moved USAID forward on a range of “substantive” issues, including food security — through the administration’s Feed the Future initiative — energy access, maternal and child health, and leadership over the response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
Some within the agency, who wished to maintain anonymity in order to share candid, sensitive comments, however expressed relief that a new administration could return a welcome sense of focus to the core business of development. USAID staff are frequently said to suffer from “initiative fatigue,” a sense that Shah identifies and mobilizes new priorities by the day and, in doing so, disrupts ongoing operations and programs.
“[Shah] has chased initiatives while sacrificing core issues in favor of hoped-for deals, gadgets and jargon,” one current USAID official told Devex in an email. “The budgets for economic growth and democracy, rights and governance are negligible, with any loose money being swept into the supply-side [Global Development Lab] or to pursue power investments without attending to the enabling environments for those investments.”
The criticism points to an apparent divide in the appraisal of Shah’s tenure — between those who have embraced the change he has sought to bring about, and those who view it as a distraction from USAID’s traditional portfolio and expertise. Outside the agency, Shah’s leadership has drawn mostly high marks.
Devex will continue to feature community perspectives on what the Shah administration has meant for U.S. foreign assistance and for the daily practice of global development around the world, and we’ll soon publish an in-depth exploration of the the current administrator’s legacy.
Michael Elliott, president and CEO of the ONE Campaign, shared with Devex that the USAID chief “has the enthusiasm of a kid. I don’t know how he manages to keep his spirits up so uniformly.”
Rajiv Shah, with a great deal of help from leadership on Capitol Hill and from the whole community around town, “has demonstrated that development, fighting poverty and preventable disease is the one thing where everyone in [Washington] can get behind common objectives and make something work,” Elliott said.
“His successor will have to somehow join the rest of us in making sure that everyone understands that 2015 is a really big deal with a new set of development goals and a real re-energization of the movement to defeat extreme poverty and preventable disease,” he added, but pointing out: “That’s not for Raj. That’ll be for the next person.”
Elliott noted USAID has “unfinished business” for 2015, a year he hopes will get “off to an absolutely cracking start with a really fabulous replenishment of Gavi [the Vaccine Alliance].”
Redefining the development sector
For Gregory Adams, director of aid effectiveness at Oxfam, Shah “leaves behind a powerful legacy at USAID.”
“Raj saw early and clearly that dollars alone will never be enough to achieve our development goals; that the United States can maximize our impact if we can exercise world-class intellectual and policy leadership to match our moral and financial leadership,” he told Devex. “He did this by reframing USAID’s mission, to ensure it wasn’t stuck being just a pass through for funds, but a smart, creative partner for local development leaders.”
The most divisive part of Shah’s legacy, according to Adams, was the fact that some longtime USAID partners felt their contributions were being “shortchanged,” but he noted, “few of those same partners would argue that USAID should stand still.”
“Ultimately, those partners who are embracing Raj’s approach are helping to redefine the relevance of the development sector for this new era and marketplace,” Adams concluded.
Pushing the envelope
From the start, Rajiv Shah was Obama’s man to lead U.S. foreign aid efforts, and Nancy Birdsall, founding president of the Center for Global Development underscored how the outgoing USAID chief was a “major force” behind President Barack Obama’s goal to eliminate global extreme poverty by 2030.
Shah, she told Devex, managed to sustain congressional support for the USAID budget, “including by clarifying that development progress around the world helps undergird long-term global stability and U.S. security.”
“I give Shah high marks for USAID Forward. He spearheaded unsexy internal negotiations with the State Department and the White House, which allowed USAID to once again have a serious policy shop, its own chief economist, a focus on technical expertise and innovation, and an office with some budget and planning expertise if not formal authority,” Birdsall explained. “That pushed the envelope of what was bureaucratically and politically possible.”
‘The end of an era’
Alex Dehgan, the agency’s former chief scientist, has expressed concerns about the direction of some of Shah’s initiatives — the Global Development Lab, in particular — but voiced support overall for the administrator’s efforts to effect change.
“Raj Shah was a transformative thinker, who was willing to take risks, and to elevate the role of science, technology and innovation at USAID,” he told Devex. “This was historic for a technical agency that sought to restore its core capabilities, and elevate the importance of development.”
Shah, Dehgan noted, helped meet Obama’s promise to restore science to its rightful place, to make developing world farms flourish, to nourish starved bodies, and feed hungry minds.
“This was his job from nearly day one when he was thrown into Haiti,” he said. “It is an end of an era.”
A stronger USAID
Many in our community equate the administrator’s success with USAID’s standing among its peer agencies and departments. George Ingram, Brookings Institution senior fellow and co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network told Devex, “There is no question that Shah leaves USAID stronger than when he entered the agency.”
Ingram described Shah’s leadership as “energizing and innovative, if sometimes disruptive and diffuse,” but noted it is “unfortunate” that Shah is stepping down “before his key initiatives are securely implemented and institutionalized.” USAID’s new Global Development Lab still lacks clear Congressional authorization, as do the Power Africa and Feed the Future initiatives, and U.S. aid does not appear any closer to a rewrite of the Foreign Assistance Act, which many feel is long overdue.
Shah, Ingram wrote, may not be the ideal model for the next USAID chief to emulate. Ingram pointed to Henrietta Fore's brief tenure as administrator as an example to follow.
“She chose a few priorities and today is widely acknowledged for her commitment to USAID as an institution and to rebuilding its staff through the Development Leadership Initiative,” Ingram said, adding that “fulfilling the commitment to transparency and use of data would be a worthy legacy for the next administrator.”
Finally, Chemonics International President and CEO Susanna Mudge also weighed in on Shah’s departure to highlight how his leadership over the past five years “has been instrumental in redefining and elevating the importance and value of development work.”
“It has been an honor to partner with him and USAID to help transform lives around the globe,” Mudge told Devex.