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USAID nominee says its mission is his passion

December 02, 2009 13:30 IST
Dr Rajiv Shah, who has been nominated by President Barack Obama to head the US Agency for International Development -- the country's top non-military foreign assistance programme -- has told US lawmakers that "the mission of USAID is my passion," and that "it is with enthusiasm and humility" that he seeks confirmation to lead the agency first established by President John F Kennedy in 1961.

Appearing before the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee as part of his confirmation hearing, which is expected to be a shoo-in, Shah, currently under secretary for research, education and economics and chief scientist at the United States department of agriculture -- which makes him the senior-most Indian American in the Obama administration -- declared, "The agency's logo is a handshake, and by reaching out in a spirit of partnership and cooperation USAID has helped to bring a green revolution to Asia that saved hundreds of millions of lives, enabled oral rehydration therapy to reach tens of millions of children that otherwise have succumbed to disease, and worked to promote stability and democracy in countries on the brink."

He acknowledged, "The challenges we face today are formidable -- from Afghanistan and Pakistan to increasing numbers of people who suffer from hunger and extreme poverty. From severe climate events to the global financial crisis, and from the largescale and often brutal displacements of people from their homes and from their livelihoods."

Shah who, when he's elevated to the position of USAID administrator, would assume a sub-cabinet level position and will report directly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton under whose jurisdiction USAID comes, said, "While these challenges are significant, they do represent opportunities to improve the lives of millions of people, elevate America's standing in the world and advance our national security interests."

He said his "professional training, experience working in the development field, and time in this administration, all contribute to my optimism. I enter this opportunity aware of the challenges of leading and strengthening USAID. But, I've worked to help make change happen, by listening, learning and managing people to achieve results."

Shah who before he joined the administration was a top executive at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where he was the catalyst behind launching the foundation's Global Development Program, told the lawmakers that "with your support, I believe that success at AID is possible."

When he takes over as head of USAID, he will be in charge of a budget in excess of $40 billion and a staff of over 2,000 employees in Washington and worldwide.

In his testimony, Shah argued that "in development, it is often the world's poor, who are the most vulnerable to the greatest threats of our time -- from climate change to extreme poverty to extremist ideology."

He said, "The president has called for a bold agenda of global re-engagement and a strong development agency is critical to that effort. The president and secretary have articulated a new vision for our foreign assistance to stand with diplomacy and defence as a pillar of our foreign policy and new operating principles for doing this work in a manner that creates the conditions of success so our foreign aid is no longer need."

Shah predicted that "we can achieve this goal and restore USAID's standing and effectiveness by making significant changes in the way the agency does business."

He said "USAID's motto, 'From the American people,' represents our effort to project the hopefulness and aspiration of the American Dream to the farthest corners of the globe."

"I remember seeing the power of that American ideal at work in a remote village in rural South India," Shah recalled. "I served as a volunteer in a poor tribal community before medical school, and I was struck by the one-room schoolhouse where children, who didn't speak our language or enjoy our freedoms from hunger or disease, could look up at the wall and admire photographs of their heroes -- Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and President John F Kennedy."

He said, "If confirmed, it will be my distinct honor to work with USAID's talented and proud staff to build on America's rich legacy of helping others help themselves."

Shah, in his prepared testimony which he submitted for the record, said, "As a young child, my parents -- both immigrants from India -- took me to visit their homeland," and how "I clearly remember my uncle insisting on showing my sister and me the full reality of that multi-faceted country -- not just the historic landmarks and vibrant urban communities, but also the vast slums that were home to millions and continue to be."

"This early experience opened my eyes to a type of human suffering I had not previously witnessed and have not since forgotten," he said.

Senator Robert Casey, Pennsylvania Democrat, said he was particularly struck by this quote of Shah's and pointed out that "not enough do we see in confirmation hearings, direct references to human suffering."

"So, we are grateful that you recognise that. We are also grateful that you'll be inspired by and guided by that experience," he added.

Earlier, Senator John F Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the committee, said, "In Rajiv Shah, the administration has chosen a nominee who values new thinking, believes in ensuring accountability, and brings and impressive record to this new challenge."

Kerry said, "In his eight years at the Gates Foundation, Dr Shah became a leading voice on agricultural development, global health, and food security. In May, he was confirmed unanimously by the Senate as under secretary at the department of agriculture, managing a staff of over 10,000."

"Clearly, Dr Shah has accomplished a great deal, very quickly. And that is just what we are asking our development institutions to do as they reform and evolve to meet new challenges," he said.

Kerry predicted that "the next USAID administrator confronts a number of choices that will have profound implications for USAID's institutional future. This is part of a larger struggle over the shape and direction our country's global development efforts should take."

"Dr Shah, you are being given an opportunity to enact a bold and far-reaching reform agenda," he said, and added: "It is encouraging that you come from an institutional culture that rewards the innovation and risk that this moment requires."

The ranking Republican on the Committee, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, echoing Kerry's sentiments and describing Shah as a "distinguished nominee," said he had met with Shah "and appreciate the accomplishments and perspective that he would bring to the job of USAID Administrator."

"His background in the medical field and as a leader at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would contribute to his embrace of innovative approaches to development," Lugar said, and noted, "His tenure at the US department of agriculture demonstrates his ability to lead new initiatives in research and science."

He said that Shah, as the department's "point person on Secretary Clinton's global food security inter-agency process, he has worked to develop a coherent strategy that encompasses the efforts of a number of US government agencies."

Senator Patty Murray, Democrat from Washington state where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is headquartered, in introducing Shah, said, "In this time of global challenges and opportunity, USAID deserves an energetic, experienced and capable leader and I have every confidence that Raj meets that need."

"That's why I am very pleased to be here today to express my strong support for Raj's nomination and to urge everyone in the Senate to confirm him as the USAID administrator," she said.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC