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Meet Indian American community's first 'power couple'

Last updated on: December 21, 2009 21:28 IST

Meet Indian American community's first power couple

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
United States President Barack Obama recently elevated Dr Rajiv Shah, who currently serves as Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics and Chief Scientist at the United States Department of Agriculture, as administrator for the United States Agency for International Development.

Earlier, the Obama administration had named Shah's wife, Shivam Mallick Shah as Director of Special Initiatives, Office of Innovation and Improvement at the Department of Education, thus making the Shahs the Indian American community's first 'power couple' in the Obama administration.

Shah will -- once he is confirmed -- head the country's top non-military foreign assistance programme.

'The mission of USAID is to advance America's interests by strengthening our relationships abroad,' Obama said while making the nomination.

'Rajiv brings fresh ideas and the dedication and impressive background necessary to help guide USAID as it works to achieve this important goal.'

The nomination assuages a deeply felt lack; Congress has in recent times been agitated over the fact that the top post at USAID has been left unfilled.

'I am grateful for all that USAID has accomplished under the leadership of Acting Administrator Alonzo Fulgham, and the thousands of career men and women who fulfil USAID's mission day in and day out -- particularly their hard work in jumpstarting a landmark initiative to bring more than $20 billion for agriculture development to the world's most-insecure countries,' Obama said, adding that he was looking forward to working with Shah to take those efforts even further.

Hailing the nomination, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- under whose jurisdiction USAID falls -- said: 'Dr Raj Shah is a leader in the development community, an innovative and results-oriented manager, and someone who understands the importance of providing people around the world with the tools they need to lift themselves out of poverty and chart their own destinies.'


Image: The 'power couple'

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'Shah's efforts have helped save countless lives'

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With this nomination, Clinton said, the Obama administration was affirming that 'development must be a core pillar of American foreign policy.'

Clinton said Shah, a trained medical doctor and health economist who earned his MD from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and his Master of Science in health economics at the Wharton School of Business, has the required skill sets and 'a record of delivering results in both the private and public sectors, forging partnerships around the world, especially in Africa and Asia, and developing innovative solutions in global health, agriculture, and financial services for the poor.'

The secretary pointed out that Shah has led many of the initiatives that are redefining best practice in the field of development, including the Global Alliance for Vaccines and immunization, the Global Fund for AIDS, TB, and Malaria, the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

'His tireless efforts to immunise children around the world have helped save countless lives,' Clinton said.

Shah currently manages the Agricultural Research Service, the Economic Research Service, the National Agricultural Statistical Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture -- a large portfolio that entails managing more than 10,000 federal employees worldwide, including 2,200 federal scientists, and a budget of more than $2.56 billion.

He also leads the department's participation in President Obama's global food security initiative. Though he has been with USDA only since April, Shah has already launched the National Institute of Food and Agriculture -- a scientific institute created to elevate and enhance the capacity of agricultural research to address sustainable food production, climate change, bio-energy and human nutrition.

In managing this extensive portfolio, Shah works in close concert with Congress, the State Department, the White House and the international development community.

When he takes over as USAID head, 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.


Image: Shah at an aid distribution camp

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'Rajiv is the perfect choice'

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Administration and Congressional sources predicted that Shah's confirmation was a mere formality, given "his impeccable credentials and superb track record." Congressional sources who have worked with Shah described him as a person "of immense integrity," with an "innate sense and commitment to lifting people out of poverty," and "passionate in his dedication to development issues."

These attributes, plus the Congressional dismay at the top post in USAID lying vacant all these months, would ensure a smooth confirmation, Congressional sources told rediff.com.

The Congress is approving of the Obama-Clinton argument that USAID will be crucial to the administration's 'smart power' foreign policy strategy, where diplomacy acquires equal importance with the projection of military power, particularly in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan where development must soon follow in areas previously held by the Taliban, if the populations in those areas are to be convinced that militancy and extremism should not be the preferred paths.

"Rajiv is the perfect choice," a Congressional source told rediff.com, "young, resourceful, committed, and with an unbelievable and impeccable track record, and if he is given the autonomy and independence and clear and defined portfolios and defined responsibilities, you can bet he will deliver, as he did during his nearly 10 years with the Gates Foundation."

Administration sources said Shah's nomination came as a distinct relief to Clinton, who has been growing exceedingly frustrated over the protracted White House vetting process for the position. The thoroughness of the process has already led to several highly qualified candidates withdrawing their names from consideration; some even described it, at various times, as 'ridiculous' and 'a nightmare.'

The Congress has been equally frustrated, prompting Senators John F Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Richard Lugar, the committee's ranking Republican, to write to Obama complaining that USAID, by virtue of not having a head, had been shut out of the inter-agency process in US foreign policy in key countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In their letter, Kerry and Lugar wrote that it was 'the only agency in the government without a captain at a time when American leadership in development around the world is more needed than ever. We recommend that you give strong consideration to selecting a candidate that has already gone through the vetting process and that has the experience in global development. We believe that time is of the essence and that the longer we wait for a new leader for the agency, the more serious the problems become,' the Senators said.

Shah's nomination plays right into the Senators' line of thinking, as he has already gone through the intense vetting process, and breezed through Senate confirmation when he was nominated Under Secretary of Agriculture.

With Kerry and Lugar seized of the need for a quick appointment, and given Shah's impeccable credentials, confirmation hearings will happen quickly, and be "a formality", Congressional sources said.

Before his eight years with the Gates Foundation, the Detroit-born Shah had worked on health care policy for the Al Gore 2000 presidential campaign, and served as a member of Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell's transition committee on health.
He is co-founder of Health Systems Analytics and Project IMPACT for South Asian Americans -- a national, non-profit organization dedicated to increasing civic awareness and community leadership of South Asian Americans. He has also been policy aide to the British parliament, and consultant to the World Health Organisation.


Image: Shah with delegates at a summit

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