SEATTLE — In 2009, Rajiv Shah was named the head of USAID. Since being chosen by the Obama Administration, Shah has been faced with crises and opportunities that he has approached with the confidence and intelligence of a true leader. Just five days after being sworn in, Shah was asked to head the U.S. effort in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a situation that garnered him the praise of many political officials.
This caliber of responsibility was not particularly surprising, given Shah’s past and promise for future endeavors. With a medical degree from University of Pennsylvania and a master’s in health economics from Wharton School of Business, Shah entered the world of politics as a well-rounded font of knowledge.
He worked for the USDA in research, education and economic departments, as well as a working as a chief scientist. He also served as Al Gore’s health policy adviser in 2000 before putting in seven years at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest charity. There he contributed to various projects, including serving as the director of the agricultural department under the Global Development Program.
Then, on December 31, 2009, Rajiv Shah was sworn in as the 16th administrator of USAID, deemed the overseer of the efforts of 9,600 staff members, executing 80 missions around the world. Since he was sworn in, in addition to handling the U.S. response to the crisis in Haiti, Shah has also “co-chaired the State Department’s first review of American diplomacy and development operations; and now spearheads President Barack Obama’s landmark Feed the Future food security initiative” in addition to taking on USAID Forward, a program working to reform USAID’s business model.
Shah has his own approach to leading USAID, working on integrating old methods with new ideas. He explains, “Our aspiration is to bring innovation and fresh thinking while also respecting that development is a discipline and we want to learn from the expertise that exists at this agency.”
Constantly working to evolve the organization to better the world, Shah enlists as much help as he can get. He emphasizes the importance of investment from outside sources to steamroll USAID’s efforts more effectively. As he told Forbes, “While USAID is the largest development agency in the world, we can’t do it alone. We need to build the platforms that attract innovation and also tap into the vast resources of private businesses that are investing in regions where poverty persists.”
Shah’s foresight has served him well, keeping him one step ahead of disaster in many projects. In a piece he wrote for The Washington Post, he spoke about what the road ahead looks like for relief efforts in Afghanistan, recognizing a strong need for U.S. support in the coming years to get the fragile country back on track. He explains, “Our goal should be to keep our partnership with Afghanistan on track, help to ensure a credible political transition, dampen the economic shock of the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces and promote stability.”
For someone to lead an organization like USAID, there’s a certain vision, motivation and strength they can’t be without. Rajiv Shah has demonstrated time and again that he possesses these qualities and wants to put them to good use to address the poverty that effects too many people. Through his USAID Forward program, his priorities for the future are “rebuilding the agency’s internal capacity and reforming procurement, strengthening monitoring and evaluation and utilizing innovative technology to deliver aid.”
The progress in the fight against poverty in recent years propels Shah’s motivation, and gives people faith in the idea of making a difference. Shah recently told Forbes, “Fortunately, since 1999, the total number of people living in conditions of extreme poverty has declined by nearly 50 million people every year. But we know much more can be done to end extreme poverty.” And Rajiv Shah’s the man for the job.
– Maggie Wagner
Sources: Forbes, Washington Post, USAID, 40 Under 40
Photo: The London Evening Post