Innovate to Stretch Foreign Aid Dollars

Rajiv Shah

by Tom Paulson

Rajiv Shah, director USAID

Dr. Rajiv Shah, director of USAID for the Obama Administration, took time out of his family vacation to participate in a packed-house public forum Friday at Seattle’s St. Mark’s Cathedral focused on how to improve global development.

Shah, a former program director on health and agriculture projects for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said innovation and technological breakthroughs will play a key role in the Obama Administration’s approach to making progress in foreign assistance programs.

Advances in mobile phones, solar energy and tablet computers hold promise for application even in poor communities of the developing world, he said. Poverty, Shah said, can be fought with the “smart application of science and technology.”

Seattle and Washington state, he said, has already established itself as a leader in finding innovative technological solutions to many problems in global health and development. He urged participants to continue to push for this strategy and to make their voices heard in Washington, D.C., as the Obama Administration and Congress are actively engaged in reforming foreign assistance.

Technology and innovation for development was the basic theme of Friday’s event, sponsored by Global Washington. Though most of those up on the panel largely agreed with Shah on the need for innovation — which included Sylvia Mathews Burwell of the Gates Foundation, Akhtar Badshah of Microsoft, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Seattle), Dr. Prema Arasu of Washington State University, PATH President Dr. Chris Elias and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Tacoma) — not everyone was so keen on the techno-fix emphasis.

“I think our risk is to be focused too narrowly and equate innovation with technology,” warned Elias.

McDermott said one of the most fundamental needs in poor countries is for more health care workers, health care infrastructure and basic services like clean water and improved sanitation. These don’t require any new technologies, the Congressman said, and innovative thinking needs to be applied not so much to gadgets as to policy.

Smith said some kind of innovation will be necessary given that the Obama Administration’s call to double foreign assistance spending will be a hard sell these days.

USAID’s annual budget is about $21 billion, with another $20 billion of U.S. foreign assistance coming from other agencies.

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“This is a tough time to be talking about foreign assistance,” Smith said. He wryly noted that when making the rounds in his district, constituents seldom ask him to make sure the U.S. government increases foreign aid.The case still needs to be made, he said, that this is in our national interest.

The panel members spoke and discussed issues, only taking a few select written questions from the audience of several hundred before adjourning.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.