USAID leader announces departure

(credit: sanitation water/flickr)

It’s official. Dr. Rajiv Shah, U.S. Agency for International Development administrator for roughly five years, is leaving in February. His departure marks the end of a period notable for significant reform efforts, the launches of high-potential initiatives and the exposure of scandals in Cuba.

“It was with mixed emotions that I informed President Obama and Secretary Kerry that I will step down as administrator,” said Shah in a statement Wednesday. “As we ensure a smooth transition in leadership, I am more confident than ever in the lasting effect of our work to enrich lives and change our world for the better.”

Shah’s departure has been rumored for the past year. Chatter increased last week when the Washington Post reported that Shah would make his announcement by week’s end. They were close.

The Obama administration need to find a replacement for the final two years of Obama’s term – a rather difficult task given the political climate. It took a year for the Senate to confirm surgeon general nominee Dr. Vivek Murthy. Other administration appointments have taken long trips through congressional confirmation processes, or were left vacant.

If a nominee is not put forward, Deputy Administrator Alfonso Lenhardt will take over as acting administrator. Sources say that the Obama administration has already reached out to potential successors and were turned down. Heading an agency for a lame duck president is not a sought-after position. The role will largely involve stewarding initiatives started during Shah’s tenure and likely handing over the reigns to the new president’s pick in 2016.

Shah’s statement highlighted USAID results over the past few years. He called special attention to the Feed the Future program and the recently launched U.S. Global Development Lab. Feed the Future shifted focus to building long-term solutions for food security.

The agency claims that the program “improved nutrition for 12.5 million children, raised incomes for nearly 7 million farm families, and leveraged more than $10 billion from 200 global and local companies for African agriculture.” I spoke with Shah about Feed the Future two years ago.

“It is just inaccurate to pretend every year that these chronically vulnerable communities need late-in-the-game humanitarian aid,” said Shah. “We know we can predict where needs will be in the future. We know we can invest in effective and far lower-cost-resilient strategies that allow for more agriculture production in dry land communities and thereby avoid the need for humanitarian assistance.”

Our conversation touched on his long-term goals and his legacy. Shah singled out Feed the Future as an example of the results-based work that he felt could generate long-term impacts. The program weathered a few political storms, but appears to be around for the long haul after the passage of Feed the Future legislation by the House, last week. Secretary of State John Kerry pointed to the success of programs like Feed the Future as evidence of the significance of Shah’s accomplishments.

“Now for these last two years as Secretary of State, I’ve enjoyed the chance to work with Raj daily, and I’ve been impressed by his fresh thinking and his ability to come inside government and remain a change agent, particularly in driving a paradigm shift towards a new model of innovation, investment, and partnerships,” said Kerry in a statement. “A lot of people wondered whether this was possible. Raj proved the skeptics wrong, and Development Lab, Feed the Future, Child Survival and Power Africa are proof of concept that will stand the test of time and the scrutiny of experts.”

The examples Kerry cited grew from the USAID Forward agenda launched by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The key pillars of the program were innovation and results. USAID brought in private-sector partners to increase access to electricity through Power Africa. Given his public statements, it appears that Kerry, too, backs the USAID Forward agenda.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]