This is a joint post with Sarah Jane Staats -- I am so delighted to have her back at CGD and collaborating with the Rethinking U.S. Foreign Assistance team!


Last week, in front of twelve of the seventeen senators that form the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (an impressive turnout!) many folks got their first look at the long-awaited nominee to head the embattled U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).  Raj Shah, a medical doctor, senior official of the Gates Foundation and most recently, undersecretary of USDA, took center stage.  And wowed

He wowed with confidence and poise in answering very pointed, very informed questions from Members. He wowed with his knowledge, at this early stage, of the issues at the forefront of the development policy and foreign aid reform agenda.  He wowed with the story of his meteoric rise through the ranks of the Gates Foundation.  He wowed with an obvious passion for global development and public service.  Heck, he even wowed with his young son who sat in his chair through the entire hearing, studiously taking notes. 

But, here’s the thing.  It’s really not so much about the man.  With all the wow’s we just ran through, and with the full support of a team of tenured USAID practitioners, the man comes armed with the personal and political capability to lead the crew of USAID.  The question is whether he will be given the authorities he needs to steer his own ship:

  • The right people. 
  • A strong policy capacity to participate alongside diplomacy counterparts in the Presidential Study Directive on U.S. Global Development Policy (PSD), the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) and efforts to rewrite the Foreign Assistance Act
  • The support of Congress to allow him to use existing notwithstanding and waiver authorities attached to the too-many earmarks put on his budget. 
  • And, most importantly, authority over the agency’s budget—from its request, based on input from the field; to its justification, including argumentation directly to the Secretary of State and OMB as it relates to the rest of the overall State Department request; to its final allocation across sectors, programs and countries; to accounting publicly for its results.

People keep talking about the “break-through moment” when Dr. Shah, in response to Senator Menendez’ persistent questioning, states unequivocally that he would report directly to the Secretary of State.  Well, by law, this is the case.  That didn’t feel like such a "wow" moment.  The more interesting question, to get at the senator’s point—that “the hallmarks of a strong institution are control over its budget, over its planning and over its resources, and when you lack that, you lack the elements of a strong institution”—is: what will Raj Shah’s relationship be with Deputy Secretary Lew?

In the end, many of the meatier issues were left either a little unclear—like budget authority—or deferred to the results of the PSD and QDDR in process—like consolidation of development functions, programs and agencies.  So, did we have any “wow” moments?  Well, maybe they’re not “wow!” but they caught our attention: 

  1. Dr. Shah did indeed have an impressive command of the issues and ably handled the vast range of questions launched at him.
  2. Dr. Shah referred in his testimony to development as a “discipline.”  A discipline, he argued, that should be supported by best practices of country-led planning, strategic focus to maximize impact, working with others, leveraging through multilaterals, and investing for long-term results.   Right on!  Which is precisely why it should have healthy degree of autonomy from the very different discipline of diplomacy.
  3. Ranking Member Lugar emphasized the critical importance of policy, budget and evaluation capacity at USAID. He said:  "During the last two decades, decision-makers have not made it easy for USAID to perform its vital function. Reorganization initiatives resulted in the agency’s loss of evaluation, budget, and policy capacity. There is a broad consensus among development experts that the loss of these functions at USAID is inhibiting the success of our development programs. Our development efforts will never be as effective as they should be if the agency that houses most of our development expertise is cut out of relevant policy, evaluation, and budgetary decisions."  He cited the Foreign Assistance Revitalization and Accountability Act (S.1524), recently voted out of committee—that would take some initial steps on policy, budget and evaluation capacity. And Dr. Shah echoed the need for USAID professionals to have long-term policy planning capacity and program monitoring and impact evaluation in his own testimony.
  4. Chairman Kerry reminded us of the importance of educating the American public on the value of U.S. investments in global development, harkening back to the massive effort of the Marshall Plan era.  Kerry spoke of the “huge number of accomplishments” USAID has had, but said “frankly, nobody knows about them…and that just doesn’t make sense.” Kerry continued: "I think that no one should underestimate the importance and it is underestimated. It's underestimated every day in every conversation in this country because the parochial politics are so much easier to play, but the linkage to our national security of the few dollars we spend of our gross domestic product in this effort of development and humanitarian assistance and so forth – the return on investment where we have done it significantly has proven itself time and again to be countless times that investment…So I hope you will boldly make this case, and we need to work with you to strengthen the base, the foundation, of understanding in America of what we get for this very small investment."  Dr. Shah agreed about the need to “be quantitative and specific” about our return on development investments but also “discuss in real English what we’re learning from successes and failures.” But of course, Congress will need to restore adequate budget capacity to the agency if it is serious about holding Dr. Shah to this mandate.

Tell us what you thought of the hearing and your views on what the nominee needs to succeed.  Any “wows”?  ONE Campaign, MFAN and Foreign Policy are all good reads.  Yesterday, Dr. Shah’s nomination sailed through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and word has it, the full Senate may approve Dr. Shah’s nomination as early as Friday.