Raj Shah Testifies: He Has the Responsibility; Needs More Authorities

March 09, 2010
In testimony before two House committees, USAID Administrator Raj Shah defended the president’s FY2011 budget request for international development as “a down payment for future peace and prosperity around the world.” His testimony echoed Secretary Clinton’s, but members of Congress see Shah as the person responsible—and accountable—for U.S. development dollars. The question is whether Shah has the authorities and capacities at USAID to fulfill those responsibilities.Shah’s testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations was clearly on message. It followed the same outline as Secretary Clinton’s testimony highlighting three priorities: frontline states (Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan); meeting urgent global challenges (global health, food security, climate change, humanitarian assistance); and the right people, tools, and focus on results. Perhaps more interesting is how closely the principles Shah outlined in his testimony mirrored five of the six principles Secretary Clinton set out in her development speech at CGD.comparison chartWhile Clinton and Shah may have had the same messages, members of the two House committees asked Shah far more targeted and specific development questions. They praised his handling of the Haiti earthquake – save for Rep. Mark Kirk who took issue with a sole-source contract – and asked him about basic education programs, maternal and child health, country ownership, trade capacity building, contracting, staffing, and the timing and results of the Presidential Study Directive on U.S. Global Development Policy and the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.  They see Shah as the go-to guy on U.S. development programs and from the tone of Kirk and others, it is also clear that he is the one on the hook for development decisions and results. The question is really whether Shah, after only two months on the job, has the capacities and authorities yet to go along with these responsibilities.When Shah was confirmed, CGD President Nancy Birdsall said “The question should be:  what does Raj need to succeed?  And what he needs is the administration to bolster his capacity and authorities to successfully elevate and empower a distinct development perspective and voice.” Former CGDer Sheila Herrling and I suggested the USAID administrator needed the following:
  1. The right people.
  2. A strong policy capacity to participate 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.
  3. Congressional support to allow him to use notwithstanding and waiver authorities attached to the too-many earmarks put on his budget.
  4. 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.
So how’s it going so far?
House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs:
  1. People: Shah has filled a number of key positions in the front office but the twelve remaining Senate-confirmed positions on his leadership team should be at the top of the to-do list. I suspect Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff would welcome nominations and, I hope, help see to quick scheduling of confirmation hearings.
  2. Policy capacity: It seems Shah has the green light to build a robust policy capacity at USAID. He reported to Rep. Berman that he is building policy planning and gave a shout-out to former CGD Vice President Ruth Levine as a “world-class innovative evaluation” expert that has joined his team. But again, filling the twelve remaining Senate-confirmed leadership positions is essential for actively and effectively engaging in the PSD and QDDR.
  3. Congressional support: The marks are generally high for Shah so far, but could be even higher if he regains the confidence, spark and enthusiasm he exuded in his confirmation hearing. I suspect the slightly dampened demeanor in the budget hearings may have something to do with post-Haiti fatigue and for having to defend a budget into which he likely had little input based on the timing of his confirmation. Nevertheless, he clearly has congressional supporters for development and for reform; whether this will extend to use of waiver authorities is harder to foresee and will require continued contact and engagement with key congressional offices.
  4. Budget authority: Again, it’s unlikely that Shah had much input into the FY2011 budget process given that he only began his job in January. When pressed about USAID budget authority in the hearings, he told members we “will get to the place where we have the opportunity to develop a budget.”
As Birdsall said, Shah brings “tremendous talents – smarts, passion for development and strategic thinking — to the helm of USAID.” Things are moving in the right direction, but hard tasks lie ahead. Those of us in the development community should be thinking about how we can help the administration and Shah fill his leadership team, build the agency’s policy capacity, cultivate congressional support, and gain budget authority so that next time he is before these committees, he can speak with the full authority he should have, given the enormous responsibilities in front of him.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.