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January 14, 2010 at 7:30 AM

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The biggest challenges ahead for USAID chief Rajiv Shah

Posted by Kristi Heim

The new face of U.S. foreign assistance stared into my living room from the TV screen, looking very familiar. There was Rajiv Shah, the former Gates Foundation agricultural development director, being interviewed by Jim Lehrer about Haiti.

Just when I was getting ready to write about how Shah must prepare to tackle things like streamlining bureaucracy, localizing programs and funding, and strengthening support for democratic governance (no pressure), along comes the biggest disaster in two centuries, striking an already fragile nation 700 miles from Miami. Now Shah, 36, is leading U.S. relief efforts just six days after being sworn into office.


Rajiv Shah is sworn in as USAID Administrator as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Shah's family look on. Shah had supported her presidential campaign.

It's interesting to think that Shah was chosen to head the organization after the humanitarian physician Paul Farmer pulled out of the running last summer. Farmer, chairman of Harvard Medical School's Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, had dedicated so much of his life to improving health conditions in Haiti through Partners in Health that he would have seemed almost destined for that moment.

At Shah's swearing in ceremony, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lauded his passion, vision and quiet humility, his degrees in medicine and business and experience with the Gates Foundation. "He brings determination and an unwavering belief that anything is possible," she said.

Shah, in turn, said that belief "was founded on our country's rich experience turning crisis into progress."

Shah talked about the necessity of reforming USAID to create stronger local systems in the countries it helps, staying focused on tracking progress and elevating the position of women and girls. Now more than ever the world has the ability -- and the technology -- to create massive improvements in the human condition, he said.

"We find ourselves in a unique moment of opportunity," he said. "A powerful consensus has formed that development is vital both to our national security and the shared interests of an interconnected world."

On TV tonight Shah looked like he hadn't slept in a long time. He talked about President Obama's commitment to focus U.S. efforts around saving lives in the first 72 hours after the quake, working with various branches of the federal government and in partnership with other countries to be as effective as possible. He projected a steady, smart and genuine presence.

Shah's first major test is also an opportunity for the country to show a struggling neighbor how it intends to redefine its role in the world.

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