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We Were Starting to Think It Might Never Happen…

…but after months of delay, the Obama administration has finally named a nominee for the position of USAID administrator.

The Center for Global Development’s Sheila Herrling was among the first to mention Shah as a last minute candidate:

[R]ecent activity on our poll shows an unusual flurry of write-ins for Raj Shah, currently serving as Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics at USDA.   Could this be the final twist of fate?

Politico picked up the gossip on Monday and added some details on this little-known candidate’s bio…

Whiz kid (he’s 36), the former Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation director of agriculture development and financial services, and manager of the foundation’s $1.5 billion vaccine fund. A trained medical doctor, Shah has some interesting political credentials, having campaigned for Obama, [and] served as the former health care policy advisor to Al Gore’s presidential campaign…. He was confirmed in April just a month after being announced without a hitch, and has been involved in numerous philanthropic efforts to combat poverty in India and around the world, and worked at the World Health Organization.

…before breaking the news on Tuesday afternoon, just a few hours before the White House made their official announcement.

After waiting so long, early reactions from the development community so far seem to run towards excitement and relief, although some have voiced concern that Shah’s youth and status as a relative unknown outside of Washington (as compared to Paul Farmer, for example) may be a sign that the Obama administration does not plan to elevate USAID to a cabinet-level agency or restore the level of power and prestige to the agency that those in the movement to reform USAID would like to see.  Maybe Shah’s age worked  in his favor at least in getting him more quickly though the notoriously arduous vetting process.

An article  in the New York Times last year featured Shah’s work at the head of the Gates Foundation’s agricultural development  program in Africa, and described a typical program under Shah’s stewardship: “close to the ground and oriented toward practical innovation that reduces risk for small farmers and increases their incomes.”

A passage at the end of the piece in which the author describes Shah’s response to criticism of his approach may hint at the kind of leader Shah will be as head of USAID. While others are “contemptuous” or “disdainful” of their detractors, “Shah seemed unhappy.”

“After I went to Berkeley to meet with the Food First people,” he told me, “I came away very much wanting to work more closely with agro-ecological groups. We talk to anyone who will talk to us. How could we aspire to be transformational if we didn’t?” He paused, and then added musingly: “I guess I really don’t know why there is so much hostility. I really think we have something to learn from them.”

Who knows, perhaps this augurs a USAID more open to listening to its critics.

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  1. Wren Elhai wrote:

    One correction– Shah’s age may have helped him get through the vetting process. However, the important point is that he’s *already been vetted* (for his appointment to USDA). The administration limited itself to candidates who had already been through the process to speed up the appointment. This way, there’s a decent shot at getting him confirmed and in office by the end of the year.

    Sheila Herrling walked through the logistics of all of this a couple weeks ago: It’s interesting to note that Shah’s nomination came down on what Sheila picked as the very last day the President could nominate a candidate and see him/her confirmed this year.

    Posted November 11, 2009 at 11:46 am | Permalink
  2. Laura Freschi wrote:

    Wren, of course you’re absolutely right, noted and corrected. Thanks, Laura

    Posted November 11, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

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  1. […] mentioned at Aid Watch, Shah has been cited for his openness to criticism of organizations he has lead. This is welcomed […]

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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