Remarks by USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah at a Town Hall With the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition

Wednesday, May 5, 2010
USAID's Approach to High Impact Development

It’s an honor to be here with so many friends, so many people who have devoted their lives to the important work – the important discipline – of development.

And it’s an honor to lead the dedicated professionals who make up the USAID, at this moment in our history.

I also want to personally thank the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition for hosting this discussion today. Throughout its existence, USGLC has been an ardent and passionate advocate for the elevation of diplomacy and development in American foreign policy.

In just their most recent show of support, they secured letters from every living Secretary of State, 50 retired four-star and three-star generals and flag officers, and nearly 150 Members of Congress from both parties, to echo the calls of Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates for full funding of the President's 2011 foreign affairs budget request.

As an organization that depends not just on those dollars, but on the support of an informed and active foreign policy community, I want to express my deep personal appreciation to the USGLC.

Together with our partners, we have an opportunity to contribute to, and in some places catalyze, truly high-impact development.

Development that opens new opportunities for people in extreme poverty, hastens recovery in times of natural disaster, and helps transform zones of conflict into places where communities can regain security and hope for the future.

Back when I was sworn in, I talked about my belief that we have a narrow window of opportunity to elevate development.

To capture the moment, we have to actively seize this opportunity. We have to act quickly, and differently, or we risk losing our chance.

So I’d like to take this time to share with you some impressions from my first few months leading USAID, and suggest a way forward that can help us seize this moment of opportunity.

I was sworn in on January 7th. My plan that week was to talk to our leadership team about how we could focus our vision, set key goals, and listen to our bureaus and offices.

Those initial plans were by far the least of what was lost when the earthquake struck.

Hundreds of thousands lost their lives. Millions were left without electricity and water. Personnel across the federal family, including our dedicated Foreign Service Nationals in Haiti suffered their own losses. It’s a tragedy and a grieving process that continues.

President Obama called for a swift, coordinated and aggressive response from the entire federal government, and asked USAID to lead it.

I’ve been asked a lot what it was like – to have this major crisis coincide with my arrival at the agency.

But to ask that question defines “crisis” too narrowly.

Our government spent billions of dollars in Haiti over the last three decades and the country was still in such a vulnerable state that an earthquake less dramatic than recent quakes in China and Chile ended up claiming more than 200,000 lives.

Leading up to the earthquake, the combined work of dedicated development organizations, agencies, and local institutions saved lives and offered social services, but ultimately development fell short in building sustainable markets or strong local institutions capable of protecting Haitians from such devastation.

So I arrived in Haiti after the earthquake and saw human suffering that simply doesn’t happen in countries where development investment leads to truly sustainable development results.

I wanted to ensure that the United States government did everything we could to launch not just the most successful humanitarian effort Haiti had ever seen, but hopefully the last.

Crisis often brings people together with a clarity of goal and a sense of urgency – and I saw that when USAID hosted the Haiti operations center in our Response Management Center. Leaders from a full range of federal agencies came to us and worked with us as a team to direct the relief effort.

Our military brought unique capabilities at a crucial time. But they also brought something else: a real spirit of cooperation and service and willingness to work with civilian leadership.

With that support, we experienced some successes in a difficult environment. Just to give you one example, by providing chlorine tablets to purify drinking water, we were able to provide more people with access to clean water than before the earthquake hit. That effort has led to real gains – already we’ve seen a 12% reduction in diarrheal illness in Port-au-Prince.

But we also saw areas where, along with the Haitian government and the international community, we were not as strong as we would have liked to be: areas like sanitation, coordinating private sector investment, and our ability to partner rapidly with local institutions.

So the conversations I’d planned to have during my first week on the job simply didn’t happen. But something far more illuminating did – I saw firsthand the dedication and skill of USAID staff, I saw the personal risks that those in our missions take every day, the resourcefulness with which they solve problems, and their ability to find the right people to work with.

I saw our professionals at their best – I saw them as what we all need to be: development entrepreneurs.

And I saw them like successful entrepreneurs working to turn a need into an opportunity.

We need to bring this sense of urgency, sense of focus, and ability to innovate to all of our work. And that’s the work that continues through our Haiti Task Team.

Some of you may have heard what Senator Leahy said at the hearing where I presented USAID’s budget request.

He didn’t mince words. He said that USAID was not living up to its potential. And he said, quote: “USAID needs to change its culture, and change the way it does business.”

One of our biggest champions, someone who has supported this agency throughout its history, someone deeply committed to development made matters clear: either USAID reforms itself, or USAID ceases to exist.

So it’s been made pretty clear to me – our time to change is now, and our time to change is short.

But there’s a message that goes beyond USAID – which is that the time to change is also right.

We now have a unique opportunity to make dramatic progress toward our ultimate goal of improving the lives and livelihoods of billions of people.

That opportunity is built on a newfound knowledge of what leads to successful development, new levels of political support at the highest levels of this government, and a unity of purpose amongst many powerful partners both across and outside of government.

Our understanding of effective development is always evolving, but has improved significantly in the last several decades. Think of our focus on women and girls. We know now that when you educate girls, or make loans to women – you improve life for their families by virtually every measure. We accept this as common knowledge now, and forget that this was once a revolutionary idea.

We know that smartly-aligned incentives, from conditional cash transfers to vouchers for reproductive health services, can increase the use of preventive health care.

And we’re beginning to understand the power of information itself. Just look at what text messaging can do for farmers looking to access real-time market pricing.

Complementing this knowledge is a recognition at the highest levels of just how important development is.

We have a President who has articulated a clear and bold new vision for American engagement in the world – one that is rooted in the recognition that the successful pursuit of development is essential to our security, prosperity, and values.

We have a champion in a Secretary of State who is a knowledgeable and passionate advocate for development, who brings a lifetime of commitment and genuine passion to foreign affairs, and whose conception of smart power is perfectly aligned with the discipline of development.

And we have a Secretary of Defense who says he will never miss an opportunity to call for more emphasis on diplomacy and development.

And these are not the only leaders who see the value of development as a strategic imperative:

Twenty years ago, if we wanted to assemble the, quote, “development community” – we wouldn’t have to go too far beyond the walls of USAID. Today, that community has expanded dramatically, with leaders who recognize the importance of our work, bringing new skills to the field from different disciplines.

These include corporate leaders like Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo and David O’Reilly from Chevron, who understand the power corporations have to reach millions, and the potential that power holds to improve lives.

They also include philanthropists, like Bill Gates and Mo Ibrahim, who have studied these issues deeply and have lent a business-like discipline and an investor’s desire for success to a field that needed both.

They include advocates like Bono and Shakira who have developed their own deep expertise in the issues and have lent the reach of their fame to some of the world’s most important causes, raising awareness among those we in this room have difficulty reaching.

But perhaps the most important leaders who’ve joined our field are the grassroots leaders in our communities: the church groups who advocate for humanitarian relief, the Baby Boomers who forego a comfortable retirement to join the Peace Corps, and the college students who oversubscribe courses on development -- and, by the way, it’s great to see so many students here today.

This inspiring level of engagement, this new generation of change, is exactly what we need to tap into.

We cannot be insular or dismissive of these new development partners. We cannot elevate development by relying on the traditional development community alone. This is a time to be bolder, to reach beyond our comfort zone, and to be imaginative about how we can work better, cheaper, and faster in the pursuit of high impact development.

In order to take advantage of this great convergence, we need to think big, plan boldly, and be willing to take smart risks. That’s what drives real change and delivers results.

I’d like to see us start approaching development in a new way – to provide what I think of as a “distinctly American” contribution to development.

Throughout its own unique history, America has successfully embraced a culture of risk-taking and entrepreneurship – it’s in our DNA.

Just look at the last century, so many advances once thought impossible America achieved:

  • wiping diseases like smallpox from the face of the earth…
  • connecting people around the world in an instant through technology…
  • splicing the gene and then sequencing the human genome – decoding the language of life itself.

We are a country whose strength comes from the diversity of the people who have shaped it. A country that believes that dedication and innovation are the only things needed to bridge the gap between the inconceivable and the achievable. And we have backed up that belief with breakthrough, time and time again.

This approach – this mindset -- represents our unique competitive advantage, one we are eager to share with the rest of the world.

Taking a distinctly American approach to development means we will focus on individual empowerment – giving USAID staff members with bold ideas a chance to see what they can do, and seeking out and supporting local actors with the ideas, imagination and courage to transform their communities and societies.

We will also focus intently on private enterprise and the power of markets. The resources at our command are a blessing, but they are dwarfed by the enormous power of markets to reach people with products, services, and opportunities.

Finally, we will demand good governance, performance, and accountability from the public institutions in countries we serve. America’s own experience of democratic improvement should inspire our partners. As President Obama recently reminded us, our audacious experiment of government “by the people” has endured – and improved -- for more than two centuries and provides a powerful example for countries striving to follow a similar path.

As many of you know, the Obama Administration is close to putting in place an overarching development policy that, for the first time ever, will focus our development efforts around a limited number of goals.

This effort will help set our priorities and come to define nearly all of our work, and I see it as a chance to put our distinctly American approach into practice.

In four core areas, we already are putting a new approach into practice:

The first is honoring our commitment to the Millennium Development Goals – not by delivering services but by building sustainable systems to support healthy and productive lives.

Enormous progress has been made toward meeting the MDGs, and we should recognize, celebrate, and support these achievements. But much more remains to be done, and the road ahead will likely be more difficult than the road already traveled. For this reason, we will be even more determined, strategic, and analytically grounded as we strive to meet the MDGs in five years.

We’re doing this through excellence on our two major development initiatives in global health and food security both of which focus on lagging indicators. And we’re doing it through a renewed emphasis on innovation and sustainability.

We’re innovating by focusing on what works, fostering research in operations, science and technology, building flexible partnerships to foster new kinds of collaboration; and supporting investment in women and girls, which can itself be a force multiplier for development and innovation.

And we’re making these investments sustainable by developing robust service-delivery systems, measuring and monitoring results, supporting local capacity, and rooting everything we do in well-governed institutions and sound policies.

If successful – and we must be successful – we will create real partnerships that allow tens of millions (maybe even hundreds of millions) of additional people to have a chance to lead healthy and productive lives.

Second, we are strengthening our ability to invest in country-owned models of inclusive growth and development success.

We know now that rapid and sustained growth is not a miracle; it’s a matter of getting the right mix of ingredients.

It’s time we think differently, creatively, and more comprehensively about how we partner in countries where the ingredients for growth are favorable. Countries that are reasonably well-governed, economically stable, globally connected, and market-oriented.

These countries could serve as engines of growth that could power entire regions and demonstrate what is possible when the right people, ideas, policies, and resources come together.

This requires an experimental approach that aligns the complementary assets of our aid, trade, investment, and diplomatic agencies around the unique, local levers of growth. And it requires fully learning from recent efforts like the Spence Commission and taking an evidence-based, customized approach to partner countries.

We know what happens when the recipe is right: 50 years ago, South Korea was poorer than two thirds of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa and its people had an average life expectancy of 54 years. Today South Korea has joined the club of rich industrial countries. They’re an aid provider.

Third, we are finding new ways to leverage science and technology to develop and deliver those tools and innovations that we believe can lead to exponential growth and transformational change.

Science and technology innovations are critical drivers of growth – some estimates attribute up to half of GDP gains to this kind of innovation. And science and engineering has opened the door to revolutions in our field, whether it was American agricultural scientists who drove the green revolution, or American medical researchers who pioneered immunization techniques.

It’s only right, then, that we recalibrate our science portfolio around a new set of grand challenges. Because…

Humanity needs drought-tolerant seeds that can increase crop yields and resist the advancing threats of climate change.

Humanity demands better ways to bring energy to areas where sunlight and wind are ample but on-grid electricity is foreign.

And humanity demands an AIDS vaccine, a malaria vaccine, and low-cost pneumonia and Rotavirus vaccines that will eliminate hundreds of thousands of child deaths.

This is the time to get serious about this area of work. That’s why we will restructure our already considerable science and technology assets. We will dramatically accelerate our efforts to solve the major science, technology, and engineering challenges in development and engage the full federal science community in this effort.

And we will make sure innovations get out of the lab and benefit the world’s poor by pursuing strategies that improve regulatory systems, smooth the path for private sector technology adoption, and use our tremendous purchasing power to create incentives for producers and accelerate uptake amongst consumers.

Finally, we continue to bring USAID’s expertise to bear on some of the most daunting challenges we as a nation face – sites of active conflict.

We have decades of experience working in conflict situations and complex emergencies. This was the Agency’s core strength long before Iraq and Afghanistan and it remains one today. The capabilities and decades of accumulated knowledge in DCHA, OFDA, and OTI are an enormous competitive advantage. We want to bring this expertise to bear in the conflict and post conflict countries where security is elusive and the development challenges are daunting – places like Afghanistan, which I recently visited.

In Argundab district, I saw the full constellation of our programs at work in transforming a community. Efforts like these need agriculture, health, and infrastructure to build a bridge from stabilization to long-term sustainable development so that communities can be prosperous and secure long after we are gone. Development can be done in these contexts. Our imperative to achieve short-term impact does not preclude long-term development.

Pursuing this approach means transforming the way we work. I’m well aware that we have some great people who are being held back by ineffective and burdensome processes.

At USAID and as a community, we need an operational model that encourages all of us to be development entrepreneurs.

To help you understand what I mean by “development entrepreneur” I’d like to share with you a story about a hero of mine – someone who I know was a hero to many of you – Norman Borlaug. I had a chance to get to know him a little before his death, and one of his favorite stories was about an experience he had early in his career.

While he was working in Mexico as a crop researcher, Bourlag got into his head that the idea that seeds need to rest was a myth, so if he could harvest his disease-resistant strain of wheat in one part of the country, he could then immediately take the seed to higher elevations and get a second growing season.

Everyone was against him. He almost lost all of his seed trying to cross a river, which nearly got him fired. His supervisors doubted him, so he threatened to quit, and had to be talked back to the job. But ultimately his discoveries helped transform Mexico into a net exporter of wheat, and set the foundations of the Green Revolution that would save billions of lives.

I highlight this story because I want to convey the power that active risk-taking has to transform lives.

Now I don’t expect every development expert to win the Nobel Peace Prize, but I do expect us to act like development entrepreneurs.

An entrepreneur is someone who:

  • Develops a clear vision and articulates a development strategy in everything he or she does. At USAID, I’m going to be stressing the ideas of focus, scale, and impact in our program design. We will focus on the areas where we can truly make a difference, instead of spreading ourselves too thin. Scale successful solutions to benefit millions, not dozens or hundreds. And create solutions that can be sustained long after we move on. This will require greater focus on lowering the unit costs of our work.
  • An entrepreneur is someone who builds and leads a world-class team. That’s why you’re going to see at USAID a renewed focus on talent – with HR reforms that can help us bring in people from more varied backgrounds who share one trait: they are problem-solvers.
  • An entrepreneur takes risks and makes course corrections along the way, learning as much from failures as from successes. Responsible risk-taking is essential to the kind of transformation we all seek. It’s a behavior I am dedicated to supporting.
  • An entrepreneur marshals resources, and inspires others to join as partners. That’s why you’ll see important changes in the way we procure goods and services, enabling us to work better with our implementing partners.

And entrepreneurs are, above all, focused on results and effectiveness. Ultimately everything we do is about impact, not outputs, and we have an obligation to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being well spent, saving lives and developing livelihoods. That’s why I’m committed giving our talented development professionals the freedom to focus on the data and analysis that will allow us to bring to scale what works and to modify what doesn’t.

Finally, to make smart, informed decisions as entrepreneurs, our people must have the right tools and skills.

That’s why this month we are rolling out a new policy bureau and budget reforms.

That’s why in June we will roll out our first phase of meaningful procurement reforms.

That’s why this summer we will reform our talent and human resource management systems.

And that’s why this fall we will roll out a significant package of monitoring, evaluation, and transparency improvements.

Restoring these core capacities is essential to rebuilding our reputation as development innovators.

But even all of this is not enough. It is not simply enough to do good work and then hope that success gets noticed. We need to get out there -- listening, sharing, and learning -- and smartly engage with our stakeholders, both within government and beyond.

For USAID, that means being responsive, candid, and humble when addressing Capitol Hill. The bargain, I hope, will be more trust and flexibility to allow our professionals to do what they do best.

When working with interagency partners, it means being enthusiastic and open, and making clear the value we can add to their mission, and the value they can add to ours. In return, we’ll ask that they work with us around common objectives and with common purpose.

And it means working closely with the growing development community, offering real, valuable leadership. And it’s my hope that the development community will reciprocate by sharing its own experience and expertise, and joining us in a relentless pursuit of results and impact.

I realize I’ve set out an ambitious agenda – for the agency I lead and for the work we share. I also realize that this is just the beginning of a longer conversation about the future of development.

Before I came to USAID I heard a lot about how the Agency had been weakened over the years. But I’ve now been at USAID long enough to know that our agency can innovate, take risk, and bring to the table unique capabilities across all the areas I have discussed.

We have a superb, highly committed and talented staff here in Washington and around the world. We need to be stronger – and we will be – but no one should underestimate what we can do right now.

So let me close by saying this: I’m hopeful. I’m optimistic.

If we can unite in our work, I’m confident that we can unite in extending hope to the places on earth where hope hangs on by a thread, and we can render hunger and disease and poverty to the ash heap of history.

Thank you

Washington, DC