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Reinventing USAID to Meet 21st Century Development and Security Challenges
June 18, 2010

Remarks by Dr. Rajiv Shah
Administrator, USAID

National Press Club
Washington, D.C.

June 18, 2010


Thanks for that introduction Alan and thank you for the opportunity to address the National Press Club today.

I want to start today by saying something you’re probably not used to hearing from a public servant in the aftermath of a crisis: thank you.

Your unstinting coverage of Haiti’s earthquake certainly helped rally the American people behind the cause of helping our neighbors.

Ultimately, more than half of our citizens contributed to relief causes. It was an awe-inspiring demonstration of American compassion.

Although Americans might be most familiar with USAID’s red white and blue logo from seeing it on the evening news in the midst of report about a tragedy like the one that unfolded in Haiti, long-term development is the main focus of our Agency.

Working to ensure all people have the chance to lead a healthy, productive life is not just our moral duty. It is an indispensible ingredient for global stability and prosperity.

The President’s recently published National Security Strategy set an ambitious agenda for USAID. It calls on us to “help prevent conflict, spur economic growth, strengthen weak and failing states, lift people out of poverty, combat climate change and epidemic disease, and strengthen institutions of democratic governance.”

That’s a tall order. But it’s what animates our team.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton have made it my mission to remake USAID into the world’s premiere development agency to meet the security and development challenges of the 21st century. Today I will discuss how we hope to achieve that goal and why it’s so vital.


Let me take you back to Haiti for a moment and explain how that experience shaped our reform agenda, which is well underway.

Within a week of my arrival at USAID, the earthquake killed more than 200,000 of our neighbors-and left more than one million more hungry and homeless. We continue to remember the victims and honor the resilient spirit of the survivors.

President Obama asked me to lead a “swift, aggressive and coordinated” US response to the disaster.

Before I was sworn in, I had heard a lot of grumbling about USAID: People said the Agency moved slowly, lacked the ability to innovate, and lost its in-house expertise. As I witnessed the Agency mobilize with astonishing speed in Haiti, I realized that the Agency’s detractors were overstating their case.

Within hours of the earthquake, we dispatched urban rescue specialists who helped pull 132 people from the rubble. Within days, our military got the airport operating at three times its normal capacity.

Our staff’s entrepreneurial work was essential to meeting the urgent needs of our neighbors. Rather than waiting to work through normal channels, we purchased local food stockpiles and immediately distributed them.

With the World Food Program, we fed more than 3.5 million people. And together with our partners, we vaccinated more than a million at-risk Haitians. To date, there has been no major outbreak of disease.

As we approach the six-month mark of the earthquake, our professionals are helping Haitians build back better.

We’re harnessing the power of private sector innovation to open new opportunities for Haitians. Just last week we launched an initiative with the Gates Foundation to encourage the provision of financial services through cell phones. Mobile transactions are cheaper and faster than traditional banking, and safer from disruption due to natural disasters. Mobile banking has the power to reach hundreds of millions of people who currently lack access to a safe place to save and borrow. This effort will make Haiti a hub for the m-banking revolution.

We’re also working to strengthen Haiti’s resilience against future natural disasters by helping local construction firms learn how to erect low cost, yet stronger homes – a practice we learned helping Peru rebuild from an earlier earthquake.

Haiti ‘s recovery is just starting and will take years. Development is a difficult long-term endeavor. And we face significant challenges, especially as the hurricane season approaches.

But the early results of our efforts are encouraging – and they helped me shape my reform agenda.

I learned that to bring out the best in our employees, we need to unleash the pent up entrepreneurial energy within the Agency. We need to apply the latest learnings to the most pressing problems. And we need to encourage our staff to work shoulder-to-shoulder with our beneficiaries and partners in government, civil society and the private sector.

Our staff can succeed by acting like development entrepreneurs. By taking risks, finding new ways to stretch a dollar, leveraging the capabilities of any willing partner and focusing on impact instead of just getting money out the door.

For example, based on studies that showed people were most likely to use chlorine tablets if they were distributed along with water, we asked the Haitian truck drivers we hired to deliver water to also dispense purification pills at each stop.

Our team turned an urgent need into an opportunity to improve health outcomes. As a result, more Haitians in Port au Prince are drinking safe water today and diarrheal illness dropped by 12 percent, compared to pre-earthquake levels.


My job as Administrator is to make good on the President’s promise to revitalize USAID by modernizing the Agency and enabling every employee to operate like an entrepreneur every day.

That’s why I am launching a major set of operational reforms designed to partner and deliver high-impact, cost-efficient development.

A global Agency with 9,000 employees and an integral role in executing our foreign policy needs an intellectual nerve center. That’s why last month, we formed a Bureau of Policy, Planning and Learning-so we can achieve better results by becoming more evidence-based and impact -oriented.

Next month, the Bureau will host a conference of scientific leaders to identify how we can best support innovation. The polio vaccine replaced the cumbersome iron lung and made it possible to nearly eliminate that crippling disease. We will ask these leaders how to support the development of the next breakthrough like a malaria vaccine that could save millions of lives at a much lower cost than nearly any alternative strategy.

In addition, we will rebuild USAID’s budget accountability with a strong focus on getting better results for US taxpayers. We will pursue a development strategy that is based on focus, scale and impact. We will focus in fewer sectors in each country of work. We will pursue those efforts that can scale to reach a large percentage of people in need. And we will assess missions based on their achievements – not the process indicators that often substitute for real results.

Second, to achieve greater return from our investments, we are readying a package of procurement reforms. We will in-source program design and evaluation, saving money on contracts while rebuilding our program management capabilities. And we are redoubling our efforts to support local institutions and build local capacity.

Working through local partners is often the most cost effective and sustainable way to invest our resources. I recently visited one of the 1,427 health huts in Senegal. In these huts, volunteers who were selected by their communities and trained by USAID provide basic but often lifesaving treatments. By training local health workers and hiring local staff for project management, the program lowers costs while saving more lives. And it builds local capacity so that one day our aid will no longer be necessary.

Third, to get the best out of each employee we are reforming our personnel policies. A development entrepreneur needs flexibility. But, at the moment, bureaucratic processes are holding back USAID employees. In August, we will be inaugurating changes that will cut back on the red tape so our professionals can become more nimble at problem solving.

We will also be offering better opportunities to the 4,000 foreign nationals who are from the communities where we work. We often underutilize the talents of these employees, who make up half of our workforce and include doctors, engineers and former government officials. Now we will fight to make the most of their cultural and technical expertise.

We are also looking at ways to expand our civil service and to ensure that our workforce represents the best that our nation has to offer.

And because we recognize that USAID needs more in-house expertise, we have hired more than 500 new foreign services officers and we’re planning to hire at least that many more. We are depending on these officers to bring fresh ideas and energy into the agency.

We’ll be equipping some of them with flip cams so they can interview program beneficiaries, record what they are learning, and propose program improvements. In addition to making our work more transparent, building this culture of customer research will make us more innovative and responsive.

Fourth, we need to do a much better job at monitoring and evaluation so we can easily identify what works, what doesn’t and why-and implement changes in the way we do business.

We will more than triple investments in baseline information collection so we can improve outcomes by checking progress and making course corrections. We are requiring rigorous impact evaluation of crucial programs from their inception. And we’re creating incentives for knowledge sharing to recognize the best evidence-based decision-making in our Agency.

To do this we will host regular “evidence summits” to study our own actions and explore ideas for improvement. This starts with an After Action Review on Haiti next week at the National Defense University.

Finally, our Agency will embrace “extreme transparency.” We will meet President Obama’s Open Government Directive and seek to set a standard on transparency in development.

We are committed to making information about our investments public. We owe American taxpayers hard evidence of the impact their money is making. We owe it to partner governments so they can plan around our assistance and to citizens, civil society and media so they can hold their governments accountable.

As a first step, by the end of this year, we will have a readily accessible geospatial map of our programs available online for pilot country missions.

So that’s my reform agenda for high impact development.

Taken together, these reforms will mark the most significant operational improvements to our nation’s development agency since President Kennedy announced the creation of USAID almost 50 years ago.


And a more efficient, results-oriented agency is needed now more than ever. In the five decades since our founding, the role of USAID in supporting our national priorities – particularly our national security priorities – has certainly evolved.

America’s greatest security challenges are no longer just state-based. Extreme poverty compromises basic human dignities, banishes hope for the future and paves the way for the rise of transnational extremism.

We can meet these challenges through the President’s signature long-term development initiatives, which are designed to meet the Millennium Development Goals — our Feed the Future program and the Global Health Initiative.

In both initiatives, we are applying a new way of doing business to achieve more transformative and sustainable results.

In our fight to end hunger, which now reaches more than 1 billion people, Secretary Clinton committed us to work “in partnership, no patronage.”

I just returned from West Africa where regional leaders presented their own food security plans and committed to nearly doubling their investments in food security. They identified strategic interventions for eliminating hunger such as investing in improved maize and improving transborder trade. We will coordinate with other donors to invest in these country-owned plans – because it is less costly and more compassionate to stem famine than to feed the starving. And we will make sure these plans focus on women, who make up 70% of farmers and are a big part of the solution.

But a modern aid agency must work where the link between the opportunity to lead a healthy and productive life and our own national security is strongest.

Since the beginning of the civilian uplift in March 2009, USAID has more than tripled its staff in Afghanistan.

Right now, USAID field personnel are working side-by-side with our troops across Afghanistan.

In Kandahar, USAID development officers sit at the table with company commanders and an Afghan governor designing a project to reconstruct an irrigation canal.

In Helmand, Marine squads patrol with USAID advisors, engaging the local community to build more representative local councils.

In Arghandab, a district just outside Kandahar that I visited this spring, pomegranate orchards are springing back to life where USAID has helped communities to rebuild destroyed basis for a viable economy.

What we’ve learned in these contested communities is that the process of working with local leaders is as important as repairing roads and digging wells. When our assistance is filtered through local governing processes, we help repair not just a road but also a community.

As so much of our focus is justifiably on the challenges in front of us in Afghanistan, it’s important to recognize how far we’ve come. Where development efforts have taken root, we’ve been able to make a profound change in Afghans’ lives.

We’ve improved road infrastructure to increase trade and ease mobility, created educational opportunities for millions of children, and extended basic health care to 85 percent of the population. Since 2002 infant mortality has fallen by 22 percent.

Where you find USAID in the field, you will see what I saw in Arghandab: Committed public servants putting their lives at risk to keep our nation safe.


Sustainable development is essential to sustainable national security.

The world has changed in the last decade, and the development community – starting with our agency – must change too. We have to:

” Become development entrepreneurs through our ambitious reform agenda ” Make innovation a core part of our approach; and ” Work in a new spirit of partnership as we are doing in our efforts to end hunger and save lives through global health;

USAID can help create a safer, more stable world by meeting our shared global challenges. That’s what we are determined to do.