Hollywood had one question for Dr. Rajiv Shah: Why haven’t we heard of you before?
That’s what everybody seemed to be asking, one way or another, when the young, gifted director of USAID came to a conference room at Creative Artists Agency on Dec. 13 to tell the story of the agency he runs.
And what a story it is.
USAID immunization programs save 3 million lives each year. Its family planning programs have lowered the average number of children per family from 6.1 in the mid-1960s to 4.2 today in 28 countries. In the past 50 years, USAID has reduced infant and child death rates in the developing world by 50 percent, and health conditions around the world have improved more during this period than in all human history. USAID programs have boosted literacy rates by 33 percent worldwide, created the first full-fledged commercial bank in Latin America dedicated to microbusiness, and provided food assistance to 43 of the top 50 consumer nations today.
Think of South Korea. It was the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, and that aid helped it rebound from postwar devastation in the ’50s to the world’s eighth largest economy. That, said Shah, is exactly the point of foreign aid. “We’re trying to create more South Koreas and fewer North Koreas,” Shah said. “We are not going to kill our way out of global insecurity.”
Shah, 39, earned a medical degree from University of Pennsylvania and a master’s in public health from Wharton. He’s worked for Al Gore and Bill Gates, for whom he ran a multi-billion dollar vaccination program. Now he runs an organization that has a $22 billion budget, 8,000 employees and an unfortunate, even unbecoming degree of modesty.
Shah himself comes off as a passionate wonk. He has seen the worst havoc that nature (the Haiti earthquake) and man (Syria) can wreak, and he has marshaled the forces of good, and his own good nature, to beat it back.
And he has done it with your money.
That was the shock of hearing him speak: It seems the people most unaware of the good USAID does in the world are people in the United States, who are paying for it. “We’re not very good at that,” Shah admitted to a gathering of entertainment and media industry types at a discussion mounted by the Foreign Policy Roundtable. “Maybe you can help us.”
They need help. When candidates like Paul Ryan and Ron Paul single out American foreign aid as too much for too little, there is precious little dissent (other than on the matter of foreign aid to Israel). That’s because most of us just don’t know that USAID, which languished through much of the early 2000s, has become a true American success story.
Take early childhood mortality. More than 19,000 children under the age of 5 die each day around the world. But in Bangladesh, USAID brought neonatal mortality down by 50 percent.
To help explain how, Shah displayed a small handheld plastic pump that a midwife or nurse can use outside a hospital to clear a newborn’s breathing passages. Working with overseas suppliers, USAID makes the low-tech, high-functioning items for about $7 each. It comes with a life-sized doll for practice. With the help of devices like these, Shah said, "we can eliminate premature child death."
I pointed out to Shah that neither the doll nor the pump is identified as American-funded. Why not give the doll a red-white-and-blue dress? Or put an American flag sticker on the pump?
He nodded, a bit sheepish. “Good idea.”
To some extent, other nations are more appreciative of USAID than Americans are.
“There’s no question that when we succeed at scale, there’s recognition,” Shah said.
After the devastating 2010 floods in Pakistan, USAID distributed wheat seed to tens of thousands of farmers and helped save 2 million to 3 million lives, according to Shah. “People recognized it,” Shah said. In national surveys in Pakistan, the aid bumped America’s favorability rating from 8 percent to 30 percent. Not bad, although it makes you wonder what more you have to do besides save 2 million lives to get to, say, 50 percent.
A new foreign aid bill, proposed by outgoing Congressman Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), specifically aims to boost USAID’s profile abroad. It would require that all economic and humanitarian assistance be identified as coming “From the American People,” except, the bill states, “where such marking would endanger implementing partners or beneficiaries.”
Not all of USAID’s exercises of soft power are so soft. In places like Afghanistan, USAID employees risk their lives to ensure girls get an education — a fundamental building block of development. Around the world, the organization has provided schooling for some 8 million girls and young women.
In Syria, USAID has provided immediate assistance since the war’s outbreak. It has brought food to 1.5 million Syrians and conducted 10,000 life-saving surgeries on the wounded there.
“The American people should be really proud of this,” Shah said. “There are fabulous stories to be told.”
After the presentation, the event’s organizer, Foreign Policy Roundtable founder and director Donna Bojarsky, urged the guests to offer ideas for helping Shah tell those stories.
Of course, a true mensch doesn’t look for credit or glory and wears his accomplishments lightly — like Shah. But at a time when America’s reputation abroad could use repair, and its foreign aid budget at home needs support — it’s time to shine a light on USAID.
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