Little Rock Dr. Rajiv Shah, head of the United States Agency for International Development (US-AID), long the most visible face of “soft” power for the US around the world happened to be speaking at the Clinton School of Public Service, so I stopped by on my route from KABF. He was effusive in his praise for any and all politicians in the room from U.S. Senate down to former mayors of North Little Rock.
He was also totally and admirably “on message.” He was 100% consumed by the goal of ending desperate poverty for those making less than $1.25 per day around the world in the next 17 years by 2030, and given that level of purpose and passion for that mission makes his job a lonely one, he was right to trumpet it loudly and without distraction. Questions about China’s role in Africa, the widening gap between rich and poor around the world, and virtually anything else all circled back to his mantra of ending poverty.
At the same time he has been dealt a bad hand in a time of political polarization and fiscal restraint especially on the international front in general and about dealing with world poverty in particular. He seems to have cut more than $1 billion in US AID funding in his time in the job, and though he had on a game face and spun the catchwords of global fashion about transparency, sustainability, dependence and exit strategies, he cannot have embraced the “new” model of development, as many termed it, with giddy joy, although I wouldn’t have known that from anything Shah said. His embrace of globalization and handmaiden partnerships with US-based multinational corporations like Cargill and Walmart in order to achieve his goals seemed total and complete. He made a curious and somewhat specious comparison about the soaring, imperial level of foreign direct investment now dwarfing aid funding that presumed to equate both as equivalent development tools without dwelling on the difference between pure profit motivation of the companies and totally differing objectives from host countries. With declining money to spend and a unfriendly climate in Congress Shah no doubt feels there is no choice but to embrace big corporations as US-AID partners to prove domestic value, and loses little sleep fretting about the colonialism involved, in order to justify his critical mission. At one point he stated blandly that part of his conviction that poverty could be eradicated rested on the businesses were finally “finding it profitable to end poverty.” I quake at the full consequences of that one offhanded remark for the countries where AID is working.
Despite the slides with his presentation that pictured him on the ground in various countries visiting with other luminaries, it was understandable that much is still missed from 30,000 feet. He both criticized Nestle for his history in exploiting women in developing countries when selling infant formula, and then exonerated their current practices, while ignoring the persisted charges that they and others are depending on child slavery in their coco operations in Mali and other countries. He applauded Ushahidi, the great Nairobi based tech center, without acknowledging their AID funding, calling them a business, rather than a nonprofit NGO funded by numerous foundations to do excellent work. Like a politician he was caught in an exchange with a Clinton School alumna about her sister, Julianna Rotich, the executive director of Ushahidi, and one of the four co-founders, misunderstanding that she was not the sole founder and a businesswoman success story from Kenya, which he seemed to want to establish in the back-and-forth.
One especially insightful question focused on whether or not the US-AID approach of setting up parallel delivery systems with NGOs and others in order to bypass local governments was not diminishing capacity. There was no question about the lack of accountability and blatant anti-democratic nature of such a systematic approach, but the question was not so much sidestepped as answered in a troubling and revelatory fashion by Dr. Shah. Glancing away from the question, he replied that when local government officials entreated them in response to their parallel structures and convinced them that they wanted to do better, then they tried to work with them. The answer might have come as smoothly from a British viceroy of the Indian Raj.
The papers were full of reports of the United States cutting back its food aid program that has long been controversially seen as perhaps more devoted to the subsidization of the American agricultural sector rather than sustainability of developing countries. The program has also allowed big NGOs to take the food and sell to developing countries at profit to support their own operations. The Obama administration announced an end to this system and given Shah’s position now and his former work as a high official with USDA, it would be a safe bet that his fingerprints are on the decision as well. Hopefully the “new” development model is not a sop to NGOs with one hand after taking away with another.
Shah has a clear and laudatory vision and is an excellent advocate, but the paths where he is walking are murky regardless of his keen advocacy for these directions.