SINCELEJO, Colombia -- Rajiv Shah is the head of the U.S. Administration for International Development, one of the world’s largest aid agencies. During a recent trip to Colombia, Shah attended an event where a dozen rural families were given titles to some 1,483 acres of land they had been forced off of by this nation’s civil conflict.
USAID has been supporting Colombia’s land restitution efforts, which are seen as key to ongoing peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas. The agency recently submitted its fiscal year 2014 budget of $20.4 billion, which represents a 6 percent cut from FY2012. Shah, 40, talked to The Miami Herald about budget constraints, USAID’s role in a post-conflict Colombia and working in a region often suspicious of U.S. aid.
Q: In a world of sequestration and budget cuts is development aid a hard sell on Capitol Hill, particularly to countries like Colombia or Peru that have growth rates the U.S. would be envious of?
A: There’s actually strong support for our development investments in U.S. Congress here in South America. Members of congress recognize that when we make these investments and they deliver results that we are helping reduce pressures on the United States. We are helping reduce drug related gangs and crime. We are helping create economic opportunities through trade and investment, and we are helping our own security and border security.
Q: With the budget cuts is USAID pulling out of any countries in Latin America?
A: We are reducing our presence in 14 countries around the world, based on a very specific set of criteria that have to do with countries that have approached middle-income status. We closed our Panama mission [last year], we’ve transitioned out of Guyana. Over the next five years there will be additional transitions in this region...That doesn’t mean that we won’t have any partnerships. We might very well have strong public-private partnerships…like we have in Brazil, where we are helping to bring Brazilian technology to Africa and other parts of the world.
Q: How do you see USAID’s role in countries that are hostile to your mission like Cuba, Bolivia or Venezuela? [The day after the interview, Bolivia announced it was kicking USAID out.]
A: We are obviously not going to support those governments directly but we also have a commitment to people in those countries and in particular those individuals and organizations that are trying to maintain some degree of open space for civil society, for freedom of the press where that’s possible, for communications and access to information, and for respect for human and minority rights. In all of those countries we have those kind of civil society programs. Sometimes they can be controversial, but as America we want to stand up for a certain set of basic values.
Q: But those are the exact programs causing the problems. I’m sure many nations would love the development aid if it could be separated from the “democracy building” programs.
A: President Obama has said this repeatedly: Democracy and development go hand in hand...We continue to advocate for all of those things [free speech, human rights] in the ALBA countries [Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, etc.] and we continue to make these civil society investments that are modest but play a unique role in establishing and retaining some space for those civil society groups...All around the world, countries often will try to limit or very, very tightly scrutinize and manage investments in civil society, freedom of the press, journalist activities and training, and building basic connectivity. Ultimately I think democracy and development are very tightly linked and America will continue to represent both in an integrated way.
Q: What were your impressions about today’s event in Colombia and what’s USAID’s role in the country if peace is achieved?
A: I think hearing from the people who got title to their land for the first time in almost two decades was just extraordinary. Women described being forced off their farms 16 years or 19 years ago because of the conflict – essentially given no choice, threatened and forced to leave. Today, getting their land title back, allows them to return to their community and they’re planning on clearing the land and planting and growing food and restarting their agricultural livelihood and that’s really the basis of growth for so many people in this country and it’s going to be so important to the peace process itself…We look forward to helping this country rebuild after what we hope is the successful conclusion of that process. We can help rural development and agriculture improve so that people have economic livelihoods. We are hoping to reintegrate tens of thousands of former fighters in Colombian society in a manner that gives them hope and opportunity.
Q: Since taking the helm of USAID you have spent a lot of time talking about the role of innovation in development.
A: For the first time in the State of the Union this past February President Obama laid out a goal for the international community, which is to eradicate extreme poverty within two decades…The way we believe you do that is actually not through massive new public investment but by leveraging technological innovation and partnership to achieve those results...We’ve invested in developing innovation labs across the United States and other continents. Those laboratories are creating new technology that, for example, can diagnose malaria without requiring laboratory visits for patients or a blood sample. That way we can dramatically reduce the cost structure of treating the disease and help us eradicate malaria…We are investing in creating new energy technology that can provide clean off-gird energy to rural communities that will not be connected to the standard grid, and we think that can help bring light and illumination to 700 million to 800 million people over time.
Q: What do you hope your leadership is remembered for?
A: USAID is the world’s premier development organization, bringing science, technology and innovation to the task of ending extreme poverty. And if you measure the impacts of American tax payers dollars against that vision: Reaching 7 million foreign households around the world and helping them escape poverty through increased production, or helping 12 million children escape hunger and malnutrition, or saving 22,000 kids under the age of five from malaria every year. That would be something to be very proud of and we are starting to put forward those types of results.
Questions and answers were edited for clarity and brevity.