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Think big on USAID administrator

With the announcement by USAID Administrator Raj Shah that he would step down in February, the development and foreign policy community has responded by lamenting his departure, lauding his tenure, and speculating on his replacement.
Although it took the White House nearly a year to appoint an Administrator, Dr. Shah brought tremendous energy and ideas to the role after he was confirmed at the end of 2009.

{mosads}During the Obama Administration’s first year, many supporters of global development worried publicly that USAID was being shut out of policy deliberations and that its expertise was being devalued and discounted.  Administrator Shah quickly dispelled any sense of malaise at the agency and set a course to make USAID an innovative player in support of U.S. foreign policy goals. He grabbed on to the beginnings of a global food security plan and helped turn it into the Feed the Future Program. He pushed for greater risk taking through innovation labs.  He implemented an evaluations framework to bolster agency learning and accountability.  He worked with Republicans on the Hill to win bipartisan support for foreign assistance — not an easy task in the current partisan foreign policy environment.

As we give Dr. Shah his due accolades, we must also ensure that the agency has potent leadership for the remaining two years of the Obama Administration. Given the difficulties of getting candidates vetted, nominated, and confirmed, the easy course of action would be to appoint an acting Administrator and let the Agency coast on the momentum built up over the last five years.  This would be a mistake that would disadvantage USAID and send the wrong signal to our international partners.

When the Administrator position was vacant during 2009, the Agency and its programs languished. It had no appreciable voice within the Obama Administration or on the Hill.  Despite its expertise, it was at risk of losing authority over global food security programs. There was even fear that USAID would be subsumed into the State Department.

The effectiveness and relevance of USAID, as well as its development missions, depend heavily on the prominence and skill of its leadership.  Of course, this is true of any agency.  But USAID has fewer cards to play in the Washington power games.  It depends more than most agencies on a dynamic personality at the top.

If the White House values the global development mission it will nominate a high profile figure – irrespective of party – with the international and political credentials necessary to make the agency a critical player.

There is no shortage of leaders who might fit this profile.  The President should consider high-ranking former members of Congress with experience in development issues (Bill Frist, Howard Berman, and Jim Kolbe are among those who come to mind). He should also test whether a recently retired top military leader, including service chiefs, would consider the post.  The military understands fully the importance of development programs in bolstering U.S. security and preventing conflict.  Similarly, is there a successful former cabinet official or White House chief of staff – Republican or Democrat — who would be willing to turn their energies and institutional connections toward the task of making our development programs as effective as they can be for the next two years?

The point is to aim high for the good of an agency that fulfills a role essential to the foreign policy and moral standing of our nation.  This should not be the subject of partisan contention.

The interests of the United States are threatened by a broad range of conditions that will become worse in the absence of progress on basic indices of human development.  This is no time to coast.  From the recent Ebola outbreaks, to the instability caused by chronic hunger, to terrorist recruitment fueled by crushing poverty, the United States has a deep interest in being a leader on development issues.  The President should find an Administrator who will command immediate respect in Congress and overseas and who is dedicated to two years of strengthening the momentum created by Dr. Shah.

Former Senator Richard Lugar served Indiana in the U.S. Senate from 1977 to 2013. He is the president of The Lugar Center, which addresses critical issues including global food security, foreign aid effectiveness, WMD nonproliferation, and bipartisan governance.


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