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June 22, 2011
Note: The below has been widely circulated In the Agency. The author, however, is unknown. (For additional, some would say more balanced, views, see: http://www.thelancet.com/journ…..xt?rss=yes and https://www.devex.com/news/rajiv-shah-s-usaid-legacy-85239.)
When Raj Shah announced he was stepping down last month, the accolades came pouring in. Secretary of State John Kerry lauded the former Administrator, calling him “an outstanding administrator, a creative innovator, and a dynamic leader” and the Huffington Post published a very complementary piece on his achievements with Congress. Raj Shah has suggested his next step may be political office, after the requisite “spending more time” with his family.
Yet Raj Shah was an ineffectual administrator who leaves behind a demoralized USAID that is focused more on flashy PR efforts than real development results and continues to struggle to assimilate dozens of new “initiatives” that Dr. Shah championed. Only former USAID Administrator Randall Tobias, who gutted USAID policy and technical capacity before getting caught up in the DC Madam escort service scandal, left with a more checkered record.
Why this disconnect? At his core, Raj Shah is a persuasive and charismatic salesman. But at USAID he was also a naive and inexperienced bureaucratic manager who focused on style instead of substance. In effect, he ran USAID like a political campaign, embodying some of the more distasteful characteristics of the stereotypical Washington politician. Raj Shah brought the world of Washington political gamesmanship to what was a highly technical, albeit politically tone-deaf, development agency. While there was considerable resistance to what many senior Foreign Service and Civil Service employees referred to Raj Shah’s “all sizzle and no steak” approach”, the insular nature of the Executive Branch (and even well-founded fear of retribution) have prevented a clear examination of his record. Indeed, Raj Shah surrounded himself with a small core of advisors (mainly former colleagues from the Gates Foundation) and a few career Washington sycophants and aggressively marginalized those who questioned the whereabouts of the proverbial missing steak.
Raj Shah’s approach to USAID was as cynical as it was politically brilliant. In the spirit of Machiavelli, a brief guide to his favored techniques:
1. Latch on to existing successes and appropriate them as YOUR successes.
A favored Gates Foundation technique, Raj Shah mastered the skill of jumping on a bandwagon that was well on its way down the road and then claiming ownership of said bandwagon. Here’s how this little trick works: identify a “game changing“ trend or technology (such as mobile phone penetration in the developing world) that is already well underway. Sign simple MOUs with mobile carriers and banks that are already using mobile technologies and create the aura of a “partnership.” Such private sector firms will often jump at the chance to attach the U.S. Government “seal of approval” to their operations. Then contribute some U.S. taxpayer dollars to the efforts— adding money to investments that would have happened even without USAID assistance. Then, as growth continues, claim credit for any of the positive outcomes, asserting that the success was the result of “USAID’s commitment to public private partnerships” and obfuscating any attempts to identify what part of the success can actually be attributed to USAID.
2. Put old wine into new bottles and then label it as your personal brand.
As in many fields, development practitioners have been relabeling and reinventing the same ideas for decades. A focus on “sustainability” in one decade is dusted off a decade later and termed “resiliency.” Recently development practitioners have “discovered” the power of working with local organizations, something their predecessors in the early 90s knew well. Raj Shah was a consummate master at rebranding existing ideas and then passing them off as “new and innovative.” USAID’s Global Development Alliance, a global program that relies on public-private partnerships to advance development goals, began in 2001. USAID’s Development Credit Authority, another global program that uses risk-sharing agreements to mobilize private capital, was launched in 1999. Each was hugely successful long before Raj Shah arrived at USAID. But in his search for the “new and innovative,” Raj Shah was able to dress up each of these long-standing programs with new rhetoric, cutting edge videos, and outreach events that truly gave them new visibility. Moreover, Raj Shah was able to imprint his personal brand on these programs with a well-crafted cult of personality, essentially taking ownership of their long track record of success.
3. Drive the narrative by blurring aspirational targets with real results
Probably the most troublesome of Raj Shah’s techniques has been his willingness to play fast and loose with the facts of USAID‘s development successes. To be sure, USAID has been a remarkably successful U.S. Government agency during its 50 plus years of existence. It has had its share of stumbles, failures and scandals, but the U.S. taxpayer has gotten a tremendous return on investment for its foreign assistance dollar. But realizing the return on a particular USAID investment is a long-term endeavor. USAID efforts in the 50s and 60s to improve the education in South Korea paid huge dividends for both countries in terms of trade and regional stability…but it took 20 years. Perhaps it reflects a certain impatience, but Raj Shah has shown an unfortunate willingness to blur the lines between aspirational targets (e.g. our program plans to help 17 million people escape poverty) and real results (e.g. our program has helped 17 million have escaped from poverty). Too often, due to careless editing of speeches or outright misrepresentation, Raj Shah has made statements about USAID successes to Congress and to the public that are misleading at best. Too often, aspirational targets have been recast as real achievements. Numbers recounting the amount that USAID has “leveraged” have been pumped up until they bear no relation to reality. For example, in May 2014, Raj Shah asserted that his Feed the Future initiative has “leveraged $7 billion in investment” from the private sector,” investments that, he maintains, would not have happened without USAID’s critical role as partner. Career staff at USAID cringe at this quote and many others. They know that many of the figures that have come to embody USAID’s recent successes are built on a house of cards. They know that the $7 billion figure cited above is a conglomeration of many, many private sector investments, some that may happen, some that will not, and most that would have happened anyway even without USAID involvement. And some USAID career staff fear the day, perhaps long after Raj Shah is gone, when the extent of this creative accounting becomes more widely known.
Raj Shah’s tenure at USAID was certainly marked by visionary ideas communicated by a charismatic and refreshing new leader. But on balance, Raj Shah failed to effectively execute or implement many of these ideas. Instead of managing, troubleshooting and following through, he relied on high-flown rhetoric and elaborately choreographed public relations extravaganzas. Yes, he just may have the right mix of skills to be a successful politician.
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