Rick Cohen on Rajiv Shah's tough time as protector of the aid budget

Misconceptions about how much the US government spends on humanitarian aid made for a turbulent time at its agency for international development, writes our US columnist

Rick Cohen
Rick Cohen

Rajiv Shah has left the top job at the US Agency for International Development, the American counterpart to DfID. The US electorate believes that a huge part of the federal budget is devoted to humanitarian aid - it's actually about 1 per cent - and congressional overseers increasingly prefer guns over butter in US relations with the outside world. That made Shah's five years at the helm difficult and often turbulent.

Shah deserves credit for protecting as much of the USAID budget from Congressional budget savings as he did. But the humanitarian aid budget in President Obama's fiscal year 2016 budget is now facing sharp cuts, including 3.2 per cent from funding for global health, 13 per cent from humanitarian assistance and, in that category, 20 per cent from refugee aid.

Shah inherited an agency that had been badly affected by staffing cuts under the Bush administration. He built up USAID staff capacity and talent, reducing the need to rely on big contractors for USAID administrative functions. In fact, one of Shah's controversial initiatives was USAID Forward, which was intended to shift the agency from reliance on big for-profit and NGO contractors to more direct aid interactions with host countries and local NGOs. The big contractors grumbled vociferously at first, but fell into line.

Meanwhile, USAID has stepped up its accountability actions against questionably performing contractors, including suspending the contract work of the Academy for Educational Development, which subsequently went out of business, and, more recently, IRD, which has been the top US aid contractor in Afghanistan since 2007, scoring $2.4bn in grants and contracts.

However, initiatives such as USAID Forward are both the high point and the problem of Shah's legacy. Critics say he has exhausted the agency with "management by initiative". The problem is that in US policy-making, initiatives are increasingly short-term, one-off efforts that do not always lead to longer-term policies and programmes.

Shah's departure as the presidential election scrum begins is no surprise. He was the youngest director in the agency's 50-year history and is seen as close to Hillary Clinton, the likeliest Democratic presidential nominee. If the Democrats win next year, he is all but destined to return to the new administration - as something.

Rick Cohen, is the national correspondent for the Nonprofit Quarterly in Boston, Massachusetts

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus