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See Inside Scientific American Volume 309, Issue 4

Rajiv Shah of USAID: How to Modernize Foreign Aid to Build a More Resilient World

Using foreign aid to foster resilience
portrait Rajiv Shah



AP PHOTO

In Brief

NAME
Rajiv Shah

TITLE
Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development

LOCATION
Washington, D.C.

Your agency funds projects around the world to promote health, improve food security, and so on. About a year into your tenure, in 2011, you said that USAID is “no longer satisfied with writing big checks to big contractors and calling it development.” So why are the funds still going primarily to big organizations?

We have actually moved more than $730 million to more than 1,200 small-scale, diversified, local partners. Some are small businesses. Some are small nongovernmental organizations [NGOs]. We have the same high standards of accountability for everybody, but we have dramatically diversified our partner base through this effort we call USAID Forward. We do it because we think more competition reduces cost and improves outcomes. And because at the end of the day, our goal is to exit these settings and have strong, capable local institutions take our place. We've gone from 9 percent of our spending going to local institutions in that context when I started to more than 14 percent—and that's last year's data. This year's data will show continued progress.

In the past some countries have rejected U.S. food aid because of concerns about genetically modified organisms. What can USAID do to ease those fears?

Our commitment is to ending hunger through business, science and partnership. Now, as part of that effort, we invest with lots of research partners, always local, in developing new seeds and new crop varieties that can protect families from the consequences of drought or that have more vitamin A, and some of those projects are testing the use of different transgenic technologies. But it will always be the country's decision as to how to regulate and make decisions about the use of different kinds of technology.

You grew up in Detroit. What solutions from development might work there?

It's a place that is packed with engineers, scientists and innovators. I just think there is a huge potential for Detroit, for Michigan, and for the rest of our country to build an innovation-oriented economy that capitalizes on something we do uniquely well—which is invest in research, in science, in technology, in entrepreneurship and in the protection of intellectual property. All of those core elements have created thriving business sectors around this country, and I think they can be deployed even in tough settings like Detroit to help unlock its economic potential.

This article was originally published with the title "Doing a World of Good."

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