Ten months into his administration, President Obama finally announced his nominee for top USAID administrator—Dr. Rajiv Shah.

This morning, I joined a packed room of dark suits on the fourth floor of Dirsksen for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s nomination hearing.

The Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network had sent out the nomination notice a few weeks ago, so I had already read Dr. Shah’s credentials—currently Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics and Chief Scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, leading the Department’s participation in the President global food security initiative and managing 10,000 staff worldwide; former Director for Agricultural Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he managed the foundation’s $1.5 billion vaccine fund; trained doctor, former health care policy adviser for Al Gore’s presidential campaign, Masters in health economics, etc.

While excited to see an appointee with such extensive experience in both agriculture and medicine, I thought, “how exciting can this guy really be?  He’s probably some stuffy top-down bureaucrat who’s never even spent a day in the fields.”

But today’s hearing brought me hope.

Dr. Shah, a mere 36 years old, graciously fielded questions regarding his vision for USAID, changes he would implement both short- and long-term, balancing development and defense, conflict resolution, education, gender integration, food security and Afghanistan.

You can read his full testimony here and responses to questions as submitted for the record here.

While many of Dr. Shah’s answers were more diplomatic than substantive (Senator Menendez actually called him out on this), there were particular details of his hearing that stood out:

  1. His age – call me a sucker for youth energy, but I was in absolute awe of how young Dr. Shah was and looked, sitting there in front of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Members. Politico’s Laura Rozen called him a “whiz kid” for all that he’s accomplished at such a young age.  It made me smile to think that President Obama, one of the five youngest presidents ever to serve the U.S., might be bringing new energy to Washington.  Come to think of it, the son of Indian immigrants, Dr. Shah is also very likely the first person of color to ever head USAID.
  2. His family – Dr. Shah’s wife, two young children, sister, parents and grandparents were all present and sitting proudly at the hearing.  Senator Kerry, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee even joked about subpoenaing the notes of Dr. Shah’s son, Sajan, who looked to be about five.  While perhaps it’s not that uncommon to see family support at Congressional hearings, their presence definitely seemed to bring a positive tone to the hearing.
  3. Human suffering – As a young child, Dr. Shah’s parents took him and his sister to India. “I clearly remember my uncle insisting on showing my sister and me the full reality of that multi-faceted country,” he said. “Not just the historic landmarks and vibrant urban communities, but also the vast slums that were home to millions and continue to be.  This early experience opened my eyes to a type of human suffering I had not previously witnessed and have not since forgotten.”  Later Senator Menendez thanked Dr. Shah for actually using the words “human suffering,” as they are words rarely invoked in Congressional hearings.
  4. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and John F. Kennedy – Dr. Shah opened his testimony by invoking an image from his time as a young medical volunteer in rural South India.  The image:  children battling hunger and disease and admiring photographs of their heroes—Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and John F. Kennedy—tacked up on the wall of their one room school house.  This, Dr. Shah said, is the power of USAID’s spirit of partnership, cooperation and effort to project hopefulness and the aspiration to dream to the farthest corners of the globe.
  5. Sitting in farmers fields – remember my doubts about Dr. Shah’s connection to actual farming communities?  One of the highlights of his testimony was hearing him express his intentions to create a culture at USAID of sitting in farmers’ fields or hospital and listening.  After listening to years of critique of government-funded development programs (including Peace Corps) missing the mark and investing in unsustainable projects, this statement was music to my ears!  Senator Kerry followed up (much to my surprise!), by mentioning that Greg Mortenson, author of the book Three Cups of Tea, would soon be in town and had a lot to teach USAID about the value of community-driven development.
  6. Development as a discipline – Dr. Shah assured the Committee, that if confirmed, he would do everything in his power to champion USAID, ensure it is empowered, respected and well resourced.  While this statement may sound typical for someone interviewing for a job, USAID and U.S. development policy in general is on the cusp of radical change.  Dr. Shah clarified that broad consensus is brewing that development is more critical today than ever.  President Obama, Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates have all highlighted that development must stand with diplomacy and defense to constitute the three pillars of our national foreign policy.  Now is the time to invest in improved monitoring and evaluation, strategic planning, partnership and the best practices of the field.

Overall, an intriguing nominee.  We’ll see where it goes from here.  Stay tuned!

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