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Posted on Saturday, 05.18.13
U.S. Foreign Policy

U.S. foreign aid chief talks about region’s future

SINCELEJO, Colombia — Rajiv Shah is the head of the U.S. Administration
for International Development, one of the world’s largest aid agencies.
During a recent trip to Colombia, Shah attended an event where a dozen
rural families were given titles to some 1,483 acres of land they had
been forced off of by this nation’s civil conflict.

USAID has been supporting Colombia’s land restitution efforts, which are
seen as key to ongoing peace talks between the Colombian government and
the FARC guerrillas. The agency recently submitted its fiscal year 2014
budget of $20.4 billion, which represents a 6 percent cut from FY2012.
Shah, 40, talked to The Miami Herald about budget constraints, USAID’s
role in a post-conflict Colombia and working in a region often
suspicious of U.S. aid.

Q: In a world of sequestration and budget cuts is development aid a hard
sell on Capitol Hill, particularly to countries like Colombia or Peru
that have growth rates the U.S. would be envious of?

A: There’s actually strong support for our development investments in
U.S. Congress here in South America. Members of congress recognize that
when we make these investments and they deliver results that we are
helping reduce pressures on the United States. We are helping reduce
drug related gangs and crime. We are helping create economic
opportunities through trade and investment, and we are helping our own
security and border security.

Q: With the budget cuts is USAID pulling out of any countries in Latin

A: We are reducing our presence in 14 countries around the world, based
on a very specific set of criteria that have to do with countries that
have approached middle-income status. We closed our Panama mission [last
year], we’ve transitioned out of Guyana. Over the next five years there
will be additional transitions in this region…That doesn’t mean that
we won’t have any partnerships. We might very well have strong
public-private partnerships…like we have in Brazil, where we are helping
to bring Brazilian technology to Africa and other parts of the world.

Q: How do you see USAID’s role in countries that are hostile to your
mission like Cuba, Bolivia or Venezuela? [The day after the interview,
Bolivia announced it was kicking USAID out.]

A: We are obviously not going to support those governments directly but
we also have a commitment to people in those countries and in particular
those individuals and organizations that are trying to maintain some
degree of open space for civil society, for freedom of the press where
that’s possible, for communications and access to information, and for
respect for human and minority rights. In all of those countries we have
those kind of civil society programs. Sometimes they can be
controversial, but as America we want to stand up for a certain set of
basic values.

Q: But those are the exact programs causing the problems. I’m sure many
nations would love the development aid if it could be separated from the
“democracy building” programs.

A: President Obama has said this repeatedly: Democracy and development
go hand in hand…We continue to advocate for all of those things [free
speech, human rights] in the ALBA countries [Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia,
etc.] and we continue to make these civil society investments that are
modest but play a unique role in establishing and retaining some space
for those civil society groups…All around the world, countries often
will try to limit or very, very tightly scrutinize and manage
investments in civil society, freedom of the press, journalist
activities and training, and building basic connectivity. Ultimately I
think democracy and development are very tightly linked and America will
continue to represent both in an integrated way.

Q: What were your impressions about today’s event in Colombia and what’s
USAID’s role in the country if peace is achieved?

A: I think hearing from the people who got title to their land for the
first time in almost two decades was just extraordinary. Women described
being forced off their farms 16 years or 19 years ago because of the
conflict – essentially given no choice, threatened and forced to leave.
Today, getting their land title back, allows them to return to their
community and they’re planning on clearing the land and planting and
growing food and restarting their agricultural livelihood and that’s
really the basis of growth for so many people in this country and it’s
going to be so important to the peace process itself…We look forward to
helping this country rebuild after what we hope is the successful
conclusion of that process. We can help rural development and
agriculture improve so that people have economic livelihoods. We are
hoping to reintegrate tens of thousands of former fighters in Colombian
society in a manner that gives them hope and opportunity.

Q: Since taking the helm of USAID you have spent a lot of time talking
about the role of innovation in development.

A: For the first time in the State of the Union this past February
President Obama laid out a goal for the international community, which
is to eradicate extreme poverty within two decades…The way we believe
you do that is actually not through massive new public investment but by
leveraging technological innovation and partnership to achieve those
results…We’ve invested in developing innovation labs across the United
States and other continents. Those laboratories are creating new
technology that, for example, can diagnose malaria without requiring
laboratory visits for patients or a blood sample. That way we can
dramatically reduce the cost structure of treating the disease and help
us eradicate malaria…We are investing in creating new energy technology
that can provide clean off-gird energy to rural communities that will
not be connected to the standard grid, and we think that can help bring
light and illumination to 700 million to 800 million people over time.

Q: What do you hope your leadership is remembered for?

A: USAID is the world’s premier development organization, bringing
science, technology and innovation to the task of ending extreme
poverty. And if you measure the impacts of American tax payers dollars
against that vision: Reaching 7 million foreign households around the
world and helping them escape poverty through increased production, or
helping 12 million children escape hunger and malnutrition, or saving
22,000 kids under the age of five from malaria every year. That would be
something to be very proud of and we are starting to put forward those
types of results.

Questions and answers were edited for clarity and brevity.

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