Q & A with USAID's Raj Shah on the Horn of Africa and foreign assistance

On Tuesday, Dr. Raj Shah, administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), visited World Vision's U.S. headquarters in Federal Way, Washington, to talk to our staff about faith and global development. After his speech -- which included a call for Americans and the American church community to continue supporting the United States as a leader in bringing relief to those suffering from poverty around the globe -- I had the great privilege of talking to Dr. Shah for a little more in-depth Q & A.

Here is the transcript of our conversation:

JAMES: Did Horn of Africa governments respond quickly enough to early warnings [of the food crisis and famine]?

DR. SHAH: It’s important to put this in context and recognize that the famine early warning system did generate knowledge of this crisis before it happened. The Ethiopian and Kenyan governments -- and the United States and a range of other partners, including the World Bank -- did work together in advance of this to put in place poverty safety-net programs that today are effectively protecting millions and millions of people. This is why we are not seeing large-scale child deaths in Kenya and Ethiopia, despite the fact that this drought is actually worse than previous ones. In Somalia, it’s a very different story, because access for humanitarian partners has been highly impeded by militias and al-Shabaab. The direct consequence of this is a famine that has taken tens of thousands of children who otherwise would not have died. The United States is doing everything it can, working with a broad range of international partners, both to save lives now and to put into place our Feed the Future programs so that future droughts don’t lead to these catastrophes. And we are already seeing some important policy reform measures that the Ethiopian and Kenyan governments are taking to liberalize their agricultural economies and allow for more agricultural development to achieve their own degree of food security.

JAMES: How can World Vision facilitate partnership with USAID? 

DR. SHAH: We have had a uniquely strong relationship with World Vision for more than three decades, and we are proud of that history. Going forward, I think we would like to engage World Vision more as a strategic partner, in addition to supporting your effective operational activities that save lives and protect vulnerable people. What that means is working with us on strategies for Feed the Future, for our global health initiative. It means serving as a point of contact for other faith-based institutions seeking to engage in development. It means partnering more deeply through our Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships so that we have a genuine strategic partnership -- because we want to learn what World Vision staff and programs know from your tremendous experience around the world. We want to do that in a more structured and centralized way.

JAMES: In your talk, you drew a contrast between North and South Korea. In the Horn of Africa, we almost have a similar contrast between Kenya and Ethiopia versus Somalia. What’s the answer to the militancy and instability in Somalia?

Dr. Raj Shah, administrator for USAID, talks about drought in the Horn of Africa. ©2011 Abby Metty/World Vision

DR. SHAH: I think your point is well taken. In western Kenya, we’ve seen a tripling of crop yields through Feed the Future partnerships. In parts of Ethiopia, we have seen tens of thousands of agricultural extension workers help improve food access and availability throughout that country. So we know these agricultural development programs, when done effectively, can work and are much more efficient and of lower cost than having to provide food aid -- or, even worse, having to consider some broader presence on the ground or engagement through other means. Now, in Somalia, the immediate priority has to be saving lives. With the United Nations estimating that 750,000 people could die over the next six months, we need to improve humanitarian access, especially to the several hundred thousand in IDP-like (internally displaced persons) settings in and around Mogadishu. We need to work with a broader range of partners to gain more effective access to people in south and central Somalia, as they are the most vulnerable. In the medium- to long-term, Somalia will need to dramatically improve governance, which means having governance that cares about the interests of their people and works with the international community and their local partners to achieve better outcomes.

JAMES: We live in difficult economic times, with a lot of pressure on the U.S. government’s foreign assistance budget. What successes do you feel you have had in retaining that budget? What can organizations like World Vision do to raise our voice and make sure that funding continues and is increased?

DR. SHAH: We know that a big part of the challenge is the misconception that we spend 20 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid. In fact, we spend less than 1 percent on foreign aid -- and for that 1 percent, we get hundreds of thousands of lives saved. That 1 percent is generating very specific results and is a core part of our national security strategy -- whether it's helping our troops come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, or helping to avert a situation of failed states and food riots in the Horn of Africa, or helping to ensure stability and progress in Southern Sudan, or helping to address the spread of crime and violence in Central America. These are problems we can either deal with through smart-focused investments that generate results -- that keep us safe -- or deal with their consequences later, which will be far more costly and may require military engagement. Secretary Robert Gates who said it best: It’s cheaper to do development than to send soldiers.

JAMES: One of the problems in the Horn of Africa is recurring drought that seems to be getting more frequent and more severe. Are you confident that the counter-measures to build long-term resiliency will be sufficient to beat these droughts?   

DR. SHAH: You’re right. There are hotter and drier growing conditions, and erratic weather events are increasingly common in some of the parts of the world that are most vulnerable and least able to adapt to them. That means that vulnerable people will suffer the most and suffer the most acutely. So we need to invest in strategies to help those communities achieve resilience. In the Horn of Africa, it means linking vulnerable communities to areas of significant agricultural potential in their countries. Remember that globally, almost all calories are consumed in the countries in which they are produced. We need to enable more regional integration in economic trade and engagement as we support a strong, nutrition-based agricultural strategy. We know how to achieve resilience in these places; we just have to be forward-leaning about it and have the foresight to actually do it.

JAMES: Is there any particular strategy that you feel holds more hope? More irrigation? More tree-planting?

DR. SHAH: I think our Feed the Future program highlights a lot of the right strategies -- support for livestock and pastoral communities, market-based interventions, and livestock health. It’s irrigation with a focus on water-use efficiency; it's crops that are more climate-resilient and adapted to local circumstances; it's dealing with the 40 to 60 percent of harvest losses that can occur in these communities because of ineffective agricultural marketing systems. And it’s having broad-based nutrition support programs like we have in the United States and everywhere else, where vulnerable children in particular have access to food so they don’t die when they get diarrhea during a drought. We know how to do this. It’s just a matter of getting the world together to get it done.


Read related article on our site: USAID chief makes case for international aid

Contact your members of Congress. Ask them to support the International Affairs Budget and oppose major cuts to this account. There are few places in the U.S. federal budget where dollars so directly translate into lives saved.

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