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Rajiv Shah takes over as USAID chief; Hillary calls him ‘transformational leader’

January 8, 2010

Indian-American Rajiv Shah has become the head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), charged with disbursing US foreign aid, making him the highest ranking person of Indian origin in the Obama administration.

“I believe Dr. Raj Shah will be the transformational leader that USAID has been waiting for,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton swearing in Shah, 36, who worked with the Gates Foundation till 2008.

“It takes an exceptional person to walk into this with his eyes wide open and to embrace the multitude of challenges that we face,” she said at the ceremony watched by Shah’s wife Shivam, son Sajan and daughter Amna.

With Obama administration making development a key tool of its foreign policy, Shah is expected to play a major role in the agency’s mission “to advance America’s interests by strengthening our relationships abroad,” as President Barack Obama put it announcing his nomination in November.

USAID, formally part of the State Department, manages the bulk of US international aid with a budget of some 53.9 billion dollars for 2010, up nine percent over 2009. It has more than 6,800 people working in some 80 countries worldwide.

Describing Shah as a “passionate, visionary, experienced development expert,” Clinton said, “he brings determination and an unwavering belief that anything is possible, yet he also brings the humility and quiet confidence instilled by his family.”

“One only needs to ask his wife Shivam the lengths to which Raj will go to achieve important goals. After all, this is a man who flew to India for one day to propose to her at the Taj Mahal when she was travelling there alone,” Clinton said.

She also recalled Shah’s Indian heritage, saying he “carries with him the enduring images of his first trip to India as a boy with his parents, both immigrants from that country, where he saw that nation’s rich history and diversity, but also saw human suffering on a scale that inspired him to action then and continues to inspire him now.”

Shah, who is a graduate of University of Michigan, earned his MD from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and his Master of Science in health economics at the Wharton School of Business.

He also attended the London School of Economics before becoming a policy wonk, variously working at the World Health Organisation and advising the Gore 2000 presidential campaign on health care policy. Before joining the Obama administration, he served as Director for Agricultural Development at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

While several Indian-Americans have served at the level of assistant secretary in administrations starting with the Bill Clinton’s, Shah became the highest-ranked official last year as under secretary of agriculture before being promoted to USAID administrator, which is a sub-cabinet level job.

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