Remarks by Administrator Rajiv Shah at the National Prayer Breakfast

Thursday, February 6, 2014

[As Prepared]

Good morning.

Thank you, Representative Hahn, for your generous introduction.

Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, Mrs. Obama, Secretary Kerry, Members of Congress, distinguished guests from around the world, thank you.

I am so happy that my wife Shivam is here with me this morning. This is a great change of pace for us. As the parents of three young children, our breakfast discussions are usually about keeping toys off the table and sticky hands off each other.

President Obama, thank you for the opportunity to serve.

I see my friend Senator Inhofe here today. We make quite an unlikely pair. At one point, we were traveling in rural Ethiopia with several close friends when our van got stuck in the mud. After a pause, the Senator generously suggested everyone under 70 should get out and push. The next thing I knew, I was covered in mud—and once again because of Congress.

In this city and 180 countries around the world, prayer groups like these are strengthening our hearts, giving purpose to our lives, and helping all of us lead with greater moral courage.

That was my experience when I was invited to join a small Senate Prayer group. The labels of party and background fell away—and I saw how by remaining devoted to faith and setting high aspirations, we can transform our world for the better.

This morning, I want to share an overarching purpose worthy of this room that has come together to follow the teachings of Jesus: Let us work together to end extreme poverty in our lifetime.

Because this is now achievable, but only if all of us—from science, business, government, and faith—come together for the poor.

We can end extreme poverty for the 1.1 billion people who live on a dollar-and-a-quarter a day.

We can end it for the 860 million people who will go to sleep hungry tonight.

And we can end it for the 6.6 million children who will die this year before their 5th birthday.

As terrible as these numbers are, they do not adequately describe what poverty is—and what poverty does.

It drains our basic human dignity.

And if we’re being honest, it sometimes drains our compassion for those who suffer.

But there is good news of a practical nature to report.

On continent after continent, a smaller share of people live this way than at any other time in our history.

And today, we know that a condition that defined the state of humanity when Jesus walked the earth and only started getting better in the last 200 years can actually be nearly eliminated in the next 20.

Jesus’s teachings—like those of so many faiths—clearly call on us to practice our faith the hard way by serving the least fortunate.  

Governments can’t do this by themselves. Businesses can’t do this alone. Faith communities and charitable efforts alone are not enough.

But together, we are making astonishing progress—thanks to the leadership of President Obama, the presidents of both parties before him, and so many of you in this room.

And I believe that the spirit of this prayer breakfast is essential to strengthening our hearts and uniting our efforts to finish this mission.

Holding hands in prayer with Senate leaders is not what I would have ever expected to do in my life.

I grew up in suburban Detroit, where every family in our Indian-American community had an immigrant story to share—of hard work, sacrifice, and absolute faith in the American dream.

When my grandfather gave his life-savings to send my dad to America, I think he hoped—but never could have imagined—how this nation and its values would lift our family.

That my mom would run an award-winning Montessori school or my dad would one day work as an engineer on the Apollo mission and at Ford Motor Company.

As a child, my Hindu heritage was an extension of my community—a place to fit in and feel loved.  Growing up, the holy words of God and the wishes of my mom seemed interchangeable. For the longest time, I thought God’s first two commandments were “Sit still” and “Don’t slouch.”

The desire to connect to my family’s history drew me to southern India the summer after college to help fight disease in a remote community.

On my first day, I was exhausted and jet-lagged. It had taken three flights and a long bus ride deep into the jungle, but I was buzzing with nervous energy. I was ready to make a huge contribution to humanity that very afternoon.

I dropped off my bag and walked into a neighboring village. And along a dirt road, I stopped short.

There was a child—maybe four or five-years-old. Rags hung off her emaciated body, her feet were bare, and she looked at me with uncertainty in her wide eyes.

I thought I had known the face of poverty until I saw that little girl.

And I have seen her again and again.

I’ve seen her in the slums of Dhaka, and the hills of Guatemala, and in the villages of eastern Congo.

And then, two years ago, I saw her one more time.

I was standing with Dr. Jill Biden and Dr. Bill Frist in the world’s largest refugee camp close to the Somali border.

We met mothers who had carried their children for weeks across famine-stricken lands and terrorist-held valleys.

In the dust and dirt of the camp, I knelt down next to a young woman named Habiba. Let me tell you her story.

Desperate to escape the famine, she began a long journey to safety with her two children by her side. But as she pressed on, her children became too weak to stay on their feet.

First she carried one.

And then the other.

Eventually the strain became so much that she struggled to continue.

She looked down at her two children. And she said a prayer.

And then she made the excruciating decision to leave one of them behind so she could save the other.

That girl in India. The child left in Somalia.  

Were they somehow lesser than our sons and daughters?

Did their fathers love them less? Did their mothers?

Did God?

A few moments ago, Bethany Hamilton shared with us the parable from Luke.

I grew up with this teaching, and I know many of us did. But I hope we can listen to it today with new ears.

Because not only did everyone else—prominent people—walk past a man lying half-dead on the side of a road, they actually crossed to the other side to avoid having to deal with him at all.

Until one good man stopped.

One.

“Go and do likewise,” said Jesus to us all.

So how do we, today, go and do likewise?

We now know—better than ever—how to help.

We have to put the power of business and science into the hands of those who live their faith and serve this common purpose.

I saw this new approach at work that day in that refugee camp, where—in the swirling dust of horror and hardship, there was also hope.

Children were receiving great new vaccines that wouldn’t have been available to poor kids a few years ago. 

In just the last decade, we’ve built partnerships with vaccines manufacturers, immunized 440 million kids, and saved 6 million lives. Similar efforts have cut the rate of children dying from malaria in half. And we’re close to eliminating the transmission of HIV/AIDS from mothers to their children.

Today, we’re building on this approach by including faith institutions and community health workers so that every child everywhere lives to celebrate her 5th birthday.            

After leaving the refugee camp, we visited agricultural scientists developing seeds that could withstand drought and irrigation systems that poor farmers could afford.

In just a few years, our partner countries have increased budgets for agriculture and made critically needed reforms, and businesses are investing in food production.

As a result, we’ve improved nutrition for 12 million kids, and more than 7 million farmers are moving their families out of poverty through their own hard work and enterprise.

Today, we’re building on this approach by including university researchers and civil society leaders so that every child everywhere has the nutrition he needs to thrive.  

And in just the last few months, we’ve brought this new approach to energy.

In countries that have embraced reform, we’ve secured partnerships with multinational companies and local entrepreneurs in Africa so that jobs can be created and children can read at night.

Today, we are exploring projects with unlikely partners to bring affordable clean energy to 20 million homes and businesses in the markets of the future.

Taken together, these efforts are dramatically changing the face of extreme poverty.

Just look at Tanzania.

As we have beaten back diseases, the nation has cut child death by more than two-thirds. A breadbasket is emerging in the south, and improved energy access is enabling businesses to create jobs.

The economy is growing at more than 7 percent, and a nation once defined by widespread extreme poverty can now envision its elimination by the end of the next decade.

This is true in country after country. Six of the ten fastest growing economies are in Africa, and leaders from college campuses to corporate boardrooms across our country are increasingly focused on the world’s poor.

As more nations end extreme poverty, the challenge will narrow—allowing us to focus our energy on a smaller number of countries until extreme poverty is gone.

But the only way we’ll get there—the only way—is with leadership from this room.

Those who lead this work in government will need to focus relentlessly on data, accountability, and results.

Those who lead partner countries will need to prioritize the poor, fight corruption, and work with businesses to solve problems.

Those who lead our great nation will need to make tough decisions that keep us committed to this mission and continue our nation’s proud history as the world’s humanitarian leader. 

And those who lead communities of faith need to do just as Pope Francis is teaching us—and shine a bright light on poverty.

Prayer reminds us of this common purpose.

And this morning, I’d like to tell you about a colleague for whom I have prayed.

Her name was Toni.

She was the mother of two small children, Alex and Amelie, whom she loved dearly.

She had a passion for running marathons and learning new languages.

And as a USAID Foreign Service Officer in Haiti, no challenge was too big or too complex for her.

Last summer, I stood on the tarmac of Dover Air Force Base waiting for a military plane to land.

It was dark and silent as I stood with Toni’s family—the lights of Dover illuminating a small area in front of us.

And then at 1:00am, the casket of my fallen colleague, Antoinette Tomasek, came home to her family.

Toni was a community health specialist who had been on her way to a clinic in Haiti when she was hit in an accident.

She had been on the road that day in order to ensure that the clinic was fully stocked with the right medicines to save kids’ lives. She loved those kids like her own.

That night at Dover, her mother-in-law—through the pain of her loss—told me that Toni had been so very proud to serve her country—to represent the best of our values to the world.

I have learned from Toni—as I’ve learned from my colleagues and each of you—that this work, like prayer, changes us as much as it changes the world.

Toni’s life had a calling and a purpose.

Can we adopt her spirit of commitment?

Can we love all children like our own?

And can we—in whatever sphere we live—embrace our faith, summon the courage, and go and do likewise?

Thank you.

Washington, DC

Last updated: September 19, 2014

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