Remarks by Administrator Rajiv Shah at the University of Michigan

Friday, September 28, 2012
Rajiv Shah, Administrator for USAID, visits the Ford School of Public Policy. September 28, 2012
Rajiv Shah, Administrator for USAID, visits the Ford School of Public Policy.
Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan

Remarks as Prepared

Good afternoon, Ford School staff and students, University of Michigan community members, and fellow Wolverines fans. It’s great to be back.

Looking around the room, it’s clear that our university’s commitment to serving our nation and all nations has not changed one bit since John F. Kennedy’s legendary visit in 1960. President Kennedy’s impromptu remarks that day on the steps of the Michigan Union challenged students to give two years of their lives to help people in the developing world.

He inspired a movement on campus that led to one the most remarkable service projects in American history, the Peace Corps. That was over fifty years ago. Before the Foreign Assistance Act, before even the U.S. Agency for International Development, there was you.

Since then, the University of Michigan and the Ford School of Public Service have embraced their role as leaders in the global effort to tackle the greatest challenges of our time. You are the number four all-time contributor to Peace Corps, with a total of more than 2,450 volunteers since 1961.

And last year, for the fifth time in the past seven years, our university has had more students receiving Fulbright grants than any other U.S. institution.

For decades, USAID has been proud to partner with this extraordinarily positive, clever, and committed academic community. About five years ago, we joined forces with University of Jordan, and the Jordan University of Science and Technology to help the nation tackle its persistent water-shortage challenges.

Together, we developed a new Masters Degree in Natural Resources, the first of its kind in the region. The partnership also established a Sustainable Business and Innovation Research Laboratory, and as a result, Jordanian officials can now use dynamic systems modeling, a cutting-edge technology that expands our understanding of biological systems.

A similar partnership with the University of Johannesburg helped fully design a Masters in Commerce in Business Management program to train students in transportation and supply chain management—to help develop the nation’s infrastructure and economy.

All students are required to work at least part-time in companies so they can learn on the job and lend their expertise to the nation’s development. And many of the companies in turn pay the student tuition. 

Just last year, we began a significant project together to help rebuild Liberia’s universities and academic infrastructure after 15 years of civil war.

Ultimately, we will help develop centers of excellence in engineering and agriculture at the University of Liberia and the Cuttington University in Monrovia.

Realizing Incredible Goals

This proud legacy—of collaborating with your intellectual peers around the world to solve the great challenges—is something that each of you is a part of as University of Michigan students.

And it’s needed now more than ever— as we address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. We know that powerful demographic shifts are underway that will add billions of people in the settings least able to handle their needs.

We know that climate change is real—and temperatures will grow warmer, rains more erratic, and droughts more vicious, putting disproportionate pressure on developing countries and the global poor.

And we know that these issues will be increasingly intertwined with extreme poverty and conflict, as we see in the reality that Yemen’s capital Sana’a could become the first city in the world to run out of water.

But we also know that our opportunity to resolve these challenges has never been greater. Private sector capital flows and thriving entrepreneurship serve as engines of growth and the most powerful tools to advance poverty worldwide.

Private sector investment in emerging economies has even grown to dwarf official development assistance. Thanks to partnerships with path-breaking institutions like U-M, we now have unique opportunities to solve our challenges and realize incredible end-state goals.

Goals that will fundamentally change the world we live in and brighten the future of generations to come.

Consider three goals that are achievable today that have not been in the past:

First, we believe we can end preventable child death and get nearly all children reading in their classrooms. In the last 50 years, the world has reduced child mortality by 70 percent. But despite this progress, every year 6.9 million children die before they celebrate their fifth birthday.

And in the last decade, we’ve increased school attendance by 50 percent. But even though many more of our kids attend school, less than half will learn basic skills at grade level. That’s why we joined UNICEF and the governments of India and Ethiopia to host a Call to Action in Child Survival to help rally the world around the goal of ending preventable child death.

And our new approach to education prioritizes reading outcomes, so we can be sure that our children are actually learning in classrooms.

Second, if we accelerate poverty reduction efforts, we can reduce extreme poverty by 90 percent.

This isn’t fiction. Between 2005 and 2008, overall headcount poverty fell in every region of the world—including Africa—for the first time in history.

This effort to essentially eliminate extreme poverty begins in our farms and our fields, where we can unlock extraordinary economic growth through agricultural development. Because we know that agricultural growth is up to three times more effective in reducing poverty than growth in other sectors.

And third, within a generation, we can help transition nearly all democracies with a bare minimum of democratic trappings to complete democracies, where all citizens can participate in their government, fight corruption and enjoy equal protection under the law.

In 1974, nearly 75 percent of the world was defined by authoritarian rule. If we stay committed, we could flip the scale to realize a world where 75 percent of countries will be democracies—and 90 percent of those will enjoy the full rule of law and accountable institutions.

Taken together we can ensure that a more interconnected world is defined by greater opportunities instead of rising threats.

Opening Development to Problem-Solvers Everywhere

But just setting these goals and envisioning this future doesn’t make it real. We need to provide a path toward getting there.

We have to move beyond a top-down institutionally driven model of development and create a new model that brings tens of thousands of new people into our efforts to realize these goals. Everyone from big private sector companies, like Citi and Dupont, to individual student organizations right here on campus—like the student leadership exhibited by the university’s ONE chapter, which is making waves here and beyond in the fight to end extreme poverty.

Today, at USAID we’re increasingly focused on harnessing the creativity and expertise of this broad development community to solve challenges that were once thought intractable.

We call it “open source development,” and it reflects our desire to literally open development to problem-solvers everywhere—from students on campus to CEOs of major corporations.

Universities are actually one of my favorite places to talk about open-source development, because I know you guys get it. You grew up in a world where real-time information and good ideas aren’t the privilege of an elite few, but actually belong to everyone with a phone in their pocket.

I call it the “Kiva-world” where a student from anywhere can go online and choose the individual dairy farmer she wants to support in Guatemala and offer that farmer a $25 loan. That dairy farmer can then invest in her business, vaccinate her animals, improve her feedstock, and track milk output and local prices through her mobile phone.  

In an open source development model, inventors around the world could observe that her biggest challenge is getting the milk to a chilling facility before it spoils and could invent new forms of “on-farm” ultra-pasteurization that could solve that problem for her and others.

Students Delivering Meaningful Results

If we’re going to tackle our greatest challenges, then we have to employ a much bigger definition of development to get us there. At USAID, we started this effort by bringing science, technology and innovation back into our Agency.

And today, we have more fellows from the American Association for the Advancement of Science than we have ever had before. In fact, we have more than any other executive branch agency has ever had in the 40-year history of the program. In 2007, USAID had five fellows. Today, we have 54, including 11 overseas.

We have an entomologist named Christine Fornadel who is working on improving data analysis through our President’s Malaria Initiative; and a plant bimolecular biologist named Mark Doyle who is working with our mission in Indonesia to conserve our natural resources. In fact, in the last few years, some of the best innovations in development have come from young people outside the traditional development community.

Through our Development Innovation Ventures fund, we’re investing in a team of young graduates who started a company called EGG-Energy to provide off-grid electricity to homes across Tanzania. They call it the “Netflix Solution: Low-income families rent out portable, rechargeable, affordable batteries to power their homes for five nights at a time.

In Tanzania, where 90 percent of people lack access to electricity—but 80 percent live within 5 kilometers of the power grid—this could be a unique solution to a pervasive problem in development.

Our Development Innovation Ventures Fund also supports leading academics to pioneer new research that will help inform development policy and practice. It is my honor this afternoon to announce our support to The Ford School’s own Assistant Professor Dean Yang.

Professor Yang knows a statistic I would like to share with you: Today, remittances to the developing world from migrant workers are roughly two and a half times greater than foreign aid flows. Professor Yang and his partners are piloting a financial innovation called EduPay, which allows overseas Filipino workers to pay educational institutions in the Philippines directly, without channeling the funds through an informal trustee. His research will test whether EduPay will unlock even more remittance flows and channel them more efficiently.

That’s exactly the purpose of our DIV Fund—to support the experimentation of bold new ideas like EGG-Energy and EduPay; and anyone can apply. 

New Ways to Engage—USAID Fall Semester

Because the truth is—you are part of an incredible generation of young people.

On campuses across the country and the world, you’re expressing a surge of interest in tackling global challenges; oversubscribing courses on public health, international education, global politics and development economics. In fact, since 2006, there has been a 34 percent increase in the number of degrees conferred in these areas across the country.

At USAID, we’re working hard to tap into this enthusiasm—finding new ways to reach not just individual fellows but thousands of students. That’s why we created an online space for young people to deepen their engagement in development.

It’s called USAID Fall Semester—and if you visit, you’ll see three buttons that say “serve,” “solve,” and “join” the conversation about development. And by clicking on any of the three, you’ll be able to access opportunities and resources tailored just for students.

If you’re a freshman and you’re looking for your first internship, we have a list of opportunities, including one that enables you to become a part of our virtual Foreign Service from right here on campus.

If you’re working on your senior thesis, and you need some information about one of our projects, you can come access a wealth of information that we’re opening up and making easier to use. You can even use an iPhone or iPad app to read third-party evaluations of our work.

If you have a great idea and are looking to help solve the toughest challenges in development, we list all competitions and prizes we offer. We want your ideas—whether it’s for a new mobile app to connect families separated in a crisis or a new learning tool that helps teachers track the progress of their students.

And if you simply want to join the conversation with development professionals—and help us do our jobs better, we now have a one-stop-shop for all our engagement tools, including Facebook, Twitter, and a brand new one tool we launched just this week through CrowdHall called Ask the Administrator—so that you can get your questions answered.

Now this one website isn’t going to do it all. We know that federal government is still a tough beast to get your arms around. But this one website is our effort to break down the walls of bureaucracy and open up development for you.

Ultimately, we hope we can be a resource to you—as we work together to expand opportunity and improve human welfare around the world.

A Moral Mission

I joined USAID determined to bring a business-like focus on results, based on the premise that if we can show and deliver great results, Americans will support us.

For the last few years, many of us in development have continued to spend tremendous energy on improving our effectiveness—and it’s working. We’re choosing to do smart things, focusing on key competencies and appropriate roles. We measure relentlessly, inviting cold hard facts to challenge our warm, fuzzy assumptions. We become hard-nosed in pursuit of soft goals, and in doing so, we have often invoked the ideal of “How-They-Do-It-In-The-Private Sector.”

I recently had the chance to meet with several business leaders and CEOs, and set out to take notes and learn what new methods we might be able to borrow and adapt for our work. But what has surprised me is the central and powerful place that some exceedingly soft ideas have in these hard analyses: forging common purpose and shared values; meaningful work; deep respect for others; a sense of being part of something bigger than oneself. These are deeply personal and important issues.

Development attracts many of the best students, brightest minds and strongest spirits. Open source development can help keep all of us inspired by offering the true reward of being successful – combining productivity with meaning.

When you bring your expertise, your ideas, your ingenuity to the task; when you can see that something you’re learning in a classroom is helping communities withstand natural disasters or when you commit yourself to a career in the service of others, those are deeply rewarding results for you—and millions of people everywhere.

Thank you.

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Last updated: November 19, 2014

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