Remarks by Administrator Rajiv Shah at the USAID Townhall Meeting

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Good morning.

It’s wonderful to come together as the year is winding down and the excitement of the holidays and the New Year is beginning.

In preparing for today, I was reflecting on all the reasons we’ve come together over the past few years for townhalls and big events. They’ve been opportunities to celebrate our work, discuss our concerns, and share some innovative ideas for the future.

Nearly two-and-a-half years ago, we hosted Michelle Obama for a townhall, and last year we celebrated our Agency’s 50th Anniversary with Vice President Biden.

We’ve welcomed our Secretary of State Hilary Clinton—perhaps the strongest advocate our Agency has ever known.

And, of course, just six months ago, President Obama came to our building to launch the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a day before he hosted a session on development at the G8 Summit at Camp David.

Never before has our Agency had so much support for elevating development—for strengthening and transforming the work we do.

It isn’t because suddenly we’re especially charming. Although I think we are. It is because every day, across the world, the work you do represents the very best of America.

You represent the best of American ideals.

The goodwill and generosity that unite us as a people and spur us to act in times of immediate need—as you’ve done in Syria and the Sahel just this past year.

You represent the best of American ingenuity.

The entrepreneurial spirit that has shaped our nation and will define our future.

I see that spirit alive in nearly everything you do—from helping the people of Yemen write a new constitution to establishing the Tropical Forest Alliance, which is bringing 450 companies together to end tropical deforestation and build sustainable supply chains by 2020.

And you represent the best of American foreign and national security policy, with your efforts to provide education for girls in Pakistan and advance economic growth in Afghanistan, helping to speed the return of our troops home.

To elevate the role of development, President Obama and Secretary Clinton set forth a different vision for this Agency than the previous administration had advanced: A vision of a well-resourced, empowered, and robust Agency that would lead the world in development.

But they weren’t alone. You had this vision for us as well.

Over the course of the last few years, you have not only delivered against these high expectations, you have pioneered a new model of development—a model that recognizes that the problems we face, from conflict to hunger to child marriage, are solvable. But solving them requires a meaningful commitment from all parts of society.

You’ve thrown the doors of development wide open to partnership with students who have creative ideas, but need the resources to test them.

With private companies that are developing socially responsible solutions to reach new markets.

With faith leaders who are increasingly directing their flocks abroad to serve the needs of the least fortunate.

And with an interagency eager to embrace development as part of an integrated, values-driven national security strategy.

As a result, USAID is beginning to turn heads from the White House situation room to the boardrooms of the Fortune 500, from college campuses to churches and synagogues across America.

To build a foundation for this effort, we launched USAID Forward—committing ourselves to fundamental reforms that touched nearly every part of our Agency. These reforms first grew out of a Mission Directors’ conference that took place a few weeks before I was sworn in.

Several years later, it is remarkable to see how far we’ve come together.

We’ve built a world-class team with a renewed focus on supporting our staff and attracting a diversity of talent. More important, we are all part of one team— regardless of how you came to USAID—and each of us shares, and is responsible for, an equal stake in our extraordinary mission. 

We’ve rebuilt our policy and budget offices from scratch, setting new standards in the field with a model evaluation approach that is strengthening our work and expert budget capabilities that moved money to our bureaus this year a full three months earlier than last—allowing our Missions to better manage and plan their programs. It’s a record we hope to beat in the coming year.

We’ve strengthened the capabilities of local change-agents and institutions that will ultimately be responsible for transforming their own countries. We’re currently collecting data about this past year’s efforts, but early indicators suggest that we’ve increased funding to local organizations by almost a third in just the last year. 

As a result, for the first time, we are partnering directly with Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Kenya to support the treatment for more than 150,000 people living with HIV-AIDS. Today, long-time partner Indiana University now serves as a sub-grantee to the Kenyan hospital, inverting the traditional partnership model and helping prepare the program for the day we’re no longer needed.

I know our Missions around the world are making more and more of these stories possible every day.

And we’ve advanced a far deeper focus on science, technology, and innovation. This is a very exciting area of work that has application for everything we do—from increasing transparency to supporting new advances in agriculture and medicine that can increase the bounty of harvests and save lives at birth.

Recently, I was meeting with the Minister of Finance from Pakistan. We’ve had a few of these meetings in the past, and we’ve heard some common critiques—that despite our best intentions, USAID is not transparent enough, and our partner countries do not know what we do.

So this last time, I pulled out my iPhone and loaded our new portfolio map app to show them just how easy it was to see where USAID was working in Pakistan and nearly every other country. They were so impressed that as the delegation was leaving, they asked if we could help them build an iPhone app so their efforts would also be visible to their own citizens.

Taken together, these reforms haven’t just changed the way we work: They’ve changed the kind of results we can deliver.

But most important—we’ve done this work as one community, one family.

Last Friday, in one of the toughest and most important responsibilities I have had as Administrator, we honored the sacrifice and memory of one of our own, Ragaei Abdelfattah.

A consummate development professional with a fierce intellect and disarming smile, Ragaei volunteered for a second year in Afghanistan because he believed strongly that his work was not finished.

He died a hero—in service to our nation that he loved, the Afghan people he so admired, and our mission to advance the cause of freedom.

I was honored to present his family, including his two teenage sons, with the Thomas Jefferson Star for Foreign Service, and we placed a tile bearing Ragaei’s name on our Memorial Wall in the lobby. As you leave the townhall today and pass by the wall, I encourage you to pause for a moment of reflection.

In times of sadness and pain, it isn’t always easy to explain to others why our mission is so important, why it sometimes must carry us into harm’s way.

And although sometimes that sense of meaning is difficult to describe, we know—just as Ragaei knew—that it is alive in the shining eyes of children studying under a lamp at night, in an infant’s first easy breath, in the handshake of an entrepreneur’s first business partnership, and in pride of marginalized communities enjoying equal rights for the first time.

As we approach the New Year, we have the opportunity to ask ourselves, “How we can do better?”

A lot of people ask me what we’re going to do in a second term… and how are we going to ensure our gains are sustainable and irreversible.

USAID Forward has been an important part of our Agency’s transformation.

But it’s been only a part.

In order to ensure that our Agency becomes recognized as one of the highest performing organizations in the world, we have to focus on another equally important part—ensuring that everyone in our family has the chance to grow, to thrive, and to contribute.

Over the last several months, we’ve taken a number of steps to address core management challenges. Many of these steps haven’t been widely discussed, so I’d like the opportunity to share them with you today.

To form a foundation for these efforts, we established the Administrator’s Leadership Council, which meets every two weeks and serves as a problem-solving forum for key management and policy issues.

To help get us started, we met with bureaus and offices to speak with your teams and understand your concerns. Just last week, we met to discuss the findings. They were insightful, reflecting the depth of passion and commitment that has always defined our Agency.

I want to talk through these findings today—not because we have all the solutions. We don’t—not yet. But because I want you to know that our Agency’s senior leadership and I are committed to taking these findings very seriously and addressing them in consultation with you.

We heard we needed to improve our communications—not only from Washington to the field, but from the field to Washington. And not only within our offices and bureaus but across all members of our team.

We are rolling out a number of new efforts and tools to help address this concern, including our first-ever agency-wide Acquisition and Assistance Plan so that we all have more visibility on upcoming activities and priorities.

We are also moving the entire Agency to Gmail—an exciting transition that will enable us to use modern, accessible tools to communicate and share our work, including through Google Drive. We’re also about to redesign our intranet—and this process will start with feedback from you.

We also heard that we needed to make improvements in our support for you—as a professional, but also as an individual.

We’ve seen the survey data. We know that even as we’ve hired more than 1,100 new people, reversing years of understaffing in some of most our important posts, we can do more to support you once you’re on board.

These efforts to address your performance, growth, and career trajectory must be available to all members of USAID—whether FS, CS, PSC, PASA or any of our other acronyms we’re fond of using for our hiring mechanisms.

We know some initial efforts are making a difference.


We expanded the number and duration of fellowship opportunities for FSN staff. This year, more than 40 FSN Fellows came to Washington, including German Acevedo, the Development Outreach and Communications Specialist at our mission in Colombia, who put this program together.

We’ve introduced a new telework policy to enable flexible work schedules and accommodate special needs.

And we have a new Staff Care center to provide confidential, free support for you and your family members. Center staff is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all year, and their social workers are even ready to Skype with Missions around the world.

Recently the Center hosted an Open House for evacuees from our Mali and Sudan missions to help support our staff and their families who had to leave their homes abruptly. A few days earlier, they had helped connect an FSN with a well-trained therapist for her son who has learning disabilities.

I rest easier knowing the Center is there for all of you, and I encourage you to reach out to them whenever you need them.

I know that we still have more to do to address our Agency’s management challenges, but I promise you that it is and will continue to remain a priority. I will also continue to update you about the progress of these efforts at our townhalls and through my weekly notes.

I want to close with a note about the work we do and why we do it.

Over the last few months, I’ve had the chance to travel around the country to speak about the importance of development—stopping at universities, visiting with communities of faith, and meeting local private sector leaders.

I’ve spoken about our new model of development, our business-like focus on results, and our relentless efforts to measure our work.

But what has surprised me in these discussions is the central and powerful place that some exceedingly soft ideas have in these hard analyses.

Forging common purpose and shared values.

Meaningful work.

Being part of a mission bigger than oneself.

What each of us has in common at our Agency—an unremitting commitment to uphold a set of shared values—is also what most compels others to stand up in support of our work. 

As we look ahead to a new presidential term and a New Year, I believe we’ll have the opportunity to not only elevate development in the policies of nations, but also in the hearts and minds of how millions of people express their own personal quest for meaning.

I look forward to working with each of you to mobilize this new generation and leave behind lasting legacies that transform our world.

With that, I’m eager to take your questions, and I want to be sure to invite you all to the Point Four Conference room for a CFC fundraiser with cookies and cider after we conclude.

Thank you.

USAID Headquarters Washington, DC

Last updated: December 12, 2012

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