Remarks by USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah at the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin Annual Convention

Saturday, June 26, 2010
American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin Annual Convention

Thank you, Judge Marvin Kaminetz for that introduction, and thank you to Sean Penn for being here tonight and sharing such heartfelt remarks.

Years ago, I would have thought if I had the opportunity to meet Sean Penn I’d be very excited to hear about his tremendous acting career and the great movies that we’ve all enjoyed. But what I really admire about Sean is his determination to serve, and his work in Haiti that actually shows the impact an individual, an organization, a committed group of people can make to really bring hope to sometimes the most desperate settings imaginable.

That’s an important message, because when the Haiti earthquake first happened, President Obama asked me to coordinate the United States Government response. And he asked for a swift and aggressive and coordinated response. But we were really all operating with very little information. We weren’t sure how many people had unfortunately died; the numbers of course are now known to be over 200,000 – which, when you pause and think about it, is tremendous. We weren’t sure how many people were displaced or whether the government would be able to be intact and capable. We weren’t sure how people would get supplies and activities in. We weren’t even sure how the first U.S. aircraft to land with our urban search and rescue teams would be able to land because we didn’t know the condition of the airport. And most of the infrastructure, which started at a very low base, had been completely decimated.

But President Obama made a point in our very first discussion on this when he brought his national security team together and said that our response in this moment is really an expression of our common humanity. It’s an expression of the ability of a superpower to do good. And with that, our military was able to open the airport and have it, within days, up to three times its normal capacity. We got the port open and repaired and operating at about twice its normal capacity. And of course we were able to bring in, through an international humanitarian effort, probably the largest humanitarian response ever mounted.

But that’s really not enough. And that’s never going to be enough.

I had had a chance to visit Haiti about six months earlier, and I toured orphanages, I visited farmers, I spoke with president Préval and I spoke with agricultural scientists – that was in a different role. I learned that 47 percent of children in Haiti under five were malnourished. We all know that kids that are malnourished in their first two years of life will essentially never have the full brain development necessary to thrive and reach their God-given potential. And that applied to nearly half of all children in a country 700 miles away from us. We knew that per-capita income before the earthquake was a dollar or two per day -- again, in a 10-million-person country 700 miles away from us.

So when the earthquake happened we knew that we would need a tremendous international humanitarian response, but we also knew we needed something special to make the response as effective as it could be and to transition into a recovery and reconstruction that would provide Haiti with an extra opportunity to thrive in the long term.

And I’d say if I had to articulate the two or three things I noticed as being special in this instance, it was first and foremost the tremendous commitment of support from the American people and people around the world. More than half of all Americans gave independently to the earthquake relief effort.

You know, we live in a country where we make a very big deal about when about 160 million people gather to watch the Super Bowl. And we consider that to be a coming together of our national population for a common event. Here we had about the same number of people giving to the earthquake response in Haiti, and I think that’s really a tremendous expression of the desire to make commitments and to do good when given the chance to do that.

Second was the tremendous international response. Coordination among the many countries involved was difficult, especially because the normal coordinating mechanisms of the United Nations had suffered a tremendous loss of life and took some time to reconstitute themselves.

But the most important thing that provides hope in this setting, and that I am so excited about as the administrator of an agency that is trying literally to eradicate poverty and eliminate hunger and unnecessary disease around the world, was the resourcefulness and the resilience of the Haitian people.

When I had a chance to walk through one of the first, early settlements, people didn’t have access to food or water and they didn’t know where to go to get information. We were walking down a sort of broken sidewalk, and on either side there were tents and some families huddled on the edges, and I got to a blanket placed on some wires, and I asked if we could lift the blanket. So we lifted the blanket and there was a 12-volt battery connected to an inverter connected to four or five power strips charging at least 25, and probably more, cell phones. And what we realized was that even in that setting people had access to mobile phones and were using them to communicate and to really try to help each other get information about where they could go for food, where they could go for security, and where they could go for water. And they were doing so much on their own, it was just tremendous. So we tried to do things like leverage that insight and provide cash transfers through SMS text messaging into rural communities, and tried to use those types of technological solutions where possible.

The reason I use that example is because our agency, the U.S. Agency for International Development, is called on to do some pretty tremendous things. Recently President Obama launched an initiative called Feed the Future, and it’s an international effort to eliminate hunger. Now that might seem almost impossible to achieve. But in fact until a few years ago the world was on a steady path of reducing hunger and extreme poverty, and over the last three or four years that number has gone up so that now more than a billion people experience chronic hunger every day. We’ve committed more than three and a half billion dollars as part of this initiative and raised about 18 billion additional dollars from other partners to come together and really resolve this problem in a new and innovative way.

And I tell this story because the model for it has to do with how our agency, USAID, interfaced with India in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In the late 1960s Paul Ehrlich, a social scientist, wrote a book called The Population Bomb that represented a basic idea: that two to three hundred million people in South Asia, most in India and Pakistan, were essentially going to starve to death. And it was an accepted idea; people believed that was going to happen, all the statistics and the scientists were saying this was the likely outcome because you had population growth outpacing our ability to feed the population, and that these were the most vulnerable people in the most vulnerable places. But our agency, together with some scientific breakthroughs from an agricultural researcher named Norman Bourlag, together with very strong leadership from the Indian and Pakistani governments, and together with a massive global effort to invest in getting seed and fertilizer and irrigation to Indian farmers, actually did the opposite: We helped create the Green Revolution. Over the 15 years after 1970, India essentially moved two to three hundred million people out of poverty using effective agricultural production and lower pricing of food that gave people more and more access. And today India is a food exporter.

This is a larger and more statistically significant version of the immediate relief story from Haiti. It’s a story that implies that when we put our minds together and when we bring the best of science and technology, the best of our international commitments, the spirit of service and the absolute commitment to what President Obama calls a common humanity, we can together achieve really great things.

And in that context, I want to take special note of AAPI. AAPI’s work to support health here in the United States and especially in India, your work to encourage Indian-American physicians to go and volunteer, your ability to create clinics and to send equipment and to provide services and expertise makes a tremendous difference – and it serves as a model of what the Indian Diaspora can do. And it inspires others to do more.

When I was in college I had the chance to work with a group of Indian physicians who were serving in a development program in a rural community in south India. And having just left the University of Michigan and the lovely city of Ann Arbor, for those of you that are from there or have gone there, and going to a place called the Behar Hills in south India somewhere between Bangalore and Mysore to an environment where people literally lived off of less than a dollar a day, to get by they foraged in forest communities, and almost everybody was malnourished. It was a level of poverty and suffering that I simply had never been exposed to before.

But what I saw there was that a group of physicians, who went in to provide TB therapy and treat leprosy and epilepsy and a range of other diseases, were also able to create a development program that allowed women to produce products for export, whether it was baskets or honey or candles. And over time, slowly they built the trust of that community, they stayed committed to that community and they saw that community move itself out of poverty.

I was only there for a brief period, about four to six months, but it was enough to plant in me a sense that when we put our minds together and when we come together to resolve the extreme poverty that exists in this world, that we can be successful.

And in that context, I really appreciate what AAPI has been doing to create that sense of possibility amongst so many of you in this room.

Finally, I’d like to thank AAPI for one other thing: When I returned from that experience – and at the time, Shivam and I were just dating – we had this strong belief that the Indian-American community in this country was a proud, capable, educated and very talented group, and a group that had a lot to offer to communities in America, to communities in India, to the American political process, and should do more to engage more deeply in the policy debate and the community service opportunities of our time.

So we created an organization called Project Impact for South Asian Americans. And like so many post-college efforts, we got by doing things that you do to establish a new organization with almost no resources.

One of our first grants came from AAPI in the form of a five thousand dollar commitment. And with that commitment we created a mentoring program. We were in Philadelphia – I was in medical school – and we created a small program that brought sixth and seventh-grade Indian American students from around Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York to Washington to walk around Capitol Hill and meet with legislators, to tour the city and see the institutions of power, and to really be inspired about the potential to serve.

Today there are more than 20 Indian-American appointees in the Obama Administration, more than any previous administration. There are eight candidates for national or statewide office that are currently running in this cycle from both parties. And perhaps more than anything, I can sit here with members of this organization and look out at a room with 1500 or 2000 people who have come together to express a basic idea: that this is a community that has benefitted a lot from being in this country, that has been founded by immigrants who often made tremendous sacrifices to come here to plant seeds in a new environment, to raise their children in a new and different culture, and to do it all for the sense of opportunity. And now, to see that community be so organized and so capable of leadership and of giving back, and to see this community be able to participate in the relief effort of Haiti, in the international health effort in India and in the political process here in the United States is very, very inspiring.

So I just want to say thank you for having me, along with a humanitarian that we all deeply, deeply respect. Please continue to demonstrate that this is a community that has a lot to give back, and we will stand with you. Thanks very much.

American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin Annual Convention

Last updated: June 01, 2012

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