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USAID's Shah Forges Unlikely Relationships With Conservative Republican Members

Courtesy Sen. James M. Inhofe
During a visit this month to a site in Ethiopia where Project Mercy, a USAID grantee, runs a program, Shah and Inhofe talk with one of the program’s founders, Marta Gabre-Tsadick.

The 79-year-old longtime conservative firebrand from Oklahoma and the 39-year-old Indian-American physician from Detroit make an unlikely pair.

But there they were in early January, GOP Sen. James M. Inhofe and Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, on a dirt road in a remote part of southern Ethiopia.

And they were stuck.

The two men, along with several other Republican members of Congress and their entourages, were on their way back from a visit to a rural development program in the midst of a downpour, when their vehicle came to a halt. They unloaded and waded through the mud, struggling for nearly an hour to dislodge the vehicle — “anyone under the age of 70 has to push!” Shah remembers Inhofe joking.

Said Inhofe afterward, “There’s no one I’d rather walk through the mud with than Raj Shah.”

That Inhofe, the new ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Shah have managed to forge such a strong relationship speaks to their shared passion for ending poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s also a testament to Shah’s assiduous work courting support on Capitol Hill for his ambitious efforts to overhaul the sclerotic agency, which is widely viewed as wasteful and inefficient.

By reaching out to lawmakers from across the political spectrum, Shah is helping build a political constituency for a part of the budget — international development aid — that has generally lacked one.

So far, that has paid dividends, both for USAID’s bottom line and in coalescing support for some of the changes Shah is trying to make to the bureaucracy.

Lawmakers howl about military base closures in their states or cuts to local infrastructure investments, but terminating funds for vaccination programs overseas doesn’t normally inflame too many in Congress.

USAID and its allies are trying to change this.

In addition to making the rounds on Capitol Hill, Shah has made a push to engage lawmakers on their home turfs, even some traditionally unfriendly venues. In September he and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, ranking Republican of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the State Department and USAID, appeared on a panel together at Clemson University’s Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and Public Affairs — named for the legendary Republican senator who repeatedly voted to slash foreign aid spending and withhold funding to the United Nations.

Graham, Thurmond’s successor, struck a far different tone.

“This is how you win a war,” he said of USAID’s partnership with Clemson to train National Guard soldiers for work on agriculture projects in Afghanistan.

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