As Rajiv Shah prepares to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development, former colleagues, lobbyists and current and past administration officials paint a picture of a man with dizzying brainpower and social intelligence who has won over skeptics time and again.
But the 36-year-old wunderkind will need those gifts to overcome his own inexperience and myriad bureaucratic hurdles, they said, as he attempts to restore the troubled agency to its former glory.
Before Shah's Nov. 10 nomination, development junkies had spent the previous 10 months wringing their hands that the White House had not tapped a permanent administrator to lead USAID. The agency, listing after two decades of watching its policy and budget responsibilities slowly chipped away, desperately needed a leader. That Shah had a pulse was cause enough for celebration.
After development experts checked his vitals and began scanning his resume, some privately voiced doubts about his age and gravitas, and whether his elbows would be sharp enough for bureaucratic infighting at the State Department, which may not necessarily support Congress and the president's vision of a more independent USAID. This isn't Shah's first rodeo, though. His nomination left a few insiders scratching their heads, but so did his last two big career leaps.
David Lane, who now leads the anti-poverty campaign ONE, was opening the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Washington office in 2001 when he discovered Shah. Shah had an M.D. and master's degree in economics and had put in stints as a health care policy adviser to Al Gore's presidential campaign and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D). But he had almost no connections to development.
Lane hired the 28-year-old, despite the puzzlement of some executives back in Seattle, because he was a "smart guy who understood economics." It didn't take long for the foundation to realize Shah's potential and spirit him away to the West Coast. "It went from, 'Who's this Raj Shah?' to 'Get me that Raj Shah,'" Lane said.
Shah won over skeptics at the Department of Agriculture this year, too. He had little experience in agriculture when, this spring, he was appointed the USDA's undersecretary for research, education and economics, as well as its chief scientist.
"When he was nominated, there were a lot of doubting Thomases about whether he would be a good fit for this," said one industry lobbyist who worked with Shah on land-grant universities. "But, by and large, the system came to believe that he could be the guy to raise the profile of agriculture research to where it should be."
Shah's smarts and his ability to quickly absorb new information and connect dots have been central to his success. He likes to surround himself with smart people who challenge him, colleagues say, and he's willing to change course when the data proves him wrong.
Shah also appears to be increasingly comfortable in Washington. Any signs of nerves at his May 7 confirmation hearing were gone by this month's round of questioning. He was confident and concise, easily dancing around senators' questions with vague but reassuring answers. His performance won smirking praise from Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who remarked, "You've learned the Washington process very well." (Even his son Sajan, 3, learned the ropes: After Sajan fidgeted for most of his father's May hearing, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., heaped praise on him this month for his good behavior.)
But former colleagues also point to a social intelligence, an ability to walk into rooms with experts nearly twice his age and impress while remaining non-threatening.
"He has a very affable way of disarming people and being appropriately humble," said Lawrence Yanovitch, who worked with Shah on microfinance projects at Gates. "Raj is excellent at acknowledging the experience of the people in the room."
Not that any of his geniality should overshadow Shah's overwhelming ambition. He networked aggressively at the Gates Foundation, making sure he met industry leaders and political heavyweights whenever he traveled. The scope of his contacts was clear at his May hearing, when Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, fondly recalled meeting him the year before.
Nor does it seem that Shah will defer to more experienced hands at the State Department, as some USAID boosters once feared. Aid circles were rife with speculation all year that the eventual nominee would be forced to report to Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew rather than Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, further marginalizing the agency. But Shah secured a promise from Clinton that he will report to her, an assurance that is important to him, according to a senior administration official familiar with his thinking.
Shah also feels emboldened by his perceived mandate from Congress and the White House to shake up USAID, according to the same administration official. That much was evident at Shah's latest hearing, which was less a grill session than a clambake. Democrats and Republicans alike lobbed Shah softballs, expressed their frustration with the state of USAID and wished him luck.
Kerry and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., have introduced legislation that would help rebuild the agency's strategic and policy planning capabilities, which have withered since the end of the Cold War. Shah has said that he wants that control returned to USAID.
But despite Shah's patrons and his star power, USAID is a different beast than the Gates Foundation, experts warn. In Seattle, Shah had a flexible budget, a close-knit team and little red tape. He and Yanovitch, for example, conceived of a $20 million banking project in Africa and shepherded the grant through Gates' administrative checkpoints in two-and-a-half months. That time frame is nearly unimaginable in the federal government.
At Gates, Shah could focus on a few marquee projects and change on a dime when the data demanded it. USAID, though, is far less specialized, with around 2,300 full-time employees in roughly 80 countries and thousands more contractors. Much American aid money is tied up in expensive projects like the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which Shah will have little control over and which Congress is unlikely to make major changes to.
Decades' worth of anachronistic earmarks and mandates will tie Shah's hands even more in some cases. Congress, for example, banned the agency from training foreign police officers after abuses in Latin America in the 1970s. That's kept USAID from building robust development policies in Nigeria and Indonesia and slowed training in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well.
An overhaul of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 -- the outdated but durable patchwork responsible for some of those burdens -- may help. But even with the full-throated support of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Shah hardly controls his own destiny. Two dueling reports out of the State Department and the White House are already fighting to shape the future of USAID, and he's entering the debate late in the game.
"He's not going to have all the latitude that he had at Gates," said Catherine Bertini, a Syracuse University professor of public administration who Shah recruited to work at Gates in 2006. "Here he's got 535 bosses in Congress, plus the State Department and the White House and [the Office of Management and Budget] and USAID itself. It's a different situation."
Shah is also determined to bring the culture of data-driven development to USAID, the senior administration official said, and he wants all levels of the agency constantly analyzing the efficiency of its programming and adjusting accordingly. But USAID's ability to review its successes and failures has been uneven in recent years. Andrew Natsios, who led the agency from 2001 to 2006, revived the Center for Development Information and Evaluation during his term; his successor, Randall Tobias, later folded the office. For Shah, getting his Washington staff to focus on project evaluation may be possible, but it will be tougher to change the professional culture of hundreds of employees scattered around the globe.
Then there is the question of seasoning. While development junkies trade war stories of remote missions and malaria like currency, Shah has almost zero field experience. He may be the smartest guy in the room, but he doesn't have that wellspring to draw on.
It did not limit him at Gates, where he had the freedom to dream up clever and innovative development projects, like the foundation's $1.5 billion vaccine fund. And Shah believes he can make up for his lack of experience by surrounding himself with development veterans and traveling to USAID project sites, according to the senior administration official. But can conference calls and a few whirlwind visits really give him a taste of the challenges facing his far-flung emissaries?
He was certainly able to catch up on the plight of farmers and agricultural schools at USDA, said one agriculture lobbyist. Shah helped bring in more money for the next fiscal year and is already missed, he said.
"He was a unique person who, despite his lack of familiarity, had a vision for revitalizing [agricultural] science that brought people in," the lobbyist added. "You can't find another Shah."