August 17, 2017 / 3:35 PM / 2 years ago

INTERVIEW-Proposed U.S. aid cuts threaten 'disaster' for world's poor - foundation head

LONDON, Aug 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Aid to help developing countries fight poverty, hunger, disease and climate change is likely to fall 50 to 70 percent under proposed U.S. budget cuts, a “disaster” for the world’s poor, the president of The Rockefeller Foundation has warned.

Closing the expected gap through private or charitable spending looks unlikely, added Rajiv Shah, who ran the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from 2009 to 2015.

If the 15 largest U.S. foundations, including giants such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, combined their donations, the total would not match the cuts proposed just to USAID funding by President Donald Trump’s administration, Shah said.

“This is not the kind of problem philanthropy can step in and solve - or should,” he said. “These are public-sector responsibilities.”

But philanthropists can play a key role in restoring badly eroded public faith in aid spending, by tracking results and proving investments work, he said.

They can also push money into ventures - such as off-grid solar power in India - that are hugely promising but sometimes too financially risky for governments or business at the start, the 44-year-old said.

“When Americans are told what our aid accomplishes - that we can provide a school lunch in the Nairobi slum of Kibera for 12 or 14 cents, that our investments have helped reduce deaths from malaria (in parts of Africa) by 50 percent - then they’re very supportive and believe we should do more,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in London.

In an era of “global populist retrenchment”, foundations, investors and businesses “need to come together to solve global problems - not to replace governments, but to demonstrate that at-scale solutions can work”, he said.

Shah, who grew up in Detroit and still refers to Americans as “folks”, has had a foot in many of the worlds he hopes to unite to fill the aid gap.

The son of Indian immigrants, he earned medical and business degrees before working at the Gates Foundation, where he launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, an African-run effort to build food security, and a $5 billion finance facility to develop new vaccines.

He later worked briefly at the U.S. Department of Agriculture before being made head of USAID under former U.S. President Barack Obama.

Within 10 days of taking office, he led the U.S. effort to assist Haiti after its devastating 2010 earthquake, and later managed the response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Shah also ran the Obama administration’s Power Africa programme, aimed at improving energy access for Africa’s poor.

After leaving government in 2015, he helped found a private equity firm focused on emerging markets, and worked on issues around fragile states at Georgetown University in Washington.


At the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation, which he has led since March, he aims to bring together those diverse experiences to catalyse substantial improvements in health, food security and energy access, particularly in the poorest countries.

“We’ll focus on efforts to bring science and tech and innovation to specific areas where we can improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people,” said the head of The Rockefeller Foundation, which partners with the Thomson Reuters Foundation on its coverage of resilience.

Global accords reached in 2015, including the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals, show that “the world’s two biggest common challenges are climate change and poverty” - and both require new coalitions of actors to “come together to do something about that at scale”.

Good progress is already underway in places, Shah said. Ethiopia, for instance, is building huge hydropower and other clean energy capacity that is opening up development opportunities, and Kenya has trained 40,000 young people in computer science skills to help them win jobs, he said.

Even conflict-torn Afghanistan got 8 million children into school, including 3 million girls, between 2002 and 2012, and has seen the fastest reduction in maternal mortality - efforts backed by U.S. assistance, he said.

If the world wants to make real gains against extreme poverty and other key challenges, it must find ways to do it in some of the toughest places like Somalia and Yemen, he said.

“We have to figure out how to do our work better ... even more so in fragile settings, where corruption is a bigger risk,” he told a discussion at the London-based Overseas Development Institute on Wednesday.

Philanthropists also need to make sure their money builds skills in the countries where they work, and backs broader government aims, rather than supporting piecemeal projects that are often less effective and leave chunks of the investment in the hands of consults and intermediaries, he said.

But he worries that President Trump’s decision to include family members in his inner circle of advisors - and his pronouncements on a range of human rights issues - threaten U.S. moral standing to insist on good behaviour by other governments.

For the United States to waver in backing human rights and democracy, and in opposing corruption and nepotism - “the bedrock of values that animate American foreign policy” - is disastrous, Shah said.

"Our world needs leadership that comes together and says we can actually do things, solve problems, in a public-private manner, and do it in a way that leads to a safer world for our grandchildren," he said. "And that's not exactly what we're hearing from Washington." (Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

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