Shah confirmed as new U.S. overseas aid chief

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate on Thursday confirmed Rajiv Shah as head of USAID, putting the 36-year-old doctor in charge of the sprawling $20 billion aid agency which stands poised for a major funding boost.

President Barack Obama nominated Shah to head the U.S. Agency for International Development last month, moving to fill a key vacancy in a foreign policy line-up geared toward putting new emphasis on development assistance to improve the U.S. image overseas.

Shah, who will report directly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, won widespread bipartisan support in his confirmation hearing.

He takes office as the Obama administration plans a big increase in U.S. overseas aid, particularly in Afghanistan where a boost in civilian assistance is seen as critical to support the buildup of U.S.-led forces fighting Taliban insurgents.

Officials aim to double overall U.S. aid funds to $52 billion by 2015, although the final size and scope of that increase are now under discussion as part of a four-yearly review of diplomacy and development policies expected to yield final results next year.

Shah -- most recently chief scientist at the Department of Agriculture and a former senior official at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- is both a medical doctor and specialist in food security issues, two items at the top of the U.S. aid agenda.

Critics have said the 10-month delay in putting a USAID administrator in place have hobbled work in Afghanistan and elsewhere, with USAID often eclipsed by other U.S. government agencies including the Department of Defense.

The agency has more than 6,800 people working in some 80 countries worldwide.

Clinton, in a recent speech, promised that Shah, if confirmed, would have “a seat at the table” as the ramp-up takes shape. “Together, we will ensure that USAID is once again the premier development agency in the world,” she said.

Reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Sandra Maler