World must rethink poverty fight: U.S. aid chief

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The world must rethink strategies for fighting global poverty, with new emphasis on economic growth, accountability and governance key if basic goals for helping the world’s poorest by 2015 are to be met, the U.S. aid chief said.

With leaders gathering in New York on Monday for a United Nations summit on the anti-poverty fight, USAID head Rajiv Shah said the Obama administration was pushing for a new approach in a battle that thus far has brought mixed results.

“We’ll be calling for a really significant rethinking of how development is pursued,” Shah told Reuters in an interview

on Friday ahead of the three-day meeting this week on the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals.

The summit will review pledges made 10 years ago to cut poverty and hunger, expand access to education, boost gender equity, improve basic health services and redouble the fight against diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria which disproportionately impact the world’s poor.

Only one of the goals -- halving global poverty -- is on track to be met by the 2015 deadline, however, and that is due largely to rapid growth in populous India and China.

Progress on the others has been slow and patchy, further complicated by the global financial and economic crisis that has seen rich nations cut aid budgets and poor countries hit by soaring prices for food and fuel as well as job losses.

Shah, who as head of the U.S. Agency for International Development is a major player in the global aid debate, said it was clear that the goals would not be achieved if the current approach is not altered.

He said the United States was looking for much more rigorous accountability standards, programs that emphasize local economic development over hand-outs, more training for specialists within the developing world and a more aggressive effort to bring new scientific and technological innovations into development work.

“When you look at where the Millennium Development Goals are not getting met, the rate of progress in those areas is too slow to achieve the goals by 2015,” Shah said.

“So simply reaffirming our commitment would not be enough if we were not fundamentally changing and innovating in the way we execute our work.”


Shah said President Barack Obama remained committed to his promise to boost U.S. aid budget to $52 billion by 2015 from about $25 billion now.

But with voter frustration building over the slow U.S. economic recovery, he said it was critically important to show taxpayers that their money was not being wasted.

“We have to show that every dollar is used for the maximum value for money,” he said.

The United States, the world’s largest aid donor, is already seeking new focus in evolving programs such as the “Feed the Future” world food assistance plan and the U.S. Global Health Initiative, a six-year, $63 billion campaign to improve healthcare and fight neglected diseases in some 80 of the poorest countries, he said.

“We are doing a number of things differently, not just as USAID but across the federal government. One, for example, is a reprioritization of economic-growth related investment in those places where we believe its most needed,” he said.

He said U.S. aid programs were also channeling more resources to build up local groups and organizations, saying that the long-term sustainability of any aid effort will depend on the capacity of poor countries to both design and implement their own policy priorities.

The changes are part of a broader effort both to streamline the aid process and to move away from a model where foreign donors finance and execute top-down programs that can collapse when external help ends.

One goal for this week’s U.N. meeting and beyond was to improve international coordination on aid, Shah said.

While traditional donors including multilateral aid agencies, Western countries and Japan often work together, new players such as China -- which is rapidly expanding its trade, investment and aid in the developing world -- need to be brought into the mix, he said.

“We’ve been in quite an active dialogue with China about this point, specifically as it relates to Africa,” Shah said. “This is starting to become a more robust partnership but it is not there yet.”

Despite frustration over the difficulty in reaching the Millennium Development Goals, Shah said he remained personally optimistic the targets will be achieved -- as long as the world uses this week’s summit to begin changing the way it goes about the aid business.

“This session will lead to a generalized course correction that allows us to learn what we’ve learned from the last decade, and then do better in the next five years,” he said.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman