EXCLUSIVE: USAID Administrator Raj Shah Unveils US Strategy to Achieve the MDGs

The Obama administration’s long-awaited strategy for achieving the Millennium Development Goals was released today. The 28 page document commits the United States to the MDGs and promises to “raise the profile of development in [the United States’] diplomatic engagement with strategic allies as well as in multilateral forums.”  It is a sweeping account of the various ways in which government agencies and programs will be leveraged to achieve the MDGs.  In an exclusive interview with UN Dispatch USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah discusses the strategy document, it’s focus on “innovation,” and what the United States hopes to achieve at a forthcoming UN summit on the MDGs.

The document comes at a crucial time for international diplomacy around the MDGs. In September, president Obama will meet with heads of state at the United Nations for a summit on the Millennium Development Goals. The summit is expected to result an outcome document that spells out the ways in which countries around the world are committing themselves to achieving the eight anti-poverty and health goals by the 2015 target date. The just-released strategy document is what the Obama team will bring to those negotiations. 

When asked how the document will affect US diplomacy at the UN summit, Shah made a veiled reference to the previous administration’s sometimes skittish approach to the MDGs. “This document fully embraces the MDGs. Given our history from 2000 onward with respect to the MDGs, that is pretty important,” said Shah.   “This document fully embraces the MDGs, our desire to build on past progress, and our analysis of where we are about 10 years in.” 

He continued: “The summit is important for the global community to re-affirm a strong commitment to the MDGs. It is also important for the global community to come together and recognize that there has been this broad base of progress—and not just in rapidly growing Asian economies.” Shah cited a doubling of per-capita incomes in Mozambique, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Tanzania, and “huge reductions” in child mortality in those countries as exemplars of progress on the MDGs.

Still, big challenges remain. And at the heart of the MDG strategy is a commitment to “innovation,” which the document describes as a “force multiplier” and “first imperative” of the administration’s approach to the MDGs. I asked Shah why the focus on innovation? His response was instructive:

“In order to have solutions that scale, we are going to have to do things differently,” he said. “Just like we are on the verge of eradicating polio because they invented a vaccine that allowed us to not have to provide everyone with treatment services using iron lung, in the same way we have huge opportunities to transition from more costly and ineffective strategies to things that are more highly scalable and lower cost.”

“Opportunities are very ripe for innovations,” said Shah. In particular, he cited research on new vaccines that could make a “huge dent” in morbidity and mortality related to diarrhea and pneumonia.

He also cited a new study on the efficacy of a new vaginal HIV microbicide gel that women can apply themselves, pre-intercourse, as an example of the very discreet ways the United States can support technological innovations in support of the MDGs. “[The gel] cost $18 million, $17.5 of which came from USAID,” said Shah.

“We have a huge opportunity to provide resources in a way that helps drive this innovation and we intend to do so by a launching a series of funds and programs and partnerships to use them in a more focused way across the board.”  Those programs are listed in the document and include support for things like the mHealth Alliance (which applies mobile phone technology to public health efforts in the developing world) to programs for reducing asphyxia-related neonatal mortality. 

What struck me about the document is that it never cites any one of the eight MDGs individually and instead takes them as a whole.”By design, we do not treat the MDGs as if they were separate baskets but focus on the cross-cutting nature of the four imperatives,” says the report. “The purpose is to emphasize that the MDGs are all connected, and that we must leverage cross-cutting synergies if they are to be achieved.”

The document also gives heavy focus to women’s empowerment and describes gender as “a cross cutting issue.”  Shah describes how this provides an organizing philosophy for the entire document:

“People have been talking about how important women and girls are in development for decades. This is not a new insight. What is new and different is that we tend not to put our money where our mouth is and we tend not to be as good at operationalizing a focus on women in our core programs.”

This now changes, said Shah. “We are forcing the system to focus on, provide services and track benefits to women and girls in a different way,” said Shah. “That is difference between what we want to do in the future and what has happened in the past.”

It would seem the future is now.  Here is the document:


US MDG Strategy