Raj Shah Unveils Common Values for Dems and Republicans

In October 2009, Raj Shah walked across the reception area into my office and closed the door. He told me that President Obama and Secretary Clinton wanted to nominate him to lead the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

The decision wasn't so easy.

Raj had a great job. He had just started four months earlier as Under Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture. Working under the incredibly smart, strategic and effective leader, Secretary Tom Vilsack, Raj was partnering with him to forge new approaches to domestic and international hunger and food security.

He wondered out loud,

"What if the critics were right -- maybe it wasn't possible to succeed at USAID?"

There was plenty of reason to expect that the critics might be right. Many Republicans were not fans of USAID. As far back as 1995, Senator Jesse Helms had introduced legislation to abolish the Agency. And some current members weren't much happier. Senator Leahy, the leading Democratic supporter, sent a shot over the bow in early 2010 opening a budget hearing by saying that unless the Agency significantly changed, they could not count on his support the following year. These rumblings and frustrations were well known even among friends of USAID -- showing up in think tank reports and best selling books.

This shaky political support rested on top of an American public who understood little about foreign assistance and were deeply skeptical. Understandably, people were worried about their own jobs, homes and health as pink slips, foreclosure notices and healthcare insurance cancellations were showing up daily in mailboxes nationwide. Americans when queried, thought foreign assistance made up 25 percent of the federal budget rather than less than 1 percent that it did. Most thought that cutting it in half would solve our budget problems.

Raj had seen first hand the impact of the generosity and skill of the US people abroad. Raj's parents, with their small kids in tow, had periodically made the journey halfway around the world to their birthplace in India. Janardan Shah, Raj's dad -- a Michigan engineer at Ford Motor Company -- and his mom, Rena -- a preschool teacher - wanted their children to see the struggle and poverty in the world. On one of those trips, Raj would never forget the day he saw a busy hospital that had been built by USAID decades earlier -- it became the blueprint for his professional training as a physician, career and life.

Realizing global isolation had never worked and we couldn't solve all the problems threatening us with just a military response. Raj decided that October day in 2009, that USAID's mission was too important not to try. He believed in the Agency and its people. He said yes.

Within weeks of his swearing-in, on January 12th, Raj was in the USAID Top Security room preparing for a meeting at the White House on Afghanistan when a note was passed to him that a 7.2 earthquake had hit Haiti. It was to become the biggest urban disaster in modern history. A third of the country's population was impacted, 13 of the 15 government ministry buildings collapsed and much of the UN Peacekeeping leadership was buried under the rubble.

It would not be until first light that the US military could conduct flyovers and determine whether planes could land or ships could dock. Still Raj along with his team worked all night to mobilize response teams and resources so the right help would be on its way. Within 24 hours, Raj was named the whole of US government coordinator for the response. And President Obama made it clear this was not going to be his Katrina.

This began his orchestration of the federal, state and local public sector capabilities along with the charitable and private sector humanitarian assistance to solve urgent and chronic global problems in new and innovative ways. He saw the awesome expertise, influence and capability the US government and its people could have. He knew that innovation and technology had to be at the cornerstone. This was to form the approach Raj used over the next five years in building an unusual consensus for foreign assistance.

Visiting more members of Congress than any Administrator had ever done, Raj listened hard to their frustrations, sometimes laced with anger as well as their ideas on how USAID could deliver on its promise of being an essential part of US Foreign Policy. He knew he had to find a common set of values that regardless of the political party, people could agree with. And it wasn't easy. Too many elected officials had stopped talking to each other -- preferring stonewalling or communicating through the press.

Raj was relentless along with creative in his quest for success.

He recognized that the political right often sprang from deep religious convictions that saw saving lives and humanitarian assistance as part of who we ought to be as Americans. They just wanted an Agency that performed these responsibilities more cost-effectively and with better leverage. He worked with those Senators and House members to forge an alliance around these values. And was honest about the changes that were needed.

He also shared the belief with national security experts in Congress that our own domestic security was at jeopardy if people overseas were starving or lacking any economic or political opportunity in their countries. USAID had demonstrated that brilliance when the Soviet Union had busted up in the 1990's. Almost overnight it had opened offices in 22 countries to assist the new governments with nearly everything, including banking, setting up courts, licensing and other essential functions. It helped dramatically solidify these fragile democracies. And yet, even these Congressional supporters wanted to know what USAID was doing to help create the conditions where AID was no longer needed. A stop gap -- yes. A transition -- yes. A forever AID plan -- no.

The economic landscape had also changed. The growth opportunity for US companies and domestic jobs is exports. The US economy is 70 percent personal consumption(retail sales, financial and healthcare spending). We aren't going to shop our way into greater wages and prosperity. And we can't afford our medical costs to go up anymore.

Public-private partnerships were the key to successful foreign assistance. Many US companies greatly valued the co-investments needed to source products and develop markets for US goods overseas. Raj, with his team sewed together support from the broad set of Republicans and Democrats. The Members often couldn't agree on big policy issues before it, but understood the unique value USAID needed to play in our economic and job future. It was one of the only Agencies to see a bipartisan increase in its budget.

Raj knew that to have credibility, he needed to have his strategy match the Agency's performance. He launched a major internal reform effort, USAID Forward. Innovation and technology were to be centerpieces of his reform. Despite the objections of some of the traditional AID contractors and the complexity of internal Agency change, he was relentless in the desire to deliver a new USAID.

Today, Raj Shah announced he was stepping down as head of USAID. As we turn the calendar with divided political leadership in Washington DC and coming off a frustrating Congressional term for everyone, let us learn the lesson that Raj demonstrated.

We have way more in common politically than we think. If we unveil these common values among ourselves, friends and foes alike, we can emerge with remarkable successes.

It's a simple truth: in everything we do, when faced with hard, even toxic situations let us be relentless about finding the common things we all care deeply about. And build from there.

Acknowledging Our Shared History

As long as I have been able to vote elected officials at the local, state and federal level have struggled with what to do about immigration. When I used to talk with my Irish grandparents they told of the signs that were posted in the windows of stores or the line in Jobs section of the paper or in the labor union halls. 'No [...] need apply.'

Fill in the blank with the most recent ethnic immigrant group that is arriving with the strength, smarts, determination, and desire to build a better future for themselves and for our country. Or recognize that even without those signs that African-Americans, going on two centuries now, continue to get robbed of opportunities.

This Thanksgiving week I hope all of us have a conversation at our dinner table about the origins of this deeply American tradition. Those signs may no longer be plastered everywhere but the feelings haven't evaporated. Almost all of us were once immigrants. As the pilgrims came ashore no doubt the Native Americans were confused and scared for many of the same reasons that people are today. Both groups fought and killed because of that fear. Sadly it is too often our first reaction.

But on thanksgiving we can remember a different path once taken. The one that resulted in the first Thanksgiving.

Squanto, a member of the Wampanoag tribe having been kidnapped more than once by Europeans, he returned to his Cape Cod village in 1619 to see everyone wiped out by either tuberculosis or small pox. Think about the heartbreak we would feel finally getting home and everyone we loved was just gone. Squanto moved to Plymouth where he saw people all around him sick and dying. Only this time it was the Pilgrims.

Instead of anger, he chose compassion. He taught the Pilgrims to farm the land, extract sap from the trees, catch fish, and avoid poisonous plants. Choosing to forge a peaceful future with these new immigrants -- our forefathers and mothers -- Squanto helped negotiate a treaty.

When the bounty was harvested, the First Americans and the new immigrants celebrated together. It was our first Thanksgiving.

Our Simple Truth: We were all once immigrants and we can choose to be angry and scared or grateful.

Join me this Thanksgiving in opening up your heart to a generous America that understands we are stronger with the intellect, ambition, and dedication that immigration reform will reap.

The 'Heart Disease' Seizing San Francisco

I didn't expect to, but my eyes just kept filling up with tears and suddenly they were drizzling out the side of my eyes. I was standing on the street corner of Oak and Gough in what had been for decades a dangerous and rough part of San Francisco. But slowly the creative class had begun to move in - artists, musicians, people who devoted their lives to preserving old books, small clothing designers and retailers who collected 1950s furniture when people just discarded on the street or gave it to Goodwill. Food artists in the form of chefs had dusted out abandoned storefronts in the neighborhood, chiseling off years of neglect on the windows to try new recipes, new concepts. Many had failed. Some of these pioneers had become the city's new icons.

When I felt the salty water dripping down my cheek I was attending a rally in front of the apartment of close friends. Not behind on their rent, they were days away from being evicted from the place they have called home for 25 years. The landlord was using a provision in a California law, the Ellis Act to kick them out. Suddenly studios in the neighborhood - if you could find them - were renting for as much as $3500/month and property owners were seized by the dollar signs. Many owners had waited years for property value appreciation; others saw an opportunity to do a quick flip.

While evictions tell only a small piece of the story, it's clear that San Francisco has contracted full-blown heart disease. San Francisco lost so much of its talent and spirit from the HIV virus back in the '80s and '90s. It was quietly at first, but now not so quietly, experiencing a new epidemic. Only this time it was caused by something we had all hoped for - an economic virus of success.

People who attended the rally feared for a city losing not just the creative class, but also long-term renters who provide the range of services needed in the city and those in nonprofits protecting people slammed by domestic violence or other social services.

Those secure in their homes, viewing this crisis from afar and trying to be positive suggested, 'How sad, but they could move to Oakland.' Yes, Oakland like Brooklyn in NYC has blossomed as a new center for the creative class in the Bay Area. We should all celebrate the vibrancy of the East Bay. But seeding all the creative and service classes to Oakland is the wrong approach. It would be like carving the heart out of SF.

It might work for football, but not for creativity. The 49ers in August packed their bags and moved 44 miles south to a new stadium, named after an iconic San Francisco company, Levi's. And for less than ten days a year the team plays home games, you can board a train or bus or hop in a car to get there or watch on them on TV. Doesn't work that way for innovation.

A functioning economy needs continuous creativity and innovation and a critical mass of talent paired with a mash-up of different sites, smells, ideas, and interactions - some wanted, some experienced serendipitously and even some that challenge or even offend.

Some tech leaders and local elected officials are pushing for more housing and activists for a moratorium on evictions. However, the spread of this heart disease can't wait. And patience only means more destruction.

The causes and solutions are complex but possible. If only we would bring the same disruptive thinking that homegrown companies like Kiva did to create a new source of funds for lending to poor people in the world raising over $1 million/day; or Levi Strauss brought to market the staple of all wardrobes, blue jeans; or Cisco that invented the gear to power the internet. And the breakthrough solution is likely to be both some of the old ideas repurposed and some brand new ones.

As I stood at the rally, I was reminded of the impatience of Larry Kramer. Upon watching more and more of his friends die of AIDS in the early and mid-eighties and frustrated with the slow response, he wrote a play to bring wider attention to the epidemic. When that didn't seem to generate enough progress, he made many uncomfortable by turning to direct action. While the virus is still claiming new people every year, it is a fraction of what it once was and thousands are thriving despite the disease, because of the innovations impatience drove.

The iconic cable cars or even the Golden Gate Bridge have never been the real heart of San Francisco. For many international cities have architectural icons. The heart of this city is truly it's creative class combined with its working and immigrant classes.

So much more is at stake here, than just housing.