USAID chief wants help improving image of U.S. foreign aid

The administrator of the federal government’s foreign aid program asked entertainment industry professionals for ideas about how to shift perceptions of the country’s humanitarian programs, often under scrutiny on Capitol Hill but seldom garnering the attention of war and conflict.

“The truth is we have much better brand recognition abroad,” USAID administrator Rajiv Shah said last week in a talk delivered to several dozen at CAA. “I would love for your help with changing that at home.”

Shah spoke to the Foreign Policy Roundtable, an org led by political consultant Donna Bojarsky that brings White House officials, philanthropists and foreign policy experts to Los Angeles to debrief industry leaders on pressing topics. Among those at the gathering were Cliff Gilbert-Lurie, Clayton Townsend, David O’Connor, Matt Johnson, David Kissinger and Sonya Rosenfeld.

Shah’s remarks were of particular interest because of the engagement of many industry activists in humanitarian causes, particularly in Africa, where there has been a concerted effort to eradicate diseases and eliminate extreme poverty. Peter Chernin, for instance, founded Malaria No More, an effort to end malaria deaths by 2015.

Shah noted that the number of annual childhood malaria deaths has dropped to 650,000 from about 1 million six years ago. He cited efforts to provide bed nets, improved medications and wider insecticide programs, as well as a programs as well as a new technology via a firm called CellScope that allows for mobile diagnosis rather than a weeks-long process of sending samples to labs from remote areas.

He also spoke of plans for President Obama’s second term in which “we want to launch sort of a modern version of the Peace Corps, which gives students the opportunity to apply their ingenuity and their science and their math skills and their ideas to some of the most intractable problems around the world.”

A group of UC Berkeley students helped create mobile technology applied to election monitoring in Afghanistan, making the process of verifying elections much more efficient by matching mobile exit counts and other data to what is reported in tabulations. “Some day we are going to have to bring these to Florida,” Shah quipped.

With a $22 billion budget, USAID has from time to time come under congressional scrutiny, including an effort after the Republicans took control of the House to eliminate it altogether. But Shah said that funding should remain intact for the next fiscal year, as there has been more recent bipartisan support.

Total U.S. humanitarian aid is often perceived to be much greater than it really is — about 1.5% of the total budget — a point Bill Gates made when he appeared before the Foreign Policy Roundtable in 2011. Gates, among the most prominent philanthropists pursuing relief programs in Africa, said that continued federal support is essential.

That sum is also a “drop in the bucket” compared to the budget for the Dept. of Defense, Shah noted.

Foreign assistance has helped improve the image of the U.S. abroad, at least momentarily, including an uptick in Pakistan after aid flowed to the country to help farmers affected by a devastating flood in 2010. He also noted that such aid has helped create stable economies in Costa Rica and South Korea, among other countries.

Shah pointed to Yemen, a country of 20 million battling poverty, hunger and a lack of water while fighting al Qaeda. “They are never going to win that fight by shooting bad guys,” he said. “They are going to win that fight by creating opportunity and stability in the structure of their economy and giving every child in that country the chance to succeed.”

The challenge for the agency, he said, was to communicate some of the trends in which it has played a role, like a drop in preventable death of children under the age of 5 from 12 million in 1990 to 7 million today.

While Obama, he said, will “be more vocal” about these issues in his second term, Shah said that the industry could help in conveying stories about aid workers. “It is very heroic, but there aren’t those stories out there,” Shah said.

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