So too will be the scenario under which Gayle Smith begins her foray as Administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
I briefly met Gayle Smith a few years after arriving in DC during an interview with the Center for Global Development for a position with the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN). I recall her presence and energy, and feeling in awe of her ability to synthesize difficult and complex aid scenarios into digestible steps that the development community must take to effect change. I did not land the gig with MFAN, but have followed the work of Smith since that meeting. When President Obama selected Ms. Smith to join the National Security Council in 2009, I was relieved that this woman with austere hope for the future of our planet would be directing such critical decision making together with the President.
Fast forward to the news yesterday about Smith’s new role with USAID and I’ve noticed positive receptivity to the choice, for the most part. Over the years USAID has transitioned from a barebones aid agency into a public-private partnership machine, intentionally focusing efforts and resources into innovation and social enterprise with the understanding that real change will only come from those with the ingenuity and intent to invest in new economic paradigms. Coupling these investments with infrastructural support (thus allowing governments to take hold of programs long after public investment has ceased) makes for a one-two punch when it comes to development. Personally, I think USAID has taken its priorities in the right direction, in large part to the work of Rajiv Shah, previous Administrator before Smith, whose legacy will in some ways haunt the work of the agency given its proactive slant towards working with the private sector.
That said, I feel entirely optimistic about the pick of Smith as Shah’s replacement. Here’s why:
- Smith has decades of experience in development, which have most certainly allowed her to see the evolution of aid from pure poverty assistance to that of shared value, where programs on the ground benefit the communities and donors equally (given access to new markets, expansion of consumer base, input economies growing, facility expansion, etc). Certainly with events like the recent Earthquake in Nepal, pure aid will always be a priority and USAID will need to be prepared for humanitarian need. Yet development is constantly evolving and Smith’s cadre of development experiences, particularly with MFAN, will allow her to react with a dynamic perspective.
- Smith was a journalist in her early days, which will keep her from burying herself in the weeds at USAID and will support the agency’s more recent foray into public relations. Keeping a toe-hold on the image of USAID’s work, and reaction by development leaders (as well as aid recipients) is necessary, especially after Shah did this so well.
- Gayle Smith is a female. She is also a proven leader. I am not trying to play the gender card here but in my years working in development I have noticed that female leaders ‘tend’ to (emphasis on tend since this is not always the case) make decisions that are based equally on emotions AND strategy. This is important in development, since decision-making must consider long term repercussions and short-term immediate need.
Smith has fought the battles that are inherent in a role like this one and while development will always be in that gray area between successful and not, I am convinced that Gayle Smith can lead us down the path towards success.