When I moved to Washington, D.C. eleven years ago, fresh from graduate school and a newly minted Economist, the words of my thesis advisor were guiding me – "economics is a sticky subject", he said, "and development even more so." There is simply no black and white approach to making development work, since everyone working in the field has his or her own perspective. Sure development economics is a science, and some basics drive how practitioners design programs, but decisions must often be made quickly, and with sharp instinct. This instinct is what separates what works from what does not.
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 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.