Dr. Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said this week that the kind of work being done at places such as MIT “is transforming the world of development.”
The agency has shifted its focus from providing money to support existing food and medical relief efforts, to focusing increasingly on innovative approaches and technological advances that can lead to significant, rapid changes in health and prosperity in some of the world’s poorest countries, he said. And he cited innovations developed through programs like MIT’s D-Lab — created by senior lecturer Amy Smith — and the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship’s fellowship program as examples of the kind of things that are needed to make a dramatic difference in the lives of the world’s poorest people.
USAID was created by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, and is now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Shah, appointed in 2009 by President Barack Obama, has undertaken a major reshaping of the agency to focus its efforts clearly on areas and systems that can deliver the most significant changes in the quality of life for people in the developing world. A physician by training, he was appointed to the post after serving for seven years with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, directing its strategic opportunities, global health and agricultural development programs.
“By reimagining how we provide health technology, we can help these countries thrive,” Shah said in a talk at MIT on April 5, as part of the launch of MIT’s Global Challenge competition. For example, he pointed to USAID’s construction of 14,000 “health huts” in Senegal, which provide volunteer-based health services to people within their own villages, in many cases eliminating the need for long and expensive trips to clinics in the cities. It’s just one example of thinking differently about how to provide aid in effective ways, he said.
One great success story in modern health care in the developing world is the near-eradication of polio, Shah said, thanks to effective use and dissemination of vaccines. There are now fewer than 1,000 cases of the once-endemic disease left in the world, located in just a handful of African nations, and today “we are on the verge of eradicating polio” entirely — which would be just the second major disease, after smallpox, ever to be completely eliminated.
Technology has made major inroads in world hunger as well, he said. While in the 1960s and ’70s people were predicting mass starvation that would kill hundreds of millions, dramatic improvements in crop yields in the “green revolution” have greatly improved the outlook. The next great strides in improving the lives of poor rural people may come from such innovations as the use of cell phones — now nearly ubiquitous even in the poorest nations — to provide health screening, banking services and marketing tools for small farmers. “Today, the fastest-growing market for mobile phones is sub-Saharan Africa,” Shah said.
“We would like to pursue a vision of development based on changing the trajectory of development,” he said — thus “bending the curve” instead of following a straight-line trajectory toward improved conditions. New technologies can provide that force, he said.
An example of needed new technology is vaccines for persistent diseases such as malaria, he said. “We believe a major investment in vaccine development can achieve dramatic results,” he said.
In order to help spur these essential new technology developments, Shah said, USAID “will be rolling out grand challenges” in such areas as sanitation and education. “Many people in this room are the change agents” who can bring about important innovations for the developing world, he said to the crowd of students and others in MIT’s room 10-250. “We have to pursue strategies that are fundamentally new,” he said, in order to bring about a real transformation in people’s lives.
Shah’s talk was sponsored by the MIT Energy Initiative, D-Lab Innovators, MIT Public Service Center, MIT150, IDEAS2011 and the MIT Global Challenge.