Rajiv Shah, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is working to make USAID one of the premier agencies applying technology to the problems of the developing world. In conversation with Jose Vericat of the Journal of International Affairs, Shah discusses how USAID and its partners are using technology to address today's development challenges.
Journal of International Affairs: Do you think technology will allow low-income countries to leapfrog traditional stages of development as many have speculated?
Rajiv Shah: We already have seen discontinuous improvements in human welfare that have been enabled by technology. Vaccines, for example, allow countries to dramatically reduce the burden of disease, measured by disability and life, in ways that go well beyond what they would do without such technological innovation given the current resource base and health systems of these countries. But that is true across the board. Mobile connectivity has allowed for leapfrogging of hard, fixed infrastructures; that is obviously the most current example that is the most referenced.
To answer the question of whether or not that allows for fundamental leapfrogging in a country's aggregate GDP, in its level of poverty, I think that you will have to look at examples like the Green Revolution where, in particular, some good policies coupled with different seeds and production technologies allowed for very rapid productive growth in South Asia at a time when hundreds of millions of people were facing starvation, and actually fundamentally changed the economic growth path of that region. So you could certainly make the case that technology has enabled big advances in the human condition and in the economic condition of many countries. Whether that is leapfrogging or not is for others to determine, but technology is pretty core to any human progress.
Journal: To what extent are the challenges of today different than those of the past?
Shah: Well, I think that the challenges are different, but the opportunities are also different. You could look across the set of problems we face. You could take agriculture as an example. Today, the pressure on agricultural production systems is compounded by highly erratic weather events that are almost certainly linked to an aggregate warming of global temperatures. We know that global population growth--but even more than population growth, the increasing wealth of large Asian economies--are leading people to diversify their diets to a more grain intensive, meat- or poultry-based type of diet that will put a lot of pressure on our food production system. So, we are looking at basically similar problems of needing to improve food production, needing to do it in a way that allows for the improvement of child nutrition and needing to do it in a way that is resilient to a hotter, drier and more erratic climate for growing conditions. It will make it even tougher and it will fundamentally rely on better policies and real markets. Technology will also play a critical role, whether it is with drought-tolerant seeds or maize for Africa, stress-tolerant rice varieties in Asia or to improve household-level UV pasteurization so that villages that have a cow or buffalo can produce milk and can get it to market without spoilage. There are a lot of areas with big potential breakthroughs that will help address the problem, and the problem is bigger and tougher than it was previously.
Journal: How significant is technological innovation in USAID's Feed the Future program? Can you refer specifically to research on bioenergy and climate-resilient crops?
Shah: In agriculture, with Feed The Future, we are more than tripling our investments in science, research and technology as it applies to helping small-scale farmers, mostly women, in very resource-poor settings to produce enough food for their families, children, communities and countries. We are doing that by investing in more nutritious crops, including sweet potatoes in Africa that have...