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USAID chief talks development, politics
USAID director general Rajiv Shah speaks during a round table at the embassy in Awkar, Friday, Nov. 8, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)
USAID director general Rajiv Shah speaks during a round table at the embassy in Awkar, Friday, Nov. 8, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)
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AWKAR, Lebanon: The top administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development underlined Friday an ambitious goal to improve every public secondary school in Lebanon through infrastructure rehabilitation, teacher training and a host of after-school programs. Dr. Rajiv Shah was in Lebanon Friday meeting with government officials and visiting project sites.

Shah visited Dhour Choeir Secondary School in Mount Lebanon, which received USAID funding for a new science lab, in the morning before attending a round-table discussion with journalists at the U.S. Embassy in Awkar.

“Our goal is to actually make sure we do that kind of renovation and upgrading of secondary education opportunities, not just in that one school, which was outstanding, but in every single secondary school throughout the country,” Shah said.

The Education Ministry, he added, helps identify public schools with the greatest needs.

Shah said that Lebanese officials were highly supportive of the program, called Developing Rehabilitation Assistance to Schools and Teacher Improvement (D-RASATI).

Both President Michel Sleiman and caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati “were so eager to see that specific effort grow and expand,” Shah said. “We do coordinate very, very closely with the government.”

Shah also spoke of the strain Syrian refugees are placing on host communities in Lebanon.

“We believe that Lebanon should not have to shoulder this burden alone,” he said.

The U.S. government is currently working to help prepare refugees for the impending winter season by distributing winterization kits, Shah said.

Azza El-Abd, USAID’s mission director in Lebanon, highlighted a program promoting small businesses, particularly those owned or managed by rural Lebanese women:

“We actually give out loans to women to start their own businesses or expand. We have had great success. The repayment rate is over 90 percent.”

U.S. foreign policy necessarily plays a role in the distribution of USAID resources, however. The United States considers Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization. Under U.S. law, it is illegal for any American citizen to “knowingly provide material support or resources” to members of Hezbollah.

Membership can be a fluid concept in Lebanon, where most political parties do not maintain official rosters.

When The Daily Star asked if a pro-Hezbollah business owner was eligible to receive a microloan from the agency, Abd said that all loan applicants “go through a vetting system looking at a lot of things. ... We compare if they are on certain lists.”

“I mean if they’re a member of that organization [Hezbollah] it would be very difficult for us to work with them,” said Robin Holzhauer, a public affairs officer also attending the round table. “They’re a terrorist organization.”

Shah said that politics were not at the forefront of USAID’s agenda, however.

“We also recognize and will continue to expand our investments directly in support of the Lebanese people, and especially the kids,” he said. “The kids we met this morning, who we really do believe hold the potential for a very bright future.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 09, 2013, on page 3.
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