Former journalist, Obama adviser nominated to run aid agency

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama tapped White House adviser Gayle Smith on Thursday to run the U.S. Agency for International Development, putting a former journalist and longtime Africa expert in charge of his global development agenda for the final years of his presidency.

Smith, the senior director for development and democracy at the White House's National Security Council, has had a diverse career working on humanitarian efforts in and out of government, including a former stint at USAID. If confirmed by the Senate, she'll replace former USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, who announced his resignation last year amid intense criticism over the agency's secretive programs in Cuba.

Obama, in announcing Smith's nomination, said she had earned his "full confidence" after working with him for nearly a decade, including six years in a top role at the White House.

"Gayle's energy and passion have been instrumental in guiding America's international development policy, responding to a record number of humanitarian crises worldwide, and ensuring that development remains at the forefront of the national security agenda at a time when USAID is more indispensable than ever," the president said in a statement.

Smith, who worked for nearly two decades in Africa for news organizations including The Associated Press and BBC, joins a small cohort of former journalists who have risen to senior ranks of foreign policy and national security in the Obama administration. U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, a vocal supporter of humanitarian action overseas, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, and former Time Magazine managing editor Richard Stengel holds a top role at the State Department.

Obama's decision to nominate Smith comes as the U.S. seeks to ramp up its engagement and development activities in Africa, particularly as China invests billions to expand its influence on the continent.

Earlier in his second term, Obama unveiled a Power Africa initiative involving USAID aimed at dramatically expanding access to electricity, although there have been questions about whether that effort has managed to get off the ground. USAID and the White House have also worked to drive the global response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, where the epidemic appears to be receding at long last.

No stranger to Africa issues, Smith was the National Security Council's Africa chief in the Clinton administration, during which she also served as an adviser at USAID. Yet the aid agency's scope is far wider, and if confirmed, Smith will also be largely responsible for the U.S. response to situations like the earthquake in Nepal and refugee crises in the Middle East.

"What's inspired me most about Gayle over the years is her activist spirit — her dogged commitment to ensuring that when change is necessary, we find a way to make it happen," said Secretary of State John Kerry.

USAID, which works closely with the State Department, describes itself as the lead U.S. government agency fighting poverty and promoting democracy around the world. Yet the agency has come under scrutiny over its procurement practices as well as its risky undercover work in hostile countries.

Shah's resignation in December came hours before the United States announced an agreement with Cuba to restore diplomatic relations and the release of Alan Gross, a USAID contractor imprisoned in Cuba for 15 years. Havana had been outraged after an AP investigation last year revealed that USAID had created a Twitter-like service to help Cubans evade the government's strict control of information and also infiltrated the island's hip-hop community.

USAID said at the time that helping Cubans communicate with each other and the outside world was consistent with its mission and with U.S. law. Upon his resignation, Shah said he was leaving with "mixed emotions" but gave no public reason for his departure.


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