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Bridging the Gap Between Military and Humanitarian Operations with Neilesh Shelat

January 12, 2022


The Pallas Foundation for National Security Leadership recently hosted a moderated discussion featuring Neilesh Shelat, Deputy Assistant to the Administrator of USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA). Check out some takeaways from the discussion, which focused on humanitarian assistance and how the U.S. military supports USAID-led disaster response efforts, below.


Bringing in a Comparative Advantage

USAID leads and coordinates the U.S. Government’s international disaster response, administering civilian foreign aid and working in close collaboration with the U.S. interagency, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations, and other donors and partners. USAID provides significant support for pre-disaster and post-disaster planning. USAID responds to an average of 75 crises in more than 70 countries per year. When working with other U.S. government agencies, leveraging the unique capability of each agency is key to support USAID-led disaster response efforts, noted Neilesh. For example, USAID was recently added to the National Security Council as a full-time member. This significant step enhances interagency planning and operations, and builds stronger lines of communication. The change allows USAID to provide its expertise when evaluating policy decisions, such as sanctions, by sharing on-the-ground humanitarian perspectives, explaining how an action could affect local communities, and potentially advising on alternative options.


Building Interagency Relationships

In order to utilize these comparative advantages, interagency relationship building is paramount, said Neilesh. While some interactions between agencies will be routine—like training or planning operations—the human factor is also critical. Taking the time to understand the people behind the process will help actors to better understand decision-making processes and shape effective responses. For example, in the aftermath of a 1998 hurricane in Honduras, which killed nearly 11,000 people, USAID was part of a team that worked with the Honduran government and other domestic agencies to develop crisis plans, build operational decisions, and provide aid to impacted communities. Being on the ground and focusing on collaboration to improve processes helped to prepare Honduras for future hurricanes. In 2020, Hurricane Iota landed in Central America—but with pre-planning and some good fortune, the destruction was not as severe.


Career Advice for Young Professionals

For young professionals seeking to advance in their career (particularly in foreign policy), Neilesh had three key lessons: hone your writing skills, develop the judgment to quickly distill information for decision-makers, and spend time on-the-ground to get field experience. Being able to clearly and quickly communicate key information to senior leaders is invaluable, he noted. In addition, there is no substitute for field experience. Working in-country helps young professionals to develop a realistic and deeper understanding of the problem sets faced in international affairs, which sets young professionals apart.

Neilesh Shelat is the Deputy Assistant to the Administrator of USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA). Prior to BHA, Mr. Shelat worked in the technology industry focused on data access, misinformation, and media influence related to COVID-19, and in support of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Within USAID, he served as the Agency’s Executive Secretary, Senior Advisor for National Security Affairs, and Defeating-ISIS Coordinator. At the NSC, he worked on security sector assistance, and stability programming in Libya, Yemen, Nigeria, and Somalia. Mr. Shelat served in Erbil, Iraq, and deployed to northeast Syria to manage stabilization assistance and the restoration of essential services in areas liberated from ISIS. Mr. Shelat also conducted five tours to Afghanistan, working on USG efforts with NATO and Afghan military forces. Prior to USAID, Mr. Shelat workedon health systems strengthening, and on counter-trafficking efforts of marginalized communities in Chennai, India. He also led relief efforts in two coastal villages in India following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. He began his international development career as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in the Republic of Kiribati.