Helping the world’s poor find their way to a prosperous and sustainable future is not an exact science. There is no formula that will produce the right answer. But this elusive goal is worth striving for.
This week I end five years on the Board of Directors of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a U.S. government agency charged with attaining that goal. My time with MCC has shown me that this is an agency making great strides in the right direction, forging a path that the entire development community would do well to follow.
During my 40 years in this field, I have learned many of the lessons that MCC is seeking to apply. You can’t just follow that popular bumper sticker: Think Globally, Act Locally. You must think globally and think locally, and then you must act in both venues.
What MCC knows is that development will never work if it is delivered from outside as if we are surgeons arriving to remove a tumor. Development must be driven from within a community, its policies and priorities homegrown.
But it will also not work absent an international commitment like that of MCC. A global effort is necessary for local success.
Take corruption, a problem many development agencies ignore but that MCC takes on. Corruption is an enemy of development, siphoning off funds meant for the poor and creating an atmosphere of fatalistic cynicism, an expectation of failure. Corruption exists on every level – locally, nationally and internationally. It must be rooted out at every level.
MCC works to ensure that development dollars go to poor countries committed to such fundamental policies: against corruption, for respecting the rule of law and empowering women, investing in health and education, promoting civil liberties, creating opportunities for meaningful work. It does this not to punish recalcitrant countries, but because it knows that development will not take place without the foundation of such policies.
Once that foundation is evident, countries must be in charge of their development. If others do for these countries what they can do for themselves, they will never develop the abilities and institutions they need. The involvement of civil society – businesses, churches, community organizations – must be nurtured to provide essential insight and oversight. Such growth is difficult but necessary to ensure that we eventually replace aid dollars with self-generating economic activity
MCC emphasizes accountability, not just counting the number of schools constructed in poor communities, but finding out if students grow up to increase their incomes and care for their families. The new development model demands we think holistically of results.
Do not think that MCC arrived fully formed, ready to dispense such development wisdom. It would not be an effective agency with that attitude. I have had a front row seat as MCC dealt with different presidential administrations and their cabinet members, different actors in the development bureaucracy and in the private sector as the MCC has a unique public-private leadership. All along, it adjusted its approaches to these realities.
There were changes on the ground as well — coups in Madagascar and Honduras, the suspension of The Gambia – that required adjustment. And MCC receives an ongoing education as its theories are tested in poor communities around the world. I watched and learned as valuable lessons unfolded at every level.
It has been a challenge to sustain partnerships with countries trying to practice sound policies, lead their own development and deliver results, while demanding the highest standards of accountability. Learning to strike the right balance between the need for results and the ability of countries to ramp up their ability to act on their own initially tested—yet now strengthens—the MCC model.
MCC is proving that finding this balance will pay dividends in improving the lives of the world’s poor, making Americans proud of their investment of tax dollars. Partner countries, to date, are investing more than $7 billion of MCC grants toward their homegrown development priorities.
If you want to see results, ask schoolgirls in Burkina Faso in MCC-funded schools where an independent evaluation shows rising enrollment rates and test scores. Ask farmers in Cape Verde who travel to markets on roads rehabilitated with MCC funds. Ask the Virginia-based company that is benefiting from a private-public partnership with El Salvador to connect rural households to the electricity grid as part of an MCC-funded project.
As my tenure on MCC’s Board ends, the debate about reforming development assistance continues. Those in that debate should learn from and embrace MCC’s innovations in practicing smart development.
To learn more about how MCC is reducing poverty through economic growth visit www.mcc.gov.