ABIDJAN — A $525 million compact between the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation and Côte d’Ivoire could advance President Alassane Ouattara’s development agenda, if wealth can be evenly distributed to include youth and rural populations, analysts and officials said at an event this month.
The Ivorian country program was created to address specific constraints to economic growth — notably, nationwide education challenges and transportation infrastructure deficiencies in Abidjan, MCC acting CEO Jonathan Nash said during a Nov. 8 event at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The award is expected to help diversify the Ivorian economy by reducing transportation costs and building vocational and secondary education training programs. The compact is set to finance the opening of more than 80 schools outside of the economic capital of Abidjan and reach rural populations near the country’s central and western cocoa-producing regions.
“MCC has experience worldwide, so in education we will really profit,” Ouattara said at the event, adding that he would like to sign a second compact around health challenges after finishing the current compact in two years, ahead of its five-year mandate.
The MCC Ivorian investment aims to reach roughly 11 million of its 26 million inhabitants, many of them young people. In addition to boosting training overall, the project aims to improve outcomes for girls’ education. While the compact includes the elements for inclusive development, analysts said involving youth and alleviating political tensions are likely to be key challenges.
A model country
For many development experts, Côte d’Ivoire has been a model in rebounding from political turmoil, including a brief civil war in 2011, to average 9 percent GDP since 2012. President Ouattara said his biggest focus has been on social investments — such as increasing access to water and energy — and public savings.
Five years after its bid was first rejected, Côte d'Ivoire has secured a half-billion dollar compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation after undergoing an intense reform process. The U.S. foreign aid agency said the Ivorian success story can be seen as a guide for other partner countries seeking MCC support.
The country began working to attain MCC support five years ago, after first applying for funding in 2012. A detailed list of 20 policy indicators determine a country’s eligibility for an MCC compact. Initially, Côte d’Ivoire met only five of the required criteria. In response, the country created a council dedicated to improving its score. This included organizing a campaign against corruption and consolidating the requirements to start a business.
Applying again in 2017, Côte d’Ivoire met 14 of the 20 requirements, including high scores in regulatory quality, natural resource protection, and business startup environment.
Ouattara urged fellow leaders to keep the focus on serving people — increasing human capacity through skills development, developing markets that provide jobs within the private sector, and fighting corruption.
“There is potential wealth in most African countries [and] if the environment is favorable, foreign direct investment will come,” Ouattara said at the D.C. event. “I’m not saying it’s simple to do all of this at once, but leaders must have the courage.”
Areas of concern
The compact’s potential isn’t guaranteed, however, experts said at the CSIS event. They urged Côte d’Ivoire to include youth and rural populations to avoid exacerbating tensions or even leading to insecurity. Some 77 percent of the Ivorian population is under age 35.
“The biggest issue is how you keep young people busy [because] if these people are not busy at that age then anything can happen, and the first thing is instability and insecurity,” Patrick Achi, Côte d’Ivoire’s minister of economic infrastructure and a presidential spokesman, said.
“These young people have energy, strength, the brain — and if you use them properly and integrate them into the economy … the biggest threat is also at the same time the biggest way to move forward if well used,” he added.
Better training for youth could increase the number of qualified workers, luring more international companies to the country, he said.
Political transition at the end of President Ouattara’s term in 2020 is another area of concern, said Edwige Depagne-Sorgho, a political analyst based in London. She called the current political climate “worrying,” noting internal divisions among political alliances. “These divisions have set a tone for discussions which are heating up, which from my point of view makes you wonder what the future holds for the 2020 elections,” she said at the event.
The country faces a “social crisis,” she said. In recent months, university students have protested in the streets for better learning conditions. Members of the armed forces have also mutinied against the government, blocking areas including Abidjan’s downtown business district and major cocoa-producing cities in the country’s interior. “Various walks of life are expressing frustration and unhappy with the distribution of wealth,” Sorgho added.
As the world’s premier exporter of raw cocoa and cashew, Côte d’Ivoire’s stability may depend on its ability to harness its demographic potential and attract international investments — the focus of the MCC compact.
Read more Devex coverage on the Millennium Challenge Corporation.